Early Inquisitional Cases in New Spain

The first Converso prosecuted in the New Spain was Diego Morales. He was sentenced for blasphemy in 1525. He was judged by the commander Leonel de Cervantes.  Morales was accused of various blasphemous statements including “I deny G-d” or “ I desecrate G-d” after becoming angry. When angry he was also known to deny the saints, the holy chrism, the apostles, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus. While initially denying these statements, Morales was acutely aware of the consequences of a conviction, and he finally relented and confessed and promised to never do so again. He paid a hefty fine.[1]

Alexadra Uchmany argues that conquistadors who were Old Christians by ancestry were never known to blaspheme against Jesus, though some incidences against the Virgin, apostles, and saints were known occasionally. Despite the proclivity of soldiers, adventurers, and slaves to curse and blaspheme, Uchmany suggests they had greater intimacy with the Catholic intermediaries than they did with G-d, the Father.[2]

Diego Nunez

Fray Domingo de Betanzos, Vicar-General of the Dominicans, was the first to use his inquisitorial powers intensely. In 1527, Betanzos prosecuted seventeen men for blasphemy. Of the seventeen accused of blasphemy, some had desecrated the holy chrism, the saints, and the Virgin. One of the accused, Diego Nunez, originally from Villa de Gibraleon in the bishopric of Seville, had thrown stones at a crucifix. This type of behavior leads Uchmany to question a possible Converso connection to Nunez and others. Betanzos attempted to establish a Converso connection but was unable to. This was partly tied, according to Uchmany, to the political turmoil in play between the pro-Cortes faction  on the one side and the royal officials on the other. Interestingly, the Franciscans supported the conquistadors while the Dominicans supported the royal officials.[3]

Nunez had fought in the great siege of Tenochtitlan. Five of his fellow conquistadors testified on his behalf. They testified that Nunez was a good Christian and that he was descended from a well-known. Old Christian family. Confronted with this testimony, Betanzos was incapable of expelling Nunez from New Spain. He was able, however, to impose a hefty fine on Nunez.[4]

Gil Gonzalez de Benavides de Avila

Another individual who was penanced by the Inquisition was Gil Gonzalez de Benavides de Avila. He arrived en Terra Firme in 1514 with Pedrarias Davila, the governor. Pedrarias Davila had his own Converso background. Pedrarias and his brother Pedro Arias Davila were the sons of Pedro Arias Davila, the chief accountant of Castille. Pedro Arias Davila senior was also the first count of Punonrostro. His wife was Marina de Mendoza. The senior Pedro Arias Davila had a brother named Juan de Arias Davila who served as the bishop of Segovia for thirty years.

Incidentally, Juan traveled to Rome to defend his brother Pedro Arias Davila against the attacks of Juan de Torquemada, the Inquisitor General. Juan and Pedro were the children of Diego de Arias y Elvira Gonzalez Davila. Before his conversion, Don Diego managed the royal leases (rents). After his conversion, he was named the chief accountant for Castile and orchestrated a program of economic reform. Alonso de Avila, Fernando Alvarez, and Fernando del Pulgar were Conversos and served as secretaries during Queen Isabela’s reign. Many Conversos moved and changed their names to hide their pasts.[5]

Gonzalo Gomez

In 1528. Bishop Juan de Zumarraga arrived in New Spain. He was named Inquisitor and immediately began to search out Judaizers, but his first prosecution was not until 1536 against Gonzalo Gomez.[6] The Avila clan were close friends of Gonzalo Gomez. Gomez was a mayor and property holder, and a merchant in Michoacan. He was accused of Judaizing in 1536. His property was seized in 1537 by the authority of  Fray Juan de Zumarraga.[7] Gomez had arrived in La Espanola (Hispaniola) in 1507 at the age of nine. He had accompanied his merchant father, Juan. Juan was originally from Santa Cruz in Sevilla, the old Jewish quarter. Gonzalo’s mother, Beatriz, had been punished by the Inquisition. Gomez eventually joined Pedrarias in 1514 and journeyed to Terra Firme. In 1523 he arrived in Cuba, and the following year he joined Alonso Zuazo to journey to New Spain. Zuazo served as a judge under Diego de Velasquez, one-time patron of Cortes, but later a bitter rival. Despite the ties, Cortes was friends with Zuazo and Cortes appointed him alcalde of Mexico City. Gomez, in turn, was assigned Michoacan, Tamazula, and Zacatula and he served as the major of these regions.[8]

