AN EXCERPT FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH NEW YORK TIMES REPORTER DOREEN CARVARJAL:
It’s remarkable that 500 years later there are so many ways that the Inquisition is still in the blood of the country.
I would talk about a culture of amnesia − it’s part of the survival mode. One reason why I was interested in moving to Arcos was because I wanted to understand what it was about my own family that would make them keep that secret [their Jewish heritage] until the 20th century. Why didn’t they talk about it? Who would be afraid about it by then? You’re going to think I’m being mystical again, but I really do believe that people from different generations pass on these survival skills. And I think this reticence was handed down. In Arcos de la Frontera, with its tiny narrow streets, I could talk to my neighbors across the street from our terraces upstairs. They were so close you could smell what people were cooking, you could hear them fighting, you could spy on each other. If you’re using olive oil, back during the Inquisition period, instead of lard, that could be a crime.
All those things are clues that you might secretly be practicing Judaism. This is a town that whitewashes its buildings. What could be more symbolic than that? Every year, there is a purification that takes place with houses repainted white. And there are symbols of the Inquisition, for example, that have also been covered up. There’s an oil painting in one of the churches that was a hub for Inquisition activity. And over the years, someone has come and repainted parts of the painting of the Ascension of Mary so as to remove a cross in a pale green color, the signature color of the Inquisition, and then added a figure of St. Teresa, who was the descendant of converso Jews herself. Below her was a tiny symbol, saying, Listen to the handmaiden of Mary. People had a way of speaking, but it was all coded.
And you think the coded message was a Jewish one?
Maybe. Well, definitely, because the green cross was painted over with a jeweled orb. St. Teresa was added in a later century. She has her own unique history. She believed that religion takes place in the mind, not necessarily in your actions, which is how a lot of converso Jews survived with dual identities − actions in public, and their own personal view.
The records of the Inquisition trials that you quote are dramatic and shocking and appalling. It’s as real as reading about the Holocaust.
That’s one of the reasons that I think that somehow generations pass on the knowledge of traumas from earlier generations, even hundreds of years earlier. And the reason why I think that is so is because of new research in epigenetics in Sweden. They’ve looked back three generations, and now they’re going back four generations, to see the impact of a traumatic event. In the case of Sweden, it was famine, but it can also be another stressful event. They can see that what happens in the grandfather’s life with a traumatic event can end up affecting the longevity of a grandson. And the theory is that there are genetic marks that happen at a stressful time when someone is young. And so I wonder if somehow, going back generations, this reticence is passed on as a survival skill, or if this tendency to keep secrets is an ingrained ability. That’s how I explain my family’s actions. I just think that this is something that became so engrained that it became part of the DNA.