Sunday, July 13

 

 

It was a beautiful clear and sunny day in Quito. The air was dry and the climate was similar to San Diego. I had breakfast and went out to walk a few blocks. I wanted to get acclimated to the altitude.

 

I couldn't walk too far because Ricardo was supposed to call me at 10:00a.m. He has no telephone at his home so I called his mother who told me to call back at 12:00 noon. At 12:00 he was still not there so I took a long walk in the park across the street from the hotel. It was loaded with little booths selling pictures, books, clothing, souvenirs, etc. The park was so loaded with people that we jostled and pushed against each other in the narrow walks between booths. I became a little nervous about my personal safety and went back to my hotel room. I continued to make my phone calls, slept a few hours and I awoke fully refreshed. It was marvelous.

 

Around 6:00 p.m. Ricardo showed up at the hotel with Eduardo Ramon. This evening, Ricardo showed me two books, the first titled, "Los Secretos....", describes the genealogy of his family from his parents all the way back to Spain. The second book," Zaruma-Cuatro Siglos De Peregrinaje Historio," described how Jewish or Converso miners from mining communities of Spain relocated into the town of Zaruma, about 90 miles from Loja, and live there until today. What I discovered is that while I may have been unable to locate literature in U.S. libraries that describes the lives of Conversos in Ecuador, here, in the actual country, there was a source of information in Spanish, that needed to be reviewed and translated. This was a source of documentation that had eluded me.

 

After talking a few hours I invited them to join me for dinner. We walked down a side street that was fairly dark but Ricardo was able to navigate. We settled into a tiny restaurant where we talked and ate most of the evening.

 

Finally, at 11:30 p.m. Sunday night, my friends from San Diego arrived to join the trip. To make an 8:00 a.m. flight the next morning I left wake up calls for 4:30 to provide time to breakfast, pack up and be ready for our van to the airport that was scheduled to pick us up at 6:00 a.m.

 

 

Monday, July 14

 

 

The Folker Jet left Quito promptly at 8:00 a.m. with a full load of passengers. Zucky drew a little attention with his "kapot" but the Ecuadorians were too polite to ask about the tiny cap on his head. The scenery from the east side of the plane was magnificent with green mountains and valleys with one huge mountain with its snow covered top piercing through the cloud layer. From our position above the clouds all we saw was the white snow cap.

 

The plane landed at Catamayo, a small town outside of Loja where we met up with Eduardo Quito, our guide. We boarded into two 4 wheel drive vehicles. Eduardo drove one and the other was driven by a professional driver, Emmanuel, who spoke only Spanish. To make communication easier I traveled with Emmanuel. He was a man of 50 or so and very proud of his status as a professional driver.

 

We had not spent any time reviewing the itinerary and changes so we agreed to meet at the Liberatador Hotel in Loja. This became our central meeting spot. The roads to Loja made for a great 45 minute ride. We passed through the hills and entered an area of lush grass and vegetation.

 

At the hotel, in which we were about 90% of the guests, we had a pleasant breakfast and finalized plans. Zucky would lead the group to local cemeteries and to local seminaries to look for clues indicating that some of the past citizens were Conversos. Most of us had seen the exhibit at the Museum of Man in San Diego which showed photographs of gravestones of suspected Converso families in New Mexico with small stars of David on the stones along with crosses. In some cases Hebrew letters were inscribed or in some cases the embellishments were typical Hebrew floral designs. We felt that this example of gravestones in New Mexico might be repeated in Ecuador.

 

[Because we think in terms of U.S. cemeteries, we had hoped to find grave markers 100-200 years old. Well we were sadly mistaken! The dates, on the crosses which we were able to read, were no more than 10-30 years old.... most were totally obscured. Chalk another one up to ethnocentricity. A poor country with poor and sometimes persecuted peasants does not enshrine its dead the way we do here in the U.S.A.]

 

Eduardo and I remained at the hotel to book appointments with names of individuals I had received from Ricardo and from Dr. Aguirre-Guevara. We were to be in the city only during this day after which were to travel to Vilcabamba. I had not anticipated the extent of Converso activity in this part of Ecuador and the decision was made to add Zaruma to the itinerary because of the books Ricardo had shown me. The problem was how to find Conversos in a fairly substantial city during one morning and afternoon when the people I seek have been keeping their background hidden for 500 years.

