This saga of crypto-Jews (conversos) during the Inquisition in Mexico holds lessons and warnings for all.
Fine (Paris Lamb, 2015, etc.) begins her story in Mexico City in 1650, when Clara, the matriarch of the Crespin clan, is arrested and taken to the prison of the Inquisitors, where she will be held for five awful years. The tale is told alternately through the eyes of Clara and her granddaughter, Celendaria, conversos who secretly maintain Jewish traditions after becoming Christians. Clara was betrayed, but by whom? Celendaria’s father grieves (“Why do they persecute us? We follow their rules, worship their Savior, tithe at the cathedral. What do they want?”). This venal Inquisition encourages bribes, which, though usually ineffective, drain the Crespins, affluent merchants, dry. The years drag on. Celendaria becomes a woman and is betrothed to Francisco de Mendoza Rebozo. She also spies Father Miguel Lopez, a converso—or is he a true believer now?—making love to Mariel Behar in the confessional. But the Crespins and the Behars have had enough. After the wedding of Celendaria and heroic Francisco, family members plot their escape to the north. Even rumors of savage Native Americans are no match for the terrors of the Inquisition. Once again, like in the biblical Exodus, these Jews wish to escape oppression and seek freedom. Fine writes well, bringing the Crespins alive in speech and circumstance that reflect their social status as proudly prosperous (At one point, Celendaria’s mother asserts: “We must be resilient and survive as our forefathers did when they were driven from our ancient lands in Israel, Spain, Portugal, Brazil and Peru”). Surely the Inquisitors are among the greatest villains in history, second only, for Jews, to Hitler. But then readers will likely realize that in the best interpretation of this horror, the Inquisitors felt that they were doing God’s will, which should give everyone pause. Fine is a serious scholar of the persecution of Sephardic Jews, and the details in this book are impressive and edifying.
A superb read about the sufferings of a crypto-Jewish matriarch in the 17th century.