The arrival of the Sephardic Jews to Latin America dates back to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. According to Prof. Abraham Haim, a professor at the University of Tel-Aviv and an expert in Sephardic history, the spokesman of Christopher Columbus’ fleet, Luis de Torres, was a Jew. Haim argues that Columbus, who remained private throughout, has left traces of Jewish origins in Latin America, such as dating letters with Hebrew numbers. For example, in private letters addressed to his son Diego, Columbus includes two Hebrew letters, which are still used today, and which mean “with the help of G-d.”
With a particular use of certain words, according to Haim, Columbus seems connected to this origin. For example, he never used the word “temple” as used by Christians but “house”, translated from Hebrew-Beit Eloka. Jewish religious beliefs are signified in the date chosen by Columbus for his first trip, which aligned with the anniversary of the destruction of the two temples of Jerusalem, the second of August. As for the financing of his journey, Columbus had maintained strong economic support from Jewish members such as the convert Luis Santángel, banker of the Crown of Aragon (Noticias Universia España).
Although most of the Jews who arrived in Latin America were Sephardic converts who mainly settled in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, many Sephardim also settled in the Caribbean, especially in Curacao. Following the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, the first expulsion of the Jews from France in 1306, and the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews from Sepharad in 1492, many of these Jews decided to go to the Netherlands because of the tolerance of Dutch provinces. So in 1651, for the first time, a group of Sephardic Jews settled on the Curaçaoan soil, establishing themselves in the Dutch colony (Curacao Virtual Jewish History Tour).
This Sephardic Jewish community, unlike other countries such Colombia and Venezuela, have lived free of persecution and anti-Semitism for centuries predominantly. Among these families, who came to Curacao, was the Capriles family who embraced their Jewish identity until the beginning of the 20th century. Nevertheless, among all the prominent members of the Capriles family was Manases Capriles. Manases was born on 18 August, 1837, to Joseph Capriles and Bathsheba Ricardo in Curaçao. They were a family of merchants who had been for in Curacao for several generations. Among his relatives is Manases´s maternal grandfather, Mordechay Ricardo. Mordechay was born in in Amsterdam in 1777, and was a lawyer who immigrated to the Americas and lived in Curacao in 1802.
Mordechay’s uncle, Abraham Ricardo, was the father of the well-known British economist, David Ricardo. In 1812, Simon Bolívar, went to Curacao as a refugee after losing a very important liberation campaign in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. At the time, Mordechay Ricardo offered financial assistance to the revolution led by Bolívar. Ricardo even became Bolivar’s political mentor. In fact, Bolívar wrote the “Cartagena’s Manifesto” in Curacao (The Jewish Community of Curacao.)
Because of Manases Capriles’s trading success was growing at the end of the 1850’s, he decided to move to Coro, Venezuela. Coro is was only a coastal city, but a very prosperous place during this time. In fact, the Jewish community that settled in the city at the beginning of the 19th century came from Cartagena, Colombia and Curacao, and was of Sephardic-Curacaoan origin. However, the relocation of Manases occurred after anti-Semitic unrests emerged throughout Coro in 1855. These unrests were incited by the Catholic church, who spread the medieval rhetoric that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. It is more than probable that Manases heard about this unrests, which significantly affected Jewish merchants. In 1860 Manases was one of the few Jews to settle in Coro after the unrests of 1855.
During the Easter week of 1884, the Reverend Father of the city of Coro gave a sermon to a mass of people accusing the Jews of having murdered Jesus Christ. Although the unrest of 1855 made the Jews have a low profile within the society, Manases decided not to remain silent and respond to Reverend Father. In a missive, Manases told the Reverend Father that his rhetoric was not very different from that of “some obscure clergyman of the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries…those centuries of the Inquisition and persecutions-but for which you are not envied by even the most fanatic clergy of Christianity in this century of brotherhood and love.”
As in many countries of the world, Jews were being accused of converting to Catholicism to increase their wealth. So, in the face of this panorama and the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Reverend Father Manases, Manases complains: “What sentiments guided you to pronounce such senile words against a race which far from antagonizing your Church, to insult an offensive people with the most injurious epithets?” Manases concludes his letter by telling Coro’s Reverend Father: “In the present age, when all races try to forget mutual injuries and look to unite in an embrace of charity and tolerance, your sermon was inopportune, Reverend Father. With that sermon, lacking any deep thought whatsoever, you may have two goals in mind.”
Manases argued, “First, to predispose the honest and tolerant inhabitants of Chorus against the Jews who reside in this city and whom they value because they know their charitable feelings and their conduct which is according to the strictest rules of irreproachable integrity. Secondly, you must have wanted to show yourself as an erudite expert of the most tragic drama of the Calvary and of the history of the Jewish people” (Capriles-Goldish 110-111). This response demonstrates the masonic convictions of Manases Capriles. Manases, who like most of the Jews in Coro, was a 33rd Degree Mason and Grand Master of his lodge in Coro. The experience of anti-Semitism that the Jewish community of Coro demonstrated the prejudices and challenges these Jews had to face. The arguments of Reverend Father of Coro reflected the archaic racism of the times.
Jews had balance their religion, culture, businesses, and practices in order to fight back positions against this prejudice. Despite these challenges, the Jewish community of Coro wanted to stay and thrive. Manases’ response demonstrates the way in which Jews struck a balance between the social environment and their beliefs, and how they viewed freedom and equality. By the 1880s, the external or contextual challenges faced by Manases were clear since a number of Jewish merchants had been boycotted in Coro. Abandoning his anonymity, representing his community, and responding to the Reverend Father was an act of bravery. The action that Manases took in opposing the anti-Semitism of Reverend Father of Coro against the Jews did not draw any form of major retaliation. Despite the anti-Semitism within Coro, Manases’ letter did not generate any social revolt or violence against the Jews.
In conclusion, the Sephardic Jews in Latin America have had to face many challenges. Since their documented presence in the Caribbean as far back as the seventeenth century, they have relative security, economically and religiously, in places such as Curacao, but have also been attacked and harassed by Christians in countries such as Venezuela. The story of Manases Capriles is one of resilience in which it shows how historical struggle of the Jewish community is constant. The equality which Manases demanded in his letter is representative of what the larger Jewish community sought. Manases reflects the struggle that many Sephardic Jews have had to carry on their shoulders both in the Latin America and elsewhere. His descendants still demand equality and tolerance through figures such as Henrique Capriles. Manases Capriles is part of the Sephardic activism that spread throughout the region. Manases’s letter is a sensible and masterly answer to the external, internal and contextual challenges to which Jews had to face.