Gomez was granted an encomienda en Iztepec or Yztapa. The land grant he was given had been desired by Cristobal de Valderrama. After Gomez had been accused of Judaizing, Valderrama attempted to seize the property that Gomez could no longer legally claim. Gomez was an early colonizer in Michoacan. He was an active farmer, rancher, and miner. Gomez was an avid entrepreneur, and he included various mercantile businesses. His business acumen, as well as his official posts, brought him resentment from many of his business rivals. Among his most bitter enemies, were Valderrama, the corregidor Lope de Saavedra, and the accountant, Rodrigo de Albornoz.[9]

Gomez was eventually accused by thirteen witnesses of blasphemy. He was accused of renouncing and desecrating G-d. He was also charged with mocking the baptism of Indian children. When an older Indian was baptized in his presence, he was said to have remarked that it was of no consequence and achieved nothing. Gomez denied the first accusation. He effectively admitted the incident regarding the baptism of the older Indian but defended his comment based on the view the Indian had not received any significant instruction in the Christian faith.[10]

Among other accusations, Gomez was also said to change his bed linens on Friday. He also changed his clothes in anticipation of the Sabbath. Gomez, furthermore, was accused of not working on the Sabbath but did work on Sundays and other Christian festivals. The Indians that worked for him did the same.

On a hunting trip in Michoacan, Gomez was said to have suspended his activities once the Sabbath began and did not start his activities anew until after the Sabbath had ended.[11]

Gomez reportedly had a church on his property, but he was said to use it for mundane purposes like storing wheat. There were even beds in it and he and Alonso de Avila were accused of using frequently as a rendezvous point with their mistresses. Gomez was also alleged to have broken several crosses, three alone on Holy Friday. Gomez had a cross but had thrown on to the roof of his home, where he dried garlic on it. Gomez defended his doing so by nothing that he did not want passersby to step on the Cross. He had even received tacit approval for doing so by Quiroga.[12]

If these accusations were not enough, the most damning claims were yet to come. Several witnesses including Alonso de Carrion had known the family from Castile. Gomez was accused of being the son of Juan Gomez Parholero, a Converso and heretic  who had been penanced and reconciled by the Holy Office of the Inquisition. A brother had apparently tried to become a fraile [friar?] in Cordoba but had been ousted by the other friars because he had been reconciled.  The last charge against Gomez was that he was a vile man prone to vice and feasting.[13]

From the beginning, Gomez had argued that his father was a laborer. During his trial, he eventually confessed that his father was trained as a tailor though he had never worked in this profession. Tailoring was seen as a Jewish occupation. Alvaro de Mateos, originally from Seville and a tailor by trade was accused of Judaizing in 1539.

Gomez had defenders who testified that he was a benevolent man who treated Indians well. His supporters noted that the church on his property was used as a way station of the religious pilgrims. Despite the accusations against him, Gomez was able to launch a vigorous defense. Gomez and his defenders denied he had ever observed a Jewish custom. Various friars from Patzcuaro and other monasteries provided letters  attesting to his proper observance of the Christian faith.[14]

On the 9th of November 1539, Gomez received his sentence. Gomez’s life was spared. He was fined the enormous sum of 400 gold pesos and required to perform various penitential prayers. Despite his release, accusations continued including that he failed to attend mass and was a bad Christian. Gomez even made several attempts to have further Inquisition investigations against him quelled.[15] He was successful, and in 1554 an order was directed to the mayor of Vihirila in Michoacan, Lope de Saavedra, to desist further investigations. Gomez sought to live out a quiet retirement. An attempt to blackmail his children was ultimately tried.[16]

[1] Eva Alexandra Uchmany, “De Algunos Cristianos Nuevos en la Conquista y Colonizacion de la Nueva Espana,”Estudios de Historia Novohispana Vol. 8, No. 008 (1985): 267-268.

[2] Ibid.., 268.

[3] Ibid., 268.

[4] Ibid., 269.

[5] Ibid., 271.

[6] Seymour Leibman, The Jews in New Spain: Faith, Flame, and the Inquisition (Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1970), 119.

[7] Eva Alexandra Uchmany, “De Algunos Cristianos Nuevos en la Conquista y Colonizacion de la Nueva Espana,”Estudios de Historia Novohispana Vol. 8, No. 008 (1985): 273.

[8] Ibid., 274.

[9] Ibid., 274-275.

[10] Ibid., 275-276.

[11] Ibid., 276.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 276-277.

[14] Ibid., 277-278.

[15] Ibid., 278.

[16] Ibid., 279.

Posted by Rabbi Juan Bejarano Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education and the author of  Secret Jews: The Complex Identity of Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Judaism