The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries heralded a rise in the persecution of Jews and increased demands for them to renounce their Judaism and convert to Catholicism. Faced with the choice between Baptism, torture, or death, thousands of Jews opted for conversion. Jews who fled Spain and settled in Portugal to avoid conversion, found themselves facing the same choice when the Inquisition took root there five years later.
Legally considered Christians, conversos—also called crypto-Jews or secret Jews—were subject to the Catholic Church’s Inquisitional laws of heresy and apostasy if they practiced Judaism after conversion. Converts who adopted Christianity and denounced their Jewish faith were under constant suspicion. Suspected conversos were carefully watched for signs of Judaizing: forgoing pork, avoiding work on Saturdays, or keeping Judaic symbols in their homes. Conversos— both men and women— accused of practicing Judaism in secret, were arrested and tortured until they confessed to the crime of being a practicing Jew.
The reach of the Spanish Inquisition extended into the eighteenth century; its last victim, a Valencia schoolteacher, was hung for heresy in 1826. By the time the Inquisition came to an official end in July 1834, an estimated one hundred fifty thousand Jews had been burned at the stake or died in prison as the result of torture or maltreatment, and thousands of crypto-Jews and their descendants were scattered around the world, including in the American colonies.
Today, these descendants may continue to practice certain Jewish observances—lighting candles on Friday night, avoiding the consumption of pork, covering mirrors when there is a death in the family—unaware of their Jewish ancestry.