Secret Jews and Telltale Genes in New Mexico

- January 9, 2012

“Scientific light shed on the Crypto Jews of the Southwest…”

In 1999, breast cancer killed Shonnie Medina in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Medina was a vivacious Hispanic woman – a Catholic who had become a Jehovah’s Witness. But a genetic test revealed that her cancer was caused by a mutation that has followed Jewish people for 2,500 years across continents, oceans and cultures.

On Sunday, Jan. 29, science writer Jeff Wheelwright traces that gene through a story that begins in Babylonian captivity, travels to medieval Spain and then to Mexico and North America, where it combines Native beliefs, Protestant fundamentalism and shifting debates about the meanings of race and the ethics of genetic research.

Through online services like Family Tree DNA, many New Mexicans have hunted for traces of Jewish roots in their families. Some have received evidence that they are descended from the biblical Aaron. But how reliable are the consumer tests?

At his talk on Jan. 29 at The New Mexico History Museum, Wheelwright will describe the latest scientific research on the Jewish component of the Hispanic population. (Members of Shonnie Medina's family contributed their DNA to this important study.)

Wheelwright will also be signing his new book The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA (W.W. Norton & Co., 2012), which shows how the unique culture and experiences of the Jewish people, starting with the founding of Hebrew tribes in the Middle East, contributed to the spread of the genetic mutation. It includes the terror of the Spanish Inquisition, which forced the expulsion of Jewish people from Spain and into new lives, where even their own descendants were sometimes unaware of their religious history.

Wheelwright, a graduate of Yale University and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, was awarded a J. S. Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009. He is a science writer and editor and has been published in Discover and Smithsonian magazines.

His lecture is free with admission to the museum and, as always, Sundays are free to New Mexico residents.