by Electa Draper
Denver Post Staff Writer
March 5, 2006
Albuquerque - When the Rev. Bill Sanchez was a little boy growing up in Santa Fe, his family expected he would become a priest.
Their Spanish nickname for him meant "Little Priest." It was just something in the manner of the soft-spoken young Catholic, now the 53- year-old pastor of St. Edwin Parish in Albuquerque.
And, as Sanchez recently discovered through DNA testing, he is part of a priesthood tradition thousands of years old.
It turned out to be Jewish.
Sanchez carries a genetic marker identifying him as a member of the Cohanim, a Jewish priestly line descended from Moses' brother Aaron. His ancestors were Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain after 1492 and the onset of the Inquisition.
Sanchez knows this because in 2001, he and his father, fascinated by a television program on DNA testing at home, sent away for kits.
The owner of Family Tree DNA, which now has more than 50,000 customers, called Sanchez with the results.
"He asked: 'Did you know you were Jewish?"'
Sanchez said that he did and he didn't.
"I had a sense there was something like that," he says. "We weren't? too surprised. Our family felt it all along." There had been some telltale family customs, from avoidance of pork to the lighting of a menorah during the Advent season.
Peek into the past
Family Tree DNA reports a surge of interest among those with Spanish surnames looking for Jewish ties. This wave dovetails with a national trend of root-seeking Americans swabbing their inner cheeks for cells after buying DNA-testing kits.
Sanchez started the Santa Fe DNA Project to test for the Jewish DNA signature among the Hispanos in his parish and, because of demand, he is coordinating testing throughout northern New Mexico.
St. Edwin parishioner Kathy Martinez says the congregation is supportive of Sanchez's efforts. Her family lineage, she recently learned, is Moorish."It's cool," she says. "I just like the idea that I had ancestors who came from so far away, from such an exotic place."
With more than 130 test results in, roughly 30 percent have shown the link to the Cohanim line, Sanchez says. It is a remarkable concentration, he says, when compared with the estimated 1 percent incidence among Jews worldwide.
"The bishop asked me, 'So, are you all going to become Jewish now?' I said, 'What do you mean by become. We are."'
Sanchez, whose custom- made turquoise and lapis Star of David swings from a long chain worn around his white priest's collar, says he and his parish celebrate aspects of Catholic and Jewish traditions.
"My relationship with Jesus is the most important relationship in my life, but my Jewish ancestors are part of who I am," Sanchez says.
The prevailing explanation for this long-hidden cluster of Jewish ancestry among Hispanic Catholics in New Mexico and southern Colorado is the Spanish Inquisition, a centuries-long effort by the government and Catholic Church to eradicate non-Christian beliefs.
Some Jews converted to Christianity. Some pretended to convert but secretly practiced their faith, the so-called crypto-Judaism. Others fled to the ends of the Spanish kingdom, including what is now northern New Mexico.
"The nice thing about the Inquisition, if there was any redeeming feature, was the record-keeping," Sanchez says grimly. "They did thorough genealogies."
The archive has helped him track his ancestors.
"For the Sephardic Jews to survive they had to survive Christianity," Sanchez says. "There's been so much pain and suffering, but there's no Inquisition to burn me now."
Enrique Lamadrid, a professor of Hispano and Chicano studies at the University of New Mexico, says he approaches the contemporary meaning of Spanish, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Mexican and American Indian origins with a great deal of caution.
"Those of us who are students of Iberian culture know there are Jewish roots and we honor them," he says. "What's unclear is how that identity persisted in time. If you're practicing your faith in secret, it may or may not stand the test of time. It's such a tenuous thread."
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