Gilchrist: Sorry, pilgrim. Mexicans own Thanksgiving
Ryan Summerlin November 21, 2012
Last year in this column, we met Sarah Josepha Hale, the widow who tirelessly promoted Thanksgiving and yet refused to stuff a turkey for her dinner guests. “I just persuaded President Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday,” Sarah said, “And that makes me a celebrity. I’m not sticking my hand up any gobbler’s butt. You want turkey? Order take-out.”In the spirit of keeping it fresh, I bring you a tale of the first Thanksgiving celebration held near El Paso, Texas, in 1598 – 23 years before the feast at Plymouth, Mass., was a twinkle in a Puritan’s eye. Our story begins with a man running for his life.In the spring of 1598, Juan Rodriguez Nieto had a big problem – the Holy Office of the Mexican Inquisition planned to arrest and torture him for the crime of “Judaizante” – that is, being a secret Jew and spreading the “dead law of Moses.” Nieto, who owned nine horses, wisely fled Mexico City and hid in Zacatecas. Between 1589 and 1604, the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Mexico City arrested over two-hundred suspected crypto-Jews and conversos – Mexicans Jews who had converted to Catholicism. Neighbors denounced each other for refusing to eat pork and for lighting candles on Friday after sunset. Owning a Bible meant certain death. The Catholic laity was not allowed to own a Bible. Only Jews and Protestants – both heretics in the eyes of Rome -secretly kept Bibles. The accused knew when they were about to be arrested because the Holy Office first sent men to confiscate their cash, jewelry, business and personal assets. The Inquisition was a lucrative business, but so was the prospect of colonizing the American Southwest.Once in Zacatecas, the fugitive Juan Rodriguez Nieto joined an expedition organized by Don Juan de Onate, a Spanish nobleman descended from Rabbi Salomon Ha-Levi and other prominent Sephardic Jews. Historians agree that it is unlikely that Don Juan de Onate, the Mexican Viceroy or the Holy Office was aware of Onate’s Jewish heritage.King Philip II of Spain ordered Onate to lead his colonists into the wilderness of modern Texas and New Mexico. Once there, Franciscan friars would convert the Native Americans to Catholicism and the Spanish settlers would turn over a fifth of everything they produced to the Crown.Meanwhile, agents of the Inquisition pursued Juan Rodriguez Nieto, but could not locate him. Failing in their task, the Inquisitors returned to Mexico City. They tried him in absentia and found Nieto guilty of being a Jew. On a platform in the Zocala, before thousands of spectators and a grandstand shimmering with opulently dressed clergymen, the Inquisitors fashioned an effigy of Nieto, doused it with oil and set it aflame.At his camp on the Rio Conchos, Nieto slept peacefully in his tent and dreamed of the New World.Professor Stanley Hordes of the University of New Mexico combed the muster rolls of the Onate expedition. He compared them to the manuscripts kept by Inquisition officials. Hordes asserts that Don Juan de Onate “knowingly or unknowingly included among the ranks of his colonists a number” of crypto-Jews seeking to avoid persecution by the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Hordes’ research tracks with the report of Inspector Salazar to the viceroy in Mexico City. Inspector Salazar wrote that he suspected many of Onate’s soldiers were fugitives from the Holy Office and had quietly joined the expedition after the official enrollment to avoid being identified.On March 10, 1598, 129 armored Spanish soldiers carrying crimson banners surged forward under a cloud of dust into the Chihuahuan desert. There were also 200 women and children in ox-carts, 200 Chicimeca Indian slaves, mestizos, mulattos, Franciscan friars, and – this is not a typo – 7,000 head of livestock. For two months, the colonists and their children struggled northward, when at last they reached the sandy dunes of Los Medanos. Today those dunes are bisected by the road from El Paso, Texas, to Ciudad Juarez. When the caravan mired in the sand, children wept, some of the animals died, wagon wheels broke and the women slapped their husbands upside the head. “I told you this was a stupid idea!” At the end of April, when the expedition had successfully forded the Rio Grande, Don Juan Onate proclaimed a day of rest. The colonists gathered in a cottonwood grove and built a shrine of branches. The Franciscans gave thanks and celebrated High Mass.Don Juan de Onate read the official act of possession asserting Spain’s claim to the new world. Soldiers fired their harquebuses and trumpets blared. The people feasted on fish, ducks and geese. Captain Farfan de los Godos and his men performed a play he’d written about the courage of the Franciscan missionaries. Everyone danced, laughed and whooped it up until the neighboring Indians called the police. Later that summer, the entrada made its way to the San Juan pueblo, where Don Juan de Onate founded the settlement of Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico. In 1610, Governor General Don Pedro de Peralta moved the capitol 25 miles south to the current site of Santa Fe, New Mexico.Who celebrated Thanksgiving first: the Puritans or the Mexicans? I’ll leave that to you to discuss over an extra helping of pie. Happy Thanksgiving, mountain people.Micaela Gilchrist’s novels are published by Simon & Schuster and by Scribner in North America and Europe and have been optioned for film by Paramount Studios. She is the recipient of the Colorado Book Award and the Willa Cather Women Writing the West Award. She lives in Summit County and can be reached at MicaelaMGilchrist@comcast.net.