Revista de Humanidades y Ciencias Sociales (Santa Cruz de la Sierra)
versión impresa ISSN 18190545
Rev humanid cienc soc (St Cruz Sierra) v4 nse 2008

This paper was published in Spanish in the Revista de Humanidades y Ciencias Sociales Vol 15 Nº 12 (June – December 2009) ISSN 18190545


    • Francisco Roig holds a BA in International Affairs from The George Washington University and a MBA from American University (email: francroig@hotmailcom )


    • David Reichsfeld holds a BA in Economics from the University of Maryland and a MA in International Economics and Finance from Brandeis University (email: daviddrm@hotmailcom ) Translated by Dr Inés Azar


Translated by Dr Inés Azar
Translation from Revista de Humanidades y Ciencias Sociales vol15 n 12 pp 103114 (June – December 2009)


Santa Cruz de la Sierra is Bolivia’s economic hub and its most populated city; it is also one of Latin America’s fastest growing urban areas with more than 70 per cent of its population living above poverty level Its modern architecture and broad avenues make home to approximately two million people from very diverse backgrounds who have built a very unique society in the heart of South America This vibrant and ethnically diverse city was only fifty years ago an impoverished isolated frontier town of approximately 40000 inhabitants who carried often unknowingly the legacy of many of the city’s founders who were of Jewish origin This article intends to unveil some facts of this interesting legacy and encourage further research on the subject

Spain the Homeland of the Sephardic Jews

Spain was home to the World’s largest Jewish population during the Middle Ages (Bell p 36) It was during the Roman Empire that Jews started to settle in the Iberian Peninsula As centuries passed the number of Jews grew throughout Spain giving birth not only to large Jewish quarters ( juderá­as ) in major cities like Barcelona Toledo Gerona Sevilla Segovia Cádiz Valencia Trujillo Córdova and Granada but also to Jewish communities in small cities like Béjar Hervás Talavera de la Reina and Castrojeriz and even in rural areas 1 Spanish Jews and their descendants are also known as Sephardim word derived from “Sepharad” which in Hebrew means “Spain”

During the periods of Muslim domination and of wars between Christian and Moorish kingdoms Jews lived in both Christian and Muslim cities Many of them stood out as writers physicians philosophers merchants architects engineers artisans musicians etc They became increasingly integrated into Spanish society to the point of adopting its language and customs Towards the end of the Middle Ages Spain’s Christian kingdoms pressured Jews with increasing force and violence to convert to Catholicism This was a sad period in the history of Spain that ended in 1492 with the expulsion of all Jews who had not converted to Catholicism (Sachar p 73)

Throughout the 15th Century the Sephardim were persecuted and most of them converted to Catholicism voluntarily or by force which allowed them to remain in Spain Nevertheless for these New Christians persecution did not stop after conversion As many of them and their families started accumulating wealth and gaining influence in Spain’s Catholic society the Inquisition began to question the truthfulness of their conversion and subjected them to unfair investigations cruel torture and in many cases sentenced them to life in prison or even to death The New Christians were called conversos (Spanish for “convert”) or as an insult Marranos (Spanish for “swine”) as they were often suspected of having converted only to avoid persecution and thus of secretly maintaining their Jewish faith

The Converso Diaspora

During those difficult times thousands of conversos found themselves forced to leave their native Spain to settle in Portugal Flanders (today Belgium) the Netherlands North Africa and some French British and Italian ports Others were able to bypass a number of discriminatory requirements such as those of ” Limpieza de Sangre ” (“Purity of Blood”) and embarked into the ships going to the Spanish and Portuguese new colonies in the Americas The most common way to bypass detection was to get on the boats as sailors or to go to the New World as servants of an Old Christian because lower posts such as these did not require proof of Purity of Blood A few influential conversos were able to bypass this requirement through their connections with the nobility Such was the case of Pedro Arias Dávila governor of Castilla del Oro and Nicaragua (today Panamá Nicaragua Costa Rica and part of Colombia) and founder of the City of Panamá Arias Dávila belonged to one of Spain’s most influential converso families and was married to the granddaughter of the Marquise of Moya and Peñalosa an intimate friend of the queen Isabella the Catholic 3

