The Origin and History of Jews in Latin America
Jews in Latin America represent a significant percentage of the economically active population. They have fully functioning communities in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South American countries.
Even though the major religion in Latin America is Catholicism, many follow Judaism. Their presence in the region dates back to the times of colonization and follows a dark period of inquisition and repression.
Join me as I explore the fascinating origin and history of Jews in Latin America.
Jewish Population in Latin America
Out of the almost 15 million jews in the world, Latin America is the home of the third-largest Jewish diaspora.
The Jewish communities of Latin America have endured hardships and challenges towards becoming fully integrated in society.
Wealthy and resourceful countries like Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Mexico have large Jewish communities. They have set the foundations of several industries for development in the region.
The Jewish population of Latin America is dedicated to the preservation of their religious practices and traditions. They hold different cultural activities that support education, security, and local infrastructure—making several Latin American countries maintain solid international relations and diplomacy with the state of Israel.
The current identity of the jews in Latin America is shaped by several Latin American and European influences.
Discover World Religions Vocabulary in Spanish for further understanding of this lesson.
The First Arrival of Jews in Latin America
The arrival of jews in Latin America came as a consequence of the inquisition in the Iberian Peninsula.
In the fifteenth century, countries like Spain and Portugal were majority Christian Catholic. The unification of the kingdoms of Castilla (Castile) and Aragón gave room for the Spanish Holy Inquisition to take off.
This office was in charge of prosecuting any baptized Catholic who distorted or separated from Catholic canon law.
Although the institution was meant to go after heretics, it served as a strategy for controlling religious practices. As the inquisition grew stronger, the kingdom of Spain also became more powerful.
Simultaneously, the Spanish kingdom had succeeded in driving the Moors out of Spain. They needed to focus on a new adversary, which enabled them to go after the Jewish community.
The Jews of Spain enjoyed prestigious occupations, economic and political power—something the Spanish rulers saw as a threat to their power.
In 1492, all the jews of Spain were ordered to convert to Catholicism or leave the country. Many took on the first option and became secret practitioners of Judaism.
Others decided to flee to the new colonies of the Americas. These secret practitioners were known as Crypto-Jews or conversos.
Learn more about the journey of conversos in these fascinating Oxford studies on the Jewish Presence in Latin America.
Catholic Persecution of Jews Continues
As the jews moved to Latin America, you can rest assured the inquisition followed them.
The Spanish inquisition established itself in the viceroyalties of Peru and Mexico, starting operations in both Lima and Mexico City.
Although the inquisition had limited jurisdiction in the majority of Spanish colonies, they did focus a strong part of their efforts in going after full communities of newly arrived Jews in Latin America. These populations endured suffering and discrimination.
Records of the trials of the inquisition of Latin America show that jews were incarcerated, scrutinized, and tried in horrible conditions. Many were tortured and coerced into confessing sins they hadn’t committed.
The Spanish took on this unfounded prosecution of Jews in Latin America as ethnic cleansing.
The punishment for jews in Latin America was often penance, property confiscation, and for those who were second-time offenders: death in the hands of local governments.
Still, a large portion of jews continued to practice their religion in secrecy.
Refresh your memory of geography with this interesting article on All the Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Complement the lesson with this free PDF and Map of Latin America.
Refuge From the Holocaust in Latin America
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, fully functional Jewish communities existed in Brazil, Suriname, and other Caribbean nations.
Several of these nations were under Dutch rule, which allowed jews to practice their religion in a tolerant environment.
As the region advanced towards the 1900s and the inquisition ended, anti-semitism and Nazi ideologies began to gain full force around the world.
Latin America, which once opened its doors to Jewish refugees, became more strict and unwelcoming due to ongoing external pressure.
Populist leaders of Brazil, Cuba, Argentina, Chile, and Mexico encouraged anti-immigrant policies and were close to Germans who controlled several industries in the region. This forced Jewish refugees to enter countries illegally in the midst of fleeing the Holocaust.
In 1941, Germany banned all Jewish immigration to Latin America in the territories it controlled.
