Return to Centro Historico

On a recent trip home, I did something I never imagined I would do: I called a travel guide.

Familiarity is what defines the word home. Stored deep in our memory are the sounds, tastes and colors with which we grew up. That memory is the fabric of our being. But memory is elusive. It deforms the past as much as it retains it. I left Mexico City in my mid-20s. Over the past two and half decades, I’ve returned to see family and friends. The visits have allowed me to keep up with the dizzying modernization the metropolis has experienced, which makes me feel as if everything is fluid, in a state of perpetual transition.

A capital with a population of approximately 22 million – sprawling across a valley surrounded by the majestic volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl – it is at once sublime and hazardous. The five senses are in a permanent state of overdrive. Above, freeways, skyscrapers and malls all give the impression of materializing out of nowhere. Below, archeological excavations prove again and again that the urban landscape sits on a vanquished pre-Columbian civilization that remains alive in the collective unconscious.

I am as familiar with Mexico City as I am with myself. Yet somehow as an adult, I had neglected to visit the site where my Jewish family life began before I was born, the capital’s Centro Historico. Built on the ruins of the ancient capital of the Aztec Empire, the Centro Historico encompasses nine square kilometers, including the grand Zocalo, a vast square with the magisterial Catedral Metropolitana, the largest in the Americas, on one side. Some 1,500 historical buildings still stand, including the neoclassical Palacio de Bellas Artes, the country’s premier opera house. Its interior showcases murals by the legendary muralists Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

I’m a grandchild of immigrants from Poland and Belarus, who, from 1915 to 1930, disembarked in Mexico’s ports, primarily Veracruz, and made their way to the Centro Historico to join other Jews. Like most immigrant stories, theirs is heart-wrenching and inspirational. After arriving penniless and knowing not a word of Spanish, they married, had kids and built businesses – a leather factory, an animal-food processing company. Their first homes were tiny.

Eventually, they moved to better neighborhoods in the city, such as Hipodromo, Condesa, Portales and Alamos. Their children – my parents and uncles and aunts – grew up to become teachers, nurses, actors and shop owners and moved further out. Later some of my grandparents followed their children to suburbs like Polanco, where by the ’70s the zeitgeist of Jewish culture had relocated. By then the Jewish community had become prosperous, constructing ostentatious new synagogues, schools and community centers. In 1950, the luxurious 80-acre Centro Deportivo Israelita, where I played soccer as a kid, opened its doors. Probably the best-equipped Jewish sports facility in the Western hemisphere, it boasts social halls, restaurants, art galleries and a library. I’ve seen photographs of my grandparents having a picnic, dancing at a wedding, or looking at the Torah scroll before a bar mitzvah on its grounds.

Philosophically, the difference between the immigrant generation and that of their children was dramatic. The children built mansions and spent their money lavishly on cars, dresses and fancy vacations. Long gone was the newcomer’s simplicity, the immigrant’s humble way of approaching the world. By the time I came of age inside the community, active in the Jewish Boy Scouts and attending a Jewish school like roughly 90 percent of Mexican Jewish children, our world was a self-contained, self-secure, self-imposed Jewish ghetto – a treasure island where gentiles hardly existed. We lived in an oasis completely uninvolved in things Mexican.

Not surprisingly, Jews in Mexico City and in the rest of Mexico, mostly in Guadalajara and Monterrey, are nearly invisible to outsiders. There are 45,000 Jews in the entire country; 40,000 of these are in the capital, concentrated in Polanco as well as Tecamachalco, Bosques de Las Lomas and La Herradura. Even these numbers, already insignificant in a country with a population of 110 million, are dwindling thanks to low birth rates and emigration to the United States and Israel. Anti-Semitism is another element: The most dangerous injector of venom in this respect is the ideological Left, which over the last two decades has become so infatuated with the Palestinian cause that the community regularly needs to fend off anti-Zionist (and, by connection, anti-American) animosity. There has been occasional graffiti and even low-key attacks against synagogues and other Jewish buildings.

Knowledge of Jewish life in Mexico is minuscule. Ask any Mexican you come across on the street, in Mexico proper or in the United States, if he has ever met a Mexican Jew. The answer you’re likely to get is “huh?” And if he has, he’ll tell you – if you’re lucky enough to get a neutral respondent – that the community mostly keeps to itself. More likely, however, the response will be far more opinionated. You’ll hear that Jews are prestamistas, money lenders. This pervasive belief stems from the unremitting anti-Semitism espoused by an ultra-conservative side of the Catholic Church. But you might also hear a resurfacing of archaic ideas: Jews might have horns. In fascist circles, Jews are believed to be the killers of Jesus Christ who pray to el becerro de oro, the golden calf.

