Taken individually, the acts could be interpreted as quirks or odd habits or just idiosyncrasies. Taken as a whole, the signs pointed to something else. Something many consider surprising.

Could a hidden Jewish community be living in the San Luis Valley?

The San Luis Valley is as remote as it is beautiful. Although the valley is located in the New World, its ties go back to the Old World, back to Spain, the conquistadors and the Roman Catholic Church.

But not every Spanish family who made its way across the Atlantic was Roman Catholic. Five hundred years ago, a number of Conversos — Jews who were forced to convert by the Spanish Inquisition — traveled to America.

The Conversos were Catholics by decree, but remained Jewish at heart. That could explain to younger generations why grandfathers refused to eat pork or wore hats at Saturday church. Why grandmothers lit candles on Friday nights. It could be the reason ranchers butchered their animals the way they did, by slitting their throats, draining the blood, removing the sciatic nerve and salting the meat.

It could explain why older relatives’ prayer habits or why they wanted to be buried with their feet facing the east.

Taken in this context, there could be a bigger explanation for the quirks or habits of older relatives — that they grew up Sephardic Jews before being forced to choose between death or conversion.

It also could explain why many of them once in their new home, followed their faith secretly, often behind closed doors, becoming what is now called Crypto-Jews.

History and art

Jessica Kahkoska, a writer, dramaturg and performer from Colorado Springs, was awarded one of two spring residency positions at the Denver for the Performing Arts.

Her subject? Crypto-Judaism.

She hopes to tell the story of Crypto-Judaism in the San Luis Valley, but to do so in a play, rather than a research paper. Before the play can be produced, it must be researched, and Kahkoska has spent uncounted hours researching the subject, both in Boulder, where the University of Colorado has significant research on the subject, and in the San Luis Valley, where the residents have lived as Crypto-Jews.

The first presentation of Kahkoska’s work will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Denver Center for Performing Arts. An evening reading will take place at 7 p.m.

This is not a fully staged performance, but is being presented for people to see the work in development in hopes it does get on stage. Tickets may be obtained at the center’s website, denvercenter.org.

Shadow history buff

Kahkoska said she has been interested for a while in researching and writing about shadow histories and stories in history that have been forgotten.

“I’ve always got an eye for those,” Kahkoska said. “In Colorado we have many. I feel like the amount of our history that made it to the mainstream history books was pretty limited.”

Kahkoska said she worked for a theater in the San Luis Valley in 2017, and found the area and its history riveting.

“Before that, I had never spent any time in the San Luis Valley. I grew up in Colorado Springs,” Kahkoska said. “About a year after that job, I was working for a theater in Boulder. I was talking to a board member in the theater and we began to talk about the San Luis Valley. I told her I had a great experience living there. She tipped me off to the story on Crypto-Judaism there.”

Family secrets still

It isn’t always easy finding subjects for the research, Kahkoska said.

“When someone is speaking about family or religion, it is a very personal topic,” Kahkoska said. “I’ve had conversations with people about recipes that their families made growing up or ways they prepared food. How later in life they observed those recipes or traditions were similar to Jewish ones. It is a big connection.”

Yet, it’s not always one they are willing to divulge publicly.

Kahoska, who is Jewish, is sensitive to those concerns.

“The first thing my process has been guided with is people’s privacy,” Kahkoska said.

One of Kahkoska’s major endeavors in the research is acquiring oral histories to help preserve the people’s heritage, no matter the religious persuasion.

“I have been surprised how confidential many of these conversations have been,” Kahkoska said. “It’s not something people are open about.”

Genetic proof

While the San Luis Valley likely isn’t the first place one would go to look for a Jewish community, genealogy studies have provided evidence of shared DNA segments between Sephardic Jews and Spanish Americans from Colorado and New Mexico.

The ancestry of individuals in the San Luis Valley and in New Mexico are shared by individuals who live in Loja Province of southern Ecuador.

The genealogy studies have only confirmed what has been rumored in the San Luis Valley for decades. According to the theory, many of the Crypto-Jews who came to America did so to get away from Catholic-dominated Spain. And once here, they moved to the far-flung corners of the new land to escape the church.

Some Hispanics keep up forms of Jewish life today without knowing their origin, like farmers practicing kosher slaughter without realizing the technique was Jewish.

While genetics may help clear up some questions about an individual’s heritage. It doesn’t answer all the questions.

“I found that people are not always who they say they are when we apply genetic criteria to them,” said genealogy author Jeff Wheelwright. “But in the end, the identity that people claim for themselves is indeed who they are.”

mspence@chieftain, @MSpenceSpts