Countries like the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, and Bolivia issued visas, passports, citizenships, and allowed entry to European Jewish refugees. Ultimately, not many Jews established in these countries, but their support was key in fleeing Nazi-occupied nations.
Latin America became an essential region of safe haven for jews. Up to 20,000 Jewish displaced persons came to the region between 1947 and 1953. Argentina alone welcomed up to 4,800 Holocaust survivors.
Spain Invites Jews Back After 500 Years
Before the Spanish inquisition, more than 300,000 jews had lived in Spain. Up to 100,000 fled the country at the time. The expulsion brought devastating financial consequences to Spain.
Nevertheless, authorities were set on carrying out their plan to expel the Jews from the Iberian peninsula.
In 2013, Spanish authorities invited the descendants of expelled Jews to return to the country.
They were offered the chance to obtain citizenship as long as they possessed proof of their Spanish Jewish heritage. Still, the number of people who’ve succeeded in proving their Jewish roots is very small.
In spite of the Spanish authorities’ offering, many continue to face rejection or strict criteria for accessing these so-called benefits.
Modern Day Hispanic Jews and Their Communities
Throughout their history, jews in Latin America have been important actors. Since their arrival in the region, they have been forced to move between nations.
Fleeing dictatorship, discrimination, poverty, and instability has placed them in different countries—where today they’ve found peace and tranquility.
Here are the 10 Latin American countries with a significant population of Jewish Latinos:
Argentina is home to the largest Jewish population among Spanish-speaking countries. Buenos Aires has specifically Jewish districts and neighborhoods.
There are close to 110,000 jews who are active members of society.
Brazil is the home of the second largest and oldest Jewish population of Latin America.
They built the first synagogue in the region in 1636 in the city of Recife.
The estimation is that a total of 93,200 jews live in Brazil.
Brazil is also home to majestic cities, read about it in this curiosity-packed article on The Rise of Latin America’s 6 Largest Cities.
Mexico City is the heart of Judaism in the country. Most Mexican jews come from different origins and countries.
There are up to 70,000 Jewish inhabitants in Mexico, who range from Orthodox to conservative.
The number of jews in Chile comes close to 18,300 people. It’s the fourth-largest community of Jews in Latin America.
There are up to 50 renowned different Jewish institutions in the country.
The country is home to approximately 18,000 jews—something quite curious, considering the large number of neo-nazis that hid there following World War II.
The Central American nation of Panama welcomed Jewish immigrants during groundbreaking moments like the construction of the Panama Canal and the United States gold rush.
Jews are considered to be highly influential to the local economy.
The country has two Jewish ex-presidents and has up to 10,000 people who are considered jews.
The Venezuelan jews are considered a strong pillar of the nation. They’ve built synagogues, community centers, schools, and more.
Before the socialist regimes of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, there were up to 200,000 jews in Venezuela.
Following the financial crisis of Venezuela, there is an estimate of only 7,500 jews remaining in the country.
8. Costa Rica
Jews of Costa Rica first arrived from Germany as refugees in 1933. There was another immigration wave of Polish jews afterward.
Currently, there are up to 2,500 Costa Rican jews who participate openly in society and politics.
There are approximately 2,200 Colombian jews. A small percentage of the jews in Colombia follow their religious practices and Kosher traditions.
The jews of Perú first arrived in the country following the arrival of Spanish settlers. The country also saw waves of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Russia.
After becoming a thriving and productive community, the number of jews in Perú decreased and concentrated in smaller groups.
There’s an estimate of 1,900 jews living in Lima and in the jungles of Iquitos in the Amazon.
Jews Are Important Members of Latin American Society
According to the BBC, many Latinos have Jewish ancestry. This proves that Latin American society is diverse and has roots that come from different corners of the world.
Although scholars agree that Jewish identity in the region hasn’t ceased to evolve, jews in Latin America now enjoy religious freedom that was once considered impossible.
Hispanic and South American jews are proof of the constant struggle and resilience that has endured the test of time.
Examining their journey is a fascinating and educational topic for anyone interested in Latin America’s history.
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