The Thief: On the Rediscovery of Luis de Carvajal the Younger’s Memoir

By Ilan StavansJune 20, 2019

The Thief: On the Rediscovery of Luis de Carvajal the Younger’s Memoir
The following is the first chapter of The Return of Carvajal: A Mystery, due out in October from Pennsylvania State University Press.


THE SUDDEN REEMERGENCE of a misplaced item is often a stroke of luck. We lose a set of keys, a watch, a phone, or a photograph, and then, without fanfare, it shows up again. That’s because nothing really disappears; it is just hidden from sight. Losing things is part of being alive. And finding them, too.

However, when it comes to a long-lost book of historical relevance, whose value accrues as time goes by, its reappearance is, in truth, less serendipitous than it seems. It abruptly gets rediscovered because there is a new context for it. Those who had lost it, as well as those who had frantically pursued it, are long gone, and with them the reasons for the disappearance. But the moment that fresh context sets in, there are new reasons to find it. And then, out of the blue, it pops up.

What actually happened is that people were waiting for it without knowing. And so it arrives, unheralded yet ready to test common assumptions.

It’s what happened with the Carvajal booklet. Strictly speaking, its disappearance wasn’t shocking. To this day, the Archivo General de la Nación is far from a tightly controlled environment. Mexican libraries in general aren’t known for their security or efficiency and the Archivo, Mexico’s National Archive, conducts business in a similar, relaxed manner. Manuscripts, books, magazines, newspapers, and other materials are often misplaced or go missing. Staff members are not always well trained. They belong to a labor union notorious for its allergy to any type of personnel improvement. All of which explains how walking out with a manuscript from its facilities is not difficult to imagine, but is rather straightforward: you request a book, you sit in the rare room for a while pretending to read it, you put it in your handbag, and you leave the premises. You will be as unnoticed as a fly on the wall.

In 1932, when the Carvajal booklet — a relatively small item, roughly four inches by three inches, about the size of an adult hand — vanished from the Archivo, the security was even more lax, if that is possible.

A decade earlier, Mexico had gone through a bloody civil war, La Revolución Mexicana, that left an estimated one million people dead. It was Mexico's first such armed struggle of the 20th century. It coincided with World War I in Europe. The Bolshevik upheaval was still in the future. Starting in 1910, its aftermath had lingered well into the late 1920s, when a single ruling party, PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), took power and didn’t give it up for more than 70 years.

The country was in the midst of reconstruction. An artifact like this little booklet would have been far from people’s attention. The collective drive was about modernizing Mexico. Mestizaje, the mix of European and indigenous traits, was turned into an ideology. Particularly in contrast with the United States, which at the time was a young, forward-looking empire setting new global rules, the emerging nation was intent on emphasizing its Aztec past, which it sought to portray in homogeneous ways. In other words, the plight of a Crypto-Jew coming to terms with his elapsed Mosaic faith was by no means a priority.

The Archivo also contained some 1,550 volumes with procesos and other proceedings of the Inquisition. None was important for users either. But for anyone with even a small knowledge of Jewish history in the New World, the volume in question — a 180-page manuscript handwritten by Crypto-Jew targeted by the Holy Office of the Inquisition for unlawful proselytizing activities — was not only distinct but of enormous value. His name was Luis de Carvajal el Mozo, meaning the Younger, to distinguish him from his famous uncle, Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva, a.k.a. el Viejo, the Elder, who was governor of the northern Mexican region of Nuevo León and had a reputation for dealing diplomatically with the indigenous population of the area.

Our Carvajal had other appellations, too. He went around using the Hebrew name Joseph Lumbroso, after the biblical character of Joseph. Carvajal wrote it just before the tragic end of his life, when, at age 30, he was burned at the stake, on December 8, 1596, in what is arguably the biggest auto-da-fé ever in New Spain, as Mexico was known at the time. It might also be the most ostentatious auto-da-fé in all of Latin America. The volume in question tells his story of rediscovering his Jewishness after having been raised a Catholic in Spain. And of how he came to recognize himself as a messiah for the Crypto-Jews like him who lived far away from the center in the Iberian Peninsula where the Spanish Inquisition exercised its might.

