VENTA PRIETA, Mexico

Jewish Barrio

Wandering across Mexico’s high plains in the late 19th Century, Maria Trinidad Tellez Jirón hauled a trunk of books that had been passed down to her across the generations. The books were written in Hebrew. Though her name means “Mary Trinity,” Ma’Trini, as her descendants lovingly call her, was anything but a Catholic. Ma’Trini (ca. 1838-1938) and her ancestors were secret Jews—Marranos—and her descendants tell of their community being chased from Spain and hunted in Mexico long after the Inquisition’s official end—even into the early twentieth century. Ma’Trini was undeterred and taught Jewish customs to her children and grandchildren.

Ma’Trini and her children founded the village of Venta Prieta, which began as a dusty roadside outpost in the State of Hidalgo, where the matriarch stopped her travels. In the early 20th century, Ma’Trini’s children built Venta Prieta’s first synagogue. Ma’Trini’s children and grandchildren continued expanding the community, inter-marrying with local families. Now the elders of a Jewish community with hundreds of adherents, many of Ma’Trini’s heirs are more observant than ever in their Jewish practice, living comfortably with non-Jewish neighbors amid brightly-painted shops and homes.

Though he is growing up less than two hours north of one of the world's largest cities, young Shmuel, age 6, is not afraid of strangers. He rides, in the hours before Shabbat, down the middle of the street, between the brightly-painted stucco walls, on his shiny first bicycle, which he recently learned to ride. Skidding to a stop before a Jewish visitor, Shmuel's tzitzit dangling at his sides, his nascent peiyot moist with exertion, he looks up, asking the man, “What size is your kippah?”

Though he is growing up less than two hours north of one of the world's largest cities, young Shmuel, age 6, is not afraid of strangers. He rides, in the hours before Shabbat, down the middle of the street, between the brightly-painted stucco walls, on his shiny first bicycle, which he recently learned to ride. Skidding to a stop before a Jewish visitor, Shmuel's tzitzit dangling at his sides, his nascent peiyot moist with exertion, he looks up, asking the man, “What size is your kippah?”

Men from Venta Prieta gather daily as morning light filters through the stained-glass windows of the Negev synagogue. They pray the morning Shacharit service, each wearing a kippah, tefillin (phylacteries) and tallit (prayer shawl).

Men from Venta Prieta gather daily as morning light filters through the stained-glass windows of the Negev synagogue. They pray the morning Shacharit service, each wearing a kippah, tefillin (phylacteries) and tallit (prayer shawl).

Enriqueta Ruth Tellez Olvera is the current reigning matriarch of the formerly crypto-Jewish community in Venta Prieta—the oldest surviving granddaughterof Maria Trinidad Tellez Jirón, the community founder. She looks out from her bedroom window on Cinco de Mayo Street, where the Tellez family once had itshacienda. Enriqueta rejects the notion that she and her family were ever anything but Jews. “We are not converts. We are not new,” Enriqueta asserts.She explains, with conviction, “Since we were born, we have never known anything but Judaism. Here, you can’t practice Judaism out of convenience—you must feel it in your soul, as we have always done.”

Enriqueta Ruth Tellez Olvera is the current reigning matriarch of the formerly crypto-Jewish community in Venta Prieta—the oldest surviving granddaughterof Maria Trinidad Tellez Jirón, the community founder. She looks out from her bedroom window on Cinco de Mayo Street, where the Tellez family once had itshacienda. Enriqueta rejects the notion that she and her family were ever anything but Jews. “We are not converts. We are not new,” Enriqueta asserts.She explains, with conviction, “Since we were born, we have never known anything but Judaism. Here, you can’t practice Judaism out of convenience—you must feel it in your soul, as we have always done.”

Shalom, and welcome, to number 103, 16 de Septiembre street, named for September 16, 1810, a date celebrated like July 4, 1776 in the United States. Here, long-timecommunity leader Ruben Olvera Tellez lives in a comfortable, middle-class country house, or quinta, protected by a yellow stucco wall.

Shalom, and welcome, to number 103, 16 de Septiembre street, named for September 16, 1810, a date celebrated like July 4, 1776 in the United States. Here, long-timecommunity leader Ruben Olvera Tellez lives in a comfortable, middle-class country house, or quinta, protected by a yellow stucco wall.

The family of Jewish community president, Shimon Islas Olvera at their home in Venta Prieta, Hidalgo, Mexico.

The family of Jewish community president, Shimon Islas Olvera at their home in Venta Prieta, Hidalgo, Mexico.