From the perspective of the 21st century it seems incongruous that in the 1920s, thousands of Mennonites from Manitoba would uproot themselves, leave the rich Canadian Prairie, and start all over again in Chihuahua, a remote and semi-arid state in northern Mexico.
After all they were leaving Canada; a land of promise and freedom where self-determination and human rights were the covenant the Government of Canada had made with religious and economic refugees who had responded to the call to help develop the Canadian West.
Nomads of necessity
However like many throughout history who have endured bold and arduous treks in search of security, prosperity, and freedom of religion, the Mennonites who came to Canada found both dreams and disillusionment.
Today, there are over one million adult members of the Mennonite faith in 60 countries around the world, and almost 130,000 members of Mennonite churches in Canada. Their separate and distinct Christian beliefs and way of life date back to the 1500s to the Anabaptist movement and the Reformation. It was during this watershed time in world history that the hierarchical authority of the Catholic Church was challenged, leading eventually to the establishment of the Protestant Churches. In a parallel movement, a small group of inhabitants of the northern German states and the Netherlands — followers of Menno Simons — also began to assert their belief that religion was not a political nor a state affair but a way of life.
This solitary group was distinct from both a religious and ethnic point of view. Although the concept of separation of Church and State is a common principle in the current century, it was the most radical demand made by the Mennonites for whom the head of the church (Jesus) is divine whereas the head of the state is a mere human being. Their belief in a higher authority than the law inevitably brought them into conflict with state forces. Their pacifism disallowed them from serving in the military and their forsaking of secular ways in order to live close to the earth in separate communities set them even further part. Their loyalty was to God; they could not swear allegiance to any temporal state.
In search of self-determination
Their persecution for their beliefs and lifestyle was inevitable. They were soon scattered throughout Europe searching for new homes. So when Czarina Catherine II of Russia, who was looking for industrious immigrants to develop newly acquired lands in southern Russia, offered the Mennonites land, money, and complete religious and political independence, a mass migration to a new homeland occurred. And despite the challenges of farming the steppes of south-eastern Europe, the Mennonites thrived and contributed to the area becoming the “breadbasket” of Europe. However, by the 1870s, state policies of “russification” were impinging on the Mennonite way of life; by 1866 the exemption from military service was revoked and the requirement that Russian be the only language of instruction in schools was imposed. The promise was broken. The Mennonites were on the move again — this time to North America. Seven thousand came to southern Manitoba where the Canadian government through its Dominion Lands Act — designed to develop the western provinces in particular — was also promising free land. And to the Mennonites it also offered political, religious, and educational autonomy in one of the least developed parts of the country.
In Manitoba and later Saskatchewan, the Mennonites diligently applied their traditional agricultural ways and faith-based social structure and thrived once again. But the secular world would again intervene when the Manitoba Municipal Act of 1880 established secular local governments. And the Manitoba Schools Act in 1890 would require English as the sole language of instruction in schools as well as a secular curriculum. Furthermore, following the First World War, the Mennonites were facing the threat of conscription. Pressure was also being felt from other “progressive” Mennonites who were increasingly integrating into the majority Canadian culture. For Old Colony Mennonites — the most traditional and orthodox — this acculturation and state “interference” was a disturbing turn of events. Their subsequent legal battles with the government cost them large sums of money, and in some cases Mennonites were imprisoned for refusing to send their children to public schools. And so, rejecting any compromise and with a firm conviction that the State has no place in matters of conscience, Old Colony Mennonites from Manitoba and Saskatchewan began to seek another promised land.
The road to Mexico
Six elders from Manitoba and Saskatchewan made a long exploratory trek to Mexico in 1921. Hardy, common sense farmers, these six men travelled great distances throughout the hot, dry and often mountainous terrain of Mexico, at times travelling by mule on the edge of cliffs and through deep ravines. They carefully assessed the land that the Mexican government in its turn was offering for development. After much searching, they returned home with good news. As a non-Mennonite, it is with detachment and curiosity that I set out to follow the route that these people took — or at least part of it. Until recently I knew very little about Mennonites, the diversity of their religious beliefs and practices, and how most lead quite contemporary lives. I had a vague stereotypical image in my mind of sombre, ultraconservative people in horse and buggy as I was accustomed to seeing in St. Jacobs Country of Ontario — visible minorities are always more apparent even in multicultural Canada.
But when we cross the U.S.-Mexican border from El Paso, Texas to Juarez, Mexico the discordance of the transition between two very different realities makes me think about the depth of conviction and determination that the Mennonites from Manitoba who crossed at this same spot so long ago must have had. I am also now more curious to discover who they were.
