We Might All Be Eligible for a Spanish Citizenship


Update: A spokesperson for the Spanish government has said that the government did not compile a list of 5,000 surnames that could make people eligible for citizenship. It says the list, which was widely distributed online is false. However, the government still says that it plans to give Spanish citizenship to those who can prove their ancestors were Spanish Jews

If you’re of Jewish descent and always wanted to get a European Union passport to freely travel and work in Europe, this might be your chance.

Spain has announced it plans to provide a fast track to citizenship to anyone who can prove to be a descendant of Sephardi Jews, the community that lived in the Iberian peninsula and were unjustly expelled from that country in 1492.

Millions of people stand to benefit from the law, as this community numbered some 200,000 people back in the 15th century, and its descendants are now spread across dozens of countries around the world.

And of course, if you become a Spanish citizen, you can work anywhere in the European Union without having to get a visa, so the proposal has already generated lots of interest in Latin America after a list of Sephardi surnames were released in local media outlets.

The list, which was initially attribute to the Spanish government, but then rejected by a government spokesperson, includes 5,000 surnames that are carried by millions of Latin Americans and Latinos in the U.S., including very common last names like Garcia, Rodriguez, Castillo, Jimenez and Gonzalez (and are all present in our Fusion newsroom by the way!).

But just having one of these 5,000 last names does not automatically get you that crimson-red Spanish passport.

Here are some more details on Spain’s plans to grant citizenship to Jewish descendants:

1) Who is eligible?

The type of people who will be eligible for citizenship is still up for debate, as the proposal, which was formulated by Spain’s executive branch, will be refined by Spain’s parliament in the following weeks.

According to a document published in late February by Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, people seeking Spanish citizenship under this law must demonstrate that they belong to the Sephardic Jewish community by presenting a certificate issued by the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities (a religious organization) or by presenting a certificate issued by their local rabbi.

This interpretation of the law basically limits citizenship to people who still practice Judaism.

However, BBC Mundo reports that the bill might actually grant citizenship to anyone who can prove that their ancestors were Spanish Jews, even if they no longer practice the religion.

During the Spanish Inquisition, thousands of Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism, which they passed on to their descendants in the U.S. and Latin America. If the second interpretation of the law prevails, anyone with a Sephardi last name would be eligible for Spanish citizenship as long as they can prove that their ancestors were Spanish Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity.

2) How the process will work:

After demonstrating Jewish origins, applicants will be able to keep their current passport. In other words, they will be granted dual nationality and will not be required to live in Spain to keep their Spanish citizenship.

3) Who were Spain’s Jews?

Spain’s Jewish community numbered some 200,000 people in the 15th century, and dates back to the days when Spain was part of the Roman Empire. They were a prosperous community by most accounts, which included merchants, translators, civil servants and financiers.

After their expulsion from Spain in 1492, Spain’s Jews fled to Italy, Northern Africa and the Ottoman Empire, where they came to be known as the Sephardim. The term comes from sefarad, the Hebrew name for Spain. Some Spanish Jews converted to Catholicism and moved to Spain’s colonies in the Americas, where they were at a safer distance from the Inquisition, and could start a new life for themselves in the New World.

The Sephardim in the Iberian peninsula and the diaspora also developed their own language called Ladino, rooted in ancient Castillian. It sounds a lot like modern Spanish, but is also influenced by Turkish.

4) Who’s been left out of this initiative?

Critics have pointed out that Spain has done nothing to compensate the descendants of thousands of Muslims (or “Moors”), who were also expelled from Spain in the late 15th century. Muslims kings from Morocco invaded Spain in the 8th century, where they reigned over cities like Cordoba and Seville for hundred of years. Granada, Spain’s last Muslim city, was taken over by Catholic forces in the fall of 1492.

5) Why is Spain doing this now?

For many Sephardi Jews, reclaiming their Spanish nationality is a matter of pride, and a way to redeem past injustices and atrocities. For several years now, Jewish groups have been pressuring the Spanish government to make it easier for their community members to regain their Spanish nationality.

Spain is also losing immigrants from Latin America due to its current economic crisis, and for the past two years its overall population has actually declined, so this new law could help to bring some fresh, talented immigrants to the economically-struggling country.

According to Spanish newspaper El Pais, the government of Spain is also trying to make amends with Israel, after it voted for Palestinian membership in the UN last year.

Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.

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