There had been many good reasons to emigrate to the United States. But earlier this year, I suddenly felt the need to go home, and not to the invisible community I grew up in, from which, like others of my generation, I feel alienated. What I longed for was to acquaint myself with the Mexican world of my grandparents.

It was April, Mexico City’s rainy month. The sky was unusually clear that day. My mother, a psychologist and a daughter of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from a shtetl near the Polish metropolis Bia?ystok who arrived in the 1920s decided to join me in my pilgrimage. She grew up in Colonia Portales and Colonia Alamos, far from the original buildings erected by settlers downtown. Just like their counterparts in New York, who left the Lower East Side for new neighborhoods when they became more affluent, her parents wanted to raise their children far from the crowded tenements of Calle Jesus Maria, the main drag in the Centro Historico. When my mother got married in 1960, she moved even farther out in the suburbs, to Colonia Copilco. Although on rare occasions she had visited the old part of the city, her connection with it was as tenuous as mine.

We took the subway from home in Colonia Cuicuilco, near the Perisur Mall, to the Parque de la Alameda, a gorgeous colonial arboretum made famous because, among other things, Diego Rivera featured it in a celebrated mural. In that work of art, he, his wife Frida Kahlo (who claimed her father, a photographer, was a Hungarian Jew, although biographers believe that Carl Wilhelm Kahlo, aka Guillermo Kahlo, may have been a German Baptist) and an assortment of the nation’s historical luminaries appear as if they were toy figures in a child’s imagination.

We walked to the Edifico de Correos, the magisterial headquarters of the national postal service where we were scheduled to meet our guide. Like me, Monica Unikel attended the Yidishe Shule, the Yiddish-language day school, then on Calle San Lorenzo. While there are plenty of tour guides around, Monica, a sociologist and history buff, is the only one concentrating exclusively on Mexico’s Jewish past.

“Lacking a clear career path while I was raising my kids, I took a trip to England,” she said. “I felt the urge to visit London’s old Jewish neighborhood and was impressed by the coherence with which the guide described it.” Monica decided to do the same for her beloved Centro Historico while she figured out what to do with her life. “I thought that after repeating the tour so many times, I might get bored and train someone else to do it. But 13 years have gone by. I’m hooked.”

I told Monica I hadn’t been in the Centro Historico since my teens, when I used to accompany my father, a theater actor and telenovela star, on business. On our way back, he would take me to the Cafe La Blanca, where I would eat churros with hot chocolate. In 1940, when my father was just seven years old, his father took him to the nearby Palacio de Bellas Artes, where the body of Leon Trotsky, assassinated by NKVD envoy Ramon Mercader with an ice axe blow to the skull, rested in an open casket. There were long lines to see the man whom Trotsky’s biographer, Isaac Deutscher, called “the prophet outcast.” The image was stamped forever in my father’s memory. And he passed it on to me.

Even on a Sunday, the day we chose for no other reason than to be stuck as little as possible in urban congestion, the Centro Historico was packed: Sidewalks were bustling with passersby and there were more automobiles than any road could handle. Monica led us through the chaos to Calle Tacuba #15, the building in which Mexico’s first Jewish community cultural hall was established.

I had heard much about this building when I was growing up. (If at any point it had a name, people no longer remember it, using instead the address to refer to it.) While still single, some of the early East European Jewish immigrants lived nearby on Calle Moneda, behind the Catedral Metropolitana on the Zocalo. They and their friends congregated at Calle Tacuba #15, whose ample rooms housed a library and were home to Yiddish plays and klezmer concerts. I’ve come across pictures of political forums in these premises where anarchists, socialists, Zionists and Bundists passionately debated their ideas. There were Spanish-language classes. Plus, it was the place where aboneros, salesmen, gathered to establish a banking organization.

