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Jews first came to New Spain in 1521. It is believed that two soldiers in Hernán Cortés’ Spanish army were crypto-Jews—also known as conversos. Many more conversos fled the Inquisition to the New World with the hope of finding religious freedom. According to historian Seymour B. Liebman in his 1970 book The Jews in New Spain: Faith, Flame, and the Inquisition, in the decades that followed there were more secret Jews in Mexico City than Spanish Catholics. This is doubtful. Still, by 1590 the converso community was well-established in the metropolis. Conversos played prominent roles at almost every level of society, especially in politics, finance and culture. Suspicion of their dual life was rampant. Cristianos viejos, the Spanish term for Old Christians, were furious at what they perceived as their deception. Angrier were outright cristianos nuevos, who believed that conversos drew undue attention to them.
While never as harshly treated in New Spain as they were across the Atlantic, from 1586 to 1649 conversos were nevertheless regularly victims of just about every auto-da-fe, the public penance ritual for condemned heretics and apostates. The term, which means an “act of faith” in medieval Spanish, has come to signify burning at the stake. No one knows exactly how many Jews were killed in this way, but certainly the entire community lived in fear. Even after freedom of religion was declared in Mexico in 1857, anti-Semitism remained deeply entrenched.
By the turn of the 20th century, Jews were welcomed in Mexico as agents of economic progress. The first to immigrate were Jews from Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and northern Africa; they were looking for a new home even before the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Many arrived speaking Ladino, although they were not necessarily able to write it. There’s a memorable anecdote in the Mexican documentary A Kiss to This Land by Daniel Goldberg, in which a Syrian immigrant described how, when first hearing Spanish in Mexican streets, it sounded so much like Ladino that she thought, “Thank God everyone is Jewish in this place!”
The vast majority of Ashkenazi Jews came in the 1920s, escaping pogroms and dire economic conditions in the shtetls and urban centers of the Pale of Settlement. Their dream destination was the United States or di goldene meluche, the golden nation. Prevented by immigration quotas from entering, scores simply asked to disembark at the ship’s next stop. That’s how they ended up in Mexico.
The interaction between Sephardic, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews has always been cordial but distant. I remember that when I was an adolescent, it was widely held among Ashkenazim that it was better to marry a non-Jew than a shachata, a derogatory term for an Iraqi Jew. Likewise, Sephardim referred to Ashkenazim as paisanos, encouraging their young to stick together. (We used to call the union between a paisano and a shachata a mix-up.) Yet the various Jewish communities always came together when confronted with outside animosity and in support of Israel. Even today, a large percentage of Mexican Jews belong to the Centro Deportivo Israelita, but ethnic groups remain largely separate. Members of younger generations continue to segregate themselves in different parts of the city where they organize workshops and other cultural activities. In other words, Jewish life is still broken up by country of origin, although inter-ethnic marriages are more common than they were when I was growing up.
There are almost three dozen synagogues in the capital, if one counts those inside day schools and yeshivot. The two Syrian communities, one from Damascus, the other from Aleppo, each have their own shul, as do the Turkish and Greek Jews. So do the Ashkenazi Jews.