Notes from Mexico City

From my tiny rooftop apartment in the colonia  Coyoacuán I see the sun rise blood-orange red fading into hot orange and then silvery white and blue. On the horizon the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl come into focus.

I see the stunning main library on the UNAM campus. I am fascinated with this building designed by painter and architect Juan O’Gorman and architects Gustavo Saavedra and Juan Martínez de Velasco. The murals that cover it are composed of countless stones and chunks of glass selected from various parts of Mexico for their color.

It’s astonishing. All four sides of the tower are completely covered with mosaics of colored stones and glass. Parts of the base are made from volcanic rock from this part of the city.

Each side of the building tells a story about Mexico. The north face has images of pre-Hispanic gods and illustrates the founding of Tenochitlan.

The east wall depicts the contemporary world, and the west facing wall has symbols representing the University and today’s Mexico.

The south wall depicts the Spanish Conquest and the colonial past.

Standing at the foot of this magnificent building, looking closely at the images on the south wall I can see Jewish stars above and below an angel hovering over a Spanish colonial church. I see them elsewhere too: inside the discs of Copernicus and Ptolemy. There is so much I don’t know about this history and so little I understand about all the symbolism here. But clearly Juan O’Gorman is including the Jews in his depiction of the profound impact European culture has had on Mexico since Cortés and the brutal Spanish conquest in 1521.  Read more from the UNAM website .

And indeed, the Jews are an important part of this history.

They fled the Inquisition to New Spain. But the Palace of the Inquisition was built in 1571 in Mexico City.  As would come to be a generation later in New Mexico and other parts of the southwestern US,  they became “crypto Jews”-outwardly pretending to be Christian. Many lost their Jewish identities through generations of hiding and assimilation. But later in history more Sephardim came to Mexico, fleeing another Christian reconquest, the retaking of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth centrury. They came from Turkey and Greece and Syria. 

Later, the Ashkenazim came from eastern Eutope, also fleeing, fleeing the rise of Nazism.  They meant to go to the US but immigration quotas prevented their entrance. Mexico’s doors, however, were open.   Read more from the Sinagoga Justo Sierrra website.


Monte Sinai, Mexico City’s first synagogue, built in 1923 by an alliance of Jews, mostly Sefardim.

Nidje Israel, the first Ashkenazi synagogue in Mexico City, built in 1937 and modeled on the synagogue in Siaulial, Lithuania. Today it is a Jewish cultural center.

Inside Nidje Israel
Close up of the menorah showing traditional Mexican carving.
Sinagoga Rabí Yehuda Halevi, Colonia Roma, Mexico City. Completed in 1942 by the Sephardic community here, it was inspired by the Sephardic synagogue in Vidin, Bulgaria.
Selfie in the Metro

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