These conversos ended up settling in the bourgeoning most promising towns of the New World in a quest for freedom and a better life In Farewell España Howard Sachar provides two illustrated maps showing the main destinations of Sephardic Jews during the 15 th 16 th and 17 th Centuries Starting on the second half of the 16 th Century one of these destinations was Santa Cruz de la Sierra in what is today Bolivia (Sachar p 387)

The Founders

Santa Cruz de la Sierra was founded in 1561 by the Spanish conquistador Ñuflo de Chaves who had left Asunción del Paraguay and crossed the Chaco plains to establish the northernmost settlement in the Spanish conquest of the Rá­o de la Plata region Chaves named the city in honor of his Spanish native town near Trujillo in Extremadura Many conversos were among the pioneers who together with Ñuflo de Chaves crossed the dry pampas and shrub lands of El Chaco and moved 1000 kilometers north of Asunción del Paraguay to Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Mangan p 99)

The small city of Santa Cruz was the most isolated outpost of the Spanish colonial frontier in South America In its nearest surroundings there were no mines to exploit silver or gold nor highly developed indigenous civilizations as in Peru or Mexico Moreover the fierce indigenous Guarani tribes and the neighboring Bandeirantes from Sëo Paulo constantly attacked the small settlement Nevertheless the village strived moving to three different locations further west until settling in its current location on the pampas east of the Piraá­ River

Many of the converso founders of Santa Cruz de la Sierra came from Spanish cities such as Toledo Ávila Béjar Trujillo and Cádiz These cities were known for having sizable Jewish communities and for hosting numerous mass conversions both before and after the establishment of the Inquisition 4Most if not all of these converso settlers were welleducated or at least literate and used last names different from those of their ancestral families Their new last names were in many cases the names of cities and towns in Spain and Portugal regardless of whether they were or not their places of birth (Terceros Banzer pp 14107)

Strikingly interesting is also the fact that several of the first settlers and explorers of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and its vicinities were actually born in Portugal and Flanders (mainly Antwerp) and a few others came from Italian French and English ports (Terceros Banzer pp 14107) Evidence of their converso origin comes from the fact that most of them had Spanish last names as opposed to Flemish Italian French or English This was a typical feature of Jews of Spanish origin who converted to Catholicism and escaped Spain to settle in the areas mentioned above which during some periods were more tolerant to their religion and customs (Cecil Roth pp 236251)

Exiles and Fugitives from the Inquisition

In January of 1570 the Court of the Spanish Inquisition was established in Lima and began the persecution of conversos suspected of being Judaizers (Gitlitz p 59) This was a severe devastating attack on the families of conversos who had gained wealth and social standing as businessmen in mining trade and manufacturing in the booming cities of the Viceroyalty of Peru mainly Lima and Potosá­ One of the most notable conversos to become a victim of the newly established Inquisition Tribunal was Manuel Bautista Pérez also known as El Gran Capitán who during the early 17th Century was considered to be the wealthiest man in Lima In 1639 the tribunal found him guilty of secretly practicing Judaism seized all his possessions and burnt him at the stake (Cohen pp XLVIXLVII)

By the late 16th century conversos suffered continued discrimination in Lima Potosi and other cities of importance such as Charcas (today Sucre) and La Paz As a result they flocked to Santa Cruz de la Sierra because it was the city farthest away from the reach of the overzealous authorities (Mangan p 99) This was the second wave of conversos who settled in Santa Cruz de la Sierra and its growing frontier

During this period several settlements were established in the jurisdiction of Santa Cruz de la Sierra most of them with this flow of families coming from the rich mining cities to the poorest and most isolated frontier In 1590 San Lorenzo de la Frontera was founded on the right shore of the Guapay River; in 1595 it was moved to the Punta de San Bartolomé on the eastern shore of the Piraá­ River Finally in 1621 both Santa Cruz and San Lorenzo merged together into one city (Peña Hasbún pp 2122) now known as Santa Cruz de la Sierra In 1612 the city of Vallegrande was founded on the route from Potosá­ to Santa Cruz and was immediately settled by several families coming from Lima La Paz Potosá­ and Charcas Many families of Jewish origin settled in Vallegrande and many others continued their way to Santa Cruz and its surrounding villages (Hubsch Neumann p 13) From these three towns several families moved further into the valleys and open plains of what today is the department of Santa Cruz establishing towns such as Samaipata Chilón Pampa Grande Postrervalle Pucará Cotoca Portachuelo Paurito Comarapa Terebinto and others which date from colonial times And as these towns grew larger many families went on to populate most of the departments of Santa Cruz Beni Pando and parts of Tarija where they founded new settlements or established themselves in former Catholic missionary settlements

