Castrillio Matajudíos: Why Spain's quest to leave racism in the past could be decided by 56 villagers

A mayor's quest to change his village's name could help to alter attitudes in the country as a whole

At 4pm on Friday, it's eerily quiet in this tiny village. The blinds on the stone houses are drawn and there's not a person to be seen wandering the few streets that make up Castrillo Matajudíos.

It's a sharp contrast to the noisy, relentless chatter about the place in the outside world. Ever since the mayor announced his intention to hold a referendum on changing its name, the spotlight has been on this Spanish village near the northern city of Burgos. Hundreds of media outlets around the world have shared its story. Thousands have taken to social media to opine on the name change. And come Sunday evening, when journalists are expected to outnumber residents at the announcement of the referendum result, millions around the world will hear about the outcome.

For 400 years, this place has borne the name of Castrillo Matajudíos, or Fort Kill the Jews in English. Starting at 9am on Sunday, the village's 56 residents will have the chance to decide whether the time has come to change the name to Castrillo Mota de Judíos, or Hill of Jews. "We had no idea that this would be something that would gain worldwide attention," said Lorenzo Rodríguez Pérez, mayor of Castrillo Matajudíos.

Residents will walk to the sandstone town hall and cast their vote in the shadow of the village's coat of arms and flag, both of which prominently feature the Star of David, hinting at the complex relationship this village has had with the Jewish people during its 1,000-year existence.

It was a relationship, said the mayor, that rendered the current name nonsensical. "We can't carry a name that suggests we kill Jewish people when we're completely the opposite; this is a community that sprang from Jewish roots and its descendants are the descendants of Jewish people," he said.

No one knows exactly how a village of people with Jewish roots ended up having a name that suggests the opposite. The name Matajudíos first turned up in municipal documents in 1623, said archaeologist Ángel Palomino who, in preparation for the referendum, recently gave residents a presentation on the history of the name. Before that, the village was listed as Castrillo de Judíos, Fort of the Jews.

The settlement is thought to have been founded in 1035 by a group of Jews who were expelled from a nearby village. It soon became a thriving trading hub and home to more than 1,000 residents, thanks to its strategic location along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. The village probably remained predominantly Jewish until 1492, when Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand expelled the Jews from Spain.

With the threat of religious persecution hovering over what was then a prosperous Jewish town, the name was changed, an ideological decision meant to clearly mark the boundaries between the Jews who had left Spain and those who had converted to Christianity in order to stay. "They probably wanted to avoid the stigma that at the time came with the name Fort of the Jews," said Palomino.

Many villagers have their own theories about how the town's name came to be. The mayor believes the town used to be named Mota de Judíos. "In the 16th and 17th century, there was so much pressure on converted Jews and someone changed one letter around the 16th century and the name stuck." If the referendum was successful, he argued, the village would simply be returning to its original name.

The vote would be a decisive moment in the town's history, he said, as it would also serve as a barometer of the willingness of the villagers to confront their past. If the name-change is passed, he hopes to start probing the village's Jewish past, perhaps even searching for the remains of its synagogue and other evidence of Jewish people who once lived here.

Weary of their status as international media darlings for all the wrong reasons, residents were willing to talk about the vote but not one would give their name. "We're not racists. News of the name change has travelled around the world, all the way to Poland even, now everyone thinks we did something wrong," said one elderly man, shaking his head. He was firmly against what he described as sanitising history for the sake of political correctness. The outside world, he said, gesturing to the hills that surround the village, seemed bent on changing the villagers' relationship with their past. "It's a terrible idea. Just terrible. It's always been Castrillo Matajudíos and always will be for me."

Another resident rooted his opposition in demographics. This once-flourishing town was now a dying village, he said. "Ninety percent of the people here are over 80 years old. For what's left of the life of the village, why not let it keep its name? So many people here are proud of where they come from, why change it?" In a country where names such as killer of Moors (Matamoros)– a reference to the Muslims who for centuries occupied much of Spain – were common, he worried about the precedent that would be set by the name change. "What's next? Are we going to change every name in the country that might offend someone?"

Other villagers were more open to the idea. One pair of brothers in their 60s recalled their embarrassment at being asked to show their residency cards in Madrid during a trip to the capital for medical treatment. "People were asking us, that's where they kill Jews?" The eldest brother added: "It would probably be easier for everyone if the name was changed."

With just one day left before the vote, many residents were unsure if they were going to even bother to cast a ballot. "It feels like they've already decided," said one elderly woman as she carried her laundry into her house.

The change is part of an eight-year project led by the mayor to study the Jewish roots of the village. If residents voted against it on Sunday, said Rodríguez, he would have no choice but to resign. "It would only make sense to leave the job to someone who wants to continue to work under the name of Matajudíos."

The mayor said he had received thousands of emails and letters since announcing the referendum in April. "We got all sorts of reactions. Some people insulted us, others begged us to change."

The village also received a midnight visit from an extreme rightwing group, who plastered the dozen or so houses with signs and graffiti urging residents to respect its history and keep its name.

The referendum is set against a backdrop of a wider struggle in Spain to come to terms with its Jewish past and present. In February this year, the Spanish government announced it wanted to "correct a historical wrong" by offering nationality to the descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. But all is not rosy when it comes to Spaniards' relationship with the Jewish people; last week Jewish organisations in Spain asked prosecutors to investigate some 18,000 allegedly antisemitic tweets after Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv beat Real Madrid in a basketball game. Citing tweets that referred to gas chambers and praised Hitler, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League noted that "the sheer number and intensity of antisemitic hatred unleashed via Twitter in Spain is alarming and outrageous".

Mayor Rodríguez wants his village to become one that shows off its Jewish roots rather than continuing to hide behind a name. But first he has to get the residents to say yes. With just hours left before voting began, he had just one demand. "After all the worldwide attention – and all the people opining on social media – I'm just asking one thing," he said, his voice firm. "We want people to respect the residents' decision. Outsiders can have their opinions but at the end of the day these 56 people have the final say in how their village is named."


Ashifa Kassam

The GuardianTramp

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