By nature, an auto-da-fé is a theatrical performance in the form of a judicial court. Although these events attracted substantial attention, the truth is that very few took place altogether in the labored history of the Spanish Inquisition. Dressed in a variety of sanbenitos, an atoning garment, and having already been tortured to confess and provide names of other Judaizantes (Spanish for Judaizers), victims were paraded in front of large audiences until they reached the Plaza Mayor, today’s Plaza del Quemadero, the Burning Plaza, in downtown Mexico City. That ominous December day, from 9:30 a.m. until 2:00 p.m., Carvajal had been put on the rack and denounced by 121 people, including some of his relatives. During the actual immolation, he had stood next to his mother Leonor Carvajal and one of his sisters, Isabel Carvajal, victims like him also accused by the colonial branch of the Inquisition.

What exactly they said to one another is not known. We have a few pictorial representations of the auto-da-fé. Judging by them, bystanders must have been transfixed as the fire emboldened the fleeting bodies. The Catholic Church wanted to create a scene that would serve as a warning to the population. Carvajal was a sinner. Aberrant people like him would burn in hell. The Inquisition was simply making that punishment tangible on this earth.

Did Carvajal actually repent in front of his inquisitors? He first did and then he retreated. It doesn’t matter. Toward the end of his life, he undoubtedly wanted his death to be a sacrifice.

The booklet was intended for his siblings. It included an autobiographical meditation that makes the bulk of it. (That section is at times referred to as Carvajal’s “Last Will and Testament.”) In the back side of it, it also had prayers and scriptural selections, including a transcription of the 10 Commandments as well as of Maimonides’s 13 Principles of Faith, which are included in every Jewish prayer book and are recited as a liturgical hymn at the conclusion of a Friday or holiday Jewish service. The recitation is known as Yigdal. It represents the fundamental pillars of Judaism, to which Crypto-Jews in New Mexico didn’t have easy access. Carvajal acknowledges that no matter how much he would be tortured, his role in this life was to become a role model. Suffering was a way to justify his mission. It gave him gravitas.

In Mexico and Peru, the two centers in which the Holy Office of the Inquisition in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Americas, the total number of cases is considerably smaller in historical terms than its counterpart in Spain, where it was founded in 1478. The institution’s tentacles in these grounds appear to be less far-reaching. Beginning in 1492, the so-called Nuevo Mundo was seen among conversos, which is how New Christians in the Iberian Peninsula and elsewhere were sometimes known, as a safe haven of sorts. Not that persecution was altogether absent. It is simply that it was done further away from the zealous headquarters. In the Kingdom of Castile, for instance, the Inquisition had headquarters in Seville, Toledo, Valladolid, and Granada, among other places. In contrast, the Inquisition in Mexico was established in 1570 and lasted until 1820, a decade after the nation became independent. Historians believe that about 325 people were prosecuted by the Inquisition in Mexico for being Jewish and approximately 30 were executed as Judaizantes. Carvajal is the most famous among them.

As it became independent and its institutions began to flourish, Mexico sought to safeguard its past in institutions devoted to various aspects of daily life. The Carvajal booklet was part of the inquisitorial procesos that ended up at the Archivo. It was the natural place for them. The Archivo also holds other natural treasures: signed documents dating back to the movement for independence from Spain in 1801; correspondence between political leaders of the 19th century; court proceedings; various drafts of the nation’s constitution and all sorts of amendments to it; and so on.

Before the Carvajal booklet disappeared from the Archivo, we know for sure that a transcription was made. Various scholars, such as Seymour B. Liebman, author of three important resources on Mexico’s colonial period — The Enlightened (1967), which is about Carvajal; The Jews in New Spain (1970); and New World Jewry, 1493-1825: Requiem for the Forgotten (1982) — say they used it in their research. It is also known that those transcriptions were the basis on which a couple of English translations were subsequently based.

