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¡Oy, carrumba! Venta Prieta

18 November 2009

While there has been a small movement among the “crypto-Jews” — the descendants of the conversos who made up a large portion of the early Spanish emigration to the New World — to “reconvert” to the religion of their ancestors, but whose ethnic background is as mixed as anyone else’s in this country, we tend to think of Mexican judaism as a totally European phenonoma, not, as with Roman Catholicism, a belief system that could be incorporated into indigenous culture.

Haim F. Gazuli, writing on Beth Hatefutsoth — the website of the Nahum Goldman Museum of the Jewish Diaspora (Tel Aviv, Israel) — writes:

It is widely assumed that small groups of descendants of crypto-Jews who fled the persecutions of the Spanish Inquisition during colonial times and sought refuge in remote regions of Mexico, where they lived among the native people of the country continued for many generations to keep alive in secret, the remembrance of their Jewish origins. Living and intermarrying with local population brought about their full assimilation, and only rarely a few old Jewish practices and beliefs persisted while their significance was totally forgotten.

Sometime during the 1850’s some native Mexicans who believed they were descendants of crypto-Jews decided to return to Judaism. Prominent among them was Ramón Jiron of the town of Morelia in the State of Michoacan. According to oral traditions he died at the hands of his neighbors after it was discovered that he abandoned Catholicism. According to other version he run away from home after refusing to submit to his father’s wish and become a Catholic priest. To escape the persecutions he, or only his widow along with their children and a young man called Manuel Tellez, fled to the town of Real de Oro, and then to the nearby Pachuca, in the State of Hidalgo. Eventually the group and their descendants founded Venta Prieta, then a small agricultural settlement in the outskirts of Pachuca.

Although following the liberal Constitution of 1857, the freedom of religion was introduced in Mexico, the native Mexican Jews of Venta Prieta as well as in other parts of the country, did not make public their beliefs and practices. Francisco Rivas Puigcerver, himself of crypto-Jewish origins, came to the defense of the native Mexicans Jews already in 1889 in a series of articles he published in his periodicals. After 1917, following the promulgation of a new, more anticlerical Constitution, the mantle of secrecy that covered many native Mexican Jews started to loosen as they began establishing organized communities as well as entering a gradual process of learning and return to mainstream Judaism. Francisco Rivas was instrumental in coordinating an umbrella organization for some 3,000 native Mexican Jews who lived mainly in Venta Prieta, in the State of Hidalgo, in Mexico City, and in other localities. The Kahal Kadosh Bnei Elohim community was established in Venta Prieta in 1920.

First reports containing details of the ritual practiced by “Indian Jews” may be found in Francisco Rivas’ periodicals. In his El Sabado secreto he wrote about Indians living in isolated villages who married among themselves only, prayed to God calling him by his old Hebrew name and observed the Shabbat. During their religious ceremonies the prayers were first recited in Hebrew from a sefer and then translated into Spanish.

Not so much hostile to the outside world as self-effacing, the community was visited in the late 1930s by photographer Ida Cowen (I’m trying to get the museum to scan a few photos) and was served by U.S. immigrant rabbi for several years. Rabbi Lerner retired in 1999, and the community has split into two congregations, one Orthodox and one Conservative. Leslie Tellez, who wrote a short article on the community for Mexico Insider in April 2009 had trouble finding people who even would admit the synagogues existed, let alone that they had congregations. Elizabeth Téllez, president of the Comunidad Mexicana Israelita el Neguev Venta Prieta, explained to Leslie Tellez (no relation, as far as I know) the self-imposed obscurity of this Mexican community:

“A lot of people have taken advantage of the community, when in reality they don’t know us,”Téllez said, adding that she’s heard stories of people not affiliated with the temple trying to raise money for Venta Prieta. “We don’t need any promotion. Mexico and Israel, they accept us.”

Téllez said that a rabbi traveled from Mexico City to lead their services each Friday and Saturday and that a few Venta Prieta families had moved to Israel. Other facts she would allow to appear in print: The temple, a stone structure with a Star of David etched into the window, was their third. Families paid for it and the recreation hall with their own money. About 150 Jewish people lived in Venta Prieta, Téllez said.

She showed me a black-and-white photo of the congregation, dated 1938, before politely ending the conversation.

“This is how we’ve always lived,” she said, “and this is how we’re always going to live.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Raquel Brich Stein permalink
    23 September 2011 7:34 pm

    Un cariñoso shalom para ajot Margarita Marròn Tèllez de la familia Jimènez Alegrìa de Xalapa, Veracruz. Sorprendida porque ahora hay dos sinagogas. Hemos mudado nuestro hogar a la ciudad de Xalapa. Hashem permita vernos pròximamente. Nuestra familia ha crecido y nuestra fè tambièn. Con añoranza los recordamos. Feliz roshashanà. Su amiga Aracely (Raquel B. Stein).


  1. Comunidad Mexicana Israelita el Neguev Venta Prieta « Sephardi Tree's Blog
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