For many people, the idea of a Hispanic Jew may be a new concept. “But aren’t most Hispanics Catholic?”
While it’s true that the large majority of Hispanics identify as Catholic, there are large and established Jewish populations throughout Latin America.
Numerous well-known Latinos are in fact Latino Jews: actors Mario Kreutzberger (Don Francisco), William Levy, and Freddie Prinze, director Alejandro Jodorowsky, and politicians such as Venezuelan Henrique Capriles and former presidents Francisco Henríquez (Dominican Republic) and Ricardo Maduro (Honduras).
The history of Hispanic Jews begins, not surprisingly, with Jews in Spain. Due to its proximity to the Middle East, the Iberian Peninsula has had Jewish communities since Biblical times.
Much as Central European Jews spoke Yiddish, Sephardic Jews – in Hebrew, Sephardim, or “Jews of Spain” – spoke Ladino, a Romance language derived from Old Spanish.
The Iberian Peninsula was, in fact, a region where Jews were able to practice their religion in relative freedom, particularly during the Reconquista under Muslim rule. This tolerance led to increased Jewish immigration, and during this time the community grew and prospered.
The end of the Reconquista and the unification of Spain under the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella brought an end to the tolerance of the Jewish religion in the Iberian Peninsula.
In 1492, a two-hundred year period of increasing aggression against the Jews, including forced conversions and massacres, culminated in the Edict of Expulsion.
The Edict of Expulsion ordered all Jews in Spain to convert to Christianity or leave the kingdom within four months. Those who chose to leave were not allowed to take gold, silver, or money.
The Expulsion resulted in a mass exodus and a multitude of forced converts or conversos, as well as the slaughter of both remaining Jews and many who chose to convert, as their conversions were not considered sincere.
It is estimated that as many as half of those Jews who fled Spain went to Portugal; however, their refuge there didn’t last long, as only five years later Jews in Portugal were also forced to leave.
Exiled Jews emigrated throughout the region, with many eventually making their way to Latin America. There were even Jews on Columbus’s journey to the New World!
Four hundred years later, yet another forced migration let to an increase in the number of Jews in Latin America: the rise of Nazi Germany.
While in general Latin American countries did not proactively support Jews fleeing Europe prior to the onset of World War II, the mass murder of European Jews did lead many to increase immigration quotas, issue passports and visas, and accept refugees.
The Latin-American region was also a significant destination for Holocaust survivors, with 20,000 choosing to immigrate to Latin America.
Decades later, a significant number of Cuban Jews emigrated to the U.S. when Fidel Castro came to power.
Currently, there are about 500,000 Jews in Latin America. In the U.S., around 5% of Hispanics are religiously Jewish.
Cities with large populations of Hispanic Jews have seen an increase in their communities in recent years. In Miami, for example, the Latino Jewish adult population grew 57% in the last ten years.
Perhaps most surprising to Hispanics themselves is the discovery that their ancestors were Sephardic Jews that were forced to leave Spain.
For many Hispanics, although their families are Catholic or Protestant, certain family traditions, such as lighting candles and celebrating the dead, make more sense in the context of the Jewish faith.
The history of Jews in Spain also continues to have impacts in terms of immigration. As of 2014, anyone who can prove they are a descendant of Sephardic Jews can apply for a Spanish passport.
Although there are no more than 45,000 Jews currently living in Spain (0.1% of the population), as many as 3.5 million Hispanic Jews could apply under the new law.