In 1985 Charles and Kathleen LeMieux were standing outside the Monasterio de la Trinidad in Valencia, Spain. Ringing the buzzer, they explained to the mother superior that they were making a film about Christopher Columbus and that they were looking for the tomb of Luis de Santangel, finance minister to King Ferdinand. It was a loan from Santangel–not, as myth has it, the sale of Queen Isabella’s jewels–that financed Columbus’s initial voyage to the New World. The couple had found that Santangel’s will had contained a request to be buried at the monastery. The nun invited them in to look around. Years of negotiations with authorities in Valencia and Madrid eventually resulted in an excavation and verification of Santangel’s remains, which are now marked by a plaque.

As Kathleen LeMieux tells it, Columbus’s voyage would not have happened when it did had it not been for Santangel, who was of Jewish descent, his forebears having converted around 1415. Columbus had been following the court for seven years as it moved around the country, pursuing a war with the Moors that had depleted the royal treasury. He had given up and departed for France when Santangel offered to finance the voyage.

Though the film is still in production, the LeMieuxs are coordinating an international symposium on Santangel and the Jews and converted Jews–known as conversos–of Spain, as well as the Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal beginning in 1492.

The story of Spain’s Jews is more complicated than is generally known. While it’s true that Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or leave Spain, the expulsion took different forms in different regions. “In Castile,” says Yitchak Kerem of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, “there was a forced transfer to Portugal. In Aragon they were more free to leave.” Kerem also found evidence that like many conversos Santangel’s family retained their Jewish identity and customs. “Some had secret prayer rooms in their homes. Luis’s mother was reportedly seen acquiring kosher meat.” Santangel escaped the Inquisition because of his royal connections, but some relatives were tortured and killed. Kerem has traced Santangel’s descendants across three continents. Some settled in Jerusalem centuries later, where they became wine makers; other relations were murdered by the Nazis in Greece.

Rabbi Michael Azose of the Sephardic Congregation of Evanston says that 15th-century rabbinic sources estimated the total number of conversos at the time of the expulsion at 900,000, a number far larger than most current estimates. Azose thinks that various chief rabbis and conversos knew “that it was inevitable that there was going to be an expulsion.” Those that supported Columbus “were using that as another contingency plan,” hoping the explorer would discover new lands to which they could emigrate.

Spanish Jews did settle in Mexico after 1492, but the Inquisition reached there too. Many fled to what is now New Mexico, “on the periphery” of the Spanish empire, where they lived publicly as Christians, says Seth Kunin, an anthropologist at the University of Nottingham who has studied their descendants. “In some families, when a newly baptized child was brought home, they would wash the baptism off; sometimes with water, sometimes with perfume.” He found these “crypto-Jews” created their own rituals and practices, “taking bits from the Spanish background, bits from New Mexico. Many families have lit candles on Friday night for generations–not in public, but in a back room of the house. Some have a blessing in Spanish similar to the blessings their Spanish ancestors would have said in Hebrew; one family recites the rosary when they light the candles.”

“Santangel ’98” will be held Sunday through Wednesday at Dominican University, 7900 W. Division in River Forest. Registration is $75 for each full day or $40 for a half day. A related art exhibit will be on display in Lewis Hall through August 28. Paco Diez, a leading performer of Castilian and Sephardic music, will present a concert Wednesday at 8 in Lund Auditorium; admission is $10. For more information, call 708-524-6820. –Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kathleen and Charles LeMieux.