Though raised Catholic in America, Carvajal discovered that her ancestors might have been Spanish Jews forced to convert during the Inquisition. So she traveled to the Andalucian town of Arcos de la Frontera to try to dig up her roots, then investigated documents about a Carvajal family burned at the stake in 1500s Mexico. What she discovers, above all else, is that the past is a river running very, very deep.
The haunting account of an investigative journalist's efforts to uncover her family's hidden Sephardic Jewish past. In the aftermath of 9/11, Paris-based New York Times journalist Carvajal began to experience "a strange yearning for something indefinable--a sense of refuge, of belonging." She also wanted to "fill in the deep, black holes" of memory that persisted in her Catholic family's history. Eventually, the author moved to Arcos de la Frontera, a town located in the same Spanish province where her father's family had originated. From this vantage point, she began to explore the fascinating, fraught history of the Sephardic Jews, who had been forced to become Catholic converts or exiles. She learned about the double lives of many of the conversos and the secret, often ingenious ways they developed to pay tribute to their true heritage. Carvajal also began to understand the ways in which Judaism had infused such time-honored and apparently Catholic traditions as the saeta, a song performed during Holy Week to pay homage to life-sized images of Christ or the Virgin Mary. Her quest for knowledge about los sefarditas soon evolved alongside a parallel quest for information about her family's past. Dissatisfied with the vague responses she received from relatives about family history, she pursued DNA testing, which offered tantalizing hints rather than conclusive answers to her questions. Carvajal finally found the "defining clue that resolved all doubts." As was the case with so much else they and other Sephardic Jews had left behind, the answers, though encrypted, were in plain sight, awaiting eyes that could decipher the truth. A mesmerizing journey through time, across cultures and into one woman's rich personal history.
"Doreen Carvajal has undertaken an extrordinary journey, and the story she tells is both personal and universal."
- Anne Lamott
"[A] compelling mix of memoir and reporting."
- O, The Oprah Magazine
“Unforgettable…Carvajal immerses herself and her readers in the ringing of Arcos’ ancient bells, the stories of its town historian, or cronista, and, most of all, the performance of haunting religious songs known as ‘saetas’ that may have originated as Jewish laments.”
– Chicago Tribune
- Christian Science Monitor
“This book is an important addition to the record of Jewish history, not because it describes what history books already can tell us but because it evokes a personal sense of both loss and redemption growing out of that brutal history.”
– Kansas City Star
“Carvajal is a journalist who understands the nuance and beauty of travel writing. Combining this gift with this highly personal story, she creates a book that shimmers with enchantment, pulling the reader into her life with gentle tugs on the heartstrings. What she calls ‘hunting family ghosts’ will resonate with anyone who has ever felt out of place where they were and dreamed of finding another heritage just one layer beneath the one they had always accepted as the bedrock of their self-definition.”
- The Jewish Book Council
“A mesmerizing journey through time, across cultures and into one woman's rich personal history.”
- Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Carvajal’s powerful prose is strong enough to hold these divergent story lines in a cohesive and engaging narrative of self-discovery and historical investigation.”
- Publishers Weekly
“Such an intriguing topic, and Carvajal…certainly knows how to write.”
- Library Journal
“[Carvajal’s] exploration reveals the fascinating legacy of the Jewish conversos…Her experiences not only reflect a heartfelt attempt to recapture a lost identity but also serve as a launching point for a wider exploration of the repercussions of the Inquisition.”