After 523 years, Spain offers citizenship to descendants of those who fled Inquisition

Spain standing
Luis Portero de la Torre, Special Counsel for the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain, reaches out as envoy to the Sephardic/Anusim/Crypto-Jewish community of New Mexico, 524 years after the Inquisition, to offer the right of return and opportunity to apply for Spanish citizenship. Photo © 2016 by Diane Joy Schmidt

Story and Photos by Diane Joy Schmidt
All Rights Reserved.

When the Edict of Expulsion decreed that the Jews of Spain convert or be expelled by the Ninth of Av, the last day of July, 1492, some half a million Jews walked west into Portugal, north over the Pyrenees into France, and by boats from the ports in the south, some setting sail with Columbus. They left behind their homes and vineyards, and left Spain without its most skilled doctors, lawyers and merchants. It was a calamity, for both the Jews and for Spain. Spain has now offered the right of return and Spanish citizenship to all the descendants of these Spanish Jews, those of Sephardic origin, who can prove they are descended from those who were expelled or forced to convert, and who retain cultural or business ties to Spain.

The offer to apply for citizenship, which became law on October 1, 2015 and is good for the next three years, with the possibility of a one-year extension after Oct. 1, 2018, has been met with an entire range of emotions. For some here there is a deep sense of healing, interest, excitement and sense of opportunity, and increased curiosity and a heightened interest in learning about family roots. For others, understandably, there is some ambivalence. That ambivalence is freighted with a mixture, in no particular order of negation, of angst, anger, suspicion, cynicism and skepticism.

Luis Portero de la Torre, Special Counsel for the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain, is a lawyer from a distinguished family in Spain that today is Catholic but has Sephardic roots.  Driven by a personal tragedy, Portero became deeply involved in assisting the Federation to make improvements to, and to see the passage of the new law. He has now been traveling the world at his own expense, visiting cities with significant Sephardic synagogues in Israel, South America, Mexico and the U.S. to spread the word. And now, to Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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On January 24, 2016 a small gathering of about 28 people, some coming from Colorado, were drawn to Albuquerque’s Congregation Nahalat Shalom to hear Portero speak. He was introduced by member Hershel Weiss, who with others hosts the second Friday of the month Sephardic/Anusim/Converso/Crypto-Jewish Shabbat Dinner and service at Nahalat Shalom, a Jewish Renewal congregation led by Rabbi Deborah Brin. Photo © 2016 by Diane Joy Schmidt

On January 30, 2016 a small gathering of about 28 people, some coming from Colorado, were drawn to Albuquerque’s Congregation Nahalat Shalom to hear him speak. Portero’s youthful movie-star good looks, kind manner, and old world elegance graced the room at this historic moment.

During his 3-day visit here he also met privately with interested applicants and with genealogical societies. His visit was covered by the Santa Fe New Mexican and on the front page of the Albuquerque Journal. After the story was picked up by local TV stations, the Instituto Cervantes reported receiving upwards of 20 phone calls about their officially sanctioned Spanish language test and courses.

It requires a certain cataloging of one’s identity, both literally, and psychically, to determine if one is eligible. And, if one wants to take advantage of the three-year window of opportunity, and jump through the not-impossible hoops necessary to accomplish citizenship and acquire a dual passport of Spain, for oneself, for the benefit of one’s progeny, and or to honor one’s ancestors. The offer is not only for those who are Jews today, but also for those who today are of other faiths, but who can trace their ancestry back to the Expulsion and who continue to have links to Spain.

In summary, you will have to validate your Sephardic origins with two pieces of documentation, which may include a genealogy and a letter from the Jewish Federation testifying to your Sephardic heritage, two documents showing your current links to Spain, which might include coursework or business in Spain, pass an official Spanish language exam that is given only by the Instituto Cervantes, a Spanish organization, and which conveniently has a location here in Albuquerque at the Hispanic Cultural Center, to show that you can speak, read and write Spanish, and then also pass an online multiple-choice civics exam in Spanish, submit a U.S. passport and birth certificate, a clean criminal FBI record issued within six months of filing the application, have all your records translated into Spanish and both the translations and the documents apostilled here, digitized as .pdfs and submitted online, and then travel to Spain to appear before a notary with your original documents, where you will also be the subject of two criminal background checks, one by the State, and one by the intelligence services. After that, Portero said, you can be like James Bond, with two passports. An outline of these steps and community resources follows this article, and additional information is at the Nahalat Shalom congregation website

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Portero advises interested applicants at Nahalat Shalom. Photo © Diane Joy Schmidt

Sara Koplik, Director of Community Outreach of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico, is arranging for Albuquerque to serve as a hub for people in the region who are interested in applying, in a relationship that is being established between the Federation here and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain. Koplik is organizing a review committee to assist with letters of approval, and she said that once you have prepared your documents, to email Kristen Gurule at the Federation here to make an appointment, at, or call 505-821-3214.

