Mennonites in Mexico looking for new home, again

A community that left Manitoba a century ago is eyeing Russia
David Agren
Mennonite girls stand outside their school in the Valley of Juarez May 18, 2011. Over 80,000 Mennonites live in Mexico after they established themselves for the first time in the 1920s. Mennonites arrange their lives according to their religious beliefs; they have their own educational system and do not participate in the government or serve in the military. Their origins date back to Switzerland in the 16th century as part of the Reformation until a movement was founded by the Dutch priest Menno Simon who believed in a different interpretation of the scriptures, hence the name Mennonites, meaning "Followers of Menno". REUTERS/Gael Gonzalez (MEXICO - Tags: SOCIETY RELIGION)
Gael Gonzalez/Reuters

Peter Friesen talks as if he’s seen the promised land. A Mennonite farmer and father of 13 in Mexico’s northern Chihuahua state, his blue eyes brighten as he paints a picture of a place with pleasant people, raging rivers and vast tracts of virgin land ideal for agriculture. “We saw really good land with lots of water,” Friesen recalled, while seated in the booth of a Mennonite pizzeria that sells pies smothered with the prized local product, a tangy cheese known as queso menonita.

Friesen isn’t talking about paradise. He’s talking about Russia, where his Mennonite ancestors once worked the land before departing for the Canadian Prairies and then the high plains of northern Mexico. Friesen and 10 Mennonites recently travelled to Russia to explore a possible relocation from Chihuahua to the prairie of Tatarstan—900 km east of Moscow and similar to Manitoba with its cold winters, hot summers and flat prairie. The possible relocation is not a nostalgic return to his roots, but rather a resolution for the most pressing problems Mexican Mennonites face: shortages of land and water. “We could cultivate 10 times more than we have here,” says Enrique Voth Penner, who also went to Russia.

For the Mexican Mennonites, an estimated 50,000 of whom are eligible for Canadian passports, land is scarce—a problem for a people with large broods and a fondness for farming. Previous generations of Mennonites pushed into the Chihuahua desert from their original settlements (including the aptly named Colonia Manitoba), drilling wells as they went. But times have changed. What land remains lacks adequate water to coax crops such as corn and wheat from the region’s sandy soils. Wells now are being drilled to depths of more than 500 m and the National Water Commission has stopped issuing permits. Making matters worse, Mexico just experienced its worst drought in 71 years. Water problems “have given people a push, given them a reason to migrate,” Voth says.

The Mennonites now find themselves embroiled in an escalating water war, in which they’ve landed on the wrong side of public opinion and, in some cases, allegedly participated in acts of corruption—namely paying bribes for permits and drilling wells without permission. The competition for water is fierce—so fierce that stories have surfaced linking some Mennonites to organized crime, without offering proof. In October, the leader of a farm group crusading against illegal wells turned up dead. “There are people who are envious,” says Mennonite tour guide Abraham Peters. “It’s time that we explore other options.”

In Russia, Voth found plenty to like: land, water, low taxes and offers of credit. Voth figures 100 families would go, but says the Mennonites, who are pacificsts, still need a guaranteed exemption from military service.

A move would only be the latest for a wandering people; some 6,000 Mennonites relocated to Mexico in the 1920s to escape rules in Manitoba mandating English-only education. The Mexican government promised the Mennonites the right to run religious schools—in complete violation of the country’s constitution, which mandates secular education—and an ability to avoid obligatory military service. The Mexican government has kept its end of the bargain, the Mennonites say, although many from traditional colonies, who still use horses and buggies, moved to Bolivia in 1967 after electricity came to Mexico. Others left during the worst of the drug war, which hit Chihuahua and Durango states especially hard. “There are always people that don’t think they can make it here and leave,” says septuagenarian farmer Guillermo Thiessen.

The community has prospered, as the Mennonites brought agriculture to inhospitable parts of Mexico, and developed a commercial corridor in Colonia Manitoba that attracts buyers from across the country in search of farm and irrigation equipment. Still, they stayed somewhat separate from the broader Mexican society. The Mennonites still speak Low German, attend their own schools—and are best known for queso menonita and the blond vendors in plaid shirts and coveralls who sell it at intersections.

Thiessen says he feels both Mexican and Mennonite and has grandchildren who married Mexicans. He inadvertently shows many Mexican traits, such as saying, “Gracias a Díos,” (thanks to God) when asked how he’s doing, professing a preference for spicy food and going abroad for short-term employment excursions. He recently made $3,000 picking potatoes in Winkler, Man. But Thiessen says he’s too old to relocate to Russia. Friesen is also more interested in Russia for his children than for himself, but he expects a warm welcome, should they ever arrive. “The officials told us in the first meeting, ‘Welcome home.’ ”