History of Jews in Mexico

Synogogue in Mexico History of Jews in Mexico

by Dena Falken


           Through out my travels in Mexico, it has always been quite fascinating to learn and see the rich culture in this country.

When walking in downtown Polanco, a stunning area of Mexico City, one is captivated by the amount of culture, restaurants of every ethnic persuasion. A beautiful building is there as well,,,the Jewish Synagogue.

I have always been interested in the Jewish contribution to the Culture in Mexico and how the Jews arrived here. While Mexico has fabulous Jewish restaurants, museums and art, I thought I would explore how the Jewish culture arrived and what the history was.

I learned the following….

Jews first arrived in Mexico in the 16th century from Spain and Portugal. This arrival took place in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition. The Jews at this times were “ conversos”. These are Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christanity, but secretly practiced Judaism.

However, the Inquisition also traveled to the New World and anyone even suspected of practicing Judaism was burned at the stake. It was not until the Inquisition was abolished in 1813 that Jews could practice their culture and faith.

 The Jewish History In Mexico And Why They Immigrated To Mexico

           Jews and Conversos were part of the conquest and colonization of Mexico and were important actors in transatlantic and transpacific trade networks, as well as in the development of internal trade. The Conversos succeeded Hernán Cortés in 1519. They were members of Jewish families who forcibly converted to Christianity to avoid expulsion from Spain after the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula. The reconquest was followed by the Spanish Inquisition, which made the Converses one of its targets and accused them of returning to Jewish practice.

           During this time, there were two types of Converts: crypto-Jews and Jews who had fully converted to Catholicism. Jews who converted were used to register crypto-Jews in the Catholic Church and were later rewarded with high positions in the Catholic Church. In addition, the Catholic Church at that time was responsible for social assistance and was the most powerful entity. Converso’s migration to the new Spanish colony began in 1530, after most of the violence since the conquest of the Aztec Empire had subsided and the Spanish Inquisition continued. For decades, families were able to live in peace, integrating into the Mexican elite, with some becoming prominent Catholic clerics and some returning to Jewish practice.

An interesting fact is brought out by David Nathan. He suggested that the first coins minted by the Spanish conquerors in the Western Hemisphere in Mexico City contained the Hebrew letter aleph (), indicating evidence of Jewish presence or influence in Mexico in 1536. He noted that almost all of the matrices were prepared during the first Aleph appraiser instead of the powerful symbol of the Christian cross, which is almost common on medieval Spanish and Mexican coins, Nathan still considers the possible connection of a Jewish family with the famous Mexican coin workers.


           The persecution of the Jews came with the Conquistadors to New Spain. Bernal Diaz del Castillo in his writings described several executions of soldiers during the conquest of Mexico because they were accused of being Jews, including Hernando Alonza, who built the boats that Cortés used to attack Tenochtitlan.

After Mexico became independent, it abolished the Inquisition, but the Catholic faith was officially declared. The remaining crypto-Jews did not openly admit it, but began to observe various Jewish rituals, and between 1825 and 1860 several European Jews arrived from Germany and Eastern Europe. Immigrants could not become Mexican citizens, but their main problems living in Mexico were economic, not social or religious.

            However, the Mexican Inquisition was not fully established until 1571, when it became a threat to Converso and the Jewish communities with the first purges between 1585 and 1601. In 1606, Mexico received orders from the King of Spain to release the Convers in inquisitorial prisons. This easing of the Inquisition in Mexico, which was never more brutal than in Spain, made it more visible in the first half of the 17th century. The new Conversos settled in Mexico City, Acapulco, Veracruz and Campeche because they offered more business opportunities.

           However, some moved to more remote areas such as Zacatecas but still offered more opportunities than places further north. Between 1642 and 1649 the Second Inquisition persecuted the Conversos. Attention then shifted to topics such as profanity and moral transgressions. During the colonial period, however, practicing Jews in Spain and elsewhere could not enter Spanish colonial territory.

           An important episode during the colonial period was the establishment of the new kingdom of León. In 1567 the Carvajal family arrived in New Spain under the leadership of the noble Luis de Carvajal. With the exception of himself and his relatives, the family was crypto-Jewish.[10] In 1579, Carvajal acquired land in present-day northeastern Mexico, north of what was then considered New Spain.

           The area received both Conversos and practical Jews, and about 75% of the early settlers were secretly Jewish. Some theories hold that Monterrey developed as a commercial center despite its colonial distance due to crypto-Jewish influence. However, Luís de Carvajal and members of his family were persecuted in 1589 for practicing Judaism. Mariane Carvajal’s auto-da-fé became part of Mexican art and literature. In 1641 the colony grew and some settlers later moved on to establish new settlements in Coahuila, Texas and Novo Santander.

           The greatest number of criminal prosecutions by the Mexican Inquisition occurred after the collapse of the Iberian Union in 1640, when Spain and Portugal were ruled by the same monarch. Portuguese traders entered Spain and America more easily, creating a complex community of crypto-Jews connected to transatlantic and transpacific trading networks. Evidence from individual cases prosecuted by the Mexican Inquisition shows that most crypto-Jews were born in Mexico or their parents in Portugal, mainly from the Portuguese capital Lisbon or Castelo Branca.

                      After Mexico became independent, it abolished the Inquisition, but the Catholic faith was officially declared. The remaining crypto-Jews did not openly admit it, but began to observe various Jewish rituals, and between 1825 and 1860 several European Jews arrived from Germany and Eastern Europe. Immigrants could not become Mexican citizens, but their main problems living in Mexico were economic, not social or religious.

           In 1861, the group rented a hall to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the first recorded instance of public Jewish worship.

Things changed and eased with Emperor Maximilian I.

 In 1865, Emperor Maximilian I issued a decree of religious toleration, bringing representatives of Jewish organizations in Europe and the United States to Mexico to explore immigration possibilities. From 1864 to 1867, Maximilian invited some European Jews from France, Belgium and Austria-Hungary to settle in Mexico. In 1867, only about twenty Jewish families lived in Mexico and a dozen more elsewhere.

More migration to Mexico began after the inquisition. French and British Jews in the late 1800s and Eastern European Jews began to come to Mexico in the 1920s. A large group of Syrian, Turkish and Greek Jews also arrived around the turn of the century. Mexicos first synagogue was erected in 1885 to accommodate the rising population.

 When the Roman Catholic Church’s monopoly in Mexico was replaced by religious tolerance during the liberal reform of the 19th century, Jews were able to openly emigrate to Mexico. They came from Europe and later from the crumbling Ottoman Empire, including Syria, until the first half of the 20th century.

Mexico City has always been the center of Mexicos Jewry with a majority of Mexican Jews living there. Today, besides Mexico City, Jews can be found in Guadalajara, Cancun, Monterrey and Tiajuana.

           Today, most Jews in Mexico are mainly Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi and Spanish-Jewish-speaking Sephardim. It is an island community with its own religious, social and cultural institutions, mainly in Guadalajara and Mexico City. However, since the 1980s, efforts have been made to identify descendants of colonial-era Conversos in Mexico and the southwestern United States in general, with a view to a return to Judaism.

Jews in Mexico are now secure in their political and religious rights. A wonderful part of Mexico and a rich culture that only adds to the Magic of Mexico.