By Isaac Wolf
Conversos: Mexico's Lost Jews
When Hernando Cortes conquered the Aztecs in 1521, he was accompanied by several Conversos, Jews forcibly converted to Christianity during the Inquisition of 1492. Conversos, or Anusim, immigrated en masse to Nueva Espagna (present day Mexico) and some estimate that by the middle of the 16th century, there were more of these crypto-Jews in Mexico City than Spanish Catholics.
In spite of the Inquisition, the Conversos attempted to lead Jewish lives by circumcising their children and keeping kosher. From 1528 on, Conversos were punished for their practices by being burned at the stake. In 1571, Spain solidified its harsh policy toward Jews by opening an Inquisition office in Mexico City, which accelerated the persecution of the crypto-Jews. Over the course of the colonial period, about 1500 were convicted of being Judaizers, meaning they observed the Laws of Moses or followed Jewish practices.
The Conversos assimilated in the 19th century, and descendants of the Conversos are often devout Catholic families that light candles on Friday nights, keep meat and dairy separate, and close their businesses on Saturdays.
Today, Mexico is home to many Conversos, with sizable populations in Vera Cruz and Puebla.
Many prominent Mexicans claim they are of Jewish descent, referencing their Conversos roots. Besides Presidents Porfirio Diaz, Francisco Madero and Jose Lopez Portillo, renowned artist Diego Rivera publically announced his Jewish roots: "My Jewishness is the dominant element in my life," Rivera wrote in 1935. "From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work."
To keep from assimilation, the Conversos did not intermarry, and considered themselves superior to their Christian neighbors. "We are not really Mexican," explains Schulamite Halevy. "We are descendants of Spanish nobility."
In 1994, the Mexican Jewish group Kulanu ( Hebrew for "all of us"), began investigating the status of Conversos. Over the past seven years, Kulanu has unsuccessfully attempted to convince the mainstream Mexican Jewish community to accept the Conversos as Jews.
Mexico's organized Jewish community, which numbers about 50,000, has emphatically rejected the Kulanu's efforts not only because Orthodox Judaism traditionally does not proselytize, but also because the community fears a backlash of anti-Semitism.
Virtually all of Mexico's Jews came to their current homeland between the late 1800's and 1939, fleeing persecution in Europe.
Because of the Catholic church's heavy influence in Mexico, the nation had fewer than 30 Jewish families as late as the mid-19th century. The few Jews who moved to Mexico in the early 19th century were German. Mexican emperor Maximilian imported many Jews from Belgium, France, Austria and Alsatia in the mid-19th century. In 1862, more than one hundred of these Jews met in Mexico City to discuss erecting a synagogue, but the talks did not materialize for more than 20 years.
In 1867, Mexican leader Benito Juarez overthrew Maximilian and secularized Mexico, seizing church property and banishing the Papal Nuncio. This upheaval paved the way for three waves of mass Jewish immigration, the first of which was sparked in 1882 by the death of the Russian Tzar. The exodus was accelerated in 1884 when Mexican President Profirio Diaz invited a dozen Jewish bankers from Europe to move to Mexico and help build its economy. Mexico established its first Jewish congregation in 1885.
Jewish philanthropists considered Mexican Jewry a worthy recipient of aid and, in 1891, the Baron de Hirsch Fund, along with the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) planned large-scale Jewish agricultural settlements in Mexico, much like the kibbutzim the philanthropists were developing in Israel. However, these plans never materialized.
The second wave of Jewish immigration peaked between 1911 and 1913 as a result of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The Empire's breakup ended an era of relative tolerance, and the Ladino speaking Sephardic Jews began fleeing from their homes in present-day Turkey at the turn of the century. The dark complexion of the Sephardic Jews, as well Ladino, their language with Spanish roots, eased their integration into Mexican society. Sephardic Jews were mainly street peddlers whose stands and carts, over several generations, often developed into shops and businesses.
