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Jews in Mexico, a struggle for survival: Part One

Shep Lenchek

The survival of Judaism in Mexico is a tale of tenacity and tolerance. The story begins in Spain with the "Conversos", Jews who had converted to Christianity, always under duress.

It starts in 600 AD, the Visigoth king, Reccard, forcibly baptized 90,000 of his Jewish subjects and expelled those who would not accept Christianity. Some of the Conversos continued to practice their religion secretly for almost a century, then openly during the 800 years of Moorish rule. The number of Conversos grew during the 15th century when, in 1479, Ferdinand and Isabella launched a massive campaign to forcibly convert the Jewish population in Spain to Christianity.

With the birth of the Spanish Inquisition some three years later, the "Conversos" were now accused of secretly practicing Judaism. In 1492, all practicing Jews were expelled from Spain.

By 1530 the Royal Viceroy of Nueva Espagna, Antonio de Mendoza, had established law and order in the New World (some historians feel Mendoza himself came from a "Crypto-Jewish family. Mendoza was a very common name among Spanish Jews).

The "Conversos" were under increasing pressure from the Inquisition. Looking for a place in which they could retain their Spanish identity, they focused on Mexico. In 1531 large numbers of them left Spain and Portugal for the New World.

The inquisition had not yet come to Nueva Espagna and the new arrivals soon married into prominent Mexican families, became priests and bishops and enjoyed a 40 year period during which time, many began to practice Judaism openly. Doctors, lawyers. notaries-public, tailors, teachers and silversmiths, they brought much needed skills to the new colony and were well received. They settled in Vera Cruz, Campeche, Oaxaca, Guadalajara, Morelia and Mexico City.

By 1571 the Inquisition had arrived in the New World and again both practicing Jews and Conversos were under religious threat.

In 1579 the King of Portugal granted land for a colony north of Nueva Espagna, to a Portuguese nobleman, Luis de Carvajal. Named the "Kingdom of Nueva Leon," both Conversos and practicing Jews, banned in the Spanish colony, were welcome. But by 1641 the colony was gone. However, some of the original settlers had moved on to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, then still part of Mexico, bringing with them seeds of Judaism that still survive.

One such family, named Villarreal, who freely acknowledge remote Jewish ancestors, has a web-site on the Internet ( http://members.aol.com/daniel5822/villarrealindex.html) that gives us an interesting look into the entire situation from the point of view of the Conversos. Located in South Texas, but with branches of the family still in Mexico, they openly acknowledge their Jewish heritage and are attempting to contact others with similar backgrounds, but make it clear that they will remain Catholics. They arrived as Conquistadors in 1519, most certainly 'New Christians,' since no practicing Jew could have served with Cortes. In 1573 they received a document from the King of Spain granting them the same status as "Old Christians. Yet in 1590, they left "Nueva Espagna" and settled in "The Kingdom of Nueva Leon."

Exactly why the ancestors of the Villarreal family left Nueva Espagna after approximately 71 years, during which they and their descendents enjoyed privileged status as original Conquistadors, is a question the living members of the family cannot answer. Perhaps it substantiates claims that the Inquisition often persecuted people who had sincerely accepted Catholicism, simply to strip them of wealth and power. This family was truly converted to Catholicism and remains so, but must have felt a threat to their safety from the Inquisition. Unlike others who fled, once safe in the "Kingdom of Nueva Leon," they did not return to Judaism. It appears that Jewish ancestry could cause problems for even devout Catholics.

Some 10 years later, all vestiges of open Judaism had disappeared. But what remained was perhaps as many as 20,000 Mexicans who had Jewish ancestors, almost five percent of the European population of that time.

It was not until 1865, during the reign of the ill fated Emperor, Maximilian, that an edict of religious tolerance was issued. Until then, only Catholics could be citizens. Some Jews who had arrived in the guise of "Conversos" and escaped the Inquisition, may have continued to practice Judaism secretly, but it was highly dangerous. As late as 1867 there were only 20 Jewish families in Mexico City and perhaps a dozen more in the rest of the country. It was not until late 1882, after the assassination of the Russian Tsar, Alexander II, that significant numbers of practicing Jews entered the country. In 1867 Benito Juarez, a Zapotepec Indian and a liberal, dealt what amounted to a deathblow to the Catholic Church. He banished the Papal Nuncio, seized church property, secularized hospitals run by the church and banned priests and nuns from wearing clerical garb in public. Religious processions were prohibited.

Now, Protestants were allowed to establish themselves in Mexico. With complete separation of Church and State now being enforced, and with the Catholic Church fighting for its life, it had neither the strength nor the inclination to concern itself with Jewish immigration. Basically, the only problems faced by the new arrivals were economic. The Jews who escaped from Russia to Mexico are the ancestors of possibly half of the present Jewish population.

In 1884 the Mexican government invited more than one dozen Jewish bankers to open branch banks in the country. With some sources of credit now available, Jews settled all over the country. Many of them became peddlers With merchandise strapped on a burro or mule, they brought housewares, clothing and novelties - heretofore not available locally - to the remote villages scattered throughout the Republic. Judaism has always recognized that the obligation to provide for the family comes before most other rules of Jewish law. Thus those who ventured into the hinterland were able to violate the rules of Kashruth, a code that sets up dietary rules, with a clear conscience, while remaining observant Jews.

