Can I Get Spanish Citizenship if I Have Sephardic Ancestry?
A few years ago, the Spanish government announced that they would begin accepting citizenship applications from those who could establish that they were descended from 15th-century Sephardic Jews.
The application process is seriously daunting: it requires that applicants trace their ancestry back to a Sephardic Jewish ancestor who was exiled due to the Spanish Inquisition. (What if you’re descended from Jews who converted to Catholicism and remained in Spain, also known as conversos? The Spanish government has reportedly accepted some applications from converso descendants, but denied others. Basically, proceed at your own risk.)
The Spanish government set an application deadline of 1 October 2019. Depending on when you’re reading this, it might be too late to apply.
If it’s before 1 October 2019, keep reading. If you missed the deadline, skip to the heading at the bottom.
If you’re reading this before the deadline…
One of the toughest application requirements is to submit a report written by a qualified genealogist tracing your ancestry back to a Sephardic Jewish ancestor who was expelled from Spain. That’s where I come in: I’m a professional genealogist who knows how to write a report for Spanish citizenship.
Here in genealogy, we like to have a can-do attitude about most things. But when it comes to Sephardic/Spanish citizenship cases, we tend to be blunt:
Tracing anyone’s ancestry to the 1400s is hard, if not completely impossible for most people.
Folks who are Jewish (currently) may hit brick walls in Eastern European records. Those with Central American, South American, or Italian ancestry might be able to trace their ancestry back to Spain, but may struggle to prove that their ancestors were Jewish, particularly if they were conversos.
The best case for citizenship that I, personally, have worked on was one where the ancestor expelled from Spain was a rabbi. Rabbis and their descendants were well-documented, and the ancestor’s occupation eliminated any ambiguity about his religion. Case closed.
But let’s say your ancestors weren’t rabbis (as far as you know) and you are still interested in pursuing Spanish citizenship through your Sephardic ancestry. What options do you have?
When potential clients approach me about Sephardic/Spanish citizenship cases, I ask them four questions (that’s a Passover joke, but nevermind):
Are there any stories or traditions in your family about Jewish ancestry or customs?
Are there any surnames in your family that you suspect might be Jewish/Sephardic?
Have you ever taken a DNA test (e.g., through AncestryDNA, 23andMe, or another company) that showed any Jewish ancestry? (Ashkenazi, European Jewish, etc.)
Sephardic ancestry aside, have you traced your ancestry back to Spain on your own?
If the answer is “no” to three or four of those, I advise clients that I am not optimistic about the outcome, but that they can proceed at their own risk.
If the answer is “yes” to most of the above questions, it might be worth giving it a shot.
Oh, and because I get this question a lot:
“My last name is on a list of surnames that are Sephardic. Can I get Spanish citizenship?”
Having a surname on a list is a starting point. It gives the genealogist a line to trace, one that might turn out to be Sephardic, but is not a guarantee of results. No genealogist can guarantee results, and you should be highly skeptical of anyone who claims s/he/they can. (For more about how to hire a qualified professional genealogist, check out my blog posts, How to Hire a Professional Genealogist Part 1 and Part 2.)
If you’re reading this after the deadline…
Okay, so unless the Spanish government extends the deadline, it looks like you won’t be able to apply for Spanish citizenship based on your Sephardic heritage.
But there are still some cool things that you can do.
If your ancestors came from Central America or South America, you can probably trace your ancestry back pretty far, even if you can’t identify a Sephardic ancestor. Latin American church records are among my favorites to work with because they are usually packed with genealogical information and go back hundreds of years. (While I don’t advertise that I do Central American or Mexican genealogy, those are among my favorite regions to work with.)
Learning about your family history can be tremendously rewarding. A study by Emory University showed that, “Children who know stories about relatives who came before them show higher levels of emotional well-being[.]” We can see that borne out in our culture: folks feel more resilient when they feel grounded in their communities, or like they are a part of something bigger than themselves.
Even if family history isn’t super appealing to you, it might mean a lot to your older relatives—your parents or grandparents, who may have missed out on asking their ancestors for family stories. So even if the Spanish citizenship door has closed, learning about your family’s past might be a cool way to connect with your family today.
Finally, just as a human being, I think there is something empowering about reconstructing the histories of people who had to fundamentally change their identities (convert) or abandon their communities (flee) so that you could exist. It’s a way of honoring their sacrifice and connecting the dots from them, through history, down to you, and that’s pretty awesome.
If you’re still wondering about applying for Spanish citizenship or whether you can trace your Jewish or Latin American ancestry, feel free to reach out to me.
Or, if you’re Jewish and wondering what might be possible as far as research outcomes, check out my blog post, Jewish Genealogy: What is Possible?