Underground World of Secret Jews and Africans: Two Tales of Sex, Magic, and Survival in Colonia Cartagena and Mexico City

“This unique book should be read by scholars and students interested in the historical complexities of religious and racial identity and power.”–Hispanic American Historical Review, August 2022

Spanish colonial society was divided into a caste system based on race and religion. Slaves comprised the lowest caste, leading some to seek power through African magic. Meanwhile, children of Jewish fathers and African women tried to gain social status by embracing Judaism but in the process they risked retribution from the Spanish Inquisition, whose tribunals zealously prosecuted the perceived threat to the colonies from multicultural witchcraft and from alleged secret Jews. These two tales illustrate the perils tied to religious identity and practice in the colonies. One, set in 17th-century Cartagena des Índias, features a biracial surgeon famed for his magic powers. To bargain for his freedom, he denounced his wealthier for secretly practicing Judaism. The colleague was arrested, confessed under torture, and died in prison from his wounds. The second story involves Esperanza Rodríguez, a biracial Mexican woman tried by the Inquisition in the 1640s for secretly practicing Judaism. In Seville, Rodríguez had been a slave of a New Christian (converted Jewish) woman, who introduced her to Judaism before freeing her. Rodríguez accepted Judaism in order to close the social gap that separated her from her former owner. But she was eventually tortured into confessing her religion, and she died in prison.

Jonathan Schorsch, University of Potsdam, is the author of Jews and Blacks in Early Modern History and other books.