 

We made an appointment to visit within the next half-hour Ramiro Cueva, the station manager at the local T.V. station a few blocks away from the Hotel Liberatador. I fed words to Eduardo on the phone who translated into Spanish and the station manager invited us over to the station to talk. Ramiro is about 35, light skinned, ruddy complexion, double breasted suit and could easily pass as a New York salesman of television time. After 10 minutes of conversation with Ramiro in his office, he decided to film a T.V. interview. Out of the various offices appeared a film crew, a few observers and the interview began. Ramiro would ask questions in Spanish and Eduardo would translate them into English. I would respond in English (rather than grope for the Spanish). This technique became a format that we would use four different times on radio and T.V. interviews. After awhile Eduardo became as conversant with the material as any of us. Eduardo suggested and I agreed, that in the future we would use only the term Converso which was more polite and less derogatory than the term marrano which translates as "pig" in Spanish.

 

During the interview we said that we were in Loja to research the history of those Conversos who had been in this area since the early 1500's. While the history of Conversos was reasonably researched and detailed in other South American countries, in Ecuador there was a gap in this history. We knew many of these people had been miners in Loja and Zaruma. We knew that only in Loja is there a custom of using old testament first names such as Samuel, Moses, Abraham etc. In no other part of Ecuador does that occur with this frequency. We knew these people had a custom of marrying within their own families . What happened to the descendants of those original Conversos? We mentioned that if there were people who were interested in the religious beliefs of the Jews we had a rabbi with us, Rabbi Zuckerman, who would be pleased to answer their questions.

 

The interview appeared to go great. There was no problem responding to the questions of Ramiro spontaneously. Finally, Eduardo read some of the family names that were recognized as popular Jewish names in Spain and Portugal in the 1500 and 1600's. Ricardo had provided me with a list of about 50 popular Jewish names of the time. We had no idea what would happen if a person was sitting at home and suddenly learned their last name was at one time a name normally associated with Jewish or Converso families. Would they be willing to discuss their family background with us? Would they feel stigmatized by the relationship even after 500 years? The T.V. interview was made on Monday morning, it was to be broadcast Monday evening at 7:00 p.m. During the interview we asked those people who were interested to contact us at the Hotel Liberatador on Wednesday when we would return to Loja between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.

 

We also contacted the local radio station and spoke with the manager, Eduardo Ruiz. Following the T.V. interview we went to the radio station. Eduardo Ruiz was a short man of about 50. who after 5 minutes of conversation put us on radio, live, in the studio. After the first interview Eduardo and I learned to anticipate the questions. Eduardo Ruiz, after only a few minutes of conversation, questioned us without notes for about 20 minutes. I was very impressed by the versatility of both the T.V. and radio station managers who were able to conduct these interviews with only the flimsiest of details and preparation.

 

During that radio interview, a man walked into the small studio (an area of 4ft by 6ft) and sat down next to us. I assumed he was part of management of the station. During the interview he did not participate. Afterwards, he introduced himself as Dr. Rio-Frio. He appeared to be a man of about 55 who was the Director of Malnutrition of Loja. His facial characteristics, skin color and demeanor indicated that he was apparently descended from European stock. He was dressed in a business suit, shirt and tie and he was able to communicate in English. Dr. Rio-Frio believed that he may descended from a Converso family. He said that he is a practicing Catholic and he has always lived in this area. Wherever, he travels he is looked upon by Jews as a fellow Jew because he believes his physical characteristics are similar to those of Jews. He had heard the interview on his car radio and rushed over to meet with us. With this sort of response to our broadcast I started to expect that a large number of people would be waiting for us at the Hotel Liberatador on Wednesday. I had booked myself into another appointment and I did not have time to interview Dr. Rio-Frio in depth. I promised myself to do it during another visit.

 

I began to suspect that when an individual starts a conversation by saying, "I am a practicing Catholic", it is a form of a code, a self-protection device that allows them to remain at arms length while they determine how much of their lives they are willing to share with outsiders. Another danger that I became aware of was that all of us in the group could start to see descendants of Conversos under every rock and behind every tree in Ecuador. How were we to maintain a sense of objectivity during this visit? While there little scientific basis for our investigation there was a need for a heavy dose of skepticism before arriving at conclusions. On the other hand, I had read that in Mexico as many as 33% of the early immigrants from Spain and Portugal were either Jews or Conversos. If that large a percentage of the original settlers was also true for Ecuador, how prolific would they have had to be to be identified as the forbears of a large part of the Ecuadorian light skinned population. These were questions better suited to professional historians and anthropologists.

