A Visit to Mexico's Oldest Jewish Community

September 25, 2007



It is easy to miss Venta Prieta. There is no welcome sign, no landmark visible from the road.

It appears at first to be nothing more than a cluster of small stores, unpaved streets, and low flat houses hiding among the dry brown and yellow hills on the outskirts of the old mining city of Pachuca in central Mexico. But visitors keep coming –journalist - anthropologists, curiosity seekers. If it could choose, Venta Prieta would remain anonymous. Go away, say a man's eyes when a visitor asks if she is in the right place. Leave us alone. And then with words, We are not objects in a museum.

Founded in the 1850s, this small Mexican community lived through its first century guarding a deep secret-its Jewish identity. Its founders and most of its inhabitants were descendants of families who had spent 300 years hiding in Mexico's mountains after escaping the Spanish Inquisition. The com- munity's founders, a couple named Tellez, settled in Venta Prieta when it was just an outpost, a ghostly presence that came to life with the visit of the occasional traveler. Today the village sits in the shadow of a giant new shop- ping mall across the road, and its secret has been out in the open for 30 years. But secrecy is an old habit, a vestige of a survival skill that kept the community alive for centuries.

The story really begins with the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492, during the Spanish Inquisition. The Holy Office of the Inquisition, established by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1478, had already burned thousands of Jews at the stake in the decade before the expulsion decree. In the half century following the expulsion, roughly a third of Spain's Jews were burned at the stake, a third fled, and another third were forcibly converted to Catholicism. Of those who converted, many maintained Jewish customs in private.
Many Jews left Spain on ships bound for the New World, where they hoped the Inquisition would be less severe. So many took this path of survival that by 1550 almost 25% of Mexico City's Spanish population was known to be Jewish, and the community had its own Grand Rabbi. The number might have been even larger, since many Jews disguised themselves as Catholics. "The great majority of Mexicans today have Jewish blood, though very diluted," says Orthodox Rabbi Abraham Bartfeld of Mexico City.

New Spain was not the haven Jews imagined. In fact, the Inquisition there lasted longer than it did in Spain, where it was finally sup- pressed in 1808. In Mexico, the Spanish authorities established a Tribunal of the Inquisition in 1571which existed until the colony's War of Independence in 1821. During the war, the Inquisition accused the revolutionary priest Jos6 Maria Hidalgo y Costilla, the father of Mexican independence, of practicing Judaism, among other "crimes." By then the Inquisition had become so despised by the general population that it was commonly referred to as the "Unholy Office."

Historians have generally contended that Mexico's colonial Jewish population was either wiped out or converted. But the Jews of Venta Prieta say their ancestors accomplished the impossible- they remained Jews throughout the Inquisition, even though they had no synagogue and no rabbi to instruct them during the centuries of hiding. In the last 50 years, they have built their own temple, bought their own Torah, and, in keeping with biblical tradition, have had an eternal flame of olive oil-which requires constant attention burning inside the temple.

But Mexico's orthodox rabbinate, wary of the long centuries that the Inquisition's refugees spent underground, disputes Venta Prieta's claim that it is Mexico's oldest Jewish community. “They can't prove their ancestry goes back to colonial times," says orthodox Rabbi Bartfeld. While he admires their "spirituality," Rabbi Bartfeld considers the heritage of the people of Venta Prieta to be as much Catholic as Jewish. He believes the only legitimate Jews in Mexico today are twentieth-century immigrants from Europe and North Africa and their descendants. Mexico's entire Jewish population numbers about 50,000, 80% of whom live in Mexico City.

Conservative Rabbi Samuel Lerer disagrees 
with the orthodoxy. He met 
the Venta Prieta communi
ty in 1968, the same year
he left the United States for Mexico. He found that they
had recognizably Jewish characteristics: they did not
eat pork or mix milk and
meat, and virtually all the
men were circumcised. What's more, says Rabbi 
Lerer, "they can trace their lineage back to the early nineteenth century. How
many Jews can prove they are Jewish beyond three generations?"

It was Rabbi Lerer who piqued my curiosity about Venta Prieta. He showed me a few articles about the community published in the United States and Mexico, and complained of their inaccuracies. None of the articles explained Venta Prieta's history. The rabbi then sent me to the one man who knows the community's story.

