Carlos Salas Diaz: Mitzvot in Mexico

‘When I was a child, I was very poor. To eat I yanked out roots from the ground or wild potatoes, whatever I found. And I told myself, “I have to find a way to become rich.'” Carlos Salas Diaz has accomplished the self-fulfilling prophecy that he made when he was an illiterate shepherd in central Mexico. After immigrating to the United States when he was 19, he invested in various businesses, notably jewelry, which made him a millionaire. But his story would not be remarkable if he had not created in Tijuana, a Mexican city of more than a million people bordering Southern California, an exceptional community of which only a few handfuls exist around the world. Himself a converted Jew, Salas has attracted dozens of people to Judaism, which generally does not seek proselytes. After three decades, his Congregaci n Hebrea de Baja California, now comprising 114 members, almost all converts, remains an object of contention between those who label it a monstrosity and those who behold it as a marvelous jewel.

Along the hill that leads to Calle Amado Nervo 207, on the southeastern section of Tijuana, heaps of rubble alternate with newly built homes covered with stucco and fenced with iron gates. A private home now stands on the site where a sign indicated the presence of an Iglesia de Dios, and just ahead survives an abandoned church surrounded by little shops and an Internet caf . Salas’s compound, including the synagogue and living quarters, has been sitting on a quiet corner of this hill since 1975. With its coarse and tall cement walls hiding the inner courtyard, it looks like any anonymous home in the neighborhood, if it weren’t for a huge seven-branched menorah affixed to the building and a blue Star of David atop a high pole.

“The teaching of the Torah should be spread to all mankind; we should share it, not keep it to ourselves,” says Salas, now 72 years old, who converted at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles in 1967 and is now planning to build a center for Jewish studies in the area. He is speaking in the half-light of his office overflowing with plaques, photographs, statuettes and commemorative paintings reproducing him at various stages of his life. “When I began to build this synagogue, I did not tell anybody what it was for. I bought and built it all with my own money,” he continues, hardly hiding his pride behind his light moustache, thick lips, and dark eyes that sparkle when he indulges in a long laugh. A refined exuberance emanates from his slow and controlled movements, stout figure, and confident personality, while a seven-branched menorah pin on his lapel is the only outward sign of his Jewishness.

“I cannot sit in my living room and see people starving. I prefer to use my money to fight poverty and crime,” says Salas, whose reason to bring Judaism to Tijuana goes beyond swelling the ranks of the 40,000 Mexican Jews and adding another piece to the mosaic of religious groups established in the city, among which already exists a congregation of born Jews, the Orthodox Centro Social Israelita. Tijuana has to him an improbable appeal: it is a wretched metropolis stricken by poverty and degradation, where he can directly affect personal and social development; a city touching two immensely different countries where, far from established values and customs, what is elsewhere unimaginable becomes all too likely. “People born in our congregation graduate from college and are doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers. We have already seen a tremendous change,” says Salas, who awards scholarships to the young generation in the congregation’s name. He opens his synagogue to everybody who wants to join, keeping all services free and cash donations voluntary, boasting, “There is no other congregation that does not charge monthly dues, where teachers work for free, and the cantor works for free. In California there are congregations that closed for lack of money. Here, thank God, nobody has to pay.”

Another powerful motive played a part in choosing Tijuana as a favorable ground for teaching Judaism. As Salas recalls with a wave of emotion brightening his eyes, “I would go to Tijuana and see that there were many marranos [‘swines’] because many family names were from Spain.” “Swines” was the name that Spaniards gave to the Jews who, to avoid either death or expulsion from Ferdinand and Isabella’s kingdom in 1492, officially converted to Catholicism, but secretly practiced Judaism. “My maternal great-grandmother and grandmother came from Spain. I don’t know the city. They were descendants of the marranos,” he says, savoring the term as a mark of pride. It was on this premise that Salas set out on his mission to take “hidden Jews” out of the closet. Since the late 1960s, when Salas began advertising his Bible classes in local newspapers, his followers have been led to him by a string of family members, friends and acquaintances. Their common predicament was “no tener rumbo,” not having any course, like ships that had lost their direction and sailed aimlessly across the seas. They fit various portraits, from the superficial and dissatisfied Catholic to the spiritual searcher, like Rafael “Gamaliel” Hernandez, who passed from a stint in the Catholic seminary to Buddhism and Islam, before “finding all the religions in Judaism.”

