Hispanos and Sephardic ancestry

By Razib Khan | May 24, 2012 12:06 pm

A correspondent emailed me to tell me that Linda Chavez, whose father was a New Mexican Hispano, was found to have Sephardic Jewish ancestry in Henry Louise Gates Jr’s Finding your Roots series. This brings me to point to a recent paper, The impact of Converso Jews on the genomes of modern Latin Americans:

Modern day Latin America resulted from the encounter of Europeans with the indigenous peoples of the Americas in 1492, followed by waves of migration from Europe and Africa. As a result, the genomic structure of present day Latin Americans was determined both by the genetic structure of the founding populations and the numbers of migrants from these different populations. Here, we analyzed DNA collected from two well-established communities in Colorado (33 unrelated individuals) and Ecuador (20 unrelated individuals) with a measurable prevalence of the BRCA1 c.185delAG and the GHR c.E180 mutations, respectively, using Affymetrix Genome-wide Human SNP 6.0 arrays to identify their ancestry. These mutations are thought to have been brought to these communities by Sephardic Jewish progenitors. Principal component analysis and clustering methods were employed to determine the genome-wide patterns of continental ancestry within both populations using single nucleotide polymorphisms, complemented by determination of Y-chromosomal and mitochondrial DNA haplotypes. When examining the presumed European component of these two communities, we demonstrate enrichment for Sephardic Jewish ancestry not only for these mutations, but also for other segments as well. Although comparison of both groups to a reference Hispanic/Latino population of Mexicans demonstrated proximity and similarity to other modern day communities derived from a European and Native American two-way admixture, identity-by-descent and Y-chromosome mapping demonstrated signatures of Sephardim in both communities. These findings are consistent with historical accounts of Jewish migration from the realms that comprise modern Spain and Portugal during the Age of Discovery. More importantly, they provide a rationale for the occurrence of mutations typically associated with the Jewish Diaspora in Latin American communities.

The evidence for the Lojano community is stronger in the paper than the Hispano samples. Nevertheless, it is interesting to view this in light of the 2000 piece in The Atlantic, Mistaken Identity? The Case of New Mexico’s Hidden Jews”. Long story short, cultural anthropologists posited in the late 1990s that the Jewish cultural features of Hispanos were distortions of the beliefs of Protestant missionaries. Thank god for genetics.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, History
MORE ABOUT: Hispanos

Comments (13)

  1. Hermenauta

    This is interesting, of course, but also a very well known fact among latin american populations. Here in Brazil, the “conversos” were caled “marranos” or “cristão-novos” (new christians), usually refugees from the iberic Inquisition.

    Also, there is the interesting story of the Flander´s jews that came to Brazil´s northeast with the Nederland conquest of the (modern) state of Pernambuco (at their hightest they were 14% of the province´s population). Many of them left when the Portuguese won the war against the House of Orange (it´s said that they helped to found New Amesterdam, that is known as New York City by now), but a lot of them stayed here, and today Pernambuco has a big population of christian citizens of jewish origins.

    You can see a bit of the history of the first jews in NY here:


  2. iberian

    In fact, in all this vast world (colonial and european/Portugal/Espãna), the Jewish religion only survive in a place called Belmonte. Is a small village in Portugal, near the border of Spain. For 500 years they are Católicos on Sunday and Judeos at saturday. More amazing, part of the people of this place was always Christian; even in there houses and fields, the Jews must be disguised. Discovered by a Polish in begining of the century, even during the last Colonial War (1961-1975),the soldiers from this families said that they are catholics…They came “out” in 80´s/90´s, and Israel send a Rabi to purify their traditions (the irony…). But traditions and stories about hiden Jews and Muslims exist in hundreds of places; a similar genetic investigation will probabily find millions… I also wonder: – how make the distinction bettwen the Sefarad and the Arabo-Berbers? – And how take this two, from our neolitic heritage?

  3. a similar genetic investigation will probabily find millions… I also wonder: – how make the distinction bettwen the Sefarad and the Arabo-Berbers? – And how take this two, from our neolitic heritage?

    IBD regions are quite specific to sephardic & ashkenazi jews.

  4. nebbish

    One can watch the whole video of the Linda Chavez segment (also including discussions of ancestry for Adrian Grenier and Michelle Rodriguez) online:


    The documentary research on Chavez’ family in Spain and early Spanish New Mexico is also quite interesting.

