History of the Jews in Latin America
The history of Jews in the Americas dates back to Christopher Columbus and his first cross-Atlantic voyage on August 3, 1492, when he left Spain and eventually "discovered" the New World. His date of departure was also the day on which the Catholic Monarchs Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon decreed that the Jews of Spain had to convert to Catholicism or be expelled from the country.
There were at least seven Jews (either crypto-Jews, Marranos or sincere Jewish converts to Catholicism) who sailed with Columbus in his first voyage including Roderigo De Triana, who was the first to sight land (Columbus later assumed credit for this), Maestre Bernal, who served as the expedition's physican, and Luis De Torres, the interpreter, who spoke Hebrew and Arabic, which it was believed would be useful in the Orient – their intended destination.
In the coming years, Jews settled in the new Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Caribbean, where they believed that they would be safe from the Inquisition. Some took part in the conquest of the "New World," and Bernal Díaz del Castillo describes a number of executions of soldiers in Hernán Cortés's forces during the conquest of Mexico because they were Jews.
Nevertheless, several Jewish communities in the Caribbean, Central, and South America flourished, particularly in those areas under Dutch and English control. By the sixteenth century, fully functioning Jewish communities had organized in Brazil, Suriname, Curaçao, Jamaica, and Barbados. In addition, there were unorganized communities of Jews in the Spanish and Portuguese territories, where the Inquisition was active, including Cuba and Mexico, however, these Jews generally concealed their identity from the authorities.
By the mid-seventeenth century, the largest Jewish communities in the Western Hemisphere were located in Suriname and Brazil.
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Jews fleeing the Inquisition settled in Argentina, but assimilated into the Argentine society. After independence from Spain, Jews, especially Jews from France, began to settle in Argentina in the mid-19th century. In the late 1800s, just as they did in the United States, many Jews arrived from Eastern Europe and Russia, fleeing persecution, called "Rusos" in Argentina. Between 1906 and 1912, Jewish immigration increased at a rate of 13,000 immigrants per year, with most from Eastern Europe but others from Morroco or the Ottoman Empire. By 1920, more than 150,000 Jews were living in Argentina.
Jews in Argentina quickly came to play a role in Argentine society, but were subject to waves of antisemitism. In 1919, pogroms targeted the Jews and destroyed significant property. In 1946, Juan Peron permitted Nazis to flee to Argentina, and ended Jewish immigration, but also established ties with the state of Israel (Adolf Eichmann was later captured in Argentina by Israeli agents) . During the military junta of 1976 to 1983, 1,000 of the 9,000 people killed by the state were Jewish. In the 1990s, the Jewish community was the subject of terrorist attacks, thought to be carried out by Iran with the assistance of the Argentine police. The Israeli Embassy was bombed in April 1992, killing 32 people and, in 1994, the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires was bombed, killing more than 100 people and wounding over 200.
Today, 250,000 Jews live in Argentina, mostly in Buenos Aires.
Jews settled early in Brazil, especially when it was under Dutch rule, setting up a synagogue in Recife as early as 1636. Most of these Jews had fled Spain and Portugal to the religious freedom of the Netherlands during the re-establishment of the Inquisition in first Portugal, Spain, and again Portugal. Amsterdam and a few other Dutch towns soon had small Jewish communities. However, Jews were barred from almost all guild trades and faced limited opportunities. The community soon had more members than it could support.
To open up trade opportunities and provide a home for Jews unable to support themselves in Amsterdam, the Dutch merchants pushed for an expedition to take Brazil and its rich sugar plantations from Portugal. Despite several years of advanced warning from spies, the Dutch expedition easily took control of Brazil and Recife. For twenty years, the colony prospered and the Jews with it. Despite resentment from Dutch and Portuguese Christians, the Jews were vital to trade as they were the only ones who spoke both Dutch and Portuguese from the beginning. Unlike Amsterdam or Portugal, the Jews of Recife experienced extraordinary religious toleration, including public processions, a synagogue, religious schools, and a mikvah. A civil war, supported by the Spanish crown, soon racked the colony as Portuguese Brazilians fought to remove the Protestant Dutch. As the guerrilla fighting ruined the sugar trade, many Jews returned to Amsterdam, leaving a fraction of the community.
The war between the Portuguese and Dutch over Brazil culminated in the surrender of Recife on January 26, 1654. The capitulation agreement provided for a period of safe-conduct for 3 months for Dutch subjects who wished to leave Brazil. While the Jews' safety was guaranteed, they must have been uncomfortable with living under the eye of the Inquisition and having soldiers billeted in their synagogue. Since shipping space was extremely scarce, the victorious Portuguese general extended the safety for Christians and Jews who never had been baptized past the alloted three months. By the April 26th deadline, it appears all Jews residing in Brazil had left for Holland, Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, or North America.
Jews resettled in Brazil in the 1800s after independence, and immigration rose throughout the 19th and early 20th century. In the late 1880s, members of the Zionism movement considered settling many Jews in Brazil to escape Russian pogroms, but strict immigration and political strife led to this plan being abandoned. The immigrants who did come to Brazil arrived from many different Jewish communities around the world, making the community in Brazil very diverse, in many ways a microcosm of Brazilian society in general. Generally, the community has escaped major persecution, despite the government banning all Jewish organizations for a time.
There are about 150,000 Jews in Brazil today, and they play an active role in industry and academia.
Due to the strong Catholic presence in Mexico, few Jews migrated there until the late 1800s. Then, a number of German Jews settled in Mexico as a result of invitations from Maximilian of Mexico settled in the country, followed by a wave of Eastern European Jews fleeing Russia. A second large wave of immigration occurred as the Ottoman Empire collapsed, leading many Sephardic Jews to flee. Finally, a wave of immigrants fled the increasing Nazi persecutions in Europe.
Today, there are between 40,000 and 50,000 Mexican Jews. There are also a significant number of Conversos, Jews who converted to Catholicism to escape the Inquisition, but retained some Jewish heritage (like lighting candles on Friday nights). Many prominant Mexicans consider themselves Conversos. The famous painter Diego Rivera wrote in 1935, "Jewishness is the dominant element in my life., From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work."
Puerto Rico is currently home to the largest Jewish community in the Caribbean, around 3,000 Jews, with a Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogue. Jews were prohibited from settling in Puerto Rico through much of its history; a few arrived during World War II, but the majority of the current population are descendents of Jews who fled from Cuba (once home to 15,000 Jews) after Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution in 1959.
Like many former Spanish colonies founded soon after the Spanish Inquisition, there is some population of Puerto Ricans who are crypto-Jews (some prefer to be called anusim, or coerced), descendants of forcably converted Jews. Some of these maintain elements of Jewish tradition, though they themselves are Catholic; this includes some members of families with last names like Rodriguez, Gomez, Mendez and Cardoso. 
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