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Reviews of Hidden Lives of Jews and Africans: Underground Societies

The Horizontal Interactions of Afroiberians and Judeoconversos in the Iberian Atlantic World

“Despite the significant amount of scholarship devoted to either Afroiberians or Judeoconversos (individuals of African or Jewish descent) in the Iberian Atlantic world, little is understood about their dealings with each other during the colonial period. Jonathan Schorsch’s latest research does just that as he examines the “horizontal interactions” between these subalterns across the Iberian Atlantic space (p. 1). It is not, therefore, another look at each group from a top-down perspective vis-à-vis the dominant sociopolitical elite.

Framing the entire discussion of these horizontal ties between Afroiberians and Judeoconversos is an analysis of how elite prejudices regarding race, ethnicity, and religion were mimicked and employed among these populations both as positive assertions of their own identity and as defensive bulwarks against the other. This produced an interesting social dynamic wherein both groups were accepted and ostracized on account of either their perceived race or religion. In essence, Blacks were marginalized based upon race but accepted due to their Christianity. Judeoconversos were white but Jewish and thus posed a different contaminating threat to Iberian society. The overall effect was marginalization through division despite shared experiences of persecution and suffering.

Schorsch does not examine these topics in a sweeping overview but as a series of case studies and textual moments between individuals. The first chapter highlights the various factors and configurations that forged the separate identities of Afroiberians and Judeoconversos and contextualizes their interactions. The chapter’s discussion then shifts to a brief history of the Inquisition and its relationship to the two groups. Here, an analysis of the merger of the dominant social systems of blood purity and caste ensues as does the analysis of neologisms for each group (Mestizo, Mulato, New Christian, Marrano, etc.).

The remaining chapters explore a multitude of day-to-day relations between the two groups from various angles ranging from thematic to microhistorical analyses. Chapter 2 looks at free Blacks and their use of the Inquisition as an antidote to their societal denigration, oftentimes at the hands of Judeoconversos. Such was the case of the Mulata María Martínez, who was taken up by the Lima Inquisition in 1627 for witchcraft. In order to improve her situation, she in turn denounced Francisco Maldonado de Silva as a “judaizer” (one who advocates for the adoption of Jewish law), thereby demonstrating her loyalty to Christianity. The use of dominant anti-Black or anti-Semitic tropes in the denunciations of the “Other” runs throughout the text as Blacks often accused Judeoconverso men of secretly practicing Judaism based upon the belief that they menstruated on Easter. Conversely, Judeoconversos, in their valorization of whiteness, denounced Blacks as barbaric, prone to witchcraft, and uncivilized.

Chapter 3 highlights the convergences and confrontations that developed in certain cases between the two groups despite the theo-political foundations of a society designed to keep them separate. Several anecdotes that occurred in Cartagena de Indias are discussed, including the participation of a Mulata named Rufina in an otherwise whites-only group of witchcraft practitioners and her eventual denunciations of various judaizers.

Chapter 4 details the conflicts between masters and slaves throughout the Iberian Atlantic. Here, Schorsch argues that the Inquisition at times became a power lever to improve the individual situation of the enslaved, which resulted in significant fear among masters. Driving this point home, Schorsch includes the 1683 case of Gaspar Méndez del Arroyo. Arroyo, who went by Abraham Ydaña as an openly practicing Jew in Holland after fleeing Spain, complained in a letter to Spanish inquisitors that the Inquisition was arresting accused judaizers “even on the mere word of a servant or slave, without knowing a thing about Judaism” (p. 106).

Chapter 5 treats master/slave interactions of another sort by outlining various cases of unity or loyalty as slaves confessed to helping prepare the household for the sabbath or aided their accused masters in flight from the Inquisition. Chapter 6 digs deeper into collaboration as slaves (who either worked for the Inquisition or for the prisoners themselves) subverted the Inquisition’s goal of secrecy by smuggling messages–at times in a mutually spoken African dialect. The last chapter details the cultural, religious, and sexual mixing of the two groups in the person of Esperanza Rodríguez, who was born of a Judeoconverso father and an Afroiberian mother. The fact that Esperanza chose to identify as the daughter of a Judeoconverso father before the Inquisition in Mexico City is an example of how some Afroiberians may have forged new kinship ties and networks that were socially unavailable to them as Africans.

By necessity Inquisition documents form the backbone of the source material. These provide Schorsch a common structure to leap between continents and centuries for both the Spanish and Portuguese Atlantic empires in his attempt to describe the in-between lives carved out by both groups. These sources, when read “against the grain,” as the author argues, uncover evidence of those horizontal relations and perceptions of the other (p. 46). To avoid the pitfalls of relying too heavily on one source type, Schorsch adds contemporary social and literary material such as correspondence and chronicle.

The work is valuable for a variety of reasons. First, the discussion of the nuances and variations in Judeoconverso/Marrano identity is a useful clarification from previous historiographical approaches that painted the group as either wholly Christian or entirely Jewish. Second, by studying relations between Afroiberians and Judeoconversos rather than their relations with, and resistance to, Iberian elites, Schorsch challenges Iberian and African diaspora scholars to look beyond their subfields for commonalities. Lastly, the work encourages us to reevaluate our understanding of colonial societies by demonstrating that both groups were often the cultural and political intermediaries of the elites as well as active participants in the process of racial and religious marginalization. It is telling that both groups resisted such processes but never on behalf of the other.

The examination of the topics outlined previously is on point and welcome. Yet, considering the expansive topical scope of the Iberian Atlantic world and the anecdotal approach presented, the volume would no doubt have benefited from a deeper dive into related issues that may provide insight into the representative nature of the research. For example, more discussion of the different experiences (if any) of individuals in the Portuguese and Spanish Inquisitions in the Atlantic would certainly have enriched the text, as would a more critical look into the different experiences of slaves in relation to the Inquisition or Judeoconversos based upon their acculturated status or lack thereof (i.e., Ladino or Bozal). It may well be that these issues would have made the work unwieldy and defeated the purpose of its abridgement from the previously published, two-volume Swimming the Christian Atlantic (2008). Considering the author’s expertise and interest in the topic, though, perhaps these are questions best left for a future volume.” —H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. April, 2021.

“A real tour de force” –Reviews in History

“Schorsch introduces a cast of characters in a series of one-act plays, short stories, and extended mediations that describe particular engagements with what it meant to live between identities.” –Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies