Jews in Latin America: From conversos to kosher

Oct 24, 2018 Comments Off on Jews in Latin America: From conversos to kosher by

by Lauren Chalk *

How  Jewish is Latin America? How vibrant is the Latin American-Jewish community? From the Sephardim of the Hispanic Caribbean islands, to the Ashkenazim in the metropolitan cities of Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, we can gauge the Jewish presence through the size of its communities and the visibility of its institutions. Yet, it is important to note that the first Jewish arrivals to Latin America were not technically “Jewish” but arrived with an adopted Christian faith. With this in mind, it is interesting to explore how visible Jewish life has developed over time – starting with the first arrivals to the Americas from 1492. Interestingly, the men who helped finance Columbus’ voyage to find an alternative passage to India (unsuccessful), Luis de Santángel and the treasurer of the Spanish crown, Gabriel Sanchez, were Jewish. Also, it was Jewish man named Luis Torres who accompanied Columbus as an interpreter – in particular, it was his skills in Arabic and Hebrew which Columbus believed would help him build relationships with traders in Asia. We now know that this journey led Columbus and his team to the Caribbean islands of the Americas. 1492 was also the year that Spain issued an official expulsion of Jews from Spain and its territories overseas. In other words, in the same year that the Iberian Peninsula demonstrated the heights of its intolerance for its Jewish people, a new continent was potentially “available” for its religious outcasts. Paradoxically, the latter was not a solution to the former. So, when we talk about early Jewish arrivals to Latin America, we are talking about Jewish people who had previously or recently converted to Catholicism (New Christians, or conversos or Marranos from Spain, or cristaos novos from Portugal). Names aside, what led Jews (and their descendants) to Latin America?

Firstly, it is worth noting that migration today is no longer simply a one-off movement from the homeland to the land of destination – there is now much more back-and-forth involved than ever before. Today, the direction of migration flows from Latin America to other destinations: put simply, it is more likely that Latin American Jews are emigrating from their respective countries. In the US, there is a reasonably sized Jewish community in the Miami-Dade region made up of mostly Jubanos (Jewish-Cubans) who fled following the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Likewise, there are inter-regional flows which are at times unpredictable and not specific to the Jewish experience. There are Venezuelan Jews moving across the border to Colombia in light of the economic and political crisis in Venezuela, for example. Migration is not something specific to Jews (or humans, even) – and today’s population movements can be contextualised within the larger phenomenon of globalisation. However, there remains a popular belief is that the Jews are a wandering people and, therefore, migration is a characteristically Jewish tradition (Tartakower 1958). What is fair to say is that the Jewish experience of migration has been historically, and Biblically-speaking, traumatic and in search of sanctuary from persecution. However, migration of Jews to Latin America has been, for the most part, on an individual basis – not en masse as was the case of the Exodus, or the mass migrations of Jewish people to the US or to make aliyah to Palestine (particularly since the state of Israel was established in 1948), for example.

From the Old World to a new one

To understand the arrival of Jews to the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas, we must first explore what was going on in Spain and Portugal. A good place to start is to unpack the relationship between these countries and its Jewish citizens in the years leading up to the “discovery” of the Americas from 1492. Let’s first start with Spain. Spain was a temperamental environment for Jews following the Christian reconquista and repoblación of Muslim territory in the 1200s. That being said, it was more of a precarious environment for Muslims than its Jewish populations at this time. In fact, because of the incentives introduced by Christian kings to repopulate former-Muslim lands, Jewish communities exploded in southern Iberia. It is somewhat ironic that this Christian expansion automatically led to the expansion of the Judería (Jewish settlement) in places such as Andalusia, Murcia and southern Portugal. Some areas in Spain offered a relatively easy life for its Jewish inhabitants. In his book, The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BCE-1492 CE, Simon Schama (2013) writes about Majorca which ‘may not have been the land of milk and honey’ but Jews were, at least, protected from preaching friars, or the threat of arrest during their festivals. Indeed, there was a time in Spain when Jews served as godparents at the baptisms of Christian friends, and their Christian friends would likewise attend their circumcision ceremonies (Davis 2006).

However, between 1412-5, laws for voluntary conversions were introduced in Spain. Jews who converted were now referred to as “conversos” or “New Christians” or “marranos” (meaning “swine” in Spanish which is particularly insulting). Despite these homogenizing efforts, there remained a concern that converted Jews and their descendants continued to observe their faith in secret. Known as Judaizers, they threatened the so-called spiritual integrity of recent converts. It was this growing anxiety that New Christians would be tempted back to Judaism, if they were living close to Jews or Judaizers, which led Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile (the Spanish monarchy) to begin expelling its Jewish communities from Andalusia in 1483. Less than a decade later, in 1492, Jews were ordered to leave Spain entirely. Jews were confronted with two options: either convert or leave. It wasn’t until 1931, with the founding of the republic of Spain, that the Spanish expulsion was finally reversed – one of the republic’s first policies stated that all genuine Sephardim could return (Raphael 1991). Interestingly, some Spanish Jews fled to Portugal where they were offered temporary residence (for a fee) following their expulsion from Spain. This lasted until Portugal followed the Spanish example (as a result of a marriage contract between the Portuguese King and daughter of the Spanish monarchs in 1496) and expelled its Jewish population, too (Efron et al., 2009). Strangely, what began as forced expulsions resulted in forced conversions. In 1497, all Jews were prohibited from leaving Portugal and forced to convert instead.

But what about the conversos?

If things were not hostile enough for Jews and conversos, there was also a growing concern over a new concept of the “purity of blood.” “Limpieza de sangre” signaled a move away from the belief that baptism changed the soul – and introduced the concept that blood was the vehicle for the transmission of cultural traits (Torres et al. 2012). So, despite their conversion to Christianity, conversos retained their “Jewish” blood. Not only did this transform how “being Jewish” was viewed in the long-term, it contradicted church laws which stated that converted Jews (and Muslims) could not be reminded of their “pre-conversion background” (Efron et al. 2009).

Not only did conversos have to be weary of these new views on blood, but also of the growing reach and power of the Inquisition. The Inquisition authorities defended the “purity” of the Catholic faith which, at this point, was aligned with the idea of pure lineage or blood. In short, the Inquisition focused on “reforming” its Christian population which, of course, now included conversos. In particular, evidence of “judaizing” (such as observing the Sabbath or circumcising male children) was a priority for the Spanish, and later Portuguese, Inquisitions (Davis 2006). With this in mind, conversos had a choice between remaining in Spain or Portugal, or taking a risk and settling in their colonies across the Atlantic where there was no guarantee that the statues of limpieza or the “inquisitorial mindset” would not follow them there. Indeed, the zeal of the Spanish crown and papal authorities did translate to the colonies overseas: the desire to defend and spread Catholicism was so strong that, in 1501, there was a temporary ban on the trans-Atlantic slave trade so to prevent non-Catholic influences distracting from the mass conversion of Native American populations. This is a telling example of the importance assigned to religious colonisation over other priorities, and sheds light on how hostile the Iberian-American colonies were towards any potential non-Catholic presence.

With all things considered, the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas were not exactly an obvious choice of escape. Fear of persecution and discrimination prevented Jews and conversos from establishing openly “Jewish” communities (Horowitz 1981). Interestingly, it was only in the English, French and Dutch colonies that Jews began to practise their faith openly. For example, Dutch trade links brought Portuguese converso merchants, who were trading in Amsterdam, to Suriname. They settled and owned some of the sugar plantations and founded the first synagogue in the western hemisphere (“Joden Savanne”) in 1639. Referred to as “port Jews” these communities did not practise the traditions and ways of life as Jews in Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Over time, converso merchants came to control much of the tradeincluding the slave tradein Latin America and the Caribbean. As a result, often the name “judío” (meaning “Jew”) was given to merchants whether they were Jewish or not.

Independence, war, peddling and Jew-bans

Tartakower (1958) wrote that ‘according to Jewish tradition many periods of migration were dictated by the will of the Almighty.’ Whilst this is a romantic notion, it was a mixture of religious tolerance (or indifference) and economic incentive which finally encouraged more Jews to settle in Latin America from the early 1800s. First of all, independence led to the abolishing of the Inquisition and the institutionalisation of limpieza which had always been colonial exports. It also opened the countries of Latin America (except Cuba and Puerto Rico) to immigration. The new Latin American republics and their governments needed cheap manpower to jumpstart economic development and, controversially, to import European social and cultural norms to countries with majority Native and African populations. The irony is that the racism towards Native and African populations translated into tolerance of the so-called racial or cultural attributes of migrant Jews or conversos – Europeans were wanted in Latin America regardless of their faith. Also, in a bid to “mejorar la raza” (translated: improve the [white] race) intermarriage between Catholics and Protestants was strongly encouraged. Ironically, this explains the first record of a Jewish wedding in the subcontinent in 1860. Overall, despite these efforts, very few Jews settled in Latin America at this time. Only 6% of Europeans who migrated were Jews (Elkin 1998). However, some German or French Jews settled in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Santo Domingo. Overall, only a few thousand Jews were to be found in all of Latin America by the end of the 19th century.

However, between the turn of the century and the First World War, pogroms and poverty in Eastern Europe and Russia drove new waves of Jewish migrants to the newly-independent countries of Latin America. So significant was this wave of immigration that the term “rusos” (which originally referred only to Eastern European or Russian Jews) became a name to describe any Jewish person. However, unlike previous arrivals, the latest wave of Jews often came penniless with less aptitude for assimilation (Horowitz 1981). The benefits of this was the creation of a more visible Jewish life – these new arrivals established schools, community centres, burial societies, and political organisations. It was also around this time that the Jewish peddler (essentially a small-scale salesman going “door-to-door” selling household commodities) became an increasingly noticeable feature of daily life in Latin America. However, increased visibility often makes you an easy target for resentment, providing the circumstances are apt. History will tell you that nationalism (tied to campaigns for national sovereignty or independence) spells trouble for ethnic or cultural “others” – or any identity markers which do not match the homogenous majority. At the beginning of the 20th century, nationalist and fascist sentiments felt in Europe were reflected in the migration policies of other countries, including Latin America. For the Jewish populations already settled there, they became increasingly a target for anti-immigrant (and anti-Communist) aggression which was similarly gaining in momentum.

Skipping a few decades, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Argentina received a relatively large number of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe – second after Palestine. However, countries such as Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil only accepted Catholics which meant that Jews would have to convert beforehand. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? To add insult to injury, Nazi fugitives (including some of the major perpetrators of the Holocaust, such as Eichmann) were somewhat welcomed with open arms. Ironically and tragically, Jewish Holocaust survivors founds themselves living amidst former Nazis, especially in Argentina (Stavans 2016). President Perón was a fascist-sympathiser (although there are some who will still debate this), and he arranged for thousands of former SS officers and Nazis to be smuggled out of Europe so he could recruit them for military and scientific projects (Klein 2015).

On a slightly more positive note, at around the same time, the Beth Shalom Synagogue was built in Havana, Cuba, where it is estimated there was a community of 15,000 Cuban-Jews in the early 1950s. However, by the end of the decade (1959), Fidel Castro ordered a ban on religion which would change everything. The state’s lockdown on religion was accompanied by the confiscation of private property, thus removing the two biggest incentives for Jewish settlement: religious tolerance (or indifference) and the prospect of social and economic prosperity or, at least, mobility. Jubanos mostly fled to Miami (although some did stay) and became known as “Jew-bans” (Terry 2014). Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1992 that Cuba reversed the ban on religious practice which triggered impressive Jewish religious and educational outreach programmes. Despite efforts to revive Jewish cultural life on the island, it is estimated that there are only around 1,000 Jews living in Cuba today – and, apparently, only one kosher butcher. Also, intermarriage within the Jewish community has soared in Cuba. And here we arrive at the most significant factor which has, over the years, challenged the visibility and continuity of Jewish life, not only in Cuba but across Latin America: assimilation.


