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
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
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
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
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
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
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.