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‘A David and Goliath story’: The Jewish history of Cinco de Mayo

The 1862 Battle of Puebla paved the way for Mexico to become a haven for Jews fleeing persecution.

When Alexandra Rodriguez takes a tequila shot this Cinco de Mayo, she’ll toast l’chaim

Growing up in El Paso, Texas, Rodriguez didn’t feel much of a connection to the holiday. For her parents, who emigrated from Mexico, celebrating Cinco de Mayo would have been like people from the U.S. celebrating the Battle of Gettysburg, said the Baltimore-based artist.  

For her Passover Seder, Rodriguez prepared hand-made tamales from Cocina Luchadores, a Mexican restaurant in Baltimore. Courtesy of Alexandra Rodriguez

Despite a popular misconception, Cinco de Mayo does not commemorate Mexico’s independence from Spain, which is celebrated on Sept. 16. Instead, the holiday marks the anniversary of Mexico’s victory against the French Empire in the 1862 Battle of Puebla. Because Cinco de Mayo honors the winning of a single battle, it isn’t celebrated much in Mexico, aside from in the area where the battle was fought.

But in the U.S., Cinco de Mayo has been reclaimed as a day for those of Mexican descent to take pride in their heritage, cuisine and culture. And for Rodriguez, the holiday holds a special importance: It marks the beginning of Mexico’s evolution into an oasis for Jews fleeing persecution.

When Rodriguez told her parents four years ago that she was converting to Judaism, they told her they didn’t know if other Mexican Jews existed; more than 80% of the country’s population is Catholic. 

Now, she said, she can tell them that Cinco de Mayo “means so much more than this one-time battle.”

“It’s about freedom of religion, and it legitimizes that a Mexican Jew is a real thing — that I’m not some weird anomaly.”

A “fascinating, complicated and confusing story”

Jews first arrived in Mexico in 1519 as conversos — Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition. In Mexico, as in Spain and Portugal, some conversos continued to practice Judaism in secret. Others assimilated and became active members of colonial society. 

But in 1571, the Spanish crown began enforcing its Inquisition policies in Mexico. Hundreds of conversos were prosecuted and convicted, and some deported or even executed, in the name of “cleansing” the New World. 

Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. But Catholicism remained the only permitted religion, and by the 1850s, it’s estimated that fewer than 30 Jewish families lived in the country. Then, in 1861, the liberal Benito Juárez was elected president. His liberal reforms angered the French crown, who sent troops to Mexico, aiming to seize the country. 

Juárez raised a ragtag army from mostly Indigenous tribes, and, shockingly, the smaller, poorly equipped Mexican army defeated the larger, better-armed French army on May 5, 1862, near the city of Puebla — an initial victory in a conflict that would drag on until 1867.

“The Battle of Puebla is a David and Goliath story,” Rodriguez said.

The victory provided a morale boost to the Mexican army, and in 1864, wary of losing control, France installed an Austrian duke, Maximilian I, as emperor of Mexico. Yet, in his brief stint in power, Maximilian I ended up championing the very reforms that had angered France. He also brought several Jewish families with him to Mexico, made a Jew his official court physician and proclaimed religious tolerance for non-Catholics, which led many French, Hungarian and Belgian Jews to come to Mexico.

In 1867, after years of fighting, Mexican forces defeated the French. Juárez issued laws separating church and state, which allowed Jewish immigrants who had come because of Maximilian — whom he executed — to finally be protected under the law as citizens.

“It’s this very fascinating, complicated and confusing story, just like anything else in Jewish history,” Rodriguez said.

“In Jewish history, we have so many of these pivotal moments that seem small at the time and become so huge.”

“We survived, let’s celebrate life”

After Juárez’s death in 1872, Porfirio Díaz, a general, became president. He actively welcomed Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, growing Mexico’s Jewish population even further. In the 1890s, Jews escaping antisemitism in the Ottoman Empire — many of whom spoke Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish — also found a haven in Mexico.

With the institution of strict immigration quotas in the U.S., more Jews arrived in Mexico during the 1920s. By the 1930s, there were 50,000 Jews in the country. Today, Mexico’s Jewish community numbers between 40,000 and 50,000, with hubs in Guadalajara, Monterrey, Cancún and Mexico City — whose mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, is Jewish.

And so, on Cinco de Mayo, Rodriguez will nosh on authentic Mexican foods and drink to the endurance of the Jewish people. “The joke is, ‘They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat’ — I’ve never seen it as a somber thing,” she said, “I’ve seen it as ‘We survived, let’s celebrate life!’”

For her, the holiday represents how “we Jews, like any other minority group,” she said, “keep persevering in the face of anything that comes our way.”

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