Some context is needed to understand this article on heritage, oppression, and historical memory. I believe that to more fully understand our full and complex heritage as Hispanic and Latin-American people we need to sit down and remember that our ancestors in more than a few cases were fleeing religious oppression when they came to the Americas. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to them to remember that and unpack it. This post is an essay in a more formal style than I usually write to explore that idea. I’d love for you to let me know what you think of it and if you like it I recommend you check out and consider supporting my Patreon, it makes it easier for me to write about what I love writing about and also explore new avenues of expression that you and other readers could very well like. I feel like this was an exciting thing to share on the last day of Hispanic Heritage Month because it reminds readers that our heritages are often complex and contain things that we might not realize.
Oppression, memory, and heritage:
For Hispanic Heritage Month Hispanic and Latinx individuals should work to unpack the religious oppression our ancestors suffered through as that too is part of our heritage. We should commit ourselves to learning about and remembering how our ancestors dealt with conditions in which their freedom to believe or think however they wanted to were suppressed and how not only were their beliefs about the divine and about God politicized and weaponized (often to their detriment) but so too were the beliefs of their parents and grandparents and they were all made to suffer or benefit from the beliefs of their family members. We should do this not only because it helps us remember the complexity of our heritage but also because it helps us get what our ancestors wanted us to have: richer and better lives than they did.
There is a need for faith leaders and irreligious organizers in Latinx and Hispanic communities to acknowledge the painful history of religious oppression our ancestors suffered in colonial Latin America. The Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions weren’t limited in their scopes or in their actions to Spain and Portugal and they came over with the conquistadors and settlers of Spanish and Portuguese colonies to the Americas. Their purpose was to enforce the theocracies of Spain and Portugal and they were not idle in accomplishing this task. While now the Spanish Inquisition is badly explained to many people who aren’t historians or Latin Americanists the complex realities of the Inquisitions in the Americas were a labyrinth reality for colonial subjects of the Spanish and Portuguese Crowns during the 1500s until the 1800s.
The Inquisitions were active parts of life in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. As early as 1508 there were conversations in Spain and in Rome about the diversity of beliefs in the relatively rural parts of the colonies where some non-Catholics had managed to stealthy come to the Americas and begin building communities and this was part of what would eventually propel the Spanish authorities and the Catholic officials to send the inquisitors to the colonies. Some parts of Puerto Rico such as the Island’s mountainous interior would make good homes for Jewish settlers who’d brave the dangerous voyages to the colonies and sought places to live free of the terror of the Inquisition breathing down their necks.
Jewish colonizers of the Americas could live peacefully, far from the prying eyes of the Inquisition but whenever the inquisitors heard rumors of Jewish inhabitants of New Spain or other colonies they’d investigate them and if possible prosecute them. This didn’t always result in death but death was a possibility if someone was investigated for being a crypto adherent of the Jewish faith.
They were far from the only group persecuted for their beliefs. While Catholic authorities and leadership weren’t always speeding to punish adherents to native faiths choosing instead to try and convert those they labeled as pagans to Catholicism, some other and newer forms of Christianity were labeled heresy and punished just as Judaism was punished. Lutherans, for instance, were seen as heretics and those who believed in the reforms championed by Martin Luther were punished in Spain and likely in the colonies as well if they were ever discovered or believed to be Lutheran.
When someone was under investigation for heresy it wasn’t just them who was investigated. In some cases like that of the Carvajal family, it wasn’t a single individual who was investigated but their entire families. The Carvajal family is an especially famous family whose ordeals are detailed in several books who had many members who were Jewish and discovered by inquisitors. Part of the reason for the documentation and the lingering fame of this unpleasant account is that Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva was a governor who was also a soldier, pointing to the willingness of the Inquisition to target people without regard to their class or status.
One of the concepts that directly ties into the legal and theological framework of the Inquisition was the concept of blood cleanliness, also known as Limpieza de Sangre in Spanish. This concept was used by the Spanish and the Inquisition to ensure that only certain families came to the colonies. It was also used to control access to education, leadership, and opportunities once families were in the colonies, especially because the Spanish Crown had no problem waiving the requirements that restricted travel to the colonies to so-called “Old Christians” as in members of the Catholic Church who could prove that a certain number of ancestors were members of the Church as well.
By understanding the dangers that non-Catholic believers including non-Catholic Christians went through in order to maintain their religious traditions and beliefs in colonial Latin-America and in Spain during this period we can and should gain a greater appreciation of those people in the modern day. Many of us who are not Catholic now are descended from brave individuals who risked much to ensure that their families stayed true to differing and persecuted beliefs. Our heritage is much richer than we may realize and by remembering the painful history of religious oppression that our ancestors lived through we are better for their sacrifices and the pain they endured believing in minority religions and minority denominations. Our recollection and our respect for their pain honors them and is a part of the heritage they’ve given us.
Knowing this history can sharpen our insights into the importance of religious freedom and of a community that is inclusive, diverse, and thoughtful. We should honor those who suffered for our freedom by accurately understanding what they lived through and the freedoms they fled Spain and then eventually Latin-America for.