The Jews of Mexico
Emergence, Submergence, and Resurgence
(Translator’s Note: At the moment, there is a resurgence of interest in Judaism in Mexico, especially among descendants of Jews forced to convert to Christianity more than 500 years ago. Dr. Benjamin Laureano is a leader of one of those resurgent communities. His family was and is one of the fiercest and most intransigent among those who resisted the Inquisition in Spain and the Spanish colonies.
Dr. Laureano’s history traces the ancestry of Jews in Spain back to the time of Abraham and covers Jewish-Christian relations from the time of Jesus. However, the central message of his historical essay shows that the Sephardic community successfully resisted centuries-long persecution by the Inquisition and meticulously maintained its heritage underground against terrific odds. His work stands up solidly against allegations that the Mestizo Jewish community has no true Jewish antecedents and instead derives from Protestant conversions in the 19th century.
Dr. Laureano’s own family history is interwoven with this general historical review, showing the remarkable lineage of leadership that extends to the present generation. He is not only a vibrant religious leader, but a respected journalist and a leading member of the Mexico City liberal intelligentsia. The following excerpts show some of Dr. Laureano’s main points.)
Early Jewish Traders and Later Refugee Settlers
When the Jewish people first settled the Land of Israel, it didn’t take long for them to join their new neighbors, Phoenicians, Philistines, and Syrians, in the sea trade along the shores of the Mediterranean. Jewish traders followed the established pattern of setting up bases in distant harbors, which grew into expatriate colonies, especially in Spain. Records from the 10th century BCE, the time of King Solomon, already describe several Jewish seafarers’ outposts in Sefarad, which we know today as Spain. It is known that King Solomon himself visited there.
Jewish colonists in Spain had their numbers greatly expanded in 70 CE, when a Roman occupation army extinguished the last Jewish self-government in Israel and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. Most of the Jewish people were deported from Israel, and many of them went to Spain.
About 120 CE, Emperor Hadrian of Rome cast out another 50,000 Jewish families and had them transported to Spain. The number of synagogues in Sefarad grew considerably, which brought on more anti-Jewish legislation. For example, between 612 and 620 CE, the Romans ordered 90,000 Jews to be forcibly baptized, and those who rebelled against this edict were tortured and had their goods confiscated. Jewish children were forcibly separated from their parents and educated in convents.
The Twelfth Council, called by the Catholics in 681 CE, attempted to completely root out Jewish practices, with severe punishments for Jewish converts to Catholicism who secretly practiced the Law of Moses. The term “Marranos” for Crypto-Jews dates from that time.
A turnabout occurred in 701 CE, when the Eighteenth Council of Toledo revoked all anti-Jewish legislation, allowing a rebirth of Jewish culture in Spain. Jews once again freely studied the Talmud.
Living conditions for Jews in Spain improved even more when Moorish Arabs vanquished the Christian Visigoths, leading to a broad area of cooperation between Jews and Arabs. Jews became active in key fields, such as medicine, mathematics, philosophy, politics, and commerce.
Toward 900 CE, Christianity again expanded into Spain, even though the Moorish Arabs tried valiantly to maintain their hold. The victorious Church issued new anti-Jewish rules, layering society in a way that put Christians on top, Moors in the middle, and Jews at the bottom. This gave rise to apologetic responses by highly regarded Jews, especially disavowing their alleged responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Don Isaac Abravanel, for example, pointed out that his ancestors had arrived in Seville during the time of the Second Temple, some 457 years before Christ, putting them far away from that scene.
Nonetheless, the Christians continued enforcing their anti-Jewish statutes, which, among other restrictions, prohibited Jews from holding office and from constructing new synagogues. The pressure was so great that some Jews decided to convert to Catholicism to save themselves, and, again, many of them continued practicing their Judaism in secret, resurrecting the term “Marranos”.
Expulsion of the Jews from Spain
Bad as they were, conditions for Jews worsened during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabel, the Catholic royals, who were fervent in their belief that Jews in the land contaminated the purity of Christian faith. They segregated Jews in designated neighborhoods and asked Pope Sixto IV to issue a Papal Bull to introduce the Inquisition into Spain. It took effect on Jan. 2, 1481.
