Jews first arrived in 1519 Mexico as Conversos and 1521 they accompanied Hernan Cortes in the conquering of the Aztecs. After the establishment of a formal colony, “La Nueva España,” many Conversos emigrated to the “new world” in the following decades and were able to establish peaceful existences for themselves. Among these Crypto-Jewish arrivals were those who continued to practice Judaism in secret and sought to escape the intensity of the Inquisition’s persecution in Spain. Others integrated into broader society and became prominent members of the elite, or even in some cases, clergy officials.
However, the Spanish crown began enforcing its severe Inquisition policies in Mexico in 1571, opening an Inquisition office in Mexico City. A large number of Crypto-Jews were persecuted and convicted of being “impure” over the course of the colonial period, and the colonial administration’s official policy was to prohibit practicing Jews from settling in Mexico. There was an influx of Jewish immigration from Portugal in the late 16th century, but many of these Converso arrivals were ultimately prosecuted by Inquisition officials in the new world. Despite this, Conversos were active participants in colonial society, and were engaged in various occupations, including craftsmanship.
These draconian policies continued into the 17th century, and as a result, the number of Conversos arriving in Mexico was drastically reduced. Moreover, wealthy Conversos established in the colony were increasingly persecuted by the Inquisition, as the confiscation of their assets added to their wealth of officials in charge of “cleansing” the new world. Over the course of the 17th century, hundreds of people were prosecuted and convicted by the Inquisition in Mexico. Some were made to reconcile with the Church while others were either deported or executed. In due course, such extreme persecutory actions towards Conversos diminished, but by then the immigration of Crypto-Jews to Mexico had all but disappeared. There was a large level of assimilation among those who remained in the colony, and the practice of Jewish customs and traditions was lost to many over time.
Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821 and recognized Catholicism as the official religion. Despite the abolition of the Inquisition in the country, very few Jews lived in Mexico. When Maximilian of Austria arrived as Emperor of Mexico in 1864, some European Jews from countries such as Austria, Belgium, and France came with his court and openly practiced Judaism. After Maximilian’s death and the end of the Mexican empire, almost all of these Jews returned to Europe.
In the middle of the 19th century, President Benito Juárez began implementing policies to modernize Mexico, establishing a more secular and tolerant society. The 1857 Constitution paved the way for religious freedom in Mexico. As a result, there were large increases in Jewish immigration to Mexico, beginning in 1881 with the arrival of Russian Jews who came to the country after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II.
The 20th century saw the arrival of an influx of Jews from the Ottoman Empire who sought to escape the political instability incurred by the deterioration of Ottoman influence and power. Sephardic Jews from all over the empire – present-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, the Balkans – arrived in Mexico and were able to integrate themselves into Mexican society relatively easily.
Following the revolution that began in 1910, liberal policies that legally affirmed religious freedom in Mexico and formally recognized the Jewish community were implemented. As Mexico returned to political stability in the 1920s, more Jews from Europe arrived in the country. Many of these arrivals hoped to use Mexico as a stopover to the United States but ended up staying in the country following the adoption of strict immigration quotas in the United States in 1921, and later 1924. That same, Plutarco Elias Calles, the newly elected president of Mexico, issued an invitation to the Jewish people to come to Mexico as law-abiding citizens, stimulating an immigration wave that lasts until 1930. During this period, Jewish cultural life began to take off in Mexico, with the establishment of Jewish communal and Zionist organizations.
By the mid-1920s, Jewish life in Mexico was quite diverse, integrated along ethnic lines. Many of the Jewish immigrant groups stuck with those who came from the same region, spoke the same language, or practiced similar Jewish religious customs. Such distinctions became institutionalized as the different Jewish communities in Mexico established different Jewish religious and cultural groups. The 1930s saw anti-Semitic and xenophobic movements permeate throughout Mexican society.
During the course of World War II, Mexico exported foods and basic goods to the United States and saw the country’s internal market strengthened. The Mexican economy experienced a general rise in industries created, and among those who benefited were several Jewish entrepreneurs who established manufacturing factories during the 1940s. After the war, the Jewish community began participating in various industries throughout the country, and in general, experienced economic prosperity.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the Mexican Jewish community lived in relative stability. The economic boom that followed World War II lasted for nearly thirty years and continued to allow Mexican Jews to greatly prosper. However, the 1980s and 1990s saw the country experience economic difficulties, which affected the country. Further and more legally formal guarantee of religious equality and freedoms were introduced in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Today, Mexican Jews are guaranteed and enjoy complete religious freedom. Mexico has experienced almost no antisemitism in recent years, and Mexican Jews are active in all aspects of Mexican society, including high offices of the state. Jorge Castañeda Gutman served as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 2000 -2003, Victor Lichtinger, served as Secretary of Environment Protection from 2000 - 2003 and Julio Frenk served as the Secretary of Health from 2000 to 2006, Victor Lijtinger under President Vicente Fox. Yeidckol Polevnsky Gurwitz served as a Senator for the State of Mexico from 2006 to 2012, and recently, in July 2018, Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo became the first Jew and woman to be elected mayor of Mexico City.