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The “old Jews” of Mexico come out after 500 years

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When I started studying Mexican history, I was surprised at how many of the early colonial leaders were “conversos”… Spanish Jews (or their children) who had to convert or leave Spain after Isabel’s conquest of Granada in January 1492.  A good chunk of northern Mexico, including what’s now Texas and New Mexico were settled by Tlaxcalan and Converso pioneers (the New Mexico “Spanish” are nearly all of Jewish ancestry, according to recent DNA studies).

Shep Lenchek’s invaluable three-part series for Mexico Connect, “Jews in Mexico: A Struggle for Survival” notes that while most Mexican Jews are descended from immigrants who arrived between 1888 and 1939, there have always been “Crypto-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.

Conversos were not overtly persecuted, but were eventually assimilated into the general population.

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.

It’s to the honor of Mexico to report that Lenchek notes:

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.

Which isn’t to say that the “crypo-Jews” weren’t at a disadvantage when it came to remaining Jewish.  But 500 years after the Conquest, some are rediscovering their roots… as Roberto Loiederman wrote for the Jewish Journal (posted on New American Media, 16-March-2007) :

… he told me he was going to visit a group of Mexicans practicing Judaism on their own — no rabbi, no shul — it sounded fascinating; I asked if I could come along.I wondered what had led these people — born into Catholic families — to follow Judaism. More than that, I wanted to see Judaism through their eyes. What do they feel when they say the prayers? What is the source of their faith?This was not the first time I’d asked these questions. During the High Holidays, I had attended services at Beth Shalom, where a vibrant group of Latino converts has revitalized that shul.

…Dr. Mario Espinoza, a Mexicali obstetrician-gynecologist, spoke about his certainty that he’s descended from Jews forcibly converted to Christianity centuries ago. He used the Hebrew word anousim (constrained people or forceably converted) rather than Marranos, which means “swine.”

For Mexicans who trace their lineage to anousim, the Inquisition is not ancient history. It continued in Latin America, including Mexico, from the 1500s until the 1800s. During that period, those whose ancestors had been forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity were harassed, tortured and sometimes killed if they were discovered to have continued Jewish practices, which is why those practices continued in secret, if at all.

… Lucia Espinoza mentioned a grandmother who lit candles on Friday night. Lupe Medrano said that when she looked through her late grandfather’s effects, she found a tallit hidden in a box.…

The group that has coalesced around the Medrano home is not the only one like it in Mexico. Far from it. The Web site of Beth Hatefutsoth, the Israel Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, lists a number of communities of “native Mexican Jews” — located in various parts of Mexico — who trace their origins to anousim.

How many descendants of anousim are there?

“It’s hard to figure out exactly,” said Rabbi Stephen Leon of Congregation B’nai Zion in El Paso, just across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. “I’d only be guessing, but I’d say the number is very large. I have personally ministered to 40 such families. In the 20 years I’ve been here, not a week goes by that I don’t meet someone who tells me about childhood memories of crypto-Jewish practices.”

The Diaspora Museum Web site points out that even after converting to Judaism, “native Mexican Jews” have not been accepted by “traditional Mexican Jews,” nearly all of whom are Orthodox and descended from those who immigrated to Mexico from Europe and the Middle East in the early 1900s.