In response, many Sephardic Jews left immediately, dispersing all over Europe. The process caused great hardship, leading to the death of thousands upon thousands of unprotected refugees traveling on unfamiliar roads. Survivors reached Holland, Turkey, the Balkans, Greece and other places where, until today, many of their descendants continue to speak the 16th century Spanish Jewish dialect called Ladino.
Those who decided to stay in Spain had to adopt Christianity, but many took their Judaic practices underground. The Tribunal of the Inquisition immediately began hunting out these Crypto-Jews, giving them a quick trial that invariably ended in conviction, and burning them at the stake.
Despite hope for relief from the Inquisition in the new Spanish territories conquered by Columbus and his successor in the Americas, the king ordered that in these communities, there are not to dwell any… Jews, Moors, or sinners. This edict was strengthened by the Royal Decree of Emperor Charles V, issued September 15, 1522, and authorized by the pope, ordering that even Jews who had recently converted were banned from the Indies.
The Jews tried to evade the Inquisition by moving away from Mexico City, for example to land that now is in the State of Michoacán. They started agricultural enterprises there, producing the famous Cotija cheese. But even to this distant place the Inquisition extended itself, and its actions against Jews there are very well documented. Nonetheless, more and more Jews who had been hiding in Spain came to Mexico, thinking it might be safer for them there.
Human traffickers made their appearance and secretly took Jews to the New World. An underground bridge was established from Spain to the Canary Islands and from there to the Caribbean Islands and the American continent. Ironically, the Inquisition also aided in the transfer of Jews to the New World by sentencing them to serve in galleys. Some who survived the arduous passage were able to jump ship.
After the Conquest, the Spanish falsified the history of the Aztecs and other natives of Mexico. Spanish authorities denigrated the native religion by calling it polytheistic. In fact, the Aztecs believed in an invisible god called Ipalnemehuani, who also was worshipped by earlier peoples, such as the Toltecs.
Many Aztec beliefs and customs paralleled those of the Jews, which explains why this indigenous people easily accepted conversion to Judaism. This philo-Semitism provided a circle of protection for Sephardic Jews, and even went so far as conversion of the Indians to Judaism. The natives realized that this was a way to fight back against the hated oppressors, the Catholic colonizers. These had branded Indian serfs in the face with hot irons and forced them to work in mines with so little food that they practically starved.
The authorities were aware of the collusion between Jews and natives. Their records show, for example, that a Juan de Baeza (also known as Juan de Baca) was prosecuted by the Inquisition in 1540 for circumcising Indian friends with his fingernails for lack of proper instruments. A copy of the charge sheet still exists.
Jews and the Struggle for Independence
Throughout the history of Mexico, persecution of Crypto-Jews continued, but a ray of hope appeared when, after the French Revolution of 1789, French agents started arriving in Mexico, preaching the principles of liberty, equality, and brotherhood. Of course, the Inquisition went after them, but Masonic lodges were organized to protect them, and for that reason many Jews joined the Masons.
The Jewish-Masonic alliance influenced major policy. The Masonic leadership issued a proclamation in 1833 establishing freedom of opinion and press; abolishing the prerogatives of the clerics and the military; closing the convents; establishing civil marriage; founding public schooling, abolishing capital punishment; protecting Mexican territoriality; and opening the ranks of the Masons to women.
The political changes favored Mestizo Jews, and they started to escape the oppressive life in the mines. For example, families like the Téllez and the Bolaños settled in Venta Prieta near Pachuca in the State of Hidalgo, forming the core of later resurgence of Judaic interest. Talented leaders arose to help the process. They included Baltazar Laureano Ramírez y Moyar, and Ana Escobedo de Luna. (Translator’s note: they are presumed ancestors of Dr. Laureano and his wife, who belonged to a Luna family).
Articles about the mysterious Jews of Mexico then started appearing in popular magazines. They covered the Jewish Mestizo community in Venta Prieta and also described the synagogue on Caruso Street No. 254 in the Vallejo District of Mexico City. Thats how people learned about the circumstances that had circumscribed the life of Jews during the Mexican colonial period and how they struggled to survive, leading to a Jewish resurgence in present-day Mexico.