Academics talk Judaism in Texas, Latin America

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The 16th International Research Conference of the Latin American Jewish Studies Association kicked off it’s annual conference Sunday on Judaism in the American Southwest and Latin America. A meeting of a small group of international scholars free from the demands of the usual school year, the conference will continue with paneled disccusions today and wrap up on Tuesday.

Bryan Stone, a native Texan professor of history at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, gave the keynote address of the conference Sunday on the origin myths of the native Jewish population of Texas. Stone said Texas Jews, like other Texans, have an outsized legend of their origins that matches the oversized belt buckle attitude of the bluebonnet state.

“Here in Texas we have a fondness for myth,” Stone said. “And when your talking about a group that’s been about 0.6 percent of the population as long as there have been numbers, you have a certain sense of vulnerability and a need to protect that.” 

One of the origin “myths” Stone mentioned was that of Luis de Carabajal. A Spanish-Portugeue adventurer and slave trader, it is alleged Carabajal’s family were descendents of the conversos, Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity in the 15th century. The Carabajal family allegedly practiced Judaism in secret in the New World, and many were put to death by the Spanish Inquisition. Many Jewish families in Texas have since traced their family lineage back to the Carabajal family. 

According to Stone, the story is false. But the popularity of the story speaks volumes to history of Jews in Texas, who have historically sought to establish a strong culture in the periphery of the U.S., far from the center of Jewish culture in New York.

Stone said the first empirically verifiable story of Jews in Texas was the arrival of Abraham Labatt, a trader, in the town of Valasco in 1831. A practicing founder of several temples, Labat’s journals indicated he had met a community of Jews in the city when he traveled through the state.

Robert Abzug, director of the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, which helped put on the conference, said the keynote was a successful start for a conference dedicated to examining cultural crossroads. 

“It’s the old story of the teacher learning from the student,” Abzug said, who directed Stone’s dissertation when he attended UT. “Listening and reading Stone’s work I’ve learned to love the idea of local Jewish history.”

Abzug said the next few lectures at the conference will concern many subjects, such as Jewish settlers in Argentina who began as immigrant prostitutes and became successful landowners, and the interaction between the Jewish diaspora and Native American communities.

Alan Astro, a professor of Yiddish who teaches at Trinity University in San Antonio, said he was glad the conversation rested on tangible stories and myths and not high-minded, inaccessible theories. 

Astro said there were also still questions unanswered in the discussion, like the recent trend of peoples in Mexican-American communities to appropriate Jewish origin stories in their own family histories while remaining Christian.

Astro said the cause might lie in claims over “whiteness”. Since Judaism is traditionally associate with light-skinned people, the proof of Jewish ancestry might allow Mexican or Mexican-American people to claim they are descended from Europeans and not descended from Native American people.

“There’s always a struggle over ideas, and theories in academic circles,” Astro said. “I’m really glad this conversation rested on firm facts and histories. That’s a nice break from what is sometimes the case.” 

Follow Andrew Messamore on Twitter @AndrewMessamore.