Shalom, amigos! It’s Cinco de Mayo and there are plenty of Mexican Jews celebrating the holiday. It’s estimated that Mexico is home to well over 40,000 Jews (some stats suggest the number could be closer to 66,000). So who knows, the most interesting man in the world could very well be Jewish!
Many people have come to associate Cinco de Mayo with Mexican resistance to foreign intervention. It was a pivotal time when Mexico was a young nation and rallied to defend itself. A small Mexican force led by General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin defeated a much larger French army during Battle of Puebla, on May 5, 1862.
What impact did this have on the lives of the few Jewish families who were already living in Mexico? It was major. In a sense it was more important to the Jews because it would come to mean being accepted as Jews - and their thirst to be able to practice their religion openly would be quenched. But they had to endure a centuries long struggle to earn the right to be identified with their own religion without the fear of persecution.
The first Jews arrived in 1519 with Hernan Cortes, the man who toppled the Aztec Empire. Cortes brought with him “secret” Jews known as Conversos. These are Jewish families that had been forcibly converted to Christianity in order to avoid expulsion from Spain. They came to the New World for a new start - but had to do it in the shadows - once again, trying to avoid persecution. And though they succeeded in surviving the Spanish Inquisition, they had to find a way to make it through the Mexican Inquisition and the conquistadors. They worshipped in secret, denouncing their faith to the rest of the community, in order to persevere through the purge that lasted from 1585 to 1601.
After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the newly formed government abolished the Inquisition though Catholicism was named the official religion. Jews continued to worship in private until 1861 when a group, fed up with practicing their faith in the shadows, rented a hall to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It was the first recorded instance of open Jewish worship!
With newly found acceptance, Jews began to immigrate to Mexico just as anti-Semitism was rising in the Old World. Over 18,000 came from Eastern Europe, mainly Poland. 2,400 from Spain. With the Ottoman Empire collapsing, many came from what is now Syria. Almost half of today’s Jewish population can be linked to a wave of immigration after the assassination of Czar Alexander II in Russia, which pushed Jews to leave the country. There were even about 1,000 Jews who fled Cuba.
With strength in numbers and growing acceptance, these settlers who sustained themselves and their families as peddlers, tailors and shoemakers finally started to rise through the ranks of society. They became successful merchants, bankers, scientists, and professors. Artist Diego Rivera, believed to have Converso ancestry, wrote about himself in 1935, “My Jewishness is the dominant element in my life.”
The beauty of Cinco de Mayo lies in the inspiration and determination of a small group of people winning a battle against an oppressor who was mighty in strength as well in numbers. But the drive and the thirst of the Mexican Jews was of equal measure. They battled against religious persecution and they won. Religious freedom. Now that’s something to always battle for and thirst over. And as the most interesting man in the world would say, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”