    There’s another video with Barbara Walters on the site. It’s notable for the fact that her autosomal DNA analsysis shows slightly over 90% “Middle Eastern” ancestry, which Gates describes as being consistent with “Semitic or Jewish” origin, and about 9% “European” ancestry. I would have expected more admixture given her Ashkenazi background, but perhaps she is an outlier or this is some artefact of changes to how they are categorizing ancestry?

  5. but perhaps she is an outlier or this is some artefact of changes to how they are categorizing ancestry?

    i think mid east = jewish. makes sense that chavez is only 20 percent jewish.

  6. Don

    The thanks should go rather to humans than god for the genetics?

  7. Syon

    “Once Rodríguez’s results came back, she was surprised.“I’m 73% European, 23% African and only 4% Indian,” Rodríguez said. “When I got the results, I was thinking it was going to say American Indian and maybe some black because my mom is a little dark skinned and my brother is kind of dark skinned too, as was my grandfather who was a merchant from La Capital,” Rodríguez said.”

    Off-topic, but I always find it interesting how people massively overestimate their Amerind ancestry while simultaneously underestimating their European ancestry.

  8. nebbish

    “i think mid east = jewish. makes sense that chavez is only 20 percent jewish.”

    That must be the case. I was thinking in terms of ADMIXTURE analysis that splits out components of Jewish ancestry, but that’s not what Gates’ program is trying to show.

  9. Bill B

    There is a little mixing apples and oranges here. The cultural anthropologists cited in the Atlantic article were saying that much of the evidence presented for the continued existence of a crypto-Jewish culture among Hispanics was suspect. While the presence of Jewish genes is a prerequisite for the survival of Jewish culture among Hispanics, it is not proof that their descendants were secretly practicing Jewish traditions into the twentieth century. As part of a high school project, my niece recently discovered that our shared mtDNA traced back to South Asia. This did not make my blue-eyed, blonde-haired devoutly Catholic Austrian great-grandmother a crypto-Muslim or crypto-Hindu even though she did not let Christmas trees into the house because of the mess they made.

  10. There is a little mixing apples and oranges here.

    no there isn’t. the likelihood of the models of anthropologists are conditional on the genetic data. autosomal information is much more informative than the uniparental stuff (e.g., mtDNA).

  11. Bill B

    Yes it is possible, even likely that some customs were passed on, but not necessarily to the degree that the most enthusiastic proponents of a thriving crypto-Judaic subculture in the Southwest propose. One example cited in the Atlantic article is the assumption that the wooden tops with which many Hispanic children in the Southwest played were actually dreidels and therefore part of the secret Jewish subculture passed on through the centuries. But according to cultural anthropologists, dreidels are an Ashkenazi tradition and not part of Sephardic culture. Presumably the Jewish ancestors came from Spain rather than Poland. Wooden tops, however, are found in cultures around the world over millenia and are widely played with throughout Latin America. Sometimes a top is just a top. However, I would agree with you that the Atlantic article goes too far in the other direction with all the Seventh Day Adventist stuff.

  12. but not necessarily to the degree that the most enthusiastic proponents of a thriving crypto-Judaic subculture in the Southwest propose.

    yes. the key here is that how you weight the probabilities of the various hypotheses is strongly contingent on evidence of large scale demographic impact of conversos vs. not such impact. in the late 1990s there wasn’t much real evidence for this in concrete and quantitative terms. today one can argue that there is evidence for substantial quantitative impact. these means that we assessing cultural phylogenies one has to take this particular demographic history into account as a prior.

    i actually found the atlantic article quite persuasive when it came out. it presented a novel and plausible model which didn’t rely on the somewhat fantastical scenario of crypto-judaism on the american frontier. but the fantastical aspect of the alternative hypothesis is now less fantastical when you note that a fair amount of genetic data does point to isolated groups of conversos across latin america, in particular in frontier zones away from the inquisition.

  13. pconroy

    I watched the show, and noted a few things:

    1. Chavez said her mother was Irish, so her father must have been around 40-50% Middle Eastern for her to have 20% Middle Eastern – that’s quite a lot of Jewish ancestry, as I’d imagine Sephardics have 20-30% or more European ancestry to begin with.

    2. Both Chavez and Rodriguez has lineages with an extreme amount of inbreeding over many generations. In Rodriguez’s case, she attributed this to Racism – did anyone else find this strange?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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