Here’s Why Mexican and Jewishness Have Always Been A Thing

In Mexico City, on a rainy evening this past July, on the eve of the 2017 Latin American Jewish Studies conference, I decided to have a meal that would bring me a little closer to my research on the history of Jewish migration in Mexico. Just a short stroll down Avenida Masaryk, and I found myself sitting at Klein’s Deli in Polanco, a Jewish owned restaurant that has been around since 1962. “Una orden de tacos de salami kosher, por favor,” I asked the waiter from my booth. (Kosher salami is pork-free, beef salami that satisfies the requirements of biblical Jewish law.)

MEXICO – JANUARY 01: Jews In A Synagogue In Mexico, 1940 (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

This culinary fusion between Mexican and Jewish cuisine made me feel right at home; I was raised in California and grew up speaking both English and Spanish on a regular basis. But while the intersection of Jewishness and “Mexicanness” is nothing new for me, for many others, this religious identity sounds surprising, foreign even. Certainly, Mexico is a country with deep Catholic roots. But the lack of knowledge about Jews in Mexico, has always intrigued me, particularly when you consider that Jewish roots to Mexico are as old as its Spanish and African ones. Yet, just as official Mexican history has long silenced the country’s African heritage, Jewishness has remained a marginalized category of Mexican identity within the country and throughout the global Jewish diaspora.

Unlike the erasure of Mexico’s African roots however, which is about separating blackness from “Mexicanness” — the silence surrounding Mexico’s Jewish history is largely connected to the preservation of whiteness, a racial category that does not conform to the nation’s unifying ideology of mestizaje, or racial mixing. For Mexico’s Jewish community, whiteness has meant different socio-economic privileges and other forms of mobility.So how did Judaism first begin in Mexico? Modern Jewish migration to Mexico began in the late 19th century, when the dictatorial regime of Porfirio Díaz welcomed migration from Europe and the United States.

Among these early Jewish migrants, the majority were single men of German and French background, who did not publically identify as Jews. They often married Catholic women and assimilated into the Mexican elite. The privileges that some of these European immigrants enjoyed during the Díaz regime was in part, informed by the legacy of the Spanish casta (caste) system, where your race determined your social position in colonial Mexico. Spaniards were always positioned at the top of the social order, followed by mixed-race individuals, and then African and indigenous peoples.

“However, unlike the erasure of Mexico’s African roots, which is about separating blackness from “Mexicanness” — the silence surrounding Mexico’s Jewish history is largely connected to the preservation of whiteness, a racial category that parallels the nation’s foundational concept of mestizaje, or racial mixing.”

As Jews and other Europeans migrated to Mexico in the decades following the country’s independence from Spain, the casta system continued to grant European migrants with certain privileges due to their Western heritage. During the Díaz regime, Jews in Mexico held political office were involved in global and private banking and participated in colonization initiatives in the northern regions of the country.

At the turn of the 20th century and the decades that followed, Jewish migration to Mexico hit record levels, with families arriving from Central/Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, through the ports of Veracruz and Tampico. Increased levels of migration from these countries were influenced by decades of political and economic instability, the shifting of empires into nation-states, along with immigration quotas and restrictions in the U.S.

As time passed, the children of these first-generation Jewish immigrants began to set roots in the urban landscape and formed vibrant Jewish communities in Mexico City. The center of Jewish life blossomed along la calle Jesus María in el Centro Histórico, near where the first synagogue was established, along with kosher meat markets and bakeries; today, this neighborhood is known as the Garment District. Beginning in the 1930s, the Jewish community began to move into different ethnic enclaves, moving east into colonias like Roma and Condesa. (It should be noted that many of Mexico City’s historic Jewish neighborhoods have been gravely affected by the recent earthquake, which has claimed 230 lives to date).

Increased levels of Jewish migration to Mexico collided with a Revolutionary period, which unified the Mexican national identity around the ideology of mestizaje, or racial mixing. Outwardly, the political ideology was meant to challenge the Euro-centric racial hierarchy of the casta system, defining the modern Mexican as a racially mixed subject. In practice however, mestizaje continued to exclude the majority of Mexico’s ethnically diverse population, silencing the histories of those communities who did not fit into the narrow Spanish / Indigenous mold.  Under mestizaje, Jewish immigrants became ‘unwelcome foreigners.’

Historical Synagogue, Centro, Mexico City. Image credit: Angélica Portales

Throughout the 1930s, Jews were the targets of xenophobic immigration legislation and fascist, anti-Semitic groups, like los Camisas Doradas, The Guilded Shirts.  The self-isolation of Mexico’s Jewish communities, compounded by age-old trends of Christian anti-Judaism and the institutionalization of mestizaje as the core to Mexicaness, helped popularize the idea that  Jewish immigrants were unassimilable foreigners in Mexico.

