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Jews in Latin America



     In old Spain and Portugal, Jews were persecuted by the Inquisition. Some converted, some faked conversation, practicing their Jewish rites in secret. The Inquisition had several ways of ferriting them out. One was to tell them to eat pork.
     Others went to America to escape the Inquisition, particularly to Monterrey (Mexico), Medellín (Colombia), and Sao Paulo (Brazil). The Inquisition pursued them even there, so they fled to more distant parts of the empire.
     Today I went to a store, where the attendant was a young Salvadorean, obviously part Indian. On his shirt was his name tag "Abraham." I remarked that was an unusual Spanish name. He explained that all his family members were named after Old Testament figures, and that they observed strictly the Jewish Sabbath and dietary laws. No pork! He hastened to add "But we are not Jews!" Atavistic memories of the Grand Inquisitor!

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     Linda Nyquist expands on my story about the Palo Alto store assistant:
     "I read with great interest your piece about Jews in Latin America, as this has been a special interest of mine for years. If you have not, you must read The Martyr by Cohen. It chronicles the extremely interesting life of Luis Carvajal and his family, most of whom met their fates at the hands of the Inquisition in Mexico City. Luis' uncle, the governer of Nuevo Leon, brought the family to the New World. A fact I am sure he came to regret. The book is excellent.
     One day, while walking along the side of the old palace of the inquisition in Mexico City, I noticed a taxi pulling into one of the doors, and I could peer inside the building. The driver seemed like a friendly, nice person, so I told him about my interest in the building, and he let me in to see it. The area was undoubtedly that of the "secret cells" and the Patio de las Naranjas where prisoners were held. It was the highlight of my trip!
     There are many descendents of Jew in the Merida area, as well, although not many admit to their Jewish ancestry. Outside Mexico City, in the Pachuca area, is a group of Indians who claim to be Jews and call themselves "Israelitas." The Pachuca area harbored many fugitives from the Inquisition. One of the rabbis in Mexico City supplies them with religious articles and tries to help them. In the Oaxaca area, and perhaps in others too, there are groups of rather isolated indigenous groups who claim to be "Jews" but accept Christ, and call their religious houses "temples." I have met some of them here in Seattle, as well as in Mexico. Their religious views, which include not eating pork, but do include some rather pentecostal Christian views, and rather interesting, but not well-defined. How did these beliefs get into the area? Could there have been itinerant Jewish peddlers in the area? Actually, we know that there were."
     My comment: It was Professor García Prada of the University of Washington who told me that a Sephardic student invited him to his home for dinner. After dinner, the mother produced a big key and said it was the key of their ancestral home in Toledo. She expected to live there again some day.


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     Edith Coliver contributes this to our account of the "converted" Jews, known in Spanish as "marranos" or "conversos":
     "There are many of them in our own Southwest, having come over from Spain by way of Mexico. When I was in Santa Fe a couple of years ago, I went to one of the occasional Latin American markets held in Santa Fe's Zocalo and encountered some beautifully-carved statues of Moses, one of which now graces my condo. I asked the carver, "how come, Moses ?," and he replied that Moses was one of their saints, along with Jesus and St. Francis, the patron saint of Santa Fe. I asked him whether he had ever heard the word marrano or converso, and he pretended not to have heard of the name. Denial still reigns, although there are now communities on the Iberian Peninsula who engage in Jewish practices and call themselves marranos.
     The second-largest Jewish community in the Western Hemisphere (some 300,000) lives in Argentina, many of them having fled Nazi persecution. Their headquarters were bombed some five years ago, and the perpetrators have not yet been found. But that's another story."
     My comment: I have known New Mexicans with Sephardic names who were vehemently and sincerely Catholic, and I never dared to ask them about their origin. My guess is that the carver had never heard the words marrano and converso. The Sephardic and Ashkenazi (northern) Jews tend to despise each other. The German Jews tend to despise the East European Jews. I do not have the figures on their relative strength in Argentina.


