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Virtual Jewish World:
Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia

by Francisco Roig & David Reichsfeld


Virtual Jewish World: Table of Contents | South America | Bolivia


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Santa Cruz de la Sierra is Bolivia’s economic hub and its most populated city; it is also one of Latin America’s fastest growing urban areas (EPWF 2007), with more than 70% of its population living above poverty level (INEB, Censo 2001). Its modern architecture and broad avenues make home to approximately 2 million people from very diverse backgrounds, who have built a very unique society in the heart of South America. This vibrant and ethnically diverse city was, only 50 years ago, an impoverished, isolated frontier town of approximately 40,000 inhabitants (INEB, Censo 1950) who carried, often unknowingly, the legacy of many of the city’s founders, who were of Jewish origin. This article intends to unveil some facts of this interesting legacy, and encourage further research on the subject.

Since the beginning of the 15th Century until the expulsion of professing Jews from Spain in 1492, Spanish Jews were persecuted, and most of them were forcibly or voluntarily converted to Catholicism. For these New Christians of Jewish origin, persecution did not stop after conversion. As many of them and their families started accumulating wealth and gaining influence in Spain’s Catholic society, the Inquisition began to question the truthfulness of their conversion and subjected them to unfair investigations, cruel torture and in many cases life in prison or even death. The New Christians were called conversos (Spanish for “convert”), or as a manner of insult Marranos (Spanish for “swine”), as they were often suspected of having converted only to avoid persecution and thus of secretly maintaining their Jewish faith.

During these testing times, thousands of conversos moved out of Spain to Portugal, Flanders (today Belgium), the Netherlands, North Africa, and some French, British and Italian ports. Others were able to bypass a number of discriminatory requirements such as those of “Limpieza de Sangre,” (“Purity of Blood”) and embarked into the ships going to the Spanish and Portuguese new colonies in the Americas. The most common way to bypass detection was to get on the boats as sailors, or to go to the New World as servants of an Old Christian, because lower posts such as these did not require proof of Purity of Blood. A few very influential conversos were able to bypass this requirement through their connections with the nobility. Such was the case of Pedro Arias Dávila, governor of Castilla del Oro and Nicaragua (today Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and part of Colombia) who belonged to the Arias Dávila, one of the most influential converso families.

These conversos ended up settling in the bourgeoning, most promising towns of the New World, in a quest for freedom and a better life. In Farewell España, Howard Sachar provides two illustrated maps showing the main destinations of Sephardic Jews during the 15th, 16th and 17th Centuries. One of these destinations was Santa Cruz de la Sierra in what today is Bolivia (Sachar, p. 387).

Santa Cruz de la Sierra was founded in 1561 by the Spanish conquistador Ñuflo de Chaves, who came from Buenos Aires by way of Asunción del Paraguay and crossed the Chaco plains to establish the northernmost Spanish settlement of the conquest campaign in the Río de la Plata region. Chaves named the city in honor of his hometown near Trujillo in Spain. Many conversos were among the pioneers who together with Ñuflo de Chaves crossed the dry pampas and shrub lands of El Chaco and moved 600 miles north of Asunción del Paraguay to Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Mangan, p. 99).

The small city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra was the most isolated outpost of the Spanish colonial frontier in South America. In its nearest surroundings there were no mines to exploit silver or gold, nor highly developed indigenous civilizations as in Peru or Mexico. Moreover, the fierce indigenous Guarani tribes and the neighboring Bandeirantes from São Paulo constantly attacked the small settlement. Nevertheless, the village strived, moving to three different locations further West until settling in its current location on the pampas, East of the Piraí river.

Many of the converso founders of Santa Cruz de la Sierra came from Spanish cities such as Toledo, Ávila, Béjar, Trujillo and Cádiz. These cities were known for having sizable Jewish communities and for hosting numerous mass conversions both before and after the establishment of the Inquisition. Most, if not all, of these converso settlers were well-educated, or at least literate, and used last names different from those of their ancestral families. Their new last names were, in many cases, the names of cities and towns in Spain and Portugal, regardless of whether they were or not their places of birth (Terceros Banzer, pp. 14-107).

Strikingly interesting is also the fact that several of the first settlers and explorers of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and its vicinities were actually born in Portugal and Flanders (mainly Antwerp), and a few others came from Italian, French and English ports (Terceros Banzer, pp. 14-107). Evidence of their converso origin comes from the fact that most of them had Spanish last names, as opposed to Flemish, Italian, French or English. This was a typical feature of Jews of Spanish origin who converted to Catholicism and escaped Spain to settle in the areas mentioned above, which during some periods were more tolerant to their religion and costumes (Cecil Roth, pp. 236-251).

In January of 1570, the Court of the Spanish Inquisition was established in Lima, and began the persecution of conversos suspected of being Judaizers (Gitlitz, p. 59). The attack was severe and deadly on the converso families that had gained wealth and social standing as businessmen in mining, trade, and manufacturing in the booming cities of the Viceroyalty of Peru, mainly Lima and Potosí. One of the most notable conversos to become a victim of the newly established Inquisition tribunal was Manuel Bautista Pérez, also known as El Gran Capitán, who during the early 17th Century was considered to be the wealthiest man in Lima. In 1639, the tribunal found him guilty of secretly practicing Judaism, seized all his possessions, and burnt him at the stake (Cohen, pp. XLVI-XLVII).