Now the building is empty and cold, as if frozen in another age, but the sight of it visibly moved my mother, who exclaimed that this was where her parents had been married. She reminded me of the sepia photograph of the ceremony that I had often seen. “iY los de tu papa tambien, Ilan!” my mother added, relating that my father’s parents’ wedding had also taken place in Tacuba #15. I longed to see each and every one of my grandparents at a younger age than when I knew them, to greet them, to thank them from the bottom of my heart for their courage, their determination to live, to escape pogroms, to make a new life in a strange country. I wanted to hear how they pronounced the word Mexico with an inescapable Yiddish accent. I felt surprisingly homesick.

Monica’s tour included a stop at Gante #5, one of the churches – Methodist Episcopal to be exact – that was used at some point by Ladino-speaking immigrants from Turkey, Greece and the Balkan region for services until that community built its own modern-looking synagogue in 1942 on Calle Monterrey, about 15 minutes away by car. I pondered Mexico’s Jewish ethnic diversity. Although until recently the descendants of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews were the most prominent in business and cultural circles, they are only part of the Mexican Jewish story.

Jews first came to New Spain in 1521. It is believed that two soldiers in Hernan Cortes’ Spanish army were crypto-Jews – also known as conversos. Many more conversos fled the Inquisition to the New World with the hope of finding religious freedom. According to historian Seymour B. Liebman in his 1970 book The Jews in New Spain: Faith, Flame, and the Inquisition, in the decades that followed there were more secret Jews in Mexico City than Spanish Catholics. This is doubtful. Still, by 1590 the converso community was well-established in the metropolis. Conversos played prominent roles at almost every level of society, especially in politics, finance and culture. Suspicion of their dual life was rampant. Cristianos viejos, the Spanish term for Old Christians, were furious at what they perceived as their deception. Angrier were outright cristianos nuevos, who believed that conversos drew undue attention to them.

While never as harshly treated in New Spain as they were across the Atlantic, from 1586 to 1649 conversos were nevertheless regularly victims of just about every auto-da-fe, the public penance ritual for condemned heretics and apostates. The term, which means an “act of faith” in medieval Spanish, has come to signify burning at the stake. No one knows exactly how many Jews were killed in this way, but certainly the entire community lived in fear. Even after freedom of religion was declared in Mexico in 1857, anti-Semitism remained deeply entrenched.

By the turn of the 20th century, Jews were welcomed in Mexico as agents of economic progress. The first to immigrate were Jews from Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and northern Africa; they were looking for a new home even before the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Many arrived speaking Ladino, although they were not necessarily able to write it. There’s a memorable anecdote in the Mexican documentary A Kiss to This Land by Daniel Goldberg, in which a Syrian immigrant described how, when first hearing Spanish in Mexican streets, it sounded so much like Ladino that she thought, “Thank God everyone is Jewish in this place!”

The vast majority of Ashkenazi Jews came in the 1920s, escaping pogroms and dire economic conditions in the shtetls and urban centers of the Pale of Settlement. Their dream destination was the United States or di goldene meluche, the golden nation. Prevented by immigration quotas from entering, scores simply asked to disembark at the ship’s next stop. That’s how they ended up in Mexico.

The interaction between Sephardic, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews has always been cordial but distant. I remember that when I was an adolescent, it was widely held among Ashkenazim that it was better to marry a non-Jew than a shachata, a derogatory term for an Iraqi Jew. Likewise, Sephardim referred to Ashkenazim as paisanos, encouraging their young to stick together. (We used to call the union between a paisano and a shachata a mix-up.) Yet the various Jewish communities always came together when confronted with outside animosity and in support of Israel. Even today, a large percentage of Mexican Jews belong to the Centro Deportivo Israelita, but ethnic groups remain largely separate. Members of younger generations continue to segregate themselves in different parts of the city where they organize workshops and other cultural activities. In other words, Jewish life is still broken up by country of origin, although inter-ethnic marriages are more common than they were when I was growing up.

There are almost three dozen synagogues in the capital, if one counts those inside day schools and yeshivot. The two Syrian communities, one from Damascus, the other from Aleppo, each have their own shul, as do the Turkish and Greek Jews. So do the Ashkenazi Jews.

Monica led my mother and me down to Calle Justo Sierra to Nidje Israel, the first Ashkenazi synagogue in Mexico, built in 1941. From the outside the visitor would not guess that it’s a Jewish prayer house. The architecture is rather rectangular and dark.

