December 26, 2007, - 1:38 pm

Breast Cancer Study: Many Hispanic Women Have Jewish Ancestry

By Debbie Schlussel

A just-released JAMA (Journal of American Medical Association) study reveals a high incidence of a genetic mutation–the breast cancer gene, BRCA1–in Hispanic-American women, similar to the high incidence of that gene in Ashkenazic* Jewish American women. In my view–and the study concludes the same–this indicates a high incidence of Jewish heritage among Hispanic-American women:

The higher carrier prevalence in Hispanics may reflect the presence of unrecognized Jewish ancestry in this population.

And it’s backed up by history.

When I was in college, a topic that fascinated both myself and my late dad was the Hispanic “Secret Jews” of North America. I wrote my senior year thesis on it.


Because of the Spanish Inquisition, a number of Spanish Jews who came to South America, Cuba, and southwest America practiced outwardly as Catholics and secretly as Jews, even in North America. They were known as “Crypto-Jews,” meaning “Secret Jews.” (Inquisition-era Jews who converted to Catholicism to save their lives were called “Marranos” and “Conversos.”)

Many Crypto-Jews practiced Judaism secretly all along, and others did so once the Inquisition was exported to South America, such as with the Mexican Inquisition. It became part of their heritage, and today, there are many American Hispanics who have kept this tradition, including in the barrios of South Central Los Angeles (the subject of a 1995 CNN report)–sometimes lighting a Chanukah Menorah in their basement or eating flatbreads and crackers on Passover.

Former New Mexico State Historian Dr. Stanley M. Hordes has written extensively on this, including the excellent book, “To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico.” Hordes, who received his Ph.D. in Colonial Mexican History from Tulane University, did his doctoral dissertation on the crypto-Jewish community of Mexico in the seventeenth century. Other great books on the topic:

* “The Marrano Legacy: A Contemporary Crypto-Jewish Priest Reveals Secrets of His Double Life

* “A History of the Jews in New Mexico

* “Remnants of Crypto-Jews Among Hispanic Americans

* “Hidden Heritage: The Legacy of the Crypto-Jews

* “Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto-Jews

* “The Mezuzah in the Madonna’s Foot: Marranos and Other Secret Jews–A Woman Discovers Her Spiritual Heritage

Hordes heads the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, which promotes the research, study, and scholarship of the Jewish heritage of many Hispanics in America. (Since this topic greatly interested me and my dad, we have a great deal of literature on this. It was first reported on in the ’80s by National Public Radio.)

And there are many Hispanic Americans–to whom this tradition has been lost–but who unknowingly have Jewish ancestors. “Doogie Howser” (the ABC TV comedy from the ’80s about a teen medical prodigy) had an episode based on a true story, in which two Louisiana citizens that planned to marry tested positive for the Tay-Sachs gene, a condition specific to Jews. It turned out they had Jewish heritage of which they were unaware.

The JAMA BRCA1 gene study found:

In this population-based series of women with breast cancer diagnosed at age younger than 65 years, estimated prevalence of pathogenic BRCA1 mutations was highest in Ashkenazi Jewish patients (8.3%) followed by Hispanics (3.5%), non-Hispanic whites (2.2%), African Americans (1.3%), and Asian Americans (0.5%). . . .

Among African American, Asian American, and Hispanic patients in the Northern California Breast Cancer Family Registry, the prevalence of BRCA1 mutation carriers was highest in Hispanics and lowest in Asian Americans. The higher carrier prevalence in Hispanics may reflect the presence of unrecognized Jewish ancestry in this population.

It’s a small world after all. Much smaller than you realized.

* There are two regional categories of Jews, and they have different traditions and religious practices. Ashkenazic Jews are Jews who come from Eastern and Western Europe. (I’m an Ashkenazi.) “Ashkenaz” means Germany. Sephardic Jews is a term used to describe Jews from Spain, Asia, Africa, India, and the Arab world. “Spharad” means Spain, but the term really refers to Oriental and Near East Jews.

This leads me to ask why the BRCA1 gene mutation is not prevalent among Sephardic Jews, as they were the Jews who mostly populated Spain, not Ashkenazic Jews.

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2 Responses

Hi Debbie, Thank you for posting this information! I’m a mexican-american and I’ve been researching our family heritage to find out if we are truly from jewish ancestry like my last name indicates. I then find this article that takes me a step closer to my conclusion. My grandmother died from breast cancer and my mother is now fighting breast cancer. Thanks again.

Nadine Salinas on June 13, 2010 at 12:41 am

This is incredibly fascinating to me as i have recently discovered Ashkenazi in my family. Mind blown!

nancy on August 31, 2012 at 11:41 pm

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