By the time the next wave of Jews started to arrive in 1911 and 1913 and again in 1920-21, most of the former peddlers now owned stores. These newcomers came from what had been the Ottoman Empire and had lived there since being expelled from Spain. The Empire was breaking up, and centuries of tolerance were now over. As Sephardim, they re-established the style of worship that had existed in Spain before 1492. Language was no problem, since they spoke Ladino, a dialect of Spanish. Lacking capital, many of them started "sidewalk" businesses, displaying things on blankets spread on the sidewalk. Others became peddlers, replacing their more affluent co-religionists, who had settled in the larger cities of the Republic. Coming from a primitive part of the world, they had no difficulty in adapting to conditions in small-town Mexico. Some settled in places where Jews were totally unknown. But Mexicans and Jews adopted to each other well. In both groups, the family was the predominant social group and those who chose to settle in such places had experience in surviving in a non-Jewish environment. They struggled against living conditions, not hostility or persecution.

The next and last significant number of Jews to seek refuge in Mexico also came from Russia after WW I. Now a well-established Jewish community was there to receive them. The majority of those who chose Mexico rather than the United States, had either relatives or friends already settled in the country. Additionally in 1921 and again in 1924, new laws, passed in the U.S., restricted immigration, making Mexico even more attractive. Easing the way for this new influx, in 1917, President Venustiano Carranza started to revive the anti-clerical provisions of the Constitution of 1857 that had destroyed the position of the Catholic Church. Never popular, these laws had been disregarded and the Church had re-established itself. Now, Carranza, seeking to bring a form of Socialism to the country, revived them, and once again the church was in no position to protest the arrival of non-Catholics into the country. Additionally, they viewed the spread of Protestantism as a much greater threat, than that of Judaism.

From 1920 to 1930 Jews in Mexico enjoyed a period of stability during which they prospered.

The only recorded incidents of official anti-Semitism came in the 1930's. Suffering from a depression, Mexican labor unions pressured the government to enact restrictions on "Chinese and Jewish" immigration. Later in the same decade, neo-Nazi right wingers, financed from Berlin, staged anti-Jewish demonstrations in Mexico City. But not a single act of violence against Jews or Jewish property can be documented. It was just sound and fury without action, and garnered little support. This is not to say that some individual Mexicans do not harbor anti-Semitic feelings.

Despite strenuous efforts by the Jewish community to rescue Jews from the Nazis, they had little success. The Mexican government, now headed by Lazaro Cardenas, was more than willing to look the other way and did so when some 200 Jews from Cuba entered the country illegally

By and large, since the end of WW II, Mexicans Jews have encountered no more and possibly less anti-Jewish bias than other Jews throughout the Western World.

The Jewish experience must be divided into two parts - those whose families experienced persecution in Mexico, and those who have not. Conversos, who arrived between 1753 and 1821, when Mexico gained Independence from Spain and the Inquisition in Mexico ended, had been persecuted. By 1651, most of the "Crypto-Jews," had been wiped out. Their only legacy is those Mexican families, devout Catholics, who practice some Jewish customs, perhaps without realizing it. Those who suffered were those who had been promised a haven in the 'Kingdom of Nueva Leon." Some of them became Catholics. Their descendents know of their Jewish heritage, but remain Christians.

The Inquisition was never as virulent in Mexico as it was in Spain, where more than 4,000 people were burned at the stake. Many more were imprisoned for the "Jewish Heresy." Massacres were instigated that took thousands of lives. By contrast, between 1571 when the Inquisition was established in Mexico and 1821 when it ended, only about 110 people were actually burned at the stake. Perhaps the same number died under torture or in prison, either awaiting trial or after sentencing. There were no popular outcries against Jews. The Inquisition was imposed from Spain. It cannot be blamed on Mexicans.

Those who arrived between 1821 and 1865 were not allowed to become Mexican citizens. While this discouraged Jewish immigration, those who did enter the country, faced basically the same problems as those who were citizens. Political and economic chaos, not bias, was the problem.

Between 1882 and the 1930's those entering the country lived in harmony with their fellow Mexicans and since WWII there have been no real threats to Judaism. The miniscule number of Jews, just a small fraction of the total population, makes them invisible to the average Mexican. They no longer interest the Catholic Church. Passion plays still depict the Jews as being responsible for the crucifixion but when the play is over, it seems to have had no visible impact on day to day relationships between Jews and their neighbors.

The combination of tenacity on the part of Jews, and tolerance by Mexicans, both official and as individuals, has permitted Judaism to put down deep roots. Mexican Jews still struggle today against inter-marriage and migration to the United States and Israel. They have taken positive steps to handle these problems and, barring a radical change in the attitude of Mexicans or their government, are here to stay. We will examine these steps and the situation faced by Mexican Jews today in Part II.

Published or Updated on: February 1, 2000 by Shep Lenchek © 2000
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