There are written testimonies and evidence dating from the colonial period which demonstrate that Santa Cruz was not only the destination of conversos who out of prudence abandoned the rich mining cities of Alto Perú but also of fugitives from the Inquisition and convicts that the Inquisition had condemned to exile Many who were persecuted in the Andean cities looked for refuge in the places that were farthest away from the Spanish authorities which according to the Viceroy Francisco de Toledo were Santa Cruz and Tucumán (Garcá­a Recio p 422)

But it is even more striking the fact that the Inquisition so strict with those conversos who maintained in secret their Jewish faith would sentence convicted Judaizers to serve as soldiers in Santa Cruz This was the case of a man from Seville who lived in Cuzco and was condemned to serve in the frontier of Santa Cruz in 1599 a few years after the foundation of San Lorenzo (Medina pp 288291) The euphoria caused by the legendary wealth of the mines of Potosá­ made it undesirable to migrate to a place as poor isolated and dangerous as Santa Cruz The Spanish authorities had to resort even to Inquisition convicts to populate the new settlements commuting on occasion their forced labor in the galleys or death sentence (typical punishment for Judaizing conversos) in exchange for serving as soldiers in the frontier of Santa Cruz (Garcá­a Recio p 422) Whether they came alone with their families by their own will as fugitives or to lessen their sentences these conversos of the second migration found a new home in Santa Cruz

The Pioneer Woman and Marriage in the Frontier of Santa Cruz

It is worth noting that although there were Spanish women (some of them probably conversas) among the first inhabitants of Santa Cruz they were few The colonizers were mainly men This must have also been the case of converso men who probably built their families for the most part with Mestizo (mixed European and Native) and Native women The Mestizopopulation of Santa Cruz grew rapidly in the first years of the colony The Cruceño woman (“woman from Santa Cruz) who combined together the knowledge of both Native and Spanish women was the source of ethnic and cultural mixing The survival of the incipient towns depended on women for they were in charge of everything during the long periods when men were engaged in warring and discovering activities (Peña Hasbún pp 4142)

The leading role of the Cruceño woman has been apparent since the birth of Santa Cruz: Elvira de Mendoza a famous Cruceño woman from colonial times is considered as equal in bravery as the Conquistadores From the very beginning women took charge of the family finances children’s education religious practices and the transfer of knowledge within the family (Peña Hasbún pp 4142)

From the first generations when Cruceños married they paid no attention to the rules of the Catholic Church prohibiting marriage between relatives within four or less degrees of consanguinity Moreover marriages among relatives were so generalized that in 1684 the Bishop of Santa Cruz wrote a letter to the Spanish King alerting him to the gravity of the situation But all of Santa Cruz inhabitants were in one way or another related and if they were not allowed to marry each other concubinage would have probably been rampant Therefore the solution was to use a privilege given to the Jesuits who had arrived in 1587 to allow “neophytes” 5 to marry among themselves up the second degree of consanguinity and first degree of affinity Thus marriage among relatives continued to be common until the middle of the 20th Century 6 Interestingly marriage between close relatives was characteristic of converso communities of Sephardic origin who secretly practiced Judaism (Caro Baroja p 64)

Jenecherú the Fire that Never Dies

It is interesting to note that some traditions that were maintained in Santa Cruz throughout the centuries are typical of the conversos who during colonial times secretly practiced the Jewish religion 7 For example many traditional families (especially in the rural areas) still light candles on Friday evenings In the first half of the 20 th Century travelers report about Santa Cruz homes where seven branched candlesticks were kept as family heirlooms and where some vestiges of kosher food practices were preserved simply as family traditions (Mangan p 99)