One exceptional story displays a desperate need for paternal authority and guidance: Francisco “Israel” Madero, a Cora Indian from the central state of Nayarit, had a dream which led him, 12 years later, to recognize Salas as the guide revealed to him by God. “When I was 15, my father died,” relates Madero, who now lives in an apartment adjacent to the synagogue. “The same day that my father died, I thought about what I was going to do, who was going to teach me. I fell asleep and had a dream. A voice proclaimed ‘He is going to teach you’ and I saw Rabbi Salas’s face. I didn’t know him. It also told me, ‘Go to Tijuana.'” Eventually, Madero moved to Tijuana, where years later somebody gave him Rabbi Salas’s address. “I was 27 years old when I met the rabbi. I knocked on the door, Rabbi Salas came to open it, and I recognized his face. It was the same face from the dream!” As for the crypto-Jews who were Salas’s main target, Zulema Chavira Ruiz is among those eager to boast Jewish ancestors. She is one of the few members of the congregation who speaks fluent English, having attended boarding school in Hollywood in her youth.

“My grandmother and great-grandmother came from the Basque country [northern Spain]. My grandmother was blonde and blue-eyed,” she says with captivating girlish friendliness, her glowing pink lipstick matching her fair complexion. “Their last name was Irigoyen. Later, I learned from a book that that name was Jewish.” Since her family did not share this belief, a quarrel ensued when in 1984 she joined the first group who converted: “‘Not even ten horses will take me away from this,’ I said to my husband and children. They were very surprised. I told them, ‘?We have Jewish blood,’ and they said, ‘?No, we don’t.'”

SINCE DECEMBER 25, 1984, when 22 men, women, and children immersed in the ocean’s waters off Rosarito after having been successfully examined by a panel of three rabbis from the United States, Salas’s followers have always converted in large groups. Unlike the first time, they have since completed the last and official step toward conversion by driving the stretch of freeway that connects the unpromising slopes of Tijuana to the green hills of Bel Air in western Los Angeles. Here, on the University of Judaism’s small and spartan campus, a bet din of three Conservative rabbis belonging to the Rabbinical Assembly evaluates the sincerity and knowledge of the candidates, before men go on to circumcision and all to the ritual immersion in the mikvah. Despite this Conservative connection, the congregation is not affiliated to any movement.

Rabbi Edward M. Tenenbaum, the Rabbinical Assembly’s chairman of conversion affairs for Southern California since 1983, has participated in many of these panels. “In Salas’s community, there are families who convert. Generally, there is a leader, others who followed, and friends of these,” says Tenenbaum, an energetic man in his eighties with a relaxed demeanor. “He has brought many to us. He is a good businessman,” he concludes with a laugh. Congregaci n Hebrea de Baja California now embraces three generations of Jews, who are separated by more than the distance of a physiological generational gap. It took Elba de Sotelo, who joined Salas in the 1970s, 11 years before she felt ready to convert. “A friend of mine invited me to take Salas’s classes and my husband and I came and stayed,” she says. “I liked his lectures. He taught us to have direct communication with God and to believe in ourselves.” A generation younger than De Sotelo, Donald “Abraham” Martinez had only two years of formal study before he converted in 1996 at 22, together with Veronica “Lea,” who soon became his wife, but he had already had 10 years of Jewish practice. “The Torah makes me happy. Judaism is not a religion, but a way of life. I feel more obligated: to be a Jew is a responsibility,” he says. His small sons have effortlessly acquired by birth the identity that the first generation attained only after struggling between two, or more, faiths.

WHILE THEIR parents’ and grandparents’ experience grows increasingly distant and forgotten, Salas’s arduous search for identity, which began in the mountains of central Mexico, is worth telling. Carlos Vicente Salas Diaz was born on January 22, 1933 in an isolated home in the mountains of the state of Zacatecas. The nearest town was Fresnillo, known for its gold and silver mines. He was the youngest of seven siblings, some of whom died young. “I was fascinated by history. I always looked for my roots,” says Salas, who did not go to school and did not meet his father, who had a new family, until he was nine years old. He lived with his mother and grandmother, tended the sheep and ate roots. In 1952, after attending primary school in Fresnillo and high school in Mexico City, where he worked for Jewish shopkeepers, Salas moved to Buffalo, New York, to join his brother and work as an apprentice mechanic. Drafted into the US Army during the Korean War, he served in Alaska, while setting up his first enterprise, a washing-and-drying business for soldiers. Back to Buffalo, he also worked as a reporter for the Hispanic press. “Journalism was part of my restlessness,” says Salas, who went to Cuba during the revolution to interview Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. In Cuba he also met the first of his three wives, who all converted to Judaism and gave him nine children, to which he has added an adopted son. Five of them, who live in Tijuana, attend his congregation.

