Growing up in a family of Protestant Mexican immigrants, Kathleen Alcalá thought her identity was rare. Rarer still was the family rumor that they were actually Jewish.
The Bainbridge Island novelist began to pursue the Jewish side of her story in the 1990s. In an interview with Seattle Sephardic community leader Isaac Maimon, Alcalá learned that her family might descend from Crypto-Jews — Jews who practiced their religion in secret while publicly adopting Catholicism during the time of the Spanish Inquisition in the late 15th century. The deeper she dug, the more she realized that her story wasn’t rare, just untold.
“The more research I did,” she says, “I went from ‘we’re the only Mexican Protestant Jews on the planet’ to thinking we’re the most typical people on the planet.”
The history of the Crypto-Jews corresponded to her family’s story: They came to northern Mexico at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, they lived in a community known as home to many of these secret Jews, and their slightly different religious practices led them to reject the predominant Catholicism of the area. (Her family eventually became Protestant.) She used that research to inform her 1998 novel, Spirits of the Ordinary, about a 19th-century Crypto-Jew who renounces his religion and family in favor of the Southwestern desert.
Embracing her Jewish roots, Alcalá converted to Judaism at Kol Shalom, a Reform congregation on Bainbridge, about eight years ago. In 2018, three years after the Spanish government opened citizenship to descendants of Jews expelled during the Inquisition 500 years before, her son suggested applying together. At first, the idea of an invitation back to a place that had driven her ancestors out seemed offensive. But ultimately, Alcalá decided that Spain can’t make reparations without her accepting them.
The process meant finding proof of her shrouded ancestry. “There is so much memory,” she says, “and so little documentation.” She hired a genealogist to explore half a dozen centuries’ worth of church records and birth certificates from her mother’s hometown of Saltillo, Mexico. Alcalá followed the chain of her heritage back to Spain, where she found records of relatives burned at the stake for “Judaizing” as well as records of others who converted and then tried to claim the belongings of exiled relatives.
A difficult aspect of the journey has been dispelling the stereotypes around being both Mexican and Jewish. “Our world views are always framed by the communities in which we grew up,” she says. “The rest of our lives are spent trying to understand the wider world and the people who inhabit it.”