Hidalgo's lost tribe

This is not an official history of Venta Prieta, because that hasn't been written yet. 

In fact, the only people who could write the history, the Venta Prietans themselves, just want to be left alone.

Image:Courtesy Centro de Documentación e Investigación de la Comunidad Ashkenazi de México.

A rare, undated photograph of members of the tiny Venta Prieta Jewish Community posed in front of their synagogue.

"We're not a museum,where you get your ticket and your information," said a man who answered his door one recent Thursday afternoon in this Pachuca neighborhood. Neighbors had pointed him out as one of the community's Jewish patriarchs. "We aren't interested in any more interviews. ...Everyone has already written about us. In every language."

The story of Venta Prieta, culled from the Internet and decades-old encyclopedias, points to a community that has struggled with its identity and survival.

The village's exact origins are under dispute, but sometime before the 20th century, a man named Ramón Jirón or his descendants founded the town on the outskirts of Pachuca, the capital of Hidalgo state. Some say Jirón had been a secret Jew in Michoacán, and that his family members fled to Pachuca after he was killed. Another version says Jirón himself fled to escape his father, who wanted him to become a priest.

In either case, word eventually reached Mexico City that a group of people outside Pachuca were practicing Jewish customs. These "Indian Jews," as they were referred to then, claimed they could trace their ancestral roots to Spanish Crypto-Jews, those Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism in 1492, but secretly continued to practice their religion.

According to the Museum of The Jewish People Online (bh.org.il), a website of the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora at Tel Aviv University in Israel, the Venta Prieta Jews organized their first unified congregation around 1920. Still, over the following decades they had trouble gaining acceptance from Mexico City's Jewish community, comprising Jews who fled persecution in Europe. Jewish groups in Israel also refused to recognize them.

Where was the proof? According to the Orthodox and Conservative traditions of Judaism, to have Jewish blood a person must be able to document their matriline (line of female descent). The Venta Prietans had only their Jewish way of life.