As testimony to Latin America’s sizable Jewish population today, Argentina is home to the only kosher McDonalds outside of Israel. Likewise, in 2008, the first Jewish new year book (the Book of Life) was published in Brazil – home to the ninth largest Jewish community in the world. There are signs that, against the backdrop of cultural pluralism, communities are increasingly more comfortable to express their religious, national and cultural heritage. For Jews in Latin America, after centuries of prioritising assimilation, this means now having the spaces and channels to keep their “Jewishness” alive. In 2013, I was visiting Barranquilla, Colombia. (For those who don’t know of it, a good frame of reference is that it is the birthplace of Shakira). After a long conversation with a taxi driver, we found Sinagoga Shaare Sedek. There didn’t seem to be much going on, but once we called for the “manager” of the site, I was given a very brief, 45 second tour of the synagogue, but only after much persuasion. The impression this left on me was that the manager was not too keen on tourists (understandably) or was weary of outsiders entering the space. So-called “boundary maintenance” is not specific to the Jewish diaspora – it is, generally speaking, a way for minority groups to retain and protect their distinctive cultural traits in light of increasing intercultural interaction (with tourists or otherwise).

Finally, a quick look to the future. The recent revival or “Trumpification” (Encarnacion 2018) of right-wing politics across Latin America threatens the well-being (and, potentially, the existence) of its minority communities. Likewise, there is a growing concern about stirring antisemitism from those on the political left who, at times, pepper their arguments for the rejection of Israel with more traditional anti-Semitic comments (Krauze 2014). According to a report by The Jewish People Policy Institute, anti-Zionist is a particularly strong feeling in Latin America due to the subcontinent’s long narrative of anti-colonialism, -imperialism and -Americanism. It is difficult to predict what these developments mean for its Jewish citizens. In the meantime, it is important to celebrate the long-awaited arrival of visible Jewish life in Latin America, from Jewish museums to kosher McDonalds – now more so than ever.


Davis, D. B. (2006) Inhuman Bondage: the Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.

Efron, J, Weitzman, S et al. (2009) The Jewish: A history. Pearson, USA.

Encarnacion, O.G. (2018) The Trumpification of the Latin American Right. Foreign Policy. See:

Klein, C. (2015) How South America Became a Nazi Haven. History. See:

Krauze, E. (2014). Anti Semitism stirs in Latin America. The New York Times. See:

Raphael, C (1991) The Sephardi Story: A Celebration of Jewish History. Vallentine Mitchell, London.

Schama, S. (2013) The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BCE-1492 CE. Bodley Head, London.

Sherwood, H. (2018) Traditional anti semitism is back, global study finds. The Guardian. See:

Stavans, I. (2016) Oy, caramba!: an anthology of Jewish stories from Latin America. University of New Mexico Press, USA.

Tartakower, A (1958) In search of home and freedom. Lakeman & co., London.

Terry, E. (2014). Living la Revolución: How the Jubanos—the Jews of Cuba—Became the Jewbans. J Space News. See:

Torres, M.H., Martinez, M.E. & Nirenberg, D. (2012) Race and blood in the Iberian world. LIT Verlag, Münster.


* Lauren Chalk is interested in cultural representations of Latin America – and has previously researched representations of Latin American culture and art in UK museums and galleries. In particular, she wants to explore further the relationship between representation(s) and sociopolitical events. She has studied at Royal Holloway, University of London, and UCL – and currently works at the Jewish Museum London. Upcoming projects include Jewish life in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the links between anti-Semitism and colonialism. You can follow her on Instagram @laurengchalk

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