 

 

 

[Barry, David, Zucky, and Andy scoured the churches of Loja looking for possible hints at a "Converso" history. All that we came up with were the two church paintings showing the Star of David within the Christian iconography.

 

 

 

 

 

While the others were visiting cemeteries, [churches] and a local seminary to investigate old records of births and deaths, Eduardo and I rushed to keep an appointment with Senora Lucilla Velez Sanchez. Lucilla in one of two sisters of shortened stature that had been recommended to me for an interview by their doctor, Dr. Jaime Aguirre-Guevara in Quito on Saturday. We visited her at her home on a side street in Loja ten minutes by car from the hotel. In a large rectangular courtyard that provided access to a number of small homes or apartments we met with Lucilla.

 

Eduardo and I sat on benches against a wall under a roof that protected us from the sun, Lucilla stood leaning against a chair so that her face was reasonably level with ours. She is one of the Loja residents of shortened stature that are treated by Dr. Aguirre-Guevara of Quito and Dr. Rosenbloom of Tampa, Florida. I estimate that Lucilla was about 40 inches tall, about 50-60 years of age. My agreement with Dr. Aguirre-Guevara was not to embarrass or pressure the lady in any way. We made special efforts to avoid direct questions about religious practices that would definitely tie her to Conversos or Judaism. According to the doctor, there was no doubt that her defective gene ties her to a sephardic descendance, but how could we look for any concrete cultural or ritual connection?

 

Lucilla told us of her great fondness for Drs. Rosenbloom and Aguirre-Guevara. They had been very kind and sympathetic to their needs. They were almost like members of the family. The last time that Dr. Rosenbloom visited from the U.S. he had stayed at her house and on one occasion had danced with her. She loved that. She and her sister were very devout Catholics and participated in all of the church activities in Loja. Her parents before their death were also very religious Catholics.

 

Lucilla lived with her sister who was also of shortened stature. I had learned that often this is not the case. At present, her sister had been invited to Europe by some close friends. We asked if there were types of religious practices or rituals that were unique or special to this area around Loja. Lucilla answered that there was nothing of which she was aware.

 

Here was a little lady that we knew came from a Jewish or Converso descendance. Her condition of shortened stature is the result of hundreds of years of intermarriage of her ancestors to those of similar or identical backgrounds. Despite this knowledge we could not find confirmation in family rituals, family practices, or even memories of anything that would look like a recognizable Jewish experience.

 

My last appointment for the day was with Dr. Patricio Aguirre-Aguirre. Since the last of the family names is that of the mother's family we knew immediately that Patricio, in conformity with the very popular local custom, had also married within his family. Dr. Aguirre is also a cousin of Dr. Jaime Aguirre-Guevera in Quito who had arranged this meeting.

 

Eduardo and I met with Dr. Aguirre and his wife in their home in a suburb of Loja. Both of them are European in appearance, educated and he spoke a reasonable amount of English. However, the interview was largely in Spanish with Eduardo translating. Dr. Aguirre said he had no specific knowledge but he felt that he descended from the conversos of Spain. He and his wife are practicing Catholics with a large picture of Jesus in the front hall. He and his wife were both educated through the University level. He knows of a local family with the family name of Spinoza which certainly has historical Jewish roots. He knows that in Loja it is possible to positively identify persons of Jewish genetic descendance. He refers to these people as "having Jewish bodies and Catholic heads". Both he and his wife were very warm, hospitable and showed interest in our project. Senora Aguirre was raised in Zaruma and she said there are many descendants of Conversos in that area. The doctor had to leave to teach a class at the local university and it was time for us to gather up our group and move on to Vilcabamba.

  [photo by Andy Loeb]

Vilcabamba is about a 45 minute ride through mountain roads to our Hosteria for the evening. This is a small resort area and it is a largely underdeveloped area with magnificent views of the mountains. Eduardo explained that several years before the area had received extraordinary attention when it was discovered that a large number of the inhabitants lived to very old ages. Scientists and other interested individuals appeared to initiate studies and the local population became jaded and disturbed by the interference in their lives. Now, every older person who was asked their age replied that they were 95, 100 or 105.