The law has only been in effect for four months. Portero said that as of January 9th,  859 people have opened applications, and 211 have actually uploaded all their documentation. Of these, the most applications have come from Argentina (107), followed by Israel (73), the U.S. (59), Venezuela (46), Brazil (29) and Mexico (25). 4,300 people who had applied over the past years were granted citizenship on Oct. 2, as this new law came into effect. There is the expectation that up to 70,000 may apply worldwide.

Ron Duncan Hart, Gaon Books publisher in Santa Fe, in discussing a ketubah from the 13th century that will be in the upcoming “Fractured Faiths” exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum tracing the Sephardim through the New World to New Mexico, brought out that “One of the documents that is being accepted as proof of being a Sephardic Jew is having been married with a Castilian ketubah, which is still in use today in the Sephardic world. Our daughter was married with a Castilian ketubah (in Morocco). On another note, her father-in-law there was among the first 4,300 recently granted Spanish citizenship under the law of return. He had to prepare a set of documents showing his synagogue membership and involvement in the Jewish community, including the ketubah with which he was married.”

Hart continued, “There are many Sephardic Jews from Morocco and Israel on the list of those given citizenship, and among the Moroccans many are buying properties in southern Spain. The town of Marbella now has two Sephardic synagogues because of the large number of Moroccans who have bought properties and are living part of the year there, if not full time. It is an interesting process to watch, and it is bringing Jewish investment back to Spain.”

An economic benefit may have been a deciding factor for the Spanish government today to go ahead with the new law, but in the eyes of some in America, this has also cast aspersions on the purity of their motives. Addressing this criticism, Portero pointed out that Spain didn’t just come up with this recently, but has done many things in the last two centuries to address the wrongs of the past.

One act was a royal decree of the Spanish dictator, Primo de Rivera, in 1924, granting the right of return, which some 3,000 Sephardim took advantage of, and which later resulted, said Portero, in “saving thousands of Jews from the Holocaust in the Second World War, by applying the royal decree of Primo de Rivera, when the Spanish diplomat, Ángel Sanz-Briz, the angel of Budapest, and many others in Paris and Lisbon, saved many Jews from the Nazis by giving them Spanish passports. They applied the royal decree of Primo de Rivera. . . .This law is the result of a long process of rapprochement to the Sephardic Jews. . . The new law simply seeks to permanently close the wounds caused by one of Spain’s largest mistakes in its history.”

Because a Spain passport is an EU passport, in Europe this means being able to live and work throughout its 28 member countries, within their respective laws, and also has benefits in non-EU countries like Norway. Since this is a dual passport, you do not give up your current citizenship. You do not have to live or work in Spain, and do not pay taxes in Spain unless you do. On the other hand, you can if you want to, and attend university and enjoy the benefits of socialized health care. And, unlike Israel, it does not require that you prove you currently are Jewish.

Especially meaningful for the Crypto-Jewish community

Maria Sanchez, LPCC, is a mental health therapist and pastoral counselor who also is a Crypto-Jew, one of the hidden Jews of New Mexico whose family passed down its Jewish identity in secret from generation to generation through one member. She came to hear Portero and said, “It was very meaningful. I knew that the King of Spain had taken down the Edict of Expulsion in the 80’s and that the Pope had made amends, but to have something like this—to have Spain reach all the way here, and say hey, we are looking for you, here are some open doors, we want to say, ‘Forgive us.’ For some of us, who knows, we can do international trade. I think it’s an opportunity. Maybe some of us feel there’s that distrust of Spain — that probably goes through every Jew, not just Sephardim — ‘what are they going to do with us’ there’s that feeling — because I think every Jew has that — do we trust where we have been chased from?’”

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Maria Apodaca and Maria Sanchez. Photo © 2016 Diane Joy Schmidt

Sanchez met one-on-one with Portero the next day, who said she would have no problem in applying, and she is now preparing her application and those of other family members.

