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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