Judaism is the smallest of the monotheistic religions and also the most influential. We tell you about the life of the Jews in Mexico.
The identity of the Jews as a people has been strongly marked by the diaspora. After their expulsion from Palestine in AD 70, the Jews have found themselves in constant movement, which has allowed them to form new identities according to the region in which they settle.
This has resulted in several Jewish communities that coexist within the framework of a large community.
The case of Mexican Jews is a recent phenomenon, for which the articulation of their identity is crossed by cultural aspects imported from the lands of origin.
The language, ritual form, and country of origin have been decisive factors in the formation of Jewish communities in Mexico. Namely, historically we find three groups:
- The Sephardim, originally from the Mediterranean and whose main characteristics are Ladino (a mixture of Hebrew and Spanish).
- Jews from the Middle East who kept Arabic as their mother tongue.
- Ashkenazi or Yiddish-speaking European Jews.
The Jews of New Spain
Although the current communities come from recent migrations, the presence of the Jews in Mexico had its first episode during the Conquest.
However, the Jews who arrived from the conquerors had as their main antecedent the Catholic reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula and religious intolerance.
This meant that the first Jews in Mexico possessed the quality of new Christians; Appellation that referred to the Jews converted to Christianity after the harsh ethnic cleansing in Spain in 1492.
Due to religious persecution in Spain, which triggered the establishment of the Inquisition, thousands of Jews saw in conversion the possibility of social advancement and survival. However, the prosperity of the New Christians quickly became the object of envy and slander.
Although it is true that there were groups of Jews who genuinely adhered to Christianity, the truth is that crypto Judaism or the secret practice of Judaism was a majority trend among New Christians; This group was referred to in a pejorative way as Marranos.
After Columbus’s arrival in America, Jews who practiced their faith clandestinely saw the possibility of greater freedom in the New World.
This is the case of Hernando Alonzo, Hernán Cortés’ boat builder, who was sentenced to death during the Conquest after his status as a Jew was discovered.
Limiting the first migration
Despite overt persecution, Jewish migration to New Spain quickly became present. As a result, the Inquisition left its initial flexibility and began the persecutions against heretical Jews and indigenous people.
Another of the determining factors against the first Jewish migration in Mexico was the implementation of blood purity; a Spanish law that sought to limit the rise of New Christians to prominent positions.
In its New Spanish version, purity of blood prohibited the access of new Christians to the Indies. The objective was to prevent the infiltration of Jews, Muslims, or heretics in the institutions of New Spain. For this, a bureaucratic system was established that requested the verification of Christian ancestry.
Even with the restrictions, there were numerous cases of falsification of certificates of verification of the old Christian status, and the presence of the Jews in the Indies was already a reality from the first days of colonization.
However, purity of blood was a limitation for open migration, which made the presence of Jews in Mexico an almost null image during the centuries of the Viceroyalty. Migration to more liberal nations and loss of identity ended with the first intention of a Mexican Judaism.
Nuevo León, a State of Jewish origin
An exceptional case during the Conquest was the founding of Nuevo León at the hands of a Jew. Because the conquerors considered the northeastern region of Mexico as too hostile, little attention was paid to the expansion of the Colony in that area.
In 1573 Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva, a Portuguese slave owner and a new Christian undertook an expedition through present-day San Luis Potosí. This trip allowed him to meet other characters of Jewish origin.
Later he received a letter from the crown with the authorization to settle in the northeast region of Mexico. Carvajal designated the area as Nuevo Reino de León, currently Nuevo León; a place where new Christians were also allowed to arrive.
Already as ruler, Carvajal organized the migration of New Christians from Portugal to Nuevo León. However, years later he was removed from office and arrested on charges of practicing Jewish rituals and of little impetus in converting indigenous people.
Although Carvajal’s rehabilitation was near, he died in a jail in Mexico City in 1591. Later, members of his family were arrested again and sentenced to the stake. As a consequence, the Carvajal family changed their surname to Lumbroso, forming a rabbinic dynasty in Italy. The change of surnames was a constant among the Jews of New Spain.
It can be deduced that during the Carvajal government, Nuevo León was a discreet Jewish colony. After the persecution, many Jews were dissolving their traditions and identity, however, the footprint of Judaism is still present in the lives of many Mexican families.
The community in contemporary Mexico
The history of the current Jewish communities has as its main antecedent the independence of Mexico, with which the inquisition also ended. However, the promulgation of the Reform Laws and the decree of religious tolerance of Emperor Maximilian were the agents that made possible the open practice of Judaism in the country.
As a consequence, during the first years of the 20th century, Jewish migration to Mexico was promoted. By 1917 Mexico had a rabbi for the first time, even though the community did not exceed 300 individuals.
Little by little, Jews from Poland, Russia, Syria, France, and the Ottoman Empire were forming a new community in Mexico. However, in this second diaspora, the identity of the Jew was reconstructed from the identity of the countries of origin. With this, the first Jewish migrants also replicated their activities and social roles in modern Mexico.
Commerce, usury, and fertilizer sales were the first activities that Mexican Jews engaged in in Mexico. Although they came from different regions, the young and poor Jewish community knew how to strengthen ties under the banner of religious tradition.
Initially, the Jews settled in the La Merced neighborhood, where they began to prosper economically and where the Justo Sierra synagogue, the first in Mexico, was founded.
An important aspect that has allowed the prosperity of the Jews in different nations is the value of the community against the individual. A factor that has also been crucial for the success of the community in Mexico.
The knowledge of Ladino on the part of the Sephardic community, the strongest group during the beginning of the migration, allowed a rapid insertion into Mexican society.
A double identity: Mexican and Israeli
Little by little the Jewish community began to meet in new spaces that allowed it to create solid institutions. With this, the Jews initially migrated to the Roma and Condesa neighborhood, and more recently to Polanco and Cuajimalpa. In these places, they have been able to establish synagogues, museums, and schools; spaces in which they have formed an identity according to the neighborhood.
For the 2010 national census, the Jewish community was estimated at 67,467 individuals. Among the most outstanding aspects is that 90% of Jewish children and youth receive education in institutions of the community, which has also meant a new feature of the Mexican Jewish community.
Although the Jewish community has assimilated aspects of Mexican culture without difficulty, today we can speak of a double identity. Tragedies such as the Holocaust and melancholy for the biblical past have made the Jewish population maintain a strong loyalty to the Zionist project. However, the migration of Mexican Jews to Palestine has not had large numbers.
The ethical and political dilemma implied by the Israeli project has provoked different reactions from the Jewish community; Lawsuits that have rarely been seen on minority populations in Mexico. However, the Jewish community is made up of a wide range of religious interpretations ranging from orthodoxy to religious and political indifference. However, Israel’s invasion of Palestine remains a factor to consider with which the rest of the Mexican population evaluates Jews.
Today, Mexican Jews excel in many aspects of the intellectual, economic, and political life of Mexico. Loyalty and cultural appropriation have made the Mexican diaspora a strong community.