Historical records from the Mexican Inquisition indicate that the first Jews arrived in Guatemala during the colonial period and were “Marranos,” or Crypto-Jews. However, the present Guatemalan Jewish community can be traced back to the arrival of German Jewish immigrants in the mid-19th century. These immigrants found Guatemala to be commercially fruitful and become involved in a number of industries, including banking, coffee, and textile.
In the beginning of the 20th century, the majority of Guatemalan Jews moved from Quetzaltenango, where most Jews originally settled, to the capital of Guatemala City. Mainly from Germany, Middle Eastern countries, and eastern European countries, these Jewish immigrants mainly came to Guatemala via Cuba, and considered the country a temporary stop until they could obtain visas to the United States. However, many of them stayed in Guatemala following the adoption of draconian immigration quotas in the U.S during the 1920s. In addition, Sephardic Jews settled there as well.
Despite such proceedings, Guatemala attempted to limit Jewish immigration in the 1930s. The government outlawed peddling, an enterprise common among Jewish immigrants in Guatemala, forcing many Guatemalan Jews to emigrate or face ruin. After World War II, laws regarding peddling were relaxed or rarely enforced. Jewish immigration to Guatemala continued to be largely Sephardic, and in 1948, Guatemala voted in favor of partitioning Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state in the UN vote that established the State of Israel.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, various Jewish organizations and institutions sprouted, merged, or ceased functioning. This flux of activity was indicative of numerous attempts at organization, which culminated in the formation of the Comunidad Judía Guatemala in 1981. Around this time, the Guatemalan Jewry reached its peak population size: about 1,000 people. The small decline that led to the Guatemalan Jewish population seen today was largely a result of the country’s economic situation and safety issues. Many young Guatemalan Jews have emigrated to the United States, Israel, or neighboring countries such as Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, etc.
Today, the Guatemalan Jewish community is mainly comprised of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews (mainly of German origin) and enjoys a sense of stability. Judaism is protected by the Constitution of the Republic of Guatemala and Jews are a part of all aspects of Guatemalan society.