 

Right next door to our hosteria was another resort called Madre Tierra and on the sign were Hebrew Letters that said "Shalom, Jaime's Hideaway". It's a popular spot for Israelis hiking in the area. There is a spa, massages, hot tub, etc. The price was $9.00 per night for Israelis and 10.00 to 15.00 for all others. Zucky had a grand time conversing in Hebrew with some of the Israeli guests.

 

The evening was quiet except for a poker game with the guys. Zucky was on a roll and I was the major loser. The major event of the night occurred about 3:00 a.m. when either a wild animal or the landlord went after one of the hens that walked freely about the hosteria. Something banged furiously against the wall and door to my room screeching and howling. I was sure my time had come. Perhaps, it was a rooster celebrating its 105th birthday.

 

 

July 15, Tuesday

 

I changed the travel plans and the rest of the men were kind enough to go along with the changes. Based on the book that Ricardo Ordonez had shown me in Quito and based on the conversation with Senora Aguirre, we headed to Zaruma. This was a very long and tiring trip with miles and miles of dirt roads. We didn't arrive in Zaruma until late afternoon when we checked into the Hotel Roland. One of the jeeps had stopped by a clean river and the men in that jeep went for a swim.

 

As we entered Zaruma we could see tin roofed sheds with the gold mining operations by the banks of the river. We were told the washing operation that uses mercury had polluted that river and it was not suitable for drinking or washing. Zaruma is built on the sides of a huge hill and in some respects it reminded me of Julian, CA.

[photo by Andy Loeb]

 

The hotel was modest by most standards especially when it concerned the lack of hot water and the one little towel the size of a diaper in the room. I noticed an empty room with the door open and a similar towel resting on the bed. All moral standards disappeared and I grabbed that towel for myself. The cold shower was short and vigorous. It took both towels to dry.

 

Eduardo, our guide, had become a one man publicity man for the quest. He talked it up at every stop. He memorized every detail of my conversation and interviews. While explaining what we were doing to the owner of the hotel the owner went to his apartment and returned with a book that was an identical copy of the book Ricardo has shown me in Quito. It described in some detail the life of the "Judeos" in Zaruma and I was surprised to learn that the article was written by Ricardo. In my meetings with Ricardo I did not hear, or more likely, I did not understand that specific information.

 

In addition, there was an article by Rosdaura Garcia that described a series of 4 different Inquisitions in Zaruma in the 1600's and 1700's. To my mind, if there were Inquisitions there were Conversos. They existed at that time. In order to translate the articles properly the owner agreed to loan me the book which I will return as soon as the translations are complete. In my search for documented evidence of Conversos in Ecuador I believed I held the "smoking gun."

 

Eduardo called the local radio station and arranged for a meeting at 6:00p.m. at the station. After meeting with the owner manager he decided to do a live radio interview at 7:00p.m. to 7:30 p.m. He asked all the right questions and by now our responses were well developed and the interview was smooth as silk. We invited interested parties to visit us at the Hotel Roland from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. After the interview we rushed back to the Hotel, had a light dinner of tortillas (In Ecuador a kind of omelet) and waited for our invited guests. No one came!

 

Why didn't any one come? To answer that question there are a number of considerations:

 

WAS IT POSSIBLE....

1) no one is out there to whom this is applicable?

2) No one listens to the radio at this time of day?

3) No one cares enough to respond?

4) Those people who are concerned with the subject are frightened. There was an Inquisition as late as the 1700's. Why should they come out of the closet for me?

5) We are a couple of generations too late? There is no collective memory that remains today?

6) It is too intimidating for descendants of Conversos to respond in a public location like the hotel lobby where they can be easily identified by their neighbors/friends?

 

You can take your pick of one or more of these considerations and be correct. I am sure that I did not select the appropriate methods for identifying these people and allowing them to acknowledge their descendance without fear of stigmatizing themselves and their families.

 

Before the radio interview the radio station owner related a story to Eduardo and me. He remembered that as a little boy his father told him that there was a meeting in Zaruma of Judeos and they came from as far away as Guayaquil. Now, in 1997 it took us hours and hours to get to Zaruma. How difficult would it have been to travel to Zaruma roughly 45 years ago? Could Zaruma have been a secret meeting spot for the Conversos of Ecuador?

 

 

 NEXT