A grandson of East European immigrants to Mexico City explores the capital’s forgotten Jewish history—and finds his own
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 Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl—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 Histórico. Built on the ruins of the ancient capital of the Aztec Empire, the Centro Histórico encompasses nine square kilometers, including the grand Zócalo, 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, José 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 Histórico 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 Hipódromo, 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.