Jews first arrived in Mexico in the 16th century from Spain and Portugal, accompanying early explorers to the Americas. Their arrival took place in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition, and almost all were “conversos”—Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity, but secretly practiced Judaism. However, the Inquisition also traveled to the New World. Practicing Jews were not allowed to immigrate until the 19th century. Until the Mexican Inquisition was abolished in 1813, Jews in Mexico experienced incredible persecution and many people suspected of practicing Judaism were burned at the stake.
Immigration from non-Spanish Europe began with a wave of German Jews in the 1840’s, followed by French and British Jews in the late 1800’s, and Eastern Europeans in the 1920’s. A large group of Syrian, Turkish, and Greek Jews also arrived around the turn of the century. Mexico’s first synagogue was erected in 1885 to accommodate the rising population.
Mexico City has always been the center of the country’s Jewry, with the majority of Jews residing there. The inhabitants have varied backgrounds and a varied linguistic heritage: Yiddish, German, Hungarian, Ladino, and Arabic. Since the 1930’s, the largest number have been of Eastern European origin. Today, Jews can be found outside of Mexico City in the cities of Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Tijuana. In 2012, the total Jewish population in Mexico was about 40,000.