The third, and final, wave of Jewish immigration came from Russia after the first World War. With an already established Jewish community, Mexico received Jews fleeing from Eastern Europe. But, in the first few years after the war, most of these Jews used Mexico as a stepping-stone to America. However, a more restrictive 1924 American immigration policy stopped the flow of European Jews, who were stuck, and had no choice but to begin a new life in Mexico.
The third wave of Jews, mainly Askenazi, led to the development of the first Ashkenazi organization, Niddehei Israel. Started in 1922 as a Chevra Kaddisha to help bury the dead, it developed into a Kehilla, or full-scale community. The Zionist Federation, which united various Zionist groups within Mexico's Jewish community, was also a product of the third wave.
The third wave also caused a rift between Mexico's Ashekenazi and Sephardi Jews. As the Ashkenazi population grew in the early 20th century, it used more Yiddish, alienating the Ladino speaking Sephardic Jews. In 1925, the Sephardi founded their own Zionist organization, B'nai Kedem, and founded their own cultural organiztions. The rift between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews in Mexico is still an issue today.
When they first arrived, many Jews, embittered by the anti-Semitism in Europe, were distrustful of Mexico, a nation 97 percent Catholic. But Mexico, with a few exceptions, has treated its Jews exceptionally well, and is considered a haven for them.
One of the few anti-Semitic incidents occurred in 1930 when a two year economic slump in the Languilla caused storekeepers to begin an anti-Semitic movement. The incident ended when the U.S. Department of State intervened, convincing the Mexican government to end the movement.
Since the Holocaust, there have been few cases of anti-Semitism in Mexico. The cases that do exist stem from the Israel-Arab conflict, as well as Mexico's right to free speech, which has attracted neo-Nazis and allows them to express their views. Even so, anti-Semitism is not a serious threat to Mexican Jewry. The most serious issues facing the Jewish population are intermarriage and defection to America.
Mexico enacted a stiff immigration policy in 1937, limiting entry from nations heavily populated by Jews such as Poland and Rumania to 100 per year. Anti-Semitism peaked during World War II, but was mitigated by Mexico's entrance into the war with the Allies in 1942.
During the 1930's, the Jewish community battled anti-Semitism by forming the Federacion de Sociedades Judias, as well as the still active Comite de Central Israelita de Mexico.
Mexico's post-war economic prosperity translated into religious tolerance for the Jews, who enjoy the same rights as other Mexican citizens. Jews hold, and have held, high positions in Mexican government as well as in the business sector, where there are well-respected Jewish artists, journalists and businessmen. Most Mexican Jews are considered middle to upper-middle class. Even with the recent econamic troubles facing Mexico and the Jewish community, this country has attracted Jews from other countries in Latin America. In June 2003, President Vicente Fox passed a law that forbids discrimination, including anti-Semitism, putting into the law what has been practiced for years.
Today, Mexico boasts a strong, active Jewish community of between 40,00-50,000. About 37,500 of those live in Mexico city. In Mexico City alone there are 23 synagogues, several Kosher restaurants and at least 12 Jewish schools, where 80 percent of the Jewish youth receive their education. Small Jewish communities can also be found in Guadalajara , Monterrey, Tijuana, Cancun and San Miguel. Throught all of Mexico, 95 percent of Jewish families belong to a synagogue. Eighty to ninety percent of Jewish children in Mexico City attend a Jewish school. Only about 1 out of every 10 Mexican Jews intermarries. This is way below the fifty precent rate of the United States and one of the lowest rates in Latin America. The world's largest city also contains the Tuvia Maizel Museum, dedicated to the history of Mexican Jewry and to the Holocaust.
Sources :Jewish Communities of the World, Mexico
Jews in Mexico, a Struggle for Survival
JTA Global New Service of the Jewish People
"Mexico." Encyclopedia Judaica. CD-ROM 1996.
"Mexico." The Jewish Travelers' Resource Guide. Feldheim Publishers. 2001.
Tigay, Alan. The Jewish Traveler. Jason Aronson, Inc. Northvale, NJ, 1994.