On March 1, 1922, just as the winter snows were beginning to melt, the first group of Old Colony Manitoban Mennonites began a long train ride to Mexico. (As I leave Canada in the same month and look down over the constantly changing terrain of the American mid and southwest, I visualize that long journey from Manitoba through Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas (where large numbers of other Mennonites had relocated from Europe), New Mexico, and Texas. As the Mennonites from Manitoba headed south, Canada geese were making their northward migration.
Over the next four years, 36 trains of 25-45 cars each, would make the same journey. At chartering costs of $25,000-$35,000 (US), these convoys of emigrants were enormous undertakings. They were bringing with them everything they could: household goods of all kinds; tractors and other farm implements; building materials; Canadian strains of wheat, flax, and oats; horses, pigs, chickens, turkeys, geese, pigeons, cats, dogs, and rabbits. These were not impoverished refugees; they were not without a sense of direction.
Scrutinizing and divining
Historically Mennonites have been experts in land reclamation and transformation and the six men who initially reconnoitred this potential new home brought those skills with them. They found the desert lands of Sonora where they were offered 120,000 acres at 60-70 cents an acre unsuitable as they did other land offered at higher prices. Essentially what they were looking for was water. And they found it in the northern state of Chihuahua. There they found a huge semi-arid desert prairie on a high plain surrounded by mountain ranges. This too was steppe land; with the promise of productive grasslands. They observed the local Mexicans and how they tilled what soil there was. As they would eventually discover, they could work this land as they had other less desirable terrain they had been offered — but not without difficulty. The work, once again, would prove extremely arduous. The Mennonites would have to deal with new climatic conditions; to acculturate in a different sense. And it would be the torrential rains of the months of July, August, and September in Chihuahua that would be a mixed blessing and the saving grace. What the Mennonites would learn to do was to irrigate and to harness the forces of nature in this land of extremes. Although the summer rains would bring wrathful thunderstorms, the like of which the newcomers had never experienced, and dried-up river beds would suddenly become raging torrents, they would turn these climatic conditions to their advantage. They would make the desert bloom.
Mexico in general is as unlike Canada as you can get. Chihuahua even more so. And a high plains desert over 2000 metres high seems the most unlikely area for agricultural settlement. Equally hard to imagine is those six Mennonite men from Canada being formally received in the elegant presidential palace in Mexico City where they eventually signed a “document of privileges” assuring them the same rights as they had been promised in Europe and Canada. But this time, the land was not free. They would eventually buy 200,000 acres at $8.25 (US) each in order to establish the two mother colonies of Manitoba and Swift Current in Chihuahua, Mexico.
A modern four-lane highway connects El Paso with the capital of the state, Chihuahua City. A colourful city with its own special charm and ambiance, Chihuahua has numerous historic sites. This is Pancho Villa territory, the famous revolutionary leader of the Mexican Revolution. In the house in which he lived (now a museum) you can visit neat, decorous rooms and cool, quiet courtyards. You can also see the car in which he was riding when he was assassinated in 1923.
The state of Chihuahua is also a unique destination known for, among other highlights, its vast deserts with their own unique ecologies; the ancient ruins of Paquimé where a highly developed civilization flourished in the 12th century and then mysteriously disappeared before the arrival of the Spanish; the desert “Zone of Silence” known for its strange magnetic anomalies; the impressive mountain ranges; the stupendous Copper Canyon – a geological wonder larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon; and the indigenous Tarahumara people who have lived in the area for over 10,000 years, preserved their language and culture, and to a great extent have not become acculturated.
Chihuahua is a long way from Canada, but in an odd way its eclectic character seems quite consistent with a migration of Mennonites to the state where once again they transplanted their socio-religious culture.
A sense of order
The road to the Mennonite colonies near the city of Cuauhtémoc traverses desert terrain that has a remarkable visual texture. It also passes through typical Mexican towns noted for adobe-style buildings, churches, and pottery shops. About 100 kilometres west of Chihuahua, we enter Mennonite territory. The landscape begins to change subtly, almost imperceptibly. Arid rocky ground dotted with cacti and small dilapidated structures slowly gives way to larger and larger plots of land in which staple crops — wheat, corn, beans — are growing. And then as the road winds up and around low rolling hills, a blend of desert and immense grain fields becomes apparent. In the distance, tidy communities sit amid the vast fields. The intense blue of the sky and the sweeping horizons accentuate the sequestered villages. The brilliant sunshine and pure air create a telescopic view of the meticulous Mennonite “camps” with their single main street, linear order, and muted propriety.
We pass the largest apple orchard I have ever seen. The precise and immaculate rows of trees flow across the landscape in waves of rosy spring blossoms. An immensely elaborate system of tepee-like structures with black netting march along the rows. In the event of hail or other natural hazards, the netting will be spread like black gauze over the trees. Everywhere there is evidence of highly coordinated and mechanized farming. As we come up over a rise, endless cultivated orchards stretch for many kilometres against a backdrop of blue mountain ridges. In the foreground, desert sand, rock, and sparse growth underscore the fertile land in the mid-distance.
