Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A Crypto-Jew's tale

Nitza Avigayl is the Hebrew name of an immigrant to Israel from Davis, CA, USA.  She has a fascinating tale to tell of her family history as well as showing some of her art (more of that later).  She was born Gail Guttierez and her family emigrated from Mexico to the US in 1918, but she traces her descendents back to a group of families of converso-Jewish origin named Munoz and Perez who accompanied the expedition of Luis de Carvajal that arrived in Tampico, Mexico in 1580. 
Carvajal (also known as Carabajal y Cueva),  who was of Portuguese converso (Jewish) origin, had been there before on an expedition in 1568 and had been appointed the first Mayor of Tampico.  At that time, Tampico was no more than a village and the hinterland was wild and inhabited by fierce Indian tribes.  Carvajal was the first Spaniard to cross the Rio Grande River into what is now Texas.  For his second expedition in 1579 he was appointed Governor of the province of Nuevo Leon in New Spain (later Mexico) with a Royal decree to pacify and colonize the area.  The Spanish Government wanted settlers on these lands and by Royal decree the rules of blood purity were relaxed in order to encourage settlement, and so most of those who accompanied Carvajal were Crypto-Jews, including his relatives and friends 
The settlers had to face severe hardships to settle on the lands that had been granted to them by the Spanish crown along what is now the Mexican-US border.  Not only did they have to fight off the local Chichimeca Indians, but they also had to deal with the Inquisition that was active in Mexico.  In 1590 Carvajal and his extended family were arrested and under torture his daughter Isabella revealed their secret adherence to Judaism.  Carvajal himself died in prison, but his whole family (8 people) were burnt at the stake in an auto-da-fe.  But, other settlers managed to escape up into the mountains and their descendents practised a form of secret Judaism for 300 years along the remote Mexican border as far north as New Mexico. 
In 1886 Gail's great-grandfather converted to Protestantism for personal reasons, but it is also a route that many Secret or Crypto-Jews take to get out from under the control of the Catholic Church.  Being Protestant allowed them to read and own Bibles. They moved to Texas in 1918 and her grandfather became a Methodist minister, although he included many elements of Judaism in his religious work because a large proportion of his parishoners were themselves Crypto-Jews.  Gail researched her family history with other members of her extended family and decided to convert back to Judaism and moved to Israel in 2007.  She spoke at AACI in Netanya where she lives, and entitled her talk "Bahutz," which translated from Hebrew means "In the outside." 
She said she always regarded herself as an outsider, she was not really a Catholic (her mother always told her that) and even though they lived among Spanish-speaking Mexicans, she was not a Mexican either.  She was partly Protestant, but her grandfather told her they were really Jews, but she could not identify with the Jews she saw and met in the USA.  In order to overcome this sense of being an outsider everywhere she decided to become a real Jew, and so she started on her odyssey that brought her to Netanya.  However, she found that Israel is by no means homogeneous and so she is a minority like all the other groups in Israel.
Nitza is a trained conceptual artist with a master's in sculpture and she began to paint when she arrived in Israel and exhibited with a group of artists in Tel Aviv.  She painted a series of large colorful abstracts on the boards from the shipping crate that brought her personal property to Israel.  Some of them depicted her journey and her first impressions of Israel.   They were shown as an installation at her first individual show also entitled "Bahutz" at the Municipal Gallery in Givatayim, together with a series of colorful monotypes.  She has also created a unique series of 10 large carrier bags, which depict the need for Jews to be able to move carrying their personal effects, and each one is decorated and embellished with pieces of cloth with different colors and designs depicting the struggles of her family at different periods, from 1391 when they were forcibly converted, to 1948 when the Jewish State came into existence.  These are an amazing series of symbolic pieces of art-work showing great craftmanship.  Altogether a fascinating story.


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