His name is Rubdn Tdllez. He is a direct descendant of the community's founders and, at 53, he is Venta Prieta's reluctant elder spokesman. He is withdrawn and embittered, and he hates journalists. He could not care less about what Mexico's Jewish community or any other outsiders might think of Venta Prieta.
 He runs a little store out of the back of his house on the only paved street in town. Its sign says La Paz. Peace. But inside, it is too peaceful. While the shopping mall across the road hums with activity, the only person to walk into his store all afternoon just asks to use the telephone. Tellez sits in a corner, wearing a plaid shirt, a baseball cap, and dark-green sun glasses. He leans back on a folding chair with one knee up against a rusted card table. Above his head hangs a collage of Coca-Cola ads. He closes a book, its title concealed by a dust jacket, and looks up.

"So you want to write a story? Isn't that nice. Do you expect me to drop what I'm doing to attend to you just because you want to write about us?" he asks. "Don't you understand how tired we are of strangers poking into our intimate lives with questions and criticisms, trying to see if we really exist, if we're really who we say we are?"

  I tell him I would be happy to come back at a more convenient time. "There is no convenient time to talk to journalists," he says. "They stay at a hotel in the city, then come here for a few hours to stare and dig up our past. They write lies about us and never send us the articles. They promise every- thing and deliver nothing. It's a waste of time. I may look like I'm just sitting here, but it's my time."

"Rabbi Lerer sent me." I show him the rabbi's card. "The rabbi has done wonders for us and we owe him a lot, but with all due respect, he is sometimes too openhearted." "Could I at least attend tonight's Sabbath service?"Amazed I am a Jew who wants to attend his synagogue's services, and impressed that I actually know how to pray in Hebrew, he relents. He even offers to put me up at the community's guest house, "as a guest, but not as a journalist." Then, having granted me permission to write, but not to ask questions, he dismisses me. "You've already wasted enough of my time," he says. "I have to read the Torah portion for this week. Goodbye."

Venta Prieta's synagogue stands behind a forbidding white wall, but a little door opens onto a courtyard filled with bouncing children, whose faces represent a cross pollination of continents: Europe, North Africa, Indo-America. Rough blue and yellow stained glass windows with elongated Stars of David ring the small temple. Inside, rows of old wooden pews with separate chair backs and armrests seat about 100 people. The Sacred Ark, which houses the Torah, is made of marble and onyx. A white polyester curtain with two fierce lions of Judah sewn in sequins covers the Sacred Ark. Next to it, a flame flickers in a silver bowl filled with ' olive oil.

Replicas of Chagall's Twelve
Tribes of Israel hang around the wall where the Stations of the Cross would be in a Catholic church, and outside the temple door sits a box for donations. Other hints of Catholicism appear during an otherwise standard service. The women, for example, touch the Torah's cover with their hands (instead of with a prayer book), then touch their fingers to their forehead and lips, a hand motion not too unlike the sign of the cross. Also, when the Sacred Ark is opened, congregants raise their hands, a gesture seen in church but not in synagogue. Rabbi Lerer once mentioned that when he visits Venta Prieta, they touch his robe and kiss his hands, even though such behavior goes against Jewish custom.

"Some criticize us for these customs and say they're Catholic," says Miguel Copca, Tellez' 20- year-old nephew. "But these are not Catholic traditions. They are our traditions and we're not going to change them. What's important isn't where your hands are, but where your heart is."

Saturday morning prayer begins at eight and lasts until 11:30, with most of the 30 congregants trick- ling in halfway through. Tellez watches me read and listens to me sing in Hebrew. The melodies are Sephardic-from sixteenth-century Spain. After lunch, he goes to see about getting more streets paved in town. While his wife and children do errands, I wash several days' worth of dishes. It is the least I can do before returning to Mexico City that evening. Before I leave, Tellez reluctantly agrees to speak with me again. "If you're really interested," he says, "come back when I have time, and bring a short list of questions." We agree to meet in five days.

" When I return, he is in the same position he had been in when I first met him, wearing the same baseball cap, leaning back in his chair, and reading the dust jacketed Torah. "I was hoping you wouldn't come," he greets me, "because frankly I don't feel like answering any questions today. I was thinking how much your visit reminded me of going to the dentist." He tries to hide a faint smile. "I'm writing my own book about the family," he adds. "It's called 'The Lost History.' I just need a few more documents, to finish it."

"Once you publish it, you'll never have to talk to a nosy stranger again."That's the idea."

