While many people know that Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday, a fair number would struggle to tell you why the day is significant. On May 5, 1862, the Mexican Army was unexpectedly victorious over French forces at the Battle of Puebla. Although the French did conquer Mexico the next year, the victory on May 5th had a profound effect on the morale of the Mexican people. From a Jewish perspective, the war between France and Mexico marked a turning point in the history of Jews in Mexico.

Until the 1860s, Mexico’s deep connection to the Catholic Church meant that few Jews settled there. However, it is believed that many of the original Spanish settlers were conversos (secret Jews hiding from the Inquisition, many of whom are said to have settled in the Puebla region), but the passage of time has made it difficult to affirm this identification. However, when the French conquered Mexico in 1864 they installed Emperor Maximilian I, who not only issued an edict of religious tolerance, but specifically invited Jews from Germany and Belgium to settle in the country.

Maximilian was deposed (and executed) in 1867, but the Nationalist President who succeeded him, Benito Juárez, continued to maintain laws of religious tolerance. This allowed for the three main waves of Jewish immigration to Mexico: from Russia and Eastern Europe in the 1880s, from the Ottoman Empire in the 1910s and from Russia again after World War I.

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