In Santa Cruz the traditional way to kill an animal and prepare it for cooking is to slit his throat and jugular vein and to bleed him out Once the blood has been drained on the soil and the remaining blood has been coagulated the butchering begins This way of slaughtering is still practiced in the countryside among some old families of the region who have maintained the tradition for centuries probably unaware that the Jewish religion requires slaughtering animals in a similar way before preparing them for cooking Most meat products are salted completely drained of blood and stored as “charque” (dry salted meat) The traditional cuisine of Santa Cruz is notorious for the absence of pork dishes 8 so abundant in the rest of Bolivia and Latin America We must remember that the consumption of pork is prohibited in the Jewish religion

In addition most Cruceño cuisine dishes combine vegetables and grains with either milk or meat products but never with both of them together Thus if rice is to be prepared with milk products as the traditional “arroz con queso” it will include milk butter and cheese but not meat In turn if the rice is meat based as the traditional “majau” it should include no milk products

Historically it has been assumed that many of the old families of Santa Cruz are of Jewish descent (Montero Hoyos pp 7778) and even today several traditional Catholic families of Santa Cruz and Vallegrande acknowledge with pride their Jewish heritage (Hubsch Neumann p 13) Some archeological evidence of this heritage can be found in isolated towns with a historic association to converso families such as Pucará where we can still admire a number of house street doors dating from colonial times with stars of David carved on them ( Naturalia Winter 2008 45) Or as in the case of Postrervalle where the villagers walk every Saturday to a nearby cave to light candles to the Virgin Mary in a perfectly syncretic practice that blends the Jewish tradition of some of their ancestors and the rituals of their longstanding Catholic faith (Rueda Peña) It is also worth noting that Our Lady of Mercy (September 24 th ) and Easter two major religious festivities profusely celebrated in Santa Cruz and its towns since colonial times often coincide respectively with Yom Kippur and Passover


It would be erroneous to say that all early inhabitants of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and its surrounding towns were of Jewish origin In colonial times this region known as Bolivia’s melting pot had also Spaniards descended from old Christian families Guarani Chiquitano and Chane natives as well as others for whom being sent to these remote lands was a form of punishment or a way of keeping them away from major Spanish colonial cities 9 Nevertheless the Jewish heritage brought by the converso pioneers of Santa Cruz is an essential component of the city’s founding that has set deep roots in the local society

Santa Cruz de la Sierra has a history of inclusion and admixture of peoples from different cultures religions and ethnic backgrounds Its birth as a land of outcasts adventurers and warring natives too far away to be under the close scrutiny of the Spanish authorities produced a society of rather independent and entrepreneurial individuals who adapted to their environment and built a distinct society The conversos and their descendants are an important component of the multiethnic mosaic that constitutes Santa Cruz and their legacy is still vivid today




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The Jewish Experience in Latin America

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Farewell España The World of the Sephardim Remembered

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    1. Sachar p 59; Pérez pp 5659 139 182; Hervás pp 277291; De Los Rá­os pp 596602


    1. Limpieza de Sangre were statutes established in Spain in the 15 th Century which banned conversos and their descendants from occupying any post in the most powerful institutions in the realm: the Church the military and government (Sicroff’s book is dedicated to this subject) Furthermore a number of orders were periodically issued forbidding descendants of Jews to live in the New World (Finkelstein p19)


    1. Cf Norman Roth pp 120124; Cantera Burgos (the book is fully dedicated to the subject)


    1. 4 Cf Norman Roth pp 174175; Hervás pp 277291; Pérez p 182


    1. Term used to refer to individual who had recently converted to the Catholic religion


    1. With respect to the incidence of endogamy in Santa Cruz and the Catholic Church response to it during the 16 th and 17 th Centuries see Garcá­a Recio pp 429 458 and 462


    1. 7 For these traditions we researched a number of sources but our main ones are Gitlitz (1996) and Hordes (2005)


    1. The only exception to this is the cuisine of Vallegrande which given its easy access to Charcas was influenced by the Andean cuisine


  1. In a letter dated in 1842 Moritz Bach reports that during the reign of Charles V of Spain several Spanish families had been expelled to Santa Cruz for “political reasons”; moreover Santa Cruz has a history of been a common destiny for expelled individuals