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     Linda Nyquist comments:
     "Although I don't have an answer to Tim Brown's question regarding the anti-semitism of, for example, Fidel Castro, I do wonder whether Castro's attitudes are similar for any religious group, not just the Jewish community? There was a very interesting article in the last couple of years in Americas magazine on Jewish communities in the Caribbean, and a fine PBS presentation on the Jews of Cuba. Actually, in another e-mail, I will refer you to a recent book on Cuba (the names fails me at the moment) whose author is Jewish. He made some contributions to the Jewish community while in Cuba and had some interesting observations. More on this to come!
     P.S. Don't forget that Mexico got into all kinds of trouble a few years ago, which resulted in a boycott of tourism by Jews, for some anti-semitic behavior on their part. "
     My comment: This is a complex question, constantly changing. When he seized power, Castro expelled the Jesuits, but was friendly with the Franciscans. With the new Castro-Church friendship, I don´t know if the Jesuits have been allowed to return. There are few vocations in Cuba, so the Church has to import Spanish priests. I wonder about other groups like the Mormons and Jehovah´s Witnesses. Does David Derek have any information on this?

Ronald Hilton - 04/21/99


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     David Crow as usual adds to our knowledge:
     "A recent contribution spoke of strained relations between Mexico and its Jewish community several years ago. I think the writer may have been referring to an incident that happened just prior to the 1994 presidential elections, when a prominent labor lawyer joked that Yitzhak Rabin would win in Polanco, a well-to-do Mexico City district with a large Jewish population. Several Jewish leaders expressed offense, but relations were quickly patched up when the lawyer publicly apologized.
     I've never heard the word "marranos" (literally, "Jewish swine" for the benefit of our non-Spanish speakers) used to refer to converted Jews here. Indeed, a number of families of Sephardic origin, long since converted to Catholicism, figure prominently in public life, including the Garza Sadas, of Monterrey industrial fame. Although the Black Legend and the Catholic Kings' persecution of Jews and Moors colors our perception of Spain, we would do well to remember that the country enjoyed nearly seven centuries of "multi-culturalism" in which Jews and Arabs participated actively in public administration, the sciences and the arts, most notably during the reign of King Alphonse the Wise."
     My comment: Semitic etymologists claim that "marrano" has another origin, but let´s not get into that argument.

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     Tim Brown comments:
     "Linda Nyquist's comments are interesting, especially on Castro and Jews. Today there are barely enough left to man a synagogue in Havana and one in Santiago de Cuba. Castro's record seems mixed on other groups. Mormon proselytizing is out and the community tiny, but Jehovah's Witnesses are in. Traditional Protestant churches function with relatively little interference as long as they do not criticize, although many of the dissenters the GOC hassles are Baptists or Methodists. There are a few Muslims, especially connected to a number of embassies. I haven't a clue on Bhuddists or Bahais.
     On Catholics, since they are so strong numerically, Castro is clearly ideologically hostile, but more cautious. A few seminaries still function, but there is a very large deficit of Cuban priests, so some have come in with GOC permission, Canadians among them. I don't know about Franciscans, but at least some of the decisions on whether or not foreign priests are welcome seem based on their politics - for example Maryknolls are usually welcome since they can be expected to support the regime. Curiously, in a number of cases it has been the Catholic Church that has quietly stopped the entry of more radical clerics."
     My comment: Jehovah´s Witnesses would be welcome because they resist the U.S. government. But if they resisted Castro, it would be another story.
     The Vatican is on a collision course with NATO, i.e. the U.S. Rome is becoming as "peace" center. The anti-NATO vote in the Italian parliament was reinforced by the much-publicized Rome meeting of Nobel Peace laureates. They paid a visit to the Pope. Both he and Milsoevich are calling for talks and an end to the bombing. Gorbachev and Rigoberta Menchu were prominent at the Vatican reception, but I did not see Henry Kissinger!

Ronald Hilton - 04/22/98


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