We talk about everything but Venta Prieta. He asks me what I am going to do with my life, and gives me marriage advice. He says his father died when he w'as young, and he had to drop out of school to sup- port the family "Let's hear the questions," he says abruptly. At first he gives terse, vague re- sponses. "What we have are several plausible versiions of our earliest history," he sa)ys. "If there were any written procif of our antiquity, all of this would have been written up years ago in the United States." But his answers gradually unfold into a narrative, and together with Miguel's anecd()tes from my first visit, they tell a story:

A family, under the original name of Tellezjgiron, most likely arrived in Veracrruz in the sixteenth century. During the Inquisition, they escaped to Zamora, Michoacan. Then "fleeing as usual," they settled in the mountains of Hidalgo where their name was shortened to Tellez. By the 1850s, the family withered away to a single couple and their Jewish secret. They emerged from hiding and founded Venta Prieta.

Tellez can plot the family's genealogy directly to this original couple. Descendants of this founding family inter married with their Catholic neighbors and with their Catholic and Jewish counsins.

"Today the family has divided into two branches: Jewish and Catholic," he says. "We get along as a family. We just don't talk about religion, politics or any- thing." Miguel's brother and father are Catholic, for example, while he and his mother are Jewish.
Rub6n Tellez' great-grandparents farmed the land and gathered the family to pray in a little room. So as not to attract attention, the Sabbath service was shortened and people came and went one by one. "When we asked our elder uncle what something meant in Hebrew," Tellez recalled, "he would only say, 'Shh! Shh!' and turn the pages of the prayer book."

In 1923, when the family grew too large to fit in the elder's little room, they built a small temple. During World War II, a rumor spread that Palestinians were coming to kill the Jews of Venta Prieta. The family dismantled the temple and returned to conducting services in the home of an elder. Meanwhile, a pro-Nazi movement in the nearby town of Tulancingo scattered the Jewish community there. Today, the only non-family members of Venta Prieta's synagogue are from Tulancingo.

Miguel's mother remembers that a terrible viruela negra (black plague) struck Venta Prieta in her childhood. The Catholic population died in such numbers that corpses were loaded onto carts and hauled away. Only one Jew fell sick, but did not die. A rumor spread that the Jews had medicine and were hiding it. Miguel's mother remembers angry townsfolk entering and searching their house, and remaining suspicious until long after the plague subsided. Miguel wonders if their dietary laws might not have protected the Jews from the virus.

The community built a new temple after the war, and a bigger one in 1967. In the 1960s, they openly identified themselves as Jewish for the first time. "The new generation felt more secure," says Tellez, who, along with Miguel's mother and other young people at the time, began seeking Hebrew books and schooling. "The only Hebrew the elders could read was the Hebrew of the prayers," he says. "We wanted to know more."

The community learned to speak Hebrew in Miguel's generation, and young people began taking trips to Israel through international Jewish organizations. Returning with language and knowledge, the young instruct the old in ancient tradition. "Likewise," says Miguel, "the next generation will correct us."

A few months ago, a Hebrew teacher from Mexico City was transferred to Pachuca and has volunteered to give language classes in Venta Prieta. Children training for their bar-mitzvah (coming-of- age) ceremony take lessons with Rabbi Lerer in Mexico City every other Sunday, making a four-hour round trip for a one-hour lesson. Because the 71-year-old rabbi has his own congregation to attend to on the Sabbath and is busy during the week, he performs mass wed- dings and bar-mitzvahs in Venta Prieta on the two or three Sundays in the year that fall on the first day of the lunar month, which is when the Torah can be read

Miguel's generation is more career-minded than previous generations. So far, they have found work in the rapidly developing city of Pachuca. "But if my job takes me to another state," Miguel says, "I'll go." Tellez does not worry that the younger generation's quest for upward mobility could lead to a flight from Venta Prieta. "Why should they move away?" he asks. "Life is comfortable here. There is no hunger anymore. We even have luxuries. Besides," he adds, "people have property here and a cemetery, and they can't take either with them."

I ask Tellez when he plans to finish his book and tell the whole story of Venta Prieta. He says the documents and photographs he needs are in the possession of the oldest member of the community a man almost 80 years old and filled with stories. But an accident several years ago left the man deaf and babbling incoherently. He for- bids people to look at the family records, and goes into a rage if someone tries to borrow them. "I cannot finish the book until he dies," says Tellez.

I want to take a photograph of the schoolroom before leaving Venta Prieta. "Later, later," says Tellez until it is too late and I have to run to catch my bus. There are questions I have not asked. There are answers he has not given. But I have gotten enough. I came to see Venta Prieta, and have learned it does not quite resemble what has been written about it

Our handshake is warm and firm. "I wish I'd taken that photo," I say. "You'll have to come back, he replies." I glimpse a hint of a smile



Read the rest of NACLA's Sept/Oct 1993 issue: "Peril And Promise: The New Democracy in Latin America."

Tags: Mexico, Jews, Venta Prieta, identity, religion

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