For a few years, Salas studied at the now-defunct United Methodist Seminary of Buffalo. He now maintains that this was an initial step toward Judaism, wanting to learn only the Old Testament, however startling this justification may sound. At the Methodist seminary, and later at the University of Judaism, he took the courses to become a pastor, or rabbi, but he was never ordained: “I didn’t want to be labeled. I didn’t want to be ordained in any movement. Who ordained Moses and the prophets?” In December 1960, Salas moved with his family to Los Angeles, where he felt at home because of its strong Mexican community. When he enrolled at the University of Judaism, he was a successful businessman who flaunted his wealth by riding to his Beverly Hills office in a chauffeured limousine. By the time he converted, five years later, he had got rid of his limousine and taken on the name “Samuel.” Of his several trips to Israel he says, “I feel happy. It is a great privilege,” while its conflicting political situation leaves him clueless: “I am a religious man. I don’t have any opinion. I let the politicians take care of that.” But his transformation was not complete until he began going regularly to Tijuana to visit his mother: here, in the bleakness of a Mexican border town, he found the most receptive audience to Judaism.

However happy Salas may be teaching the Torah in Tijuana, he remains restless. He keeps looking for his identity, digging madly in his childhood to find a logical beginning to what he is today. To grasp the extent of his search, one might look at the articles in the San Diego and Los Angeles press, which initially portrayed him as a Catholic gradually steering toward Judaism through the intermediary step of Protestantism, and afterward as a late descendant of conversos (Jews who practiced a mock conversion), while his immediate family, being Catholic, gave him a very superficial religious education. Nowadays, he has definitely established his identity as a direct descendant of crypto-Jews from both his maternal and paternal side, although the latter was, like the majority of Mexicans and himself, mestizo, that is, the product of intermarriage between Spaniards and the native population. He travels to Belmonte, on the mountains of northern Portugal near the Spanish border, where in 1917 an exceptional crypto-Jewish community was discovered; he is eager to find his origins there and confirmation that he has always been a Jew. Extending this belief to most of his congregation, he says, “The majority are conversos, but they don’t have any proof of it. The minority are converts.”

Despite his fascination with crypto-Judaism, Salas has maintained his acceptance of conversions, and his “factory” of Jews remains open for business as usual. Unlike most rabbis, whose fate resides in the hands of the congregation’s board liable to hire and fire them, he stands in his arena as the sole owner and ruler, even if charming and benign. By shouldering a large part of the responsibility to financially support the synagogue, he has obviously decreased the congregation’s weight on any decision. “They cannot fire me, but I’m not a dictator,” he answers. “If someone asks me something, I show them the Torah.” It is not a coincidence that most of the proselyte communities all over the world, from the Abayudaya of Uganda to the peasants of San Nicandro in southern Italy and the Incas of Trujillo in Peru, are the product of a spontaneous adhesion to Judaism influenced by a strong and charismatic personality who is, like their followers, a convert. The story is the same: One day, he (it is always a he) begins studying a book, a Protestant Old Testament, and a new world opens in front of his eyes. Donato Manduzio, the leader of the San Nicandro villagers who practiced Judaism under Fascist rule and left en masse for Israel in the late 1940s, clung to his newfound light in the most unorthodox ways, relying on his visions and dreams, which he considered direct revelations by God, to guide his undisciplined followers with an iron fist. The displeasure and self-righteousness of the rabbi who questioned him about his methods is the same that part of the Jewish world feels toward any charismatic figure who, out of their sheer power and personality, creates a Jewish community out of the blue. Salas, in his own unorthodox ways, has walked down the same path. However, he has closely observed Passover’s main commandment that every Jew in their own personal life must re-enact the history of the redemption from slavery to freedom. By delivering himself from poverty and a faith that he did not feel his own, he believed he could play the patriarch Moses for others as well. After almost 40 years, this role does not tire him. Sitting relaxed at a restaurant in Tijuana, a city that he has found awash with people who react against their hopelessness and ask themselves the question of their identity, he cannot help exhorting, “Bosquese. Encuentrase. Salgase. Look for yourself. Find yourself. Go out of yourself.”

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