PHOENIX -- Yosef Garcia grew up Catholic in Panama. He was an altar boy in his town’s church. Back then, for him, the winter holidays meant Christmas.
“You would start out with midnight mass, there were a lot of rituals,” Garcia said. “As the altar boy you would be always be standing with the priest, doing all the pouring of the wine and washing the priests’ hands.”
But outside of church, and throughout the year, Garcia noticed a more mysterious set of family rituals.
“Every Friday night my grandmother would light candles,” Garcia said. “And she would be saying these words, and I didn’t know what she was saying. She didn’t speak English, it wasn’t Latin – I knew Latin – and it wasn’t Spanish.”
It turns out she was reciting the Hebrew blessings for Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, but Garcia didn’t realize that until he was in his 30s.
That’s when his great uncle revealed the family was descended from Jews who fled Spain centuries ago, when Jews were told they must convert to Catholicism, or leave.
Since the Spanish Inquisition was also instituted in the New World, those who wanted to preserve Jewish traditions in the Americas had to do so in secret, or risk death.
“You could have knocked me over with a feather, I was in shock,” Garcia said. “I didn't know what to do.”
In the past few decades, a growing number of people whose families lived in places like the Texas borderlands, New Mexico and Colorado for generations have come forward with their own stories of secret Jewish ancestry or rituals resembling Jewish customs in their family.
In Garcia’s case, the revelation prompted him to become a Rabbi, and he now wears a long gray beard and tzitzits, traditional tassels that hang at his waist. He moved to Chandler, Ariz., seven years ago, and heads an organization that helps other so-called crypto-Jews reconnect to Judaism.
He says his organization has issued more than 300 "Certificates of Return" to people from all over the Americas with Jewish roots who undergo a rigorous process of coming back to the religion.
This Saturday he will invite his local following of about a dozen people to his home to light the Hanukkah candles.
“To me celebrating the Jewish holidays is a breath of fresh air,” Garcia said. “That I am able to help other people, other Hispanics who want to celebrate these festivals of God.”
Among those Garcia is helping is a 35-year-old Mexican immigrant named Pablo Garcia Perez, who despite the shared last name, is no relation.
When Garcia Perez was growing up in the central Mexican state of Hidalgo, his family identified as Jewish, but they lived in a rural village and didn’t have a way to practice their faith.
“There wasn’t a Jewish community nearby,” Garcia Perez said in Spanish. “There wasn’t a lot of information, all we had were just some basic books, and that was it.”
Garcia Perez immigrated to the Phoenix area as a young man, and began attending synagogue. Three years ago, he completed his "Certificate of Return" under Rabbi Garcia’s guidance.
Now in Garcia Perez’s apartment, he has a collection of all the Jewish items he never had growing up.
He shows off a shelf with a Hanukkah menorah, traditional candlesticks for Shabbat, Jewish texts translated into Spanish, and a Spanish-Hebrew dictionary, because he’s studying Hebrew.
But how to determine who should be recognized as a Jew today is a subject of debate in religious circles. And academics have their own debates over the authenticity of present-day family stories about secret Jewish roots hidden during the Inquisition.
“One of the wonderful things I think about this history is it invites controversy,” said Roger Louis Martinez Davila, a historian at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs who studies Spain. “It invites complexity, and honestly that is what it is about.”
He said this issue has been complex since the late 14th Century, when Jews began converting to Catholicism in significant numbers. While some of those converts became devout Catholics, others converted because they were forced, and maintained Jewish customs in secret.
Both groups were present in the inhabitants who came to live in the New World.
“The questions start to begin with that point [in the Americas], which is saying, OK, are these Jews or are they not Jews?” Martinez Davila said.
Genealogy records from the era were often falsified, said Martinez Davila, making it that much more difficult for modern researchers to trace Jewish lineage.
Martinez Davila is working on a future museum exhibit on crypto-Jews at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe, but said finding artifacts from this hidden past is tough.
“We often kid, with ourselves, wouldn’t it be just great, if we finally met that person, who said ‘I just dug up that Torah scroll that has been in the backyard for like 200 years and it came all the way from Spain.’”
But it appears those kinds of artifacts don’t exist in the New World.
“And there is a good reason,” Martinez Davila said. “If you had that type of artifact on your person or in your family, with an Inquisition around, that was certainly a death sentence.”
Last month, the Spanish government made an announcement. It will ease the citizenship process for those who can prove they are descendants of Jews who were expelled from Spain.
Rabbi Yosef Garcia applauds the recognition, but said in his opinion, “We are not really interested in going back to Spain, we are more interested in going back to Israel.”