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Maria Sanchez and Maria Apodaca. Photo © 2016 Diane Joy Schmidt

Her grandmother’s family name, Toledo, comes from Toledano, which she traces to the rabbinical line, and she explained that the rabbis were the ones who felt most strongly the need to maintain and to hide their identities and their Torahs when they came here. “Here it was passed down through the women, women rabbis,” said Sanchez.

Sanchez maintains that it is not a problem to establish one’s Sephardic genealogy. “It’s very easy, once you plug into the families, it’s like when somebody weaves a rug, it all interrelates. Those people who are involved in the land grants here, because they had to get the land grants from the king and queen of Spain, and the person who got that for us was Gabriel Sanchez, the treasurer of Spain, and he himself was a converso.”

The experts step in

When Stan Hordes became New Mexico State Historian he began to publish his exhaustive research that brought the story of the Crypto-Jews into the media spotlight, and his book “To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico,” was published in 2005.
Schelly Talalay Dardashti, a native New Yorker who arrived in New Mexico less than a decade ago, recently founded with several friends the Jewish Genealogical Society of New Mexico, which she said “meets at Congregation Albert the fourth Sunday of the month, barring the Apocalypse or Jewish holidays.” Dardashti, who is the U.S. Genealogy Advisor for the global online genealogy company, pressed Portero on the importance of using DNA research, which, so far, is not accepted as evidence by Spain for citizenship applications.

She met together with Portero and with Henrietta Martinez Christmas, president of the New Mexico Genealogical Society, and Yvette Kohen Stoor, who produces Primeras Familias certificates for those who have traced their genealogies here.

Dardashti said, “Most of the genealogies of New Mexico are basically oral histories because most documents were destroyed during the Pueblo revolt, which occurred throughout New Mexico. But by searching baptismal and land records, some families have been able to piece together their family histories. The other route is to search the archival records in Spain” through a researcher there.

Dardashti said also that Assistant State Historian Rob Martinez has done extensive work regarding the New Mexico Crypto-Jews, and that he recently returned from a trip to Mexico City to obtain copies of Inquisition documents and other records, which will be presented in a talk for the New Mexico Genealogical Society March 5th, 2016.

Relevance for the Ashkenazi community

Sephardic roots resonate also for those in the Ashkenazi community here. American Book Award-winning author Maria Espinosa’s historical novel set in Inquisition times, Incognito: Journey of a Secret Jew, addresses the effects of concealing one’s identity in order to survive. Espinosa, who grew up identifying mostly with her Polish ancestry, began to be troubled by a painting that hung in her family’s house.

“There was so much secrecy on my mother’s side of the family, the fear of another pogram, always a need to live near borders. A painting from the 18th century of my family’s family from Spain, hung in our house. The original is in a museum in Brussels. I would ask my mother about it, and later my uncle, who would only both say that the family left Spain ‘because they wanted to have more freedom of expression.’ Why are they being so gentile about it? It goes back 500 years, this fear and secrecy has persisted, but we wanted to mingle with society. Writing the book made me aware on a deeper level. I think it made me much more aware of how traumas persist for so many years and generations.”

For Luis Portero de la Torre, who has spent his own money, already over 100,000 euros, to reach out to Sephardic communities around the world, his involvement in and connection to this project has very personal roots – the trauma of his father’s assassination by the Basque terrorist group ETA. “On my father’s side I come from a family of Jews, of Toledo. There have been plenty of doctors and lawyers on my father’s side. I guess that we converted to Christianity because we are Catholics, but we have always been pro-Jews, always, the Portero family.

“The other reason I’m doing this is it may close the cycle of a personal project that I have with my brother Daniel to take to court and judge the leaders of ETA, the Basque terrorist group, that assassinated my father on the ninth of October, of 2000.” Luis Portero was chief prosecutor of the Andalusian Supreme Court, and was assassinated as he entered his home in Granada. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) condemned ETA for the murder.

***related New Mexico community resources and  upcoming events:

Jewish Federation of New Mexico email

Congregation Nahalat Shalom website Articles and information about Spanish citizenship for Sephardim. Friday night services, on the second Friday of the month is a  Sephardic/Anusim/Converso/Crypto-Jewish Shabbat Dinner. Potluck dinner at 6:30, candle lighting promptly at 7:00, meets in the building on the north side of the courtyard.

Maria Sanchez, Ed.D, LPCC – Crypto-Jewish heritage and resources. A group of those who wish to prepare their detailed genealogical records is currently meeting. Call (505) 331-2401 for more information.