While exclusion from the official discourse of mestizaje has created an ambivalent relationship between Jewishness and Mexicaness, it has also meant the preservation of racial and economic capital (read: whiteness) for the Mexican Jewish community. The privileges that whiteness has, overtime, afforded Jews in Mexico, are made evident through high levels of education, above average literacy rates in both Spanish and English, and the high rate of employment, particularly entrepreneurship that continues to be seen throughout Jewish communities in Mexico City.

Today, there is a growing diaspora of Mexican Jews in the United States, a south-to-north migration that began in the 1980s. The inclusion of Mexican Jews into the U.S. Jewish community challenges us to think in new, dynamic directions about the cultural, linguistic, ethnic and racial fabric of Jews in the Americas. As we welcome in Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) this year, it’s important that we remember that the Jewish community has a long history in Mexico that should also be recognized.

Max Greenberg is a fourth year doctoral student in the UCLA Chicana and Chicano Studies Department. Their research examines Jewish migration and racial formation in Mexico. 

READ: This Is How Jewish Latinos Get Down With The Food During Hanukkah

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Exclusive: Luis Fonsi Talks Working with Rauw Alejandro, Christina Aguilera, and Demi Lovato


Exclusive: Luis Fonsi Talks Working with Rauw Alejandro, Christina Aguilera, and Demi Lovato

Luis Fonsi is kicking off 2021 with a new single. The Puerto Rican superstar premiered the music video for “Vacío” on Feb. 18 featuring rising Boricua singer Rauw Alejandro. The guys put a new spin on the classic “A Puro Dolor” by Son By Four.

Luis Fonsi throws it back to his románticas.

“I called Omar Alfanno, the writer of ‘A Puro Dolo,’ who is a dear friend,” Fonsi tells Latido Music. “I told him what my idea was [with ‘Vacío’] and he loved it. He gave me his blessing, so I wrote a new song around a few of those lines from ‘A Puro Dolor’ to bring back that nostalgia of those old romantic tunes that have been a part of my career as well. It’s a fresh production. It sounds like today, but it has that DNA of a true, old-school ballad.”

The world got to know Fonsi through his global smash hit “Despacito” with Daddy Yankee in 2017. The remix with Canadian pop star Justin Bieber took the song to new heights. That was a big moment in Fonsi’s music career that spans over 20 years.

There’s more to Fonsi than “Despacito.”

Fonsi released his first album, the fittingly-titled Comenzaré, in 1998. While he was on the come-up, he got the opportunity of a lifetime to feature on Christina Aguilera’s debut Latin album Mi Reflejo in 2000. The two collaborated on “Si No Te Hubiera Conocido.” Fonsi scored multiple Billboard Hot Latin Songs No. 1s in the years that followed and one of the biggest hits was “No Me Doy Por Vencido” in 2008. That was his career-defining romantic ballad.

“Despacito” remains the second most-viewed music video on YouTube with over 7.2 billion views. The hits did not stop there. Later in 2017, he teamed up with Demi Lovato for “Échame La Culpa,” which sits impressively with over 2 billion views.

He’s also appearing on The Voice next month.

Not only is Fonsi working on his new album, but also he’s giving advice to music hopefuls for the new season of The Voice that’s premiering on March 1. Kelly Clarkson tapped him as her Battle Advisor. In an exclusive interview, Fonsi talked with us about “Vacío,” The Voice, and a few of his greatest hits.

What was the experience like to work with Rauw Alejandro for “Vacío”?

Rauw is cool. He’s got that fresh sound. Great artist. Very talented. Amazing onstage. He’s got that great tone and delivery. I thought he had the perfect voice to fit with my voice in this song. We had talked about working together for awhile and I thought that this was the perfect song. He really is such a star. What he’s done in the last couple of years has been amazing. I love what he brought to the table on this song.

Now I want to go through some of your greatest hits. Do you remember working with Christina Aguilera for her Spanish album?

How could you not remember working with her? She’s amazing. That was awhile back. That was like 1999 or something like that. We were both starting out and she was putting out her first Spanish album. I got to sing a beautiful ballad called “Si No Te Hubiera Conocido.” I got to work with her in the studio and see her sing in front of the mic, which was awesome. She’s great. One of the best voices out there still to this day.

What’s one of your favorite memories of “No Me Doy Por Vencido”?

“No Me Doy Por Vencido” is one of the biggest songs in my career. I think it’s tough to narrow it down just to one memory. I think in general the message of the song is what sticks with me. The song started out as a love song, but it turned into an anthem of hope. We’ve used the song for different important events and campaigns. To me, that song has such a powerful message. It’s bigger than just a love song. It’s bringing hope to people. It’s about not giving up. To be able to kind of give [people] hope through a song is a lot more powerful than I would’ve ever imagined. It’s a very special song.

I feel the message is very relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic we’re living through.

Oh yeah! I wrote that song a long time ago with Claudia Brant, and during the first or second month of the lockdown when we were all stuck at home, we did a virtual writing session and we rewrote “No Me Doy Por Vencido.” Changing the lyrics, kind of adjusting them to this situation that we’re living now. I haven’t recorded it. I’ll do something with it eventually. It’s really cool. It still talks about love. It talks about reuniting. Like the light at the end of the tunnel. It has the hope and love backbone, but it has to do a lot with what we’re going through now.

