This past week I got the news that my parent’s house had sold. My parents bought the house back in the 1970s for $26,000 and sold it for $45,000. The financial returns were slim, but the house on Taylor street—located in the heart of el barrio de la 421 (the 421 neighborhood)—holds deep memories for me and my family. This was the house where Sunday afternoons were loud with people around the table eating arroz con pollo while closely following the Dallas Cowboy football game. It was where people from all over the U.S. and Latin America came to visit my parents, and where el hermano Manuelito—a Mennonite pastor from Matamoros (a border town on the Mexican side) would patiently wait for a ride to church on most Sunday mornings. It’s the neighborhood where my first bike was stolen, where the cholos and cholas decorated the streets with their fashion and art, and where we were certainly the only non-Catholic family. We were the aleluyas (a term sometimes used to identify non-Catholic, mostly Pentecostal, Mexican Americans). We had a tortilleria one house down, across the street you could buy hielitos (frozen kool-aid in styrofoam cups), Ofelia had a tiendita (small store) a short distance away, and I’ll never forget how well manicured our neighbor, Conchita, kept her plants and grass. In recent years the neighborhood has not looked very good. After Conchita passed away the subsequent owners never kept up the landscaping and the nearby Lincoln Park closed down, giving way for a new highway built to connect to a new border crossing to Mexico.
Of all that is quickly recognizable about my family and my neighborhood, being Mennonite is certainly not. And yet we are, and that house, and that neighborhood, has been visited by other Mennonites (mostly Mexican Americans) who came for a Bible study, for a meal, or for a place to stay. Our family was the only Mennonite family in el barrio de la 421, but all across town, Mexican-American Mennonites lived, worked, and faithfully attended Iglesia Menonita del Cordero (Mennonite Church of the Lamb) in Brownsville, Texas. For most of us, place (our neighborhoods and the border city where we lived) shaped our understanding of Mennonite and Anabaptist faith and theology. Place mattered to us because it compelled us to live out our Mennonite faith in distinctive ways. For example, our church started programs to help people in our church (poor people helping poor people) and we became a sanctuary church in the late 1980s and early 1990s, providing migrants and refugees from Central America and Mexico sanctuary, a warm meal, and the opportunity to make a long distance phone call.
Social geographers tell us that space and place are not neutral, but in fact are vital in determining social interactions, politics, and social movements.1 Being on the border—being a border church and a Mennonite church—meant that we lived out our faith very differently than white Mennonites in the east or Midwest. Like the prairies and flat lands of the Midwest or the Pennsylvania Dutch Country that have shaped Mennonite faith and theology in America, living as a borderlands people between two nations has shaped the experiences of Mexican American Mennonites.
The relation to place has been a critical point in much of the Mennonite and Anabaptist histories written in the twentieth century. That focus makes sense given that most of the Russian Mennonite immigrants to America settled in defined locations across the east and Midwest during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The cities and towns in which they ended up, such as Hillsboro and Newton, Kansas, and Goshen and Elkhart, Indiana, historian Paul Toews has called “holy places”. 2
While Mennonites have historically been geographically segregated, place is additionally important in that it has also shaped the historical topics chosen for study as well as the methodologies and approaches of scholars who focus on the Mennonite experience. Consider: what places and which archives are Mennonite scholars working in and with? In 1997 Toews made it clear that most of the scholars who authored books as part of the “Mennonite Experience in America” series made “trips into the archival centers of the Mennonite universe [and] bypassed the bright lights of the nation’s metropolitan centers.”3 While the majority of the historical records for the Mennonite community are archived in the “holy places,” it is important to remember that Mennