Jews in Mexico, a struggle for survival: Part Three – Survivors

articles History & People

Shep Lenchek

The very word has connotations of persecution, repression, hardship and escape. It also describes people with courage, stamina, the ability to adapt and almost always a moral strength and conviction that sets them apart from those who succumbed. Perhaps 90 % of all Mexican Jews are the descendants of ancestors who came to the New World seeking a haven from discrimination and persecution and searching for religious freedom. They are survivors of survivors.

Perhaps the Spanish they speak daily, makes Mexican Jews more aware than Jews elsewhere of the horrors of the Inquisition and the expulsion from Spain. Add to this a thorough Jewish education and it is easy to understand some latent fears that still shape their contemporary thinking. Well versed in the Old Testament, perhaps the words in Exodus, chapter one, verse eight, ” Then came there a King who knew not Joseph” are ingrained in their minds. Although the biblical Joseph was a favorite of a Pharaoh, it all changed overnight, and the Israelites who lived and prospered in Egypt for centuries suddenly were unwelcome. Could it happen here?

Jews who arrived in Nueva Espagna in 1531 in the guise of ” Conversos” were the first educated European laymen to arrive in the new colony in significant numbers. How many came is unknown, but there is some evidence that they were a substantial portion of the scant Spanish-speaking population of that time. There are still letters in Spain that claim that by the mid-sixteenth century there were more secret Jews than Catholics in Mexico City. Written by various Inquisitors, they are probably exaggerations designed to obtain more funding. But, there may be some merit to these claims. During the colonial period, migration of Spanish Catholics to Nueva Espagna was a mere trickle The new colony was simply a source for gold, silver, precious stones and other exotic raw materials like tobacco. Colonization was not on the agenda.

Many Spanish Jews, almost all ” Conversos‘ who had first found refuge in Portugal, fled to Nueva Espagna. Indeed at one point “Portuguese” was an euphemism for “Jew.” These “Crypto-Jews,” fleeing for their lives, had the skills that led Mexico to become a productive country, able to throw off the Spanish yoke and survive. More importantly, they brought with them a concept of political freedom that has often motivated Jews to seek to overthrow tyranny.

In Biblical times they fought the Romans. Jews spearheaded the Russian Revolution. The aforementioned biblical story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt to seek a homeland, is one of the earliest recordings of a search for a national identity and freedom. Interestingly, the only Jewish holiday celebrated by the “Converso” Villarreal Family mentioned previously is Passover, which celebrates this flight for freedom. They merge it with Easter and eat special foods to mark the day. Perhaps, that ancient search for freedom is the most meaningful part of their Jewish heritage.

A genealogical study claims that Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the father of Mexican Independence, had a “Converso” background. The same sources say that Bartolome De Las Casas, a Bishop who fought the colonial government, seeking to free slaves in Nueva Espagna, also had Jewish ancestors. The study is based on the Archivo General de la Nacion de Mexico and the Ramo de la Inquisition, both historical records. Two other publications, “The Inquisitors and the Jews in the New World,” by Seymour B. Liebman, Univ. of Miami Press, 1974, and “Los Judeo Conversos en Espagne y America” by Antonio Dominguez, Madrid 1971, support these claims. Both these men left an indelible mark on the emerging society. Even if their families were sincere converts, it is at least plausible that the revolutionary ideas of both of them, stem from a Jewish background. Assuming these claims of Jewish ancestry to be true, even as they struggled to survive, Jews who settled in Mexico apparently made an impact on their new homeland out of all proportion to the scant numbers who arrived.

What irony if the crowning achievement of the Inquisition, the expulsion of all Jews, first from Spain and then from Portugal ultimately led to the Spanish loss of Nueva Espagna.

As other waves of Jewish immigrants entered the country, they brought capital and business acumen to what was still largely an agrarian nation. They were the nucleus of a middle class. In 1884 President Porfirio Diaz invited a number of Jewish bankers into the country. Until their arrival, banks were non-existent. They financed Mexico’s entry into the 20th century.

Most Mexican Jews are well rooted in the society and the younger members of the group are beginning to take part in politics, something the older generations avoided. There is evidence that if Jews do choose to enter Mexican organizations and politics, they have every chance of success. Jennifer Rose Esq., a longtime resident of Morelia, was kind enough to put me in contact with a Website that deals with the Jews of Tijuana. One current story is about the election of David Saul Guakil, a Jew, to the Tijuana City Council. He had previously served as president of the Tijuana Chamber of Commerce. Quoting Sr. Guakil, “Although some questioned how a young man like me could advance so quickly in the ranks of the PRI, not once did anyone comment adversely on the fact that I am Jewish.” The same article, mentions a former president of the Chamber of Commerce, Marcos Levy, also a Jew. Thus it is obvious that in Tijuana, a city of more than 2,000,000 people with a Jewish population of approximately 2,000, Mexicans will judge a man by his abilities, not his religion.

Attitudes are changing as the generation that lived through the brief 1930’s outbreak of anti-Semitism in Mexico, brought on first by a depression and then by Nazi sympathizers, passes away. Jews seem more willing to enter the mainstream of Mexican life.

Ing. Alberto Varon M., the honorary Israeli Consul in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, confirms this. He points out that Jews serve in high positions in the Federal Government. They are prominent members of the Chambers of Commerce in Monterey and Guadalajara as well as Tijuana. Mexico and Israel have just concluded a new trade pact.

Increased contact between Mexican and Israeli businessmen bodes well for Jewish Mexicans.

Today, most Mexican Jews can be classified as “upper middle class.” Many are professionals, even more are in business. They do not dominate the Mexican industrial complex nor its banking system, despite having founded it, All the original banks were nationalized. Thus the charge that “Jewish bankers” control the economy of a country, a ploy used by anti-semites to stir up anger against Jews, cannot be used here.

There is a “café society” in Mexico City that has always welcomed Jews, mostly from the arts, fashion industries and entertainment world. A Jew, Jacobo Zabludovsky, has been called “Mexico’s Walter Cronkite.” Frida Kahlo, flamboyant artist, lover of Leon Trotsky, wife of Diego Rivera, was a pillar of Mexico’s “smart set,” until her death in 1954. Her father was a Hungarian Jew and she never denied a Jewish heritage.

Still, for most Mexican Jews their social life centers on their family and within Jewish organizations. One such group, named Tribuna Israelita, promotes close ties with Mexican society and monitors anti-Semitism. By and large, groups that promote Zionism and Israel command most community support. Still, the Jewish tradition of helping the less fortunate leads the Jewish community to support Mexican charities. The aforementioned Honorary Consul of Israel gives a monthly donation to the Mexican Red Cross.

The chief problem of Mexican Jewry today is intermarriage, especially of young men with Mexican women. This is largely because of the unwillingness of Orthodox Judaism to agree to conversions. They accept only children born of a Jewish mother. Virtual Jerusalem, an internet website at that monitors Jewish communities around the world, estimates the rate of intermarriage in Mexico to be between 5% and 10 %. Most Jews in Guadalajara dispute these figures, claiming they are too high.

In recent years Mexican Jews have found a method to combat the Orthodox position on this matter. Assuming she is willing, the non-Jewish bride is sent to the United States where she can find rabbis willing to instruct her in Judaism and then convert her. Some Congregations accept such converts, others do not, but generally, children born to her will meet the Orthodox requirement of “a Jewish mother.” Children of Jewish girls who marry non-Jews are automatically Jewish and acceptable if the parents are willing.

Another method of attempting to avoid intermarriage is to send members of either sex to relatives or close friends in any of the other four cities to balance the boy-girl ratio. While the preferred site is Mexico City, there is some interchange between all of them. The longtime practice of sending children to seek mates in the other cities, has produced a network of relatives all over the country.

There is some evidence that the total Jewish population in the country is growing. In 1995 a study by the Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Judaism, concluded that the Jewish population of the world is growing in only two countries, Israel and Mexico. This is plausible, since Orthodox Judaism encourages large families and the majority of Jews in the country are Orthodox. In Mexico City, it is estimated that over 80% of all Jewish children receive all of their pre-college education in a Jewish educational network. There are “Talmud Torahs” that prepare boys for bar mitzvahs and girls for bas mitzvahs connected with every synagogue. There are several “Yeshivot” which prepare boys for the Rabbinate and a Hebraic University that turns out Jewish teachers for this educational system. There are more than 16 Jewish youth groups in the city. In the smaller cities, children are also exposed to Judaism as a way of life in a less elaborate Jewish school system. The Catholic Church, has long proclaimed, ” Give me a child for the first seven years of its life and it will be ours forever.” Mexican Jews have adopted their theory.

All cities with sizable Jewish populations have community centers that combine a place of worship with a cultural center, a private school that offers both religious and secular education, a library, health club and more. Referred to as “the club” it is the focal point of social activities for the entire congregation. Mexican Jews see themselves as “family”, even if not actually related. Often a walled compound, open only to members, these “clubs” minimize chances of inter-marriage. Non-Jewish Mexican social life also revolves around the family. Thus, to a certain extent both groups have similar outlooks and attempt to exert control over the social life of their children.

Questioned about their future, most but not all Jews in Guadalajara are optimistic. All agree that the main problem is intermarriage. Those who are optimistic feel that the grip of the Orthodox is loosening. Congregations are moving toward a more liberal conservatism. In 1999, Reformed Rabbis have visited Mexico City with an eye toward starting a reformed congregation. Someday, conversion in intermarriages may become acceptable. This would certainly ease the problem. Also, as the Mexican economy improves, young Jews who sought better opportunities in Mexico City or abroad can stay or return “home.” Guadalajara is now the home of high-tech industries, mostly branches of foreign businesses. New opportunities for well-educated people, including Mexican Jews, are opening up.

One of the Jews I spoke with in Guadalajara told me that the community 20 years ago had more than 1000 people. Now it is down to about 500 people.

“We export Jews,” he said.”

Others see it differently.

“We think, that with time, our population will grow. We may ‘export’ one, but if they come back they bring husbands or wives and children.” Some say, “Most of my friends and I have more grandchildren than we had even ten years ago. But only time will tell.”

Speaking with a Jewish woman, she pointed out that the desire to live a full Jewish life, is another reason young Jews prefer Mexico City to other places in the Country. “Kosher foods, kosher restaurants are readily available there. This is not the case in Guadalajara,” she said.

As the younger generation of Mexican Jews becomes the majority, they will possibly practice a more liberal Judaism than their forefathers. They may become less religious, which ironically would make it easier for them to live as Jews, no longer attempting to meet all the demands of Orthodox Judaism. If Reformed Judaism gained a foothold in the country, it would ease some of the problems of intermarriage. Also, Jews might begin to accept ” Converso” groups who have of their own free will, already returned to the religion of their ancestors. Again, it is the Orthodox establishment that prevents this.

It is also possible that there are still some latent fears of the Catholic Church that have caused Mexican Jews to maintain a low profile. In early March, 2000, Pope John Paul II laid many of these fears to rest. He called anti-Semitism “a massive sin against humanity” and the Holocaust “an indelible stain on the history of the last century.” He continued to seek rapprochement between Catholics and Jews by visiting Israel and again decrying anti-Semitism at Yad Vashem, a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. He also prayed at the Western (Wailing) Wall, a remnant of Herod’s Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. It is the holiest shrine of Judaism. Hopefully, these efforts will have an impact on Catholic attitudes toward Jews and vice-versa.

Actually, Jews have much in common with their fellow Mexicans. Both groups are sincerely religious and family oriented. Both were victims of oppression and have suffered tyranny. Even in modern times, they have felt discrimination, Mexicans in the United States, Jews in Russia. Descendants of survivors, bolstered by strong religious convictions, they are determined to survive. Ultimately, like all those who live in Mexico, their future depends largely on the ability of their homeland to make social and economic progress.

They live with hope.

“Vaya Con Dios.”

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