This Day in Jewish History The Inquisition Reaches Mexico

As the pagan locals’ beliefs proved not incompatible with Christianity, the church’s attention turned to Africans – and backsliding conversos.

David Green
David B. Green
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Facade of Palace of the Inquisition, Mexico City.
Facade of Palace of the Inquisition, Mexico City.Credit: Thelmadatter
David Green
David B. Green

On November 4, 1571, the Inquisition began to operate in Mexico, with the authority to seek out and prosecute religious heresy of any kind. The Inquisition in New Spain, as Mexico was then called, remained active until 1820, shortly before Mexico gained full independence.

The Roman Catholic Church established the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal in 1480 and 1497, respectively. And as these nations created overseas empires, the offices of the Inquisition also expanded to encompass their colonies too.

In Spain’s empire in the New World, separate institutions were set up in Mexico, Colombia and Peru. The Portuguese established the Goa Inquisition, to prosecute backsliding Jewish, Hindu and Muslim converts to Catholicism in its Indian and other Asian colonies.

As the Spanish conquered territory in Central and South America, the indigenous peoples they encountered became prime targets for conversion. In Mexico alone, where Hernando Cortes conquered the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan (today’s Mexico City), there were already an estimated 1500 Catholic missionaries, from several different orders, at work by 1580, and double that number 70 years later.

As it turned out, the pagan religions of the various Indian nations were fairly compatible with Catholicism, and syncretistic forms emerged that allowed the indigenous people to maintain their individual beliefs and even some of their rituals while satisfying the demands of the Holy Church. Therefore, the Inquisition in the New World focused on Africans, people of mixed race and New Christians - which is to say converted Jews and their descendants.

Crypto-Jews in fear

New Christians were among the members of Cortes’ expedition when it landed in 1519. In some cases, the converso Jews who came to the Americas were looking for economic opportunities; others were seeking a place where it would be easier to return in some way to their ancestral religion. But with the establishment of the Inquisition, suddenly these crypto-Jews had to fear exposure again. Even those converts who had sincerely taken on Christianity – including some who joined the priesthood -- became objects of suspicion.

In 1571, King Philip II authorized the Don Diego de Espinosa, the General Inquisitor of Spain, to appoint an inquisitor for Mexico. On September 12, Pedro Moya de Contreras, Espinosa’s choice for the task, arrived from Spain, and it was he who established the Tribunal de la Fe (the Tribunal of Faith).

On November 3, word went out in Mexico City and environs that the following day, everyone over the age of 12 was ordered to congregate in the cathedral square, or face the risk of excommunication. There, the first “Edict of Faith” was read out, in which anyone suspected of acts of heresy, which included but was not limited to “judaizing,” was warned that he or she had six days to turn themselves in, during which period they could expect to be treated with mercy.

The assembled were asked to swear to denounce those they suspected of heresy, and to promise to pursue them the way they would “wolves and rabid dogs.”

In the weeks that followed, some 400 denunciations were reported to the Church, which led to the opening of 127 investigations. Anyone convicted of heresy, which could include gambling, fornication, witchcraft, or even expressing doubts about the existence of God, automatically relinquished their property to the Church, and could be subjected to any of a wide range of harsh punishments, including imprisonment, lashing, expulsion to Spain, and, most severely death by burning.

One Mexican historian has estimated that some 50 people were executed by the Inquisition over the 250-year period that it functioned in Mexico, 29 of whom were convicted for secretly carrying out Jewish practices. The numbers, however, do not give full expression to the atmosphere of fear and suspicion that accompanied the existence of an institution that had the authority to question and judge people about their most intimate behavior and most personal thoughts.

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