Carvajal’s memoir was probably written between 1591 and 1592, after Carvajal was arrested the first of two times by the Inquisition. His crime: “unlawful activities,” that is, behavior that inspired others in Mexico City and other parts of the country to return to Judaism. What’s most striking about the narrative is that it is written in the third person. That is, Carvajal looks at himself from a distance as a character. The memoir portrays the way he discovered his heritage and used it as a coalescing force for the adrift souls of Crypto-Jews. At one point, he talks of going as an adult with an acquaintance to the banks of the Pánuco River in order to circumcise himself. The ceremony is seen as a seal of covenant: Carvajal was born in the wilderness because his family was forced to renounce its Judaism; through the circumcision, he is back among the tribe.

When I read the story for the first time in my 20s, I remember being mesmerized. The fact that the Carvajal family had kept its faith a secret for almost a century seemed to me astounding. In the early 1980s, religion for Mexican Jews was of little interest. We were culturally Jewish, which means our sensibility was part of a long chain of generations. You got your Jewishness through language, through readings and movies and music. The rituals and the act of believing in God seemed secondary. Many of my school friends didn’t seem to care too much that they were Jewish. It was a mechanical act.

Carvajal, in contrast, was convinced that faith was his salvation. He wasn’t going to allow the environment to dictate what he believed in. In fact, he was ready to persuade other secret Jews that it was time to return to their ancient practices. I admired that conviction. There was something heroic in it. Not surprisingly, over the centuries scholars have looked at him with admiration. In Los primeros mexicanos: La vida criolla en el siglo XVI (The First Mexicans: Creole Life in the Sixteenth Century, 1962), Fernando Benítez, among the most distinguished Mexican historians, described him as “the most […] exciting character in New Spain.”

According to David M. Szewczyk of The Philadelphia Rare Books & Manuscripts Company and an expert in ancient books of the Americas, the Carvajal booklet is “the earliest surviving personal narrative by a New World Jew […] and the earliest surviving worship manuscript and account of coming to the New World.” The first news we have of the theft itself appears in Alfonso Toro’s two-volume The Carvajal Family (1944), a full-fledged biography not only of Luis de Carvajal but of his entire family: his uncle, his mother, his sister, and other relatives. For Toro, the Carvajal family was fascinating as a group, not only as a gathering of individuals. Although he did a lot of historical research, he wasn’t a historian per se but an employee of the Archivo. It would be more accurate to describe him as a bureaucrat. The Carvajal Family is a difficult read. It is full of racist opinions about mestizos and with strong antisemitic views. He had done groundwork almost two decades before.

It was when Toro was starting his research that the Carvajal booklet left the Archivo. He published an edited volume that was part of a series released under the institution’s imprimatur. It was called Los judíos en la Nueva España (The Jews of New Spain). A section of that volume deals with Carvajal. Five years later, another volume called Alumbrado (Enlightened, 1937), by Pablo Martinez del Río, featured Carvajal’s entire process. Toro didn’t get credit in it. In the annals of Crypto-Jewish scholarship, this might be due to carelessness. Yet Toro appears to have had a reputation as resentful and mean-spirited. In any case, the slap-in-the-face promoted him to pursue an even larger project where his name could appear prominently. That project, which ended up taking him almost a decade, was his magnum opus: the 700-plus-page portrait of the Carvajal clan.

It isn’t a balanced book. Toro’s knowledge of Hebrew was nonexistent. His tale is incoherent in parts, he invents information, and he occasionally allows his antisemitic views to become part of the narrative. Anyway, in the introduction he talks of a rival in the study of Carvajal who apparently walked away from the premises with Carvajal’s oeuvre, his memoir and correspondence. The way the argument is made, it looks as if Toro is taking about a thief. But the reader gets the feeling Toro is jealous about another academic, perhaps better trained than he is, with whose efforts he is competing.

That rival was Jacob Nachbin. Born in 1896, he is a mysterious character in this story. He was a Yiddish-speaking shtetl orphan from Poland who taught at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, and at the University of New Mexico in Las Vegas. By all accounts Jacob Nachbin — he also went by the alias Jacques Nachbin — was interested in Sephardic civilization. I have come across various Yiddish publications he authored, including Der Letster fun di groyse Zakutos (The Last of the Great Zakutos, 1929), about the last in the dynasty of descendants of Abraham ben Samuel Zacuto, the 15th-century mathematician who served as astronomer in the court of Portugal’s King João II.

