Jewish Tours

Buenos Aires, Argentina


ARGENTINA, South American Federal Republic, general population (2004) 39,150,000; Jewish population 190,000.


After the temporary union of Spain and Portugal in 1580, Portuguese of Jewish descent began entering colonial Argentina. Thinly populated, the area served as a center of contraband trade in which silver from the Andes Mountains was exchanged for West African slaves, European textiles, and other imports. The area was also far removed from Lima, the seat of viceregal government and, from 1572, seat of the Inquisitional Tribunal (though a Portuguese inquisitor visited Buenos Aires in 1618). Arriving at Buenos Aires, or going by way of São Paulo and Paraguay, the Portuguese immigrants settled mainly in Buenos Aires, Córdoba and Tucumán. Throughout the next century, hostile reports (the only ones available) refer to the presence of "Jews," "Portuguese," and "merchants" – used as synonymous terms – and uniformly accuse them of "filling the land" and "monopolizing commerce." A decree of expulsion issued in 1602 also links "Portuguese" and "Judaizers" or *Crypto-Jews

Actually, the number of people referred to in these accusations and the degree of their practice of Judaism are unknown. They themselves covered their tracks because of the Inquisition and the laws of Spain, which forbade the entry of any but "Old Christians" *New Christians). On the other hand, the inquisitors describe the faith of their Jewish victims in superficial stereotypes: the wearing of clean linen and abstention from work on their Sabbath, refusal to eat pork, and the denial of Christian tenets. The victims of the great Lima Auto-da-Fé of Jan. 23, 1639, included a native of Tucumán, the middle-aged surgeon Francisco Maldonado de Silva , a man of mystic tendencies who had found his way back to the ancestral Jewish faith. Two other major figures of Jewish-Portuguese origin related to Argentina were Christians by persuasion: Francisco de Vitoria, bishop of Tucumán (d. 1592), who was accused of Judaizing and was recalled to Spain, and the Córdoba-born jurist Antonio de León Pinelo, an important figure in South American literature (d. 1658), who brought an appeal against the fine imposed on resident Portuguese by the governor of Buenos Aires.

Few statistics are available on the activities of this period. Ninety-six Portuguese, among them 34 farmers, 25 artisans, and 14 sailors, have been identified out of a population of some 2,000 resident in Buenos Aires in about 1620; but the assumption that all Portuguese residents were Jewish is open to serious question. Probably fewer Crypto-Jews settled in the whole of Argentina than in the mining center of Potosí in modern Bolivia or in the colonial capital of Lima. Moreover, it is almost certain that their Judaism, such as it was, failed to take root. In the 18th century there are no trustworthy reports of Judaizing in Argentina, nor is it possible to verify reports that some local families were of Crypto-Jewish descent.

[Fred Bronner]

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