At the Museo y Centro Cultural Menonita in Cuauhtémoc, Jacob and Lisa await us. The museum is not unlike many heritage or pioneer village museums one sees in Canada, a snapshot of past generations.
But the artifacts — stoves, traditional wooden furniture, pendulum clocks, basins, farm equipment, photographs, even an enormous iron safe made in Toronto, and a wooden trunk from Russia — all have travelled a very long way to bear witness and affirm the life the Mennonites of Mexico established for themselves. Jacob is very much an Old Colony man, patriarchal and accepting of the old ways. He calmly but firmly tells us the story of the colonies. He is accompanied by his very pretty soft-spoken wife and their two angelic daughters. Jacob is welcoming, polite, and forthright. He seems to anticipate a certain scepticism or critique on our part but is unconcerned. He gives us the information we need correctly and precisely but with very little self-expression. His explanation of the Old Colony Mennonite ways does not avoid dealing with any of the gender or modernist questions that we might have, but we see little reason to enter into such a dialogue. He does however touch on the perennial issue of encroaching secular society, and it is happening here too. Jacob wishes he could do more to stop some of the young men in the colony from drinking and smoking. And his sister did marry a Mexican. When asked whether this was difficult for the family, he replies that it has taken some getting used to but says, somewhat more brightly, “We like him.”
Lisa is a more modern “New Conference” Mennonite who speaks excellent English, which she learned in Kansas. As an unmarried woman she works in the museum, one of the traditional jobs available to her in the community. She speaks with considerable enthusiasm and expresses a longing to visit Manitoba where her grandparents came from. She is eager for us to come to a choral performance this afternoon but unfortunately we must be on our way.
Jacob and family pose for photos in the bright sunshine against the wooden house-barn structure that is typical of a Mennonite home of the early years. We say goodbye, smiles all around, and go our separate ways.
Promises to keep
Back in Canada I visit St. Jacobs Country again and speak with community members working with Mexican Mennonite families who return periodically to the area, most of them poor landless villagers. The overpopulation, uneven distribution of wealth, and severe social stratification in the Cuauhtémoc area force many of these people to return to Canada for what are sometimes only brief stays. I also learn that water resources in the Cuauhtémoc area are often at a critically low level especially in the “dry years” — an ominous sign.
A social worker I speak with explains the problems that many of the returnees face: literacy; cross-cultural conflicts; isolation in remote areas when they have been used to living in close-knit communities; educational discrepancies; and health and nutrition issues. Most speak Plautdietsch (Low German) for which there is no standardized written language, and this can pose serious difficulties, in education and health care especially.
A sentence from a document for community workers who assist these reverse immigrants catches my eye. “Be understanding of their values and traditions for they form the basis for their behaviours, some of which may no longer be acceptable in Canada.”
The same week, a shocking feature story in the Canadian magazine Saturday Night is published. It is titled “The Mennonite Mob” and is a disturbing exposé of drug trafficking into Canada by Mennonites from Mexico. I speak to a friend, a Mennonite, about the article. She has read it and is “horrified,” but suggests that wrong-doing is not unknown in Mennonite communities. The facts presented in the article relate to very serious crimes allegedly committed by Mennonites. This is an invasion of the very worst of secular culture. But I suspect that Mennonites, whether Old Colony or of a more contemporary world view, will deal with this new threat to their community in their own way.
1. In a recent email in response to this article, Lisa Epp says “I found your article on Mennonites very interesting. As a Mennonite myself I just wanted to inform you that the Low German language is now a written language. The Bible has been translated into Low German and a dictionary has also been made. I am very excited about this. I feel that the main reason it took so long for the language to be a written one is because most older generation Mennonites aren’t very well educated. In Mexico the church sermons and school is all done in High German. That was the case here in Canada as well but some of the young people were saying that they couldn’t understand what the ministers were saying so they didn’t see the point in going to church. This caused a lot of concern because they didn’t want to lose all of the young people of the church. Now the challenge will be to teach everyone how to read the language that they speak everyday.”
2. I recently finished reading Canadian author Miriam Toews’ (pronounced Taves) novel Irma Voth which is set near Cuauhtémoc, Mexico where this travel story was produced. Toews is of Mennonite heritage and grew up in Steinbach, Manitoba, which in many ways is the heart of Mennonite country in the Canadian West. Her previous novel, A Complicated Kindness, also has a Mennonite theme. The novel also won the Governor General’s Award for English Fiction and was nominated for the prestigious Giller Prize. It was also the winning title in the 2006 edition of Canada Reads.
Miriam Toews also appeared in the film Silent Light (Luz silenciosa) directed by renowned Mexican filmaker Carols Reygadas. the film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and the author/actor was nominated Best Actress at Mexico’s Ariel Awards.