Here’s How Judaism, One Of The World’s Largest Religions, Made Its Way To Latin America
The history of how religion is expressed in Latin America today is, in the case of Catholics, largely the result of imperialist missionaries on behalf of the Roman Catholic empire or, on the behalf of Jews, fear of religious persecution from Catholics. While the trope of the typical Latino usually includes an altar of velas with varying Catholic saints emblazoned on its labels, there is a thriving Jewish Latino community whose menorah doesn’t get the spotlight it deserves. By definition, a Latino-American Jew will have an ancestral route that begins in Europe and passes through Latin America before arriving in the United States. Latino-American Jews are a very small minority within the United States.
To understand how Latino-American Jews came to be, we must begin with the Spanish Inquisition.
Spanish-Jews were first displaced by the Inquisition in 1492.
The Alhambra Decree of 1492 required every Spaniard Jew to be either converted or expelled from the country. The vast majority of Jews converted, becoming known as “conversos.” As Spain began to colonize The New World, they were forced to assimilate due to blood laws that forbade new converts to travel. Only those with family documentation that their lineage had long been Christian were allowed to travel to the New World. Those who fled did so to the Netherlands, France, or Italy, where they would eventually be allowed on trans-Atlantic voyages to what would become Latin America.
Within 100 years of the Alhambra Decree and launch of the Spanish Inquisition, Jewish communities were functioning in Brazil, Jamaica, Barbados, Colombia, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Peru. Those that lived in Spanish-controlled colonies had to conceal their identities and practice their faith underground, becoming known as crypto-Jews. After World War II, another mass exodus of Ashkenazi Jews emigrated due to extreme religious persecution, largely forming in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. Argentina has become the hub for the Jewish community of Latin America, with over 300,000 Jews now living in the country.
Today, a third of the Jewish population in Miami-Date County and the Bronx are Latino.
The results of a recent report based on interviews of 85 Latino Jews living in the United States reveals “a sense of alienation in their adopted communities. Many have feelings of being outsiders among fellow Latinos, whose family heritages are often deeply flavored by Catholicism; while often feeling estranged from their larger Jewish communities, with whom they may feel inadequate commonalities due to factors such as culture and language,” according to J Weekly.
Some Jews view Latin America as the “Jewish promised land” rather than Israel.
Jewish Latino scholar and author Ilan Stavans told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) that he’s exhausted with the narrative of Jewish immigration ending with Zionist goals to return to the state of Israel. “But the fact is that Latin America has been, in many ways, the Jewish promised land,” Stavans told the organization. Much like other Latino Americans, Stavans added, “at this point in my life, I can’t tell you anymore if I’m Mexican or American — if English or Spanish is “my language.” But I think that this is the experience of thousands of Jews in the Diaspora.”
“I think that being out of context is a Jewish condition, not quite in and not quite out, always dislocated,” Stavans told JTA. For Stavans, the diaspora and feeling of “dislocation” is central to the identity of the Latino Jew.
For those of you who crave a deeper dive, “The Seventh Heaven” promises a closer look at the history of Judaism in Latin America.
“Very few people know about Latin American Jews, including Jews in Latin America, who know about their own communities but not necessarily about those in other Latin American countries,” Mexico-born Ilan Stavans told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Stavans wanted to offer the Jewish-Latino narrative to the English-speaking world, and with that intention, he published “The Seventh Heaven.” Stavans moved to the United States as a young adult and has bore witness to many misconceptions about Latin American Jews here in the U.S. “American Jews have been very successful in the United States,” Stavans told the organization. “But the tragic and dramatic aspect of this is the high rates of assimilation. In Latin America, because of the ethnic and religious dynamics, there’s less assimilation. The loss of members to the tribe is smaller; Jews have a more devoted sense of tradition, culture and identity.”
According to Stavans, Latino Jews in the United States experience the benefits of being deeply tied to two communities: the Jewish community and the Latino community. With over 60 million Latinos in the United States, the U.S. is home to more Latinos than most Latin American countries. The number of Latino Jews is far smaller, but, as American Jews, they’re often more educated and “well-off” than other Latinos, according to Stavans. “What is happening right now in the United States is a fascinating connection between the Latino community and the Jewish community,” Stavans added, “and the bridge between them is the Latino Jews.”