Hello, Claudia! Thank you for appearing on Let Them Read Books!
I'm so happy that you decided to include The Duel for Consuelo in your fantastic blog.
What inspired you to write this story?
The Duel for Consuelo is about the many conflicts a woman faces. The setting, in 1711, focuses the conflicts on religion and love, but they are not limited to 1711. A woman today has similar demands placed on her. But the specific conflict between following her family's old religion, at the risk of torture and death, or embracing the "modern" world and living with that day's realities can really be showcased in the time of the Inquisition.
I grew up in Mexico City, and am the descendant of Sephardic Jews who fled Spain in the late 1400s, so this story grew in my heart. Even though my ancestors didn't come to the New World—in fact they arrived in America only a few years before I was born—they too faced the terrible threats that their faith and blood exposed them to.
In Mexico, the beautiful Catholic churches and the deeply spiritual practices were as alluring as they were prevalent. I could easily understand how confusing it would be to Consuelo, who only knew Catholicism, to embrace the Judaic traditions that could ultimately destroy her family.
But The Duel for Consuelo isn't only about faith. Family is a major theme, as her father tries, within the limits of his own anger and ambition, to protect her mother, and his bottomless love for the woman he married. Consuelo must marry too, and her choice between the man she loves, but who has rejected her, and the man who has proposed, who would be horrified to know of her lineage, is a weighty conflict for her to resolve. And her loyalty, both to her mother, who is dying, and her father, whose actions have added to her worries, is tested at every turn.
Can you tell us a bit about the clash of religions that drives your story during this time in Mexico?
As practically everyone knows, the Jews were exiled from Spain in 1492, at the time of the Muslim expulsion. Persecution had gone on for centuries, of course, but Jews, Christians and Muslims had lived in an uneasy peace until the expulsion edicts finally put an end to co-existence.
But not all Jews left the only homes they had ever known. They had lived in Spain for four hundred years, so for them it was as much their country as the New World can be to any of us. Contradictory edicts made it impossible to leave, mandatory to leave, requiring conversion, questioning the sincerity of the conversion, always with the drumbeat of confiscating the Jews' wealth. So not only were Jews required to leave or convert, they often were prevented from exercising either choice.
Conversos (those who converted to Christianity) and their descendants were fiercely persecuted. Any hint of Judaizing, or secretly practicing their old religion, was ruthlessly ferreted out by the Inquisition, which led Conversos to the practice of haciendo sábado, or "doing the Sabbath." This involved ostentatiously working on Saturday so the neighbors could see them, eating pork in public, and putting on other displays of Christianity. Nonetheless, many continued their Jewish practices in secret.
If they were "lucky" they eventually got out. Some went to the New World, including Mexico and Peru. Even there, the Inquisition had full power.
In the early 1600s, Mexico was something of a haven for the secret Jews, or Crypto-Jews at first. With so much novelty there was less time to spend ferreting out Jews, and more emphasis on political alignment.
All that changed in 1642. The Portuguese were at war with Spain, and Portuguese Crypto-Jews were suspected of conspiracy. Hundreds were persecuted in Mexico, all estates were confiscated and a few were burned at the stake.
One of the ways that Crypto-Jews were "caught" was through denunciation by family servants. Clues to Judaizing included reports of special dishes being prepared on Friday before sunset, to be kept warm on banked coals through Saturday, or preparation of meats involving draining all of the blood from the meat before cooking. Even cleaning the house on Friday, or bathing by women on Friday before sunset, all could lead to a denunciation. The meticulous records kept by the Inquisition are a fertile source for recipes and housekeeping customs for Crypto-Jews of the era.
Many Jews had actually converted to Christianity to survive, and by the late 1600s their descendants knew nothing of their old religion. But some remembered a bit. Some Jews only knew one blessing, many knew no Hebrew at all. There were no synagogues or rabbis to teach them. Knowledge was passed down in the family, sort of in a telephone game, and with each generation the practices became more idiosyncratic, further and further removed from their origins. Tortillas and chocolate replaced matzo and wine during Passover. Burial practices, such as adding a pillow of dirt to the coffin, replaced a burial in virgin soil. These were examples both of adaptation to the New World and a loss of understanding of the actual rituals and traditions.
Sixty years later, the Crypto-Jews had really faded away in Mexico. The Duel for Consuelo picks up the thread at this point, with a woman who knows only the Sabbath blessing for the candles, and says it with such a ferocious Mexican accent that she is spared by the Inquisition. Welcome to 1711!
Are your characters based on real people?
While I was writing, my own mother was dying from Alzheimer's Disease, and my father was struggling with the terrible loss of the only woman he has ever loved. His pain and love, and the awful descent of a brilliant and courageous woman into oblivion, were very present in my own mind as I wrote the story. But I wrote it three years before my mother passed away, and so much of it was prescient.
The "safe house" where Susanna lives was based on real safe houses run by Conversos in Mexico that sheltered newly arrived or persecuted Conversos.
What kind of research did you do for this novel? Did you learn anything that surprised you?
Wow, did I ever! I learned that Conversos used tortillas instead of matzos during passover, that they had huge networks of protection and patronage for one another, and most excitingly, that the women were often the keepers of knowledge, passing down traditions from mother to daughter, and were frequently literate, even though in those days it was not typical for women to be able to read or write.
Researching this book was so exciting it was hardest to know when to stop. Even now, I can't stop looking things up!
The three major texts I used were:
Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto-Jews. David M. Gitlitz, University of New Mexico Press, 1996, 2002.
To the End of the Earth: A history of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico. Stanley M Hordes, Columbia University Press, 2005.
A Taste of Honey. David M. Gitliz and Linda Kay Davidson, St. Martins Griffin, 2000.
What are you working on now?
Ah, what a great time to answer this question! I have just completed the first chapter of my next book, which centers around Marcela, Susanna's daughter. She's a firecracker, this one! Outspoken, sharp, and perhaps a bit conniving, Marcela leads a very different life from her mother's, and from Consuelo's. Consuelo, by the way, goes on to have a huge family…I can say no more!
Thanks so much, Claudia!
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History, love, and faith combine in a gripping novel set in early 1700’s Mexico. In this second passionate and thrilling story of the Castillo family, the daughter of a secret Jew is caught between love and the burdens of a despised and threatened religion. The Enlightenment is making slow in-roads, but Consuelo’s world is still under the dark cloud of the Inquisition. Forced to choose between protecting her ailing mother and the love of dashing Juan Carlos Castillo, Consuelo’s personal dilemma reflects the conflicts of history as they unfold in 1711 Mexico.
A rich, romantic story illuminating the timeless complexities of family, faith, and love.
The Duel for Consuelo is on a blog tour!
About the Author:
Claudia Long is a highly caffeinated, terminally optimistic married lady living in Northern California. She writes about early 1700’s Mexico and modern day and roaring 20′s California. Claudia practices law as a mediator for employment disputes and business collapses, has two formerly rambunctious–now grown kids, and owns four dogs and a cat. Her first mainstream novel was Josefina’s Sin, published by Simon & Schuster in 2011. Her second one, The Harlot’s Pen, was published with Devine Destinies in February 2014. Claudia grew up in Mexico City and New York, and she now lives in California.