Mexico - 15th/17th Century

In Mexico City in the mid-seventeenth century, there were two major circles of crypto-Jews. The larger group gathered around Simon Vaez Sevilla, and his mother-in-law, Blanca Enriquez. The second group gathered around the matriarchal figure of Leonor Nunez. A brief account of her family connections of which there are substantial records will give an added sense of the Marrano way of life.  

Leonor Nunez was born around 1585 in Madrid to parents of Portuguese origin. Her father was an “Old Christian”, and her mother a “New Christian”. Her mother was imprisoned by the Inquisition of Toledo in 1634, and burnt in effigy at an auto de fe in Mexico in 1635. Leonor was married three times and twice widowed: first with church dispensation to a cousin, also of converso stock; second to Pedro Lopez, the widower of her first husband’s sister; and thirdly around 1630 in Mexico to another Marrano.

Leonor had two children by each of her first two husbands: first, two daughters, Ana Gomez and Isabel Nunez; and secondly, a daughter and a son, Maria Gomez and Francisco Lopez Blandon. Not only Leonor, but all her children would become victims of the Inquisition.

When news came around 1603 that several members of her first husband’s family had been arrested by the Inquisition, Leonor and several other relatives fled to South-West France. Her first husband travelled frequently to Spain on business, and in fact died there around 1609. She was visited in France by two men, just returned from a business trip to Mexico: one was an elder brother of Leonor, and the second her next husband to be. In 1613, Leonor was part of a family group of crypto-Jews, who set sail for Mexico. The group included her second husband, her two daughters from her first marriage, her mother, another brother and a younger brother of her first husband. Leonor’s two children by Pedro Lopez were born in Mexico.

A crisis arose in the business affairs of Pedro Lopez around 1619, when he was unable to meet his debts because a cargo he had consigned to Spain was confiscated by the Inquisition when his business associate in Seville was arrested for judaizing.

Despite the risks of a former prisoner of the Inquisition appearing before the tribunal to request the return of his cargo, Lopez travelled to Seville and succeeded in his quest. In Spain, Lopez met Francisco Botello, a nephew of Leonor’s first husband, and in 1620 brought Botello and his father back to Mexico. Francisco Botello was later to become one of the renowned martyrs among the Marranos, being burned alive for his total refusal to renounce Judaism.

In the 1620s, Leonor Nunez was never very long in one city. First, she accompanied her husband when he moved for business reasons, and after his death in 1625 she lived with sons-in-law and daughters, before returning definitively to Mexico City in 1630, where she married her third husband. From this point, she and her son-in law, Tomas Trevino de Sobremonte (1592 - 1649), were the key figures at the center of their Marrano network. He had married Maria Gomez, the daughter from Leonor’s second marriage, when she was only about thirteen. Tomas Trevino de Sobremonte had been through the Inquisition’s hands in 1624 – 25, when he had been arrested, tried and “reconciled”.

The Inquisition records of Mexico City testify to the huge influence of Leonor Nunez. Above all, she taught the Jewish practices she knew to her immediate family circle and taught them Jewish prayers and prayer postures. She was renowned for having dreams and revelations, as well as for her frequent fasts. Her family held her in awe as like an angel on earth, a holy mystic communing with God. She was assiduous in assuring Jewish funeral and burial rites for the dead. The importance of the strong women in crypto-Jewish life reflected both the importance of the home as the center of Jewish practice and the frequent absences of the men on commercial business.

Leonor Nunez was first arrested by the Inquisition in 1634, together with most of her household, except for two daughters who had voluntarily confessed their judaizing. Among the charges against Leonor was a denunciation to the Inquisition of Lima in 1623 by a crypto-Jew to whom she had given refuge in Mexico two years earlier and who testified to being present at a family observance of Yom Kippur. During the process and trial, they sought to appear humble and repentant. They were then “reconciled” in 1635, with Leonor being sentenced to a short spell in prison.

A new and more severe wave of repression began in 1642, but it was only in October 1644 that Leonor Nunez, Tomas Trevino de Sobremonte and others in the family were again arrested and thrown in prison. The following month Leonor was quite ill. In the prisons spies and “plants” were used to record the conversations of the prisoners. Leonor’s name was often mentioned by others, but there are few records of her own suffering.

After four and a half years in prison, Leonor and 12 others are “relaxed” and sentenced to be burned at the stake. The others who died with her included her two daughters, Ana and Maria, her son, and her son-in-law, Tomas Trevino de Sobremonte. The latter was burned alive, after confessing that he was a Jew, who wished to live and die in the law of Moses. When the sentences had been read out, the records speak of una viejezuela (a little old lady) among the condemned – obviously Leonor Nunez – about whom her son-in-law prays “Remember the mother of the Maccabees

5 The information on Leonor Nunes and her family is primarily taken from Nathan Wachtel, La Foi du Souvenir: Labyrinthes Marranes.

6 Pedro Lopez was burned in effigy in 1635 ten years after his death.

7 It seems that there was a strong erotic element present in some of the communal fasting in the circle of Leonor Nunez that she did not discourage