Maria Apodaca, Festival Djudeo-Espanyol Event Coordinator, B’nai-Anusim, Crypto-Jewish heritage, Albuquerque, and Nahalat Shalom member. 505-235-8252,

Schelly Talalay Dardashti, Jewish Genealogical Society of New Mexico, email Schelly at She is also U.S. Genealogy Advisor for and hosts Tracing the Tribe, a Jewish genealogy site on Facebook.

“DNA, GENETICS and GENEALOGY: WHAT IT MEANS AND FINDING NEW MEXICO FAMILY CONNECTIONS” Bennett Greenspan, President of Family Tree, will share his genetic expertise for novice/experienced genealogists and DNA fans. Event sponsored by the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, Feb 28, 2016. Pre-Registration required at Further info: Murray Tucker, (505)982-3451, or Isabelle Medina Sandoval, (505)474-5221 E-mail:,

The Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies  2016 SCJS Annual Conference June 26-28 Santa Fe, NM “Redefining Crypto-Judaic Identity: Then and Now”

The New Mexico Genealogical Society

Norma Libman, lecturer and journalist, will be giving a talk at the Taste of Honey, Jewish Community Center, February 21, 2016 “Spain and the Jews: Then and Now. Should Jews Return to Spain?”  View Taste of Honey brochure:  Call Program Director Phyllis Wolf, JCC 505-348-4500 or

“Fractured Faiths: Spanish Judaism, The Inquisition, and New World Identities” Exhibition opens May 22, 2016, History Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe.

Ron D. Hart, Publisher Gaon Books

Instituto Cervantes Albuquerque, NM

Here is a brief outline of the steps for citizenship:

  1. Two pieces of documentation that you are of Sephardic heritage. These may include a genealogy and a letter from a Sephardic rabbi or president of a Sephardic congregation.
  2. Two documents that show your links to Spain today, which might be, for example, a degree in Spanish culture, donations to a Sephardic synagogue, or business with Spain.
  3. These documents must be translated into Spanish and both the translation itself and the document must have an official government stamp called an apostille. If the translation is done by one of Spain’s officially recognized translators, then the translation doesn’t need to be apostilled, but the translated document itself still does. The Office of the Secretary of State is the only office in New Mexico authorized to issue a certification, or apostille, for a notarized document going to a foreign country. The charge for each document is $3.00.
  4. You will also have to take a Spanish language exam to show that you can speak, read and write, and pass at the A2 level. This is an oral and written exam that is only given at the Instituto Cervantes, a Spanish government organization. There is an Instituto Cervantes at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, website 724-4777. At the website is a link, “Passport to Sepharad” to special classes they have to prepare for these exams.
  5. Pass an online multiple-choice civics exam in Spanish, for a fee of $85. You can take it twice. The exam has 25 questions. To pass, you must get at least 15 right.
  6. A valid original U.S. passport and birth certificate.
  7. An FBI criminal background check, which is only valid for six months from its date of issuance.
  8. These will all then need to be digitized, and saved as individual .pdf files. You will submit all these documents online. There is a $100 Euro fee for the application.
  9. After this process is completed, you will then need to go to Spain with all your original documents and appear before a notary public there.
  10. Your application for citizenship may take up to a year. There will also be two criminal background checks in Spain, one by the state and one by the intelligence services.
  11. Once you receive notice that you are approved, by email, you will need to, in person, get your passport at a Spain consulate or perhaps, the Honorary Consulate of Spain in Albuquerque. There are nine Spain consulates in the U.S., at the embassy in Washington D.C., and in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, New Orleans, Chicago, Miami, Boston and New York, and there are 27 honorary consulates around the country.

After 523 years, Spain offers citizenship to descendants of those who fled Inquisition,” New Mexico Jewish Link Quarterly, March,  2016 and online Albuquerque, NM

Published “Spain Re-invites the Jews,” Intermountain Jewish News, L’Chaim Special Section, Denver, Colorado March, 2016

“Spain re-invites the Jews” by Diane Joy Schmidt, Intermountain Jewish News, L’Chaim Spring issue
“Spain re-invites the Jews” as featured online, March, 2016, Intermountain Jewish News website for L’Chaim – (as seen 10/28/16)



2 thoughts on “After 523 years, Spain offers citizenship to descendants of those who fled Inquisition”

  1. Application for citizenship may take up to a year. There will also be two criminal background checks in Spain, one conducted by the state and another one conducted by the intelligence services.

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