Thursday, September 17, 2015

Is There A Direct Link Between The Ortega Family and the Jewish Faith?

By Roy Ortega

Several years ago, I raised a question about my heritage that caused a major stir among my siblings and paternal cousins.

Are we Jewish?

Without a doubt, the question shocked a few family members and probably caused them to question my sanity. As far as everyone knew, the Ortega family history has always been deeply rooted in the Christian faith.

As children, my father Salvador and my mother Rebecca made sure my siblings and I were thoroughly indoctrinated into Catholicism. My older sister Etna, my little brother Ruben and I all began our early schooling at St. Joseph's Catholic School in Southwest San Antonio, Texas. My dad, who was as devout as any Catholic parent, and my mother, although raised as a Methodist Christian,  insisted we receive all of the basic sacraments afforded us by our faith.

But as I grew into adulthood, I began to feel a distinct tug in my soul that told me something about my religion didn't quite fit right. I began taking an active interest in my family's history and was surprised to learn some interesting facts that ultimately confirmed some of my suspicions, at least on the periphery of things.

Froilán Ortega

The basic facts about my father's recent family history were well known to us. We were aware that Ortega family ancestors inhabited an area of Southwestern Mexico near the small "ejidos" of La Cienega and Jalpa in the state of Jalisco near the border with Zacatecas, but very little is known about the family members who lived there.

We knew that my grandfather, Froilán Ortega and his four brothers migrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s. Froilán later sent for his wife Dolores Valenzuela and began a life in the Midwest. My dad Salvador Ortega was born in a beet field in Arkansas in 1927.

But when Froilán died in 1932, Dolores made her way to Texas to join daughters

Dolores Valenzuela Ortega
Consuelo, Amparo, Adela and Hortencia. My dad's older brother Blas remained behind and settled in Des Moines, Iowa where he raised his family. Another brother, Luis, accompanied the family to Texas.

But as we found out, the task of tracing our Ortega family history beyond the late 1800s proved to be quite difficult.

Several years ago, I researched the origins of the population of the Ortega ancestral homeland in Southwestern Mexico. What I learned turned the tide into what I now believe is our family's connection to the Jewish faith.

Southwestern Mexico was a place that was heavily populated by Spaniards dating back to the late 1400s. Many of the Spanish people settled there during the height of the Spanish Inquisition that began in 1478.

Most of the Spaniards who fled Spain became known as conversos, or Crypto Jews, who were run out of the country for their refusal to be Christianized.

After they settled in Southwestern Mexico, many of them continued to practice their Jewish rituals for several generations after they arrived. Many of them eventually converted to Catholicism, but many continued to practice the Jewish religion openly. Others pretended to be Christians but secretly observed their Jewish customs to avoid a repeat of the discrimination their ancestors had suffered.

Most of the conversos were easily identifiable by their light-skinned European appearance. Some had green, blue or hazel colored eyes. If you are a descendant of Froilan and Dolores, you or a close relative might be a light-skinned "guero" or "guera" with light colored eyes.

After learning this, I queried some of the older members of the Ortega family including my dad Salvador and my cousins Jesse Mireles and John Ortega (now all deceased). They all recalled vaguely as children seeing some of their elders lighting candles and observing the Sabbath. They were also familiar with some of the foods and other customs that were not part of the Mexican culture. Apparently, this was happening as recently as four or five generations ago in the Ortega family. Indeed my dad, who was known to tip a few glasses of wine from time to time, always kept a bottle of kosher wine our refrigerator. As a child myself in the 1950s and 1960s, I remember visiting relatives in Mexico where we played with a simple Jewish toy that looked like a spinning top known as a “dreidel”. In Mexico, the toy is known as "pirinola."

Another piece of the puzzle stood in obvious display: My grandfather's first name, Froilán, was definitely not a common name in the Mexican culture.

My research revealed a very telling fact. The name Froilán was also the name of a city in Spain that was the center of a large Sephardic Jewish population during the Inquisition period. When the Christian rulers started persecuting Jews in Froilán, tens of thousands fled to the new world.

To this day,

Church of Froilán
the Jewish faith is celebrated every year in the Church of Froilán located in the city of Lugo, Galicia in Northern Spain.

Recently, the government of Spain passed legislation that granted dual citizenship to the descendants of Jews who were chased out of Spain during the Inquisition period. You guessed it: The Ortega name is prominent on that list.

As you can see, there is some evidence that points to a Jewish connection in the Ortega family.

Of course, much more work needs to be done in order to definitively verify some of the historical and cultural links I have uncovered. But I submit to you that a Jewish connection in our family is a real and distinct probability.

I will continue my search for family historical truths and I hope you will accept this information with an open and inquisitive mind.