“Okay, you’re from Mexico, but where are you and your family really from? There’s no Jews in Mexico… ?”
It’s a question I’ve heard one too many times throughout my life, from both Mexican and American friends, as a Jew that lives in Tampico. When I tell someone that I’m Mexican and Jewish, their first reaction is usually one of surprise. I don’t totally blame them. Generally speaking, when people think about Jewish ethnicity and geography, their minds usually go to places in Europe, the Middle East and the United States as this is what has been generally portrayed in the media as the “typical” location of Jews in the world.
But Jews have been settled in Mexico, and Latin America in general, for a long time now. My answer to the “where are you really from” question has generally been to say my Jewish family is originally from Germany, they got here decades ago, and have been settled in Mexico since before World War II. But I recently realized that while I knew the general story of my family’s history as Mexican Jews, there were still a lot of gaps that needed to be filled in order for me to fully understand and then explain to others what being a Mexican Jew really means.
Upon doing some research I found out that the history of Jews in Latin America and Mexico is as old as the history of Catholics here and the arrival of Conquistadores, like Hernán Cortés, to the New World in the early 1500s; yes, we have been here for 500 years.
Back in the times of the Spanish Inquisition, Jews in Spain were forced to convert to Catholicism and were prosecuted if they didn’t “willingly” convert. While some of these forced converts, called conversos, did assimilate and fully embrace their new belief system, a lot of them kept practicing Judaism in secret. When news of the New World came around, many of these conversos saw the opportunity to escape constant scrutiny and prosecution in their homeland and decided to join the expedition in hopes of a peaceful new life.
Despite them having to live in relative secrecy for the sake of appearances, life in Nueva España (that’s what Mexico was called back then) proved peaceful for Jews. Some of them were even allowed to settle in what is now the state of Nuevo León, in the north of Mexico (this was mainly because the area was considered inhospitable and too hostile for True Catholics to settle in). Life was good for conversos, that is until the Spanish Inquisition followed them back to the new continent. Once again, they found themselves going into hiding. After Mexico declared their independence from Spain in 1821 and Catholicism was declared the country’s official religion, Jews were quick to secure positions in Mexican high society in hopes that their new social status would provide them with some religious freedom. Sadly, this wasn’t the case.
It wasn’t until decades later, in 1865, when Emperor Maximiliano I declared “religious tolerance” for non-Catholics, that Jews were able to continue their religious life in a slightly more public manner. This new religious tolerance led to a heavy migration of French, Hungarian and Beligian Jews to Mexico. Despite them not being prosecuted for their religion anymore, these new immigrants weren’t allowed to become Mexican citizens, and as such, weren’t under the protection of Mexican laws. By the 1880s, though, Benito Juárez came along with his separation of church and state, declaring religious freedom for all as a part of the newly reformed constitution and, finally allowing immigrant Jews to become Mexican Jews.
It was in the late 1910s when Mexico had its first officially recognized rabbi and established its first synagogue in the heart of the Centro Historico in Mexico City, even though at the time, the Jewish community was only made up of about 300 people. It’s worth noting that during this second diaspora of Jews to Mexico, Jews created their new identities by mixing the identities of their old home and their new home. Sephardic Jews had a relatively easy time doing this, as their knowledge and fluency in Ladino made it easy for them to understand and communicate using the Spanish language.
As tensions rose and Europe mourned the losses after World War I, many Jews fled to America (I mean, the continent, not just the United States), looking for a safer life. In the Early 1920s, Mexico saw a huge wave of new immigrants coming from the Middle East and Europe, most of which had left everything they owned behind. As a result of this, many of the incoming Jewish immigrants started working in roadside stands and door-to-door sales, which led to a surge of credit applications to grow their newly established businesses. Sadly, due to the general mistrust the Mexican society still had towards Jews, the credits were mostly denied, leaving immigrants to fend for themselves. As a result of this, a group of wealthy Ashkenazi Jews already established in Mexico created a loan company called Caja de Prestamos, and although the Mexican government shut it down citing tax evasion, it was later reopened under a new name.
In 1938, as a direct result of the growing tensions for European Jews, a special committee was created in Mexico — Comité Central Israelita de México (or the central Israelite committee of Mexico) — mainly as an organization that would aid any European Jew who wanted to seek refuge in Mexico. This organization still exists, and it’s main focus has shifted from providing refuge to Jews escaping other places to making sure there’s fair representation and participation of Mexican Jews in all aspects of life, as well as making sure that the community stays united and organized.
Nowadays, the Jewish communities in Mexico, located mainly in the largest cities in the country — Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey and Cancún — are thriving and have become an important part of daily life. Mexican Jews have become notable figures in art, science, journalism and politics, some of them even gaining worldwide recognition for their talents, like Emmanuel Lubezki, Salomón Chertorivski, and Gloria Koenigsberger. It’s not an uncommon thing for me to be watching TV or listening to the news and hear my mom say something like “Oh, I used to go to school with him,” or, “I used to be her camp counselor when she was younger!”
The history of Jews in Mexico is as old as the history of Mexico itself, so there truly is no way to separate one from the other. There is no one-and-only way of being a Mexican Jew, just like there’s no one-and-only way of being Jewish in general; our culture is a rich, complex mixture of Catholic and Jewish religious traditions, different indigenous festivities, and little bits and pieces we’ve taken from all around the world. We are the descendants of warriors, conquerors and survivors. We’ve been here from the start and we’re here to stay.