The Jews of South America
Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal were not permitted to live in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the New World. But this did not prevent marranos from undertaking the voyage, several of whom were among the first Spaniards to reach Mexico with conquistador Hernando Cortez in 1519. Suspicious of the Jewish conversos, an Inquisition soon sent out its own representatives, and many converso settlers were burned at the stake as the Church spread its control throughout the Spanish colonies in the New World. However, in 1577, Spain rescinded its laws forbidding Jews to emigrate to its colonies.
Many Jews also emigrated to the Portuguese colony of Brazil. Indeed, its first governor, Thomas de Souza, was of Jewish origin. Jews established sugar plantations and engaged in the trading of precious and semiprecious stones. Sephardic merchants settled in Brazil in 1630 and conducted trade. However, in 1654, repeating the practices established in Europe, Brazil expelled its Jews. As we shall see, some Jews would go to North America while others went to Barbados and Jamaica.
During the eighteenth century, Jews also began settling in the English, Dutch, and French colonies of the Caribbean: Barbados, Martinique, Curacao, Jamaica, and Surinam. Early in the nineteenth century, the Spanish colonies in South America and the Portuguese colony of Brazil rebelled and gained their independence. The Inquisition in those countries was subsequently abolished, and numerous Jewish communities were founded.
Substantial immigration by Jews to South America did not take place until the last decades of the nineteenth century, when Ashkenazim from eastern Europe settled in Argentina. Near the end of the twentieth century, more than 600,000 Jews lived in South America, half of them in Argentina.
Throughout most of the Diaspora, Jews concentrated in cities, and South America was no exception in this regard. The South American city with the largest Jewish population is Buenos Aires in Argentina (250,000), followed by the Brazilian cities of San Paulo (75,000) and Rio de Janeiro (55,000), Montevideo in Uruguay (48,000), Mexico City (32,000), and Santiago, Chile (25,000).