What do you think of the impact “Despacito” made on the industry?

It’s a blessing to be a part of something so big. Again, it’s just another song. We write these songs and the moment you write them, you don’t really know what’s going to happen with them. Or sometimes you run into these surprises like “Despacito” where it becomes a global phenomenon. It goes No. 1 in places where Spanish songs had never been played. I’m proud. I’m blessed. I’m grateful to have worked with amazing people like Daddy Yankee. Like Justin Bieber for the remix and everyone else involved in the song. My co-writer Erika Ender. The producers Mauricio Rengifo and Andrés Torres. It was really a team effort and it’s a song that obviously changed my career forever.

What was the experience like to work with Demi Lovato on “Echáme La Culpa”?

She’s awesome! One of the coolest recording sessions I’ve ever been a part of. She really wanted to sing in Spanish and she was so excited. We did the song in Spanish and English, but it was like she was more excited about the Spanish version. And she nailed it! She nailed it from the beginning. There was really not much for me to say to her. I probably corrected her once or twice in the pronunciation, but she came prepared and she brought it. She’s an amazing, amazing, amazing vocalist.

You’re going to be a battle advisor on The Voice. What was the experience like to work with Kelly Clarkson?

She’s awesome. What you see is what you get. She’s honest. She’s funny. She’s talented. She’s humble and she’s been very supportive of my career. She invited me to her show and it speaks a lot that she wanted me to be a part of her team as a Battle Advisor for the new season. She supports Latin music and I’m grateful for that. She’s everything you hope she would be. She’s the real deal, a true star, and just one of the coolest people on this planet.

What can we expect from you in 2021?

A lot of new music. Obviously, everything starts today with “Vacío.” This is literally the beginning of what this new album will be. I’ve done nothing but write and record during the last 10 months, so I have a bunch of songs. Great collaborations coming up. I really think the album will be out probably [in the] third or fourth quarter this year. The songs are there and I’m really eager for everybody to hear them.

Read: We Finally Have A Spanish-Language Song As The Most Streamed Song Of All Time

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Lifestyles Of The Rich And Dangerous: Cartels Are Using TikTok To Lure Young People

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Lifestyles Of The Rich And Dangerous: Cartels Are Using TikTok To Lure Young People

If you’ve ever wondered what someone with a bulletproof vest and an AR-15 would look like flossing — the dance, not the method of dental hygiene — apparently the answer to that question can be found on TikTok.

Unfortunately, it’s not as a part of some absurdist sketch comedy or surreal video art installation. Instead, it’s part of a growing trend of drug cartels in Mexico using TikTok as a marketing tool. Nevermind the fact that Mexico broke grim records last year for the number of homicides and cartel violence, the cartels have found an audience on TikTok and that’s a serious cause for concern.

Mexican cartels are using TikTok to gain power and new recruits.

Just a couple of months ago, a TikTok video showing a legit high-speed chase between police and drug traffickers went viral. Although it looked like a scene from Netflix’s Narcos series, this was a very real chase in the drug cartel wars and it was viewed by more than a million people.

Typing #CartelTikTok in the social media search bar brings up thousands of videos, most of them from people promoting a “cartel culture” – videos with narcocorridos, and presumed members bragging about money, fancy cars and a luxury lifestyle.

Viewers no longer see bodies hanging from bridges, disembodied heads on display, or highly produced videos with messages to their enemies. At least not on TikTok. The platform is being used mainly to promote a lifestyle and to generate a picture of luxury and glamour, to show the ‘benefits’ of joining the criminal activities.

According to security officials, the promotion of these videos is to entice young men who might be interested in joining the cartel with images of endless cash, parties, military-grade weapons and exotic pets like tiger cubs.

Cartels have long used social media to shock and intimidate their enemies.

And using social media to promote themselves has long been an effective strategy. But with Mexico yet again shattering murder records, experts on organized crime say Cartel TikTok is just the latest propaganda campaign designed to mask the blood bath and use the promise of infinite wealth to attract expendable young recruits.

“It’s narco-marketing,” said Alejandra León Olvera, an anthropologist at Spain’s University of Murcia, in a statement to the New York Times. The cartels “use these kinds of platforms for publicity, but of course it’s hedonistic publicity.”

Mexico used to be ground zero for this kind of activity, where researchers created a new discipline out of studying these narco posts. Now, gangs in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, and the United States are also involved.

A search of the #CartelTikTok community and its related accounts shows people are responding. Public comments from users such as “Y’all hiring?” “Yall let gringos join?” “I need an application,” or “can I be a mule? My kids need Christmas presents,” are on some of the videos.

One of the accounts related to this cartel community publicly answered: “Of course, hay trabajo para todos,” “I’ll send the application ASAP.” “How much is the pound in your city?” “Follow me on Instagram to talk.” The post, showing two men with $100 bills and alcohol, had more than a hundred comments.

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