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Spain seeks to atone for Jewish expulsion

I have been an armchair historian ever since I was a kid. I love to study about the history of our country, peoples around the world and, especially, about the history of the Southwest U.S.

Growing up in Española, N.M., between Santa Fe and Taos, I was surrounded by Native American and Spanish history. Both of my parents’ families are descendants of the original Spanish settlers of Northern New Mexico, and both are heirs to Spanish land grants. Some of my oldest friends are Pueblo Indians from Okay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo when I was growing up), Taos and Santa Clara pueblos. Their history is even longer – some occupy territory they have lived on for nearly 1,000 years.

Most of the original settlers in northern New Mexico were a mixture of Spanish and Native American. This was a melding of cultures that was convenient not only for companionship, but also for pragmatic purposes involving technology and protection.

While I was in college, Tomas Atencio, a well-known sociologist who was a professor of mine, taught our class the history of Sephardic Jews and how they were given an ultimatum by Spain in 1492 to either renounce their Judaism, suffer persecution in Spain or to leave the country altogether. At this time, many Jews comprised the merchant class consisting of traders, bankers and retailers.

Fearing the wrath of the crown, many Spanish Jews left Spain for the New World and many ended up in Northern New Mexico. Hundreds of years later, sociologists discovered many Jewish practices and traits in certain traditional northern New Mexico Hispanic families, including lighting candles on Fridays, an aversion to eating pork and certain diseases that tend to afflict Sephardic Jews.

For my last birthday, my wife bought me one of the popular DNA testing kits by which your DNA is scientifically analyzed to determine your DNA/racial makeup. I wasn’t expecting any magical results, always assuming that I am comprised of Spanish and Indian genes. When the test came back, I was surprised to find out that my DNA was nearly 20 percent Jewish and Semitic, most likely of Sephardic origin. Researching Spanish families, I found out that names in my family such as Pacheco and Silva were closely associated with Jewish families that fled for their lives.

Around the same time, Spain also made a blockbuster announcement that it was trying to make up for the cruel manner in which it persecuted Jews and threw them out of the country. Last October, the Spanish government announced that it would restore Spanish citizenship to people around the world who can prove that their ancestors were victims of Spain’s purge of the Jews, and who still share in the language and culture. One area in which outreach is focused is Northern New Mexico. To qualify, the Spanish government requires submission of paperwork documenting Jewish heritage, and a test of both the Spanish language and culture. If a person qualifies, Spanish citizenship will be granted.

Friends and family have asked me if I am going to go through the qualification process. I am a loyal and happy American, so I probably won’t. However, it would be nice to think, if I qualify, I could purchase property in Spain, seek subsidized higher education and have access to the rest of the European Community as a Spanish citizen.

I can’t help but think that Spain’s outreach has another angle other than simple guilt. Although the Spanish economy grew by 3.2 percent last year, the country had gone through a post-Great Recession slump that resulted in more than 25 percent of its workforce being unemployed. Bringing in outside investors who can invest in houses, real estate and the country’s assets is a good way to spur economic growth. Many Jews with Spanish ties have the means to bring badly needed capital back to that country.

According to International Monetary Fund data, Spain is the 14th-largest economy in the world and is considered a developed country. However, expelling the Jews 500 years ago caused the country to lose the entrepreneurial class that it badly needed to modernize its economy. It eventually relied on the riches of the New World to fuel its economy without building key sustainable industries. Inflation set in, causing economic malaise, and a couple of hundred years after the Jews left, Spain was referred to as the “sick man of Europe.”

It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that Spain’s economy took off, making it a bright spot in Europe, but still far behind its old antagonists the U.K., France and Germany, whose economies drive the European Union. In fact, there was a lot of concern by European Union members when Spain and its neighbor Portugal were admitted into the EU in 1986. Many EU leaders considered their economies to be too weak and not on par with those of stronger partners.

I often wonder what Spain’s economy would look like today if, 500 years ago, Jews were allowed to peaceably live their lives in that country and pursue their industries. Would Spain have a larger, more influential economy? Perhaps so. However, attempting to make up for a wrong committed 500 years ago is a good move, both for the country and its former citizens.

Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at