David M. Gitlitz. Living in Silverado: Secret Jews in the Silver Mining Towns of Colonial Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2019. xii + 420 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8263-6079-3.
Reviewed by Rafaela Acevedo-Field (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-LatAm (October, 2020)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)
The monograph Living in Silverado: Secret Jews in the Silver Mining Towns of Colonial Mexico by historian David M. Gitlitz is a carefully crafted narrative of three interconnected crypto-Jewish families who established themselves in the lesser-studied mining towns in colonial Mexico of Ayoteco, Tlalpujahua, Pachuca, and Taxco. These narratives, based on late 1500s Inquisition trials, trace the lives of these family clusters as their respective founding men migrated from Portugal to Spain and finally to colonial Mexico. Once there, they became miners, started families, and participated in secret Jewish religious communities based on friendship, kinship, and business ties. At times, the monograph is also an intimate portrayal of day-to-day mining life in colonial Mexico. Parallel to tracing the trajectory of the families throughout the sixteenth century, this monograph also examines the regional development of mining in the cities where these men eventually made their living.
In the first two chapters Gitlitz provides the background and context of the Portuguese secret Jews and the migration pattern they followed from Portugal to Spain to Mexico City. Once there, they became part of the existing crypto-Jewish community and eventually headed to the towns surrounding Mexico City to try their luck at mining. In chapters 3 to 9 Gitlitz narrates the trajectory of the first family cluster of Gabriel de Fonseca and his wife. Gitlitz then focuses on the trajectories of Fonseca’s son and later, his grandson, both named Tomás de Fonseca. In the 1530s and 40s we see Gabriel’s family struggling to make ends meet. He and others like him slowly made their fortunes by doing things like selling their comparatively smaller mining product to larger, more successful miners for processing while taking up the buying and selling of commodities such as cochineal and cacao to supplement their income, especially in the early years of their mining activity.
The narrative then follows the history of two more related family clusters in chapters 11 to 14. The second cluster, the Almeida-Fonsecas, is centered on Jorge del Almeida and his close friend and colleague Antonio de Cáceres. The third cluster, headed by Simón Paiba and Beatriz Enríques la Paiba, focuses primarily on their daughter, Justa Mendez, and her husband, Manuel de Lucena, who were a devout Judaizing couple who hosted religious events and proselytized. These histories examine the lives of those men and women with whom they came in contact, which included both family and acquaintances from throughout the converso community, including the very prominent Carvajal family. Chapter 15 is an in-depth treatment of how each family fared during the Inquisition trials that began in 1589 and dragged on to 1605. Chapter 16 offers some conclusions about each family and their varying crypto-Jewish identities.
Although the discussions of each of the three family clusters vary in length, the chapters in the middle of the book follow similar narrative patterns. For each family cluster, the author introduces a patriarch miner and his origins in Portugal and follows his migration at a young age to Sevilla and then to New Spain. Then the reader learns the varying ways each individual became a miner, started a family, and, typically, moved from Mexico City, the initial landing spot in the New World, to a mining town, eventually acquiring an estate and becoming established. Later, each one connected, or sometimes did not, to his respective crypto-Jewish faith and community. Finally, in each case the author explores how the individual and his social circle, including his business acquaintances and families, Judaized (or practiced Judaism). We learn that these practices were contingent on how the individual men and their spouses approached their religion. Although the men’s Jewish practices were carried out in the context of male friendships, their wives played a central role in the practice and the creation of a religious community that revolved around the observance of the Sabbath and important holidays, like Yom Kippur, Passover, and the Fast of Esther. All three families owned a home or estate in the mining city, but like most wealthy families in colonial Mexico, they also owned a home in Mexico City. It was there that the families carried on a dynamic crypto-Jewish life in which they tended to interact and come together to observe Jewish holidays. Woven into these narratives are some threads that explore the technical aspects of mining and the development of mining in a given community, such as the cities of Taxco or Pachuca. The only deficiency here is that a map showing the location of these cities in relation to Mexico City and to the more prominent mining cities further north would have provided a better geographical context.
When it comes to organization, three unusual features aid in reading the monograph. First, instead of the usual five to eight chapters, this book has a short introduction and sixteen shorter chapters. This short-chapter format makes for a more engaging, almost episodic read. Second, the physical and visual layout of the book is slightly unusual. The book does not include historiographic commentary within the main text; most of it appears in the endnotes, which is not too unusual. However, every so often in the text a grayed-out textbox appears in a different font in which the author provides definitions, historiographic discussions, or clarifying comments. For instance, the explanation of the significance of cocoa and cochineal (pp. 72-73) in the commercial life of colonial Mexico provides a deeper context for understanding why one of the mining families relied on these commodities to supplement their mining income, especially early on in their trajectory. One of the most significant historiographical discussions in this format concerns the importance of historian Seymour Liebman’s work and its impact on the study of conversos in colonial Mexico (p. 104). Third, historical writing on intergenerational and interfamilial converso/crypto-Jewish communities can often lose the reader in the details of individual names and surnames. To avoid this, Gitlitz includes genealogical graphs that prevent confusion about each family member and clarify where each belongs in the family line. Whether these were the author’s or the publisher’s editorial choices, they each make for a more fluid reading experience.
When it comes to sources and historiographic contribution, Gitlitz relies on Inquisition trials and testimonies from a combination of the Mexican Inquisition collection at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Inquisition collection at the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City. In the historiography of conversos and crypto-Jews in colonial Mexico, the study of the Carvajal family and their Inquisition trials at the end of the sixteenth century is central. This monograph expands that narrative by de-centering the Carvajal family, even though each family examined here is somehow related to the Carvajal family through friendship or marriage. In terms of studying the history of mining in the sixteenth century, this monograph also de-centers the traditional mining cities most historians have described in detail, such as Zacatecas, San Luis Postosí, Queretaro, and Chihuahua, by focusing on cities closer to the viceregal capital.
Finally, this monograph complicates the narrative of secret Judaism by explicitly recognizing and exploring the fact that not all conversos observed the same form of Judaism, largely because they were not operating in a context where they were close to normative Judaism. Gitlitz points out, for instance, that conversos did not have access to a traditional religious quorum (p. 105), which in practice meant that dietary practices were not necessarily aligned with theological understandings or traditional practices. In this way Gitlitz continues the historiographical discussion taking place across Europe, Africa, and the Americas that has complicated our understanding of religious, cultural, and ethnic identities in the early modern Atlantic world. Some individuals, such as Manuel Lucena and his wife, Catarina Enríquez, were enthusiastic Judaizers, whereas others, such as Jorge de Almeida and his friend Antonio Díaz de Cáceres, rejected their Judaism, but the fact that they married women from the Carvajal family kept them linked to the crypto-Jewish community throughout their lives, both before and after their Inquisition trials. Overall, this book provides a better understanding of the wider crypto-Jewish community in late sixteenth-century Mexico beyond the Carvajal narrative and beyond Mexico City. It also opens up the study of mining cities to which historians have not previously paid as much attention in the historiography.
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Rafaela Acevedo-Field. Review of Gitlitz, David M., Living in Silverado: Secret Jews in the Silver Mining Towns of Colonial Mexico.
H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews.
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