The legacy of Mexico's crypto-Jews


Did you know that the first Jews in Mexico where "New Christians" fleeing the Spanish Inquisition?

'A Hearing Before the Inquisition,' engraving by Mexican artist Constantino Escalante. (Public domain)

Jews have lived uninterruptedly in Mexico since the early 16th century, when they started arriving fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the number of "Conversos", or "New Christians" in Spain had grown exponentially when the majority of Jews converted to Christianity. With the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition between 1478 and 1481, many of these Conversos and their descendants were now accused of being crypto-Jews, secretly practicing Judaism.

In 1492, all remaining practicing Jews unwilling to convert were expelled from Spain and the Conversos, whether sincerely Catholic or secretly Jews, were under increasing pressure from the Inquisition. Looking for a place in which they could feel safer while retaining their Spanish identity, many Conversos focused on Mexico, which had been conquered from the Aztecs in 1521. Historians believe that already among the conquerors were several Conversos.

In 1531, a group of Spanish Jews and Conversos who had originally found refuge in Portugal, immigrated to Mexico, then called Nueva España (New Spain), under the rule of Royal Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza. Because his was a common name among Spanish Jews, some historians believe that Mendoza himself had a Converso or even crypto-Jewish background.

The Inquisition had not yet come to Nueva España 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.

How many came is unknown, but there is evidence that they may have been a considerable proportion of the reduced Spanish-speaking population of that time. During the colonial period, migration of Spanish Catholics to Nueva España was very small. 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, but Conversos had extra reasons for settling, and the great majority did it as merchants, peddlers, artisans, doctors, lawyers and even military men, while a small but prominent group was engaged in international trade. Indeed much of that commerce was dominated by New Christians who succeeded in establishing lucrative connections with fellow Conversos in other American colonies and with European Jews, especially from the Netherlands.

Until 1571, Jews who had immigrated to the New World were able to practice Judaism openly. But that year marked the appearance of the Mexican Inquisition, an extension of the one in Spain. Again, both practicing Jews and Conversos lived in fear as Judaism was pursued throughout Mexico.

Almost all information now available on the possible Jewish settlement in Mexico during the colonial period is based on inquisitorial documents. The investigators took great care in recording every piece of testimony. Many of the Jews fled to nearby Peru and those who chose to stay faced interrogation, torture and execution if it was discovered or suspected that they continued to practice their old faith. The surviving files contain precise descriptions of traditions and practices supposed to be Jewish and provide an invaluable source for understanding the world of the New Christians in Mexico.

In 1579, King Philip II of Spain established the Kingdom of Nuevo Leon (in parts of north Mexico and what is today Texas), to be governed by Luis de Carvajal, a Portuguese/Spanish nobleman born into a Jewish convert family. To help populate the province, Carvajal welcomed both Conversos and practicing Jews. Some of the earliest victims of the Mexican Inquisition were members of the Carvajal family. His sister Francisca was arrested on charges of being a Jew, along with four of her children. A total of nine people of the clan were tortured and burned at the stake on the Zocalo in Mexico City. The most famous, a nephew, Luis de Caravajal the younger, a leader in the community of crypto-Jews, tried to kill himself by jumping out a window to avoid further torture but was burned at the stake in 1596 with the rest of his family. Governor de Carvajal himself was arrested on charges of practicing Judaism and died in prison in 1595.

Within a few decades, the descendants of the original settlers of Nuevo Leon moved to what is now Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, then still part of Mexico, bringing with them vestiges of Judaism which survive to this day. By 1651, all traces of open Judaism had disappeared. Its only legacy is those Mexican families, perhaps as many as 20,000 devout Catholics, who have Jewish ancestors, perhaps without realizing it.

Some Jews who had arrived as Conversos and escaped the Inquisition, may have continued to practice Judaism secretly, but it was highly dangerous. By the time the Inquisition was abolished in Mexico in 1821, approximately 110 Jews had been killed and many more imprisoned. However, the Mexican Inquisition was never as aggressive as it was in Spain, where more than 4,000 people were burned and countless massacres instigated by churchmen, something that did not happen in Mexico.

Between 1700 and 1865, a few Jews kept arriving in Mexico to escape the poverty and anti-Semitism in the Old World, but as late as 1867 there were only 20 Jewish families registered in Mexico City and perhaps a dozen more in the rest of the country. That year the Liberal government of Benito Juarez enforced the separation of Church and State and non-Catholics were now officially allowed to establish themselves in Mexico. After the assassination of the Tzar Alexander II in 1881, a significant number of Jews from Russia entered the country triggering a new wave of Jewish immigration to Mexico. The majority of the 40,000-50,000 Mexican Jews today are descendants of those who, from 1881 to 1939, found refuge in the country.