By late 16th century, conversos found continued discrimination in Lima, Potosi, and other cities of importance such as Charcas (today Sucre) and La Paz. As a result, they flocked to Santa Cruz de la Sierra because it was the city farthest away from the reach of the overzealous authorities (Mangan, p. 99). This was the second wave of conversos who settled in Santa Cruz de la Sierra and its growing frontier.

During this period, several settlements were established in the jurisdiction of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, most of them with this flow of families coming from the rich mining cities to the poorest and most isolated frontier. In 1575, San Lorenzo de la Frontera was founded a few miles West of Santa Cruz (the two towns eventually merged together). In 1612, the city of Vallegrande was founded on the route to Potosi with several families from Lima, La Paz, Potosí and Charcas. Many families of Jewish origin populated Vallegrande, while many others continued their way to Santa Cruz and its surrounding villages (Hubsch Neumann). From these three initial towns, several families moved further into the valleys and open plains of what today is the department of Santa Cruz, establishing towns that date from colonial times such as Samaipata, Chilón, Pampa Grande, Postrervalle, Pucará, Cotoca, Portachuelo, Paurito, Comarapa, Terevinto, and others. And as their families grew larger they went on to populate most of the departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and parts of Tarija.

Furthermore, it is interesting to notice some traditions that remained throughout the centuries in Santa Cruz and are associated with those of conversos who during colonial times secretly practiced the Jewish religion. For example, many traditional families (especially in the rural areas) still light candles on Friday evenings. In the first half of the 20th Century, travelers reported that families kept seven branched candlesticks as family heirlooms, and some vestiges of kosher food practices were preserved simply as family traditions (Mangan, p. 99).

In Santa Cruz, the traditional way to kill an animal and prepare it for cooking is to slit his throat and jugular vein and to bleed him out. Most meat products are salted, completely drained of blood, and stored as “charque” (dry salted meat). The traditional cuisine of Santa Cruz is notorious for the absence of pork dishes, so abundant in the rest of Bolivia and Latin America. Most local cuisine dishes combine vegetables and grains with either milk or meat products, but never with both of them together. Thus, if rice is to be prepared with milk products as the traditional “Arroz con Queso”, it includes milk, butter and cheese, but not meat. In turn, if the rice is meat based, as the traditional “Majaú”, it includes no milk products.

Historically it has been assumed that many old families in Santa Cruz are of Jewish descent (Montero Hoyos, pp. 77-78), and even today several traditional Catholic families of Santa Cruz and Vallegrande acknowledge their Jewish heritage with pride (Hubsch Neumann). Some archeological evidence of this heritage can be found in isolated towns with a historic association to converso families, such as Pucará, where we can still admire a number of house street doors, dating from colonial times, with stars of David carved on them (Naturalia, Winter 2008, 4-5). Or, as in the case of Postrervalle, the villagers walk every Saturday to a nearby cave to light candles to the Virgin Mary in a perfectly syncretic practice that blends the Jewish tradition of some of their ancestors and the rituals of their long-standing Catholic faith (Rueda Peña). It is also worth noting that Our Lady of Mercy (September 24th) and Easter, two major religious festivities profusely celebrated in Santa Cruz and its towns since colonial times, often coincide, respectively, with Yom Kippur and Passover.

However, it would be erroneous to say that all early inhabitants of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and its surrounding towns were of Jewish origin. In colonial times, this region, known as Bolivia’s melting pot, had also Spaniards of Old Christian families, Guarani, Chiquitano and Chane natives, as well as others, for whom being sent to these remote lands was a form of punishment or a way to keep them away from the main Spanish colonial cities. Nevertheless, the Jewish heritage brought by the converso pioneers of Santa Cruz is a major founding component that has set deep roots in the local society.

Santa Cruz de la Sierra has a history of inclusion and admixture of peoples from different cultures, religions and ethnic backgrounds. Its birth as a land of outcasts, adventurers and warring natives, too far away to be under the close scrutiny of the Spanish authorities, produced a society of rather independent and entrepreneurial individuals who adapted to their environment and built a distinct society. The conversos and their descendants are an important component of the multiethnic mosaic that constitutes Santa Cruz, and their legacy is still vivid today.


Sources: Francisco Roig and David Reichsfeld, HaLapid Fall 2009. Reprinted with permission.

Francisco Roig was raised in Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Bolivia), holds a BA in International Affairs with a concentration in International Economics from George Washington University, and an MBA with a concentration in Finance from American University. He has been work for the last ten years in multilateral development banks, and has a special interest in the history of his homeland.

David Reichsfeld was rasied in Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Bolivia), holds a BA in Economics from the University of Maryland and an MA in International Finance and Economics from Brandeis University and currently works in a multilateral institution.

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