Almost a century had gone by, and Nachbin’s whereabouts are difficult to trace. There are a few references to him as a historian of early Jewish life in Brazil. Curiously, he appears to be loosely connected with another major personality in Jewish Latin American letters: Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, whose extraordinary work is regularly compared to that of Virginia Woolf. The connection is rather indirect. Lispector’s biographer is Benjamin Moser. Moser’s grandmother was Nachbin’s doctoral advisee in Las Vegas. She eventually married him in 1928. In Moser’s biography of Lispector, he includes a footnote that features this information. Nothing more about it is said.

We know that at some point Nachbin became riveted by Carvajal. He traveled to Mexico City to do research at the Archivo. The exact nature of his project is unknown. It was while he was studying the memoir, according to Toro, that Nachbin walked away with the memoir and several other items penned by Carvajal. Toro called the authorities, and Nachbin was arrested. Toro says that Nachbin promised to return the items by mail. But the memoir and a couple of devotional transcriptions vanished into thin air.

Every single one of the participants in the affair is dead. Time has receded. There are no other written accounts of what happened. This doesn’t mean that Toro’s version needs to be taken at face value. There is an alternative hypothesis to the robbery: namely, that Toro himself was the thief. In this scenario, in was the future author of The Carvajal Family, who by all accounts appears to have been a jealous type, who blamed Nachbin in order to stop his rival from continuing his research. That would allow him, Toro, to go solo in pursuit of Carvajal’s story.

Either way, the precious booklet, a memoir written in artfully crafted letters by Carvajal, went missing from the Archivo in 1932. As news spread, it became an object of intense obsession. Theories abounded about the whereabouts of the Carvajal item: that it was lost in a fire; that it had been returned the Archivo, via Mexican mail, which in itself is a form of purgatory, and that an uninformed staffer had fatefully placed it in the wrong box; that it laid hidden somewhere in Recife, Brazil, where Nachbin had taken it in a rush to escape the authorities; and that the booklet was in the hands of an unsuspected owner in the United Kingdom, who acquired it with no knowledge of its historical relevance and had it in an attic accumulating dust.

Although he always claimed he was innocent, Nachbin was imprisoned in Mexico; later he would be extradited, along with his wife, to the United States. The scandal was covered by the Mexican press as well as by Yiddish newspapers in Buenos Aires, at the time the center of Yiddish intellectual culture. Those reports were read throughout the Yiddish-speaking world in Latin America, including in Recife, the sea-front capital in Brazil’s northwestern state of Pernambuco. In Recife, another of Nachbin’s wives, Léa Drechter, an Austrian Jew whom he had abandoned together with their child, found out about the robbery and also that he was now married to someone else. Nachbin had left her and went to Chicago, where he had reinvented himself as an academic.

Intriguingly, Nachbin’s child turned out to be Leopoldo Nachbin, who ended up becoming Brazil most renowned mathematician. He was a childhood friend of Lispector and appears in a chronicle called “As Grandes Punições” (“The Great Punishments”) she wrote in 1967 for Jornal do Brasil. In 1948, Leopold Nachbin went to study under Laurent Schwartz at the University of Chicago, the same city where his father Jacob Nachbin had taught in more than a decade earlier. Leopoldo Nachbin is internationally known for Nachbin’s Theorem, a linchpin in complex analysis.

Be that as it may, the disappearance of the Carvajal booklet inaugurated a decades-long pursuit that involved impostors, polygamists, and pseudo-messiahs, of dueling scholars making sure their version of events were the ones engraved in the annals of history, and of wealthy philanthropists who were eager to make sure old Jewish books still speak to a present defined by growing antisemitic tides. At one point, the booklet at the center of the hunt was described as “a Maltese Falcon,” after the 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammett that has at its center an elusive item generating intense curiosity.


Ilan Stavans is a Mexican-American author and translator, the publisher of Restless Books, and Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.

LARB Contributor

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of the NEPR podcast In Contrast. He has written Quixote: The Novel and the World (2015), Oy, Caramba!: An Anthology of Jewish Stories from Latin America (2016), Borges, the Jew (2017), and The Wall (2018).  He has recently written The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (Pittsburgh), and his book-long poem “The Wall” (also Pittsburgh) won the 2019 Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!