Inside, it has tall arched ceilings and is decorated in blue, gold and maroon with a large chandelier hanging down, reminding me of 18th-century East European synagogues. The gothic style fits well in colonial Mexico. Short columns serve as support for the second floor, reserved for women. Cloister-like windows make it seem as if you’re in a convent. In fact, without the Jewish paraphernalia (the bima in the middle of the room, menorahs, an illuminated crown sitting atop the Aron Kodesh, the holy ark, above which are the Ten Commandments) I would have sworn I was in a church.

As we were leaving, Monica told us that Nidje Israel will be the epicenter of a large-scale project to renovate Jewish sites in downtown Mexico City. Apparently, I wasn’t alone in my desire to understand my roots.

Hungry, the three of us stopped for a tentenpie, a pick-me-upper, from a street vendor who was heating elotes in a large tin bucket. A fixture of my childhood, the sweet corn-on-the-cob is first boiled for several minutes. A wooden stick is inserted in one of its ends. The elote is then covered with either cream or mayonnaise, rolled on finely grated farmer’s cheese and seasoned with salt, lemon and chile piquin.

As we ate our delicacies, we walked toward Colombia #39. Today, it is a crowded vecindad, an older building which has been subdivided into apartments, like many others in the Centro Historico. Day laborers struggling to make ends meet for their families live in vecindades like this, with crumbling walls, broken pipes and scarce electricity. A couple of boys were playing soccer using a door as their goal.

Monica brought us here because this is where the Yidishe Shule was once located. My father had briefly gone to school in this building. I thought about the modern building in the suburbs that I attended. The school’s pedagogical approach emphasized the Holocaust. A large picture of Mordecai Anielewicz, a hero in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, hung in the patio of the Yidishe Shule. On Yom Hashoah, all of the school’s 700 pupils gathered in the auditorium to sing Holocaust-related songs. In other words, our communal icons were Old World partisans. We were ignorant about Mexico’s early Jewish history: the conversos who struggled to hold onto their faith. The message was clear. Our heart was in the Old World. Mexico was a temporary home.

Monica now led us to the Calle Jesus Maria, where early Mizrahi and Ashkenazi immigrants had established businesses. Many Jews lived and worked here, the equivalent of Delancey Street in New York City. Monica helped make the street come alive for us by telling us about Rabbi Shlomo Lobaton, from Aleppo, Syria, who in 1913 opened up his own home for prayer services since the community could not yet afford to build a synagogue.

If Mexico City ever had something resembling a juderia, the medieval Spanish word for the Jewish quarter, it is this street, which, ironically, is named after Jesus and Mary. Today, it is known as the garment district. Numerous stores are still owned by Jews, who can walk to the Monte Sinai synagogue, built in 1923, for afternoon prayers.

The tendency among the newly arrived Jewish immigrants was to sell portable, easy-to-handle items: razor blades, ties, shoelaces. My paternal grandfather, Zrulek Stavchansky, was among those who eked out a precarious living as a peddler. With the merchandise hanging on their shoulders, they would walk from Calle Corregidora to Tacuba and onward to Jesus Maria. When they discovered an over-abundance of aboneros in the city, a handful opted to take their goods to the states of Guerrero, Hidalgo and Morelos, among others. When they finally came back to the capital, it was to open big stores downtown. Some remain to this day, including La Esmeralda, in itself a symbol of Mexico’s prosperity and immigrant courage.

In the 1920s, Calle Jesus Maria was home to kosher butchers, hardware stores, bakeries, tailor shops, Talmud Torahs. Some early Yiddish writers first wrote poems about Mexico on this site. Monica said there were no mikvot then, so immigrants cleansed themselves in public baths. I was finally at ground zero. It was to here that Jews had come from the Old World. And it was from here that they moved forward with their lives.

I have yet to see a photograph of Calle Jesus Maria when it was populated by Jews. Maybe that’s why, as my imagination emitted snapshots at high speed, I myself wanted to manufacture them, to stamp in photographic words the elusive images of the past, to freeze them so I could study every single detail in them: the ghost of an abonero eating a quesadilla, a housewife baking burekahs, a teacher reading the news of Communist Russia in a Yiddish newspaper, an organillero playing music on a mechanical boom box while a parrot sits on his head, a policeman shining his pistol, a yeshiva boy discussing a Rashi argument near a cantina…

As I saw all this in my mind, I was overtaken by a genuine feeling of kinship and empathy that was beyond words. Maybe I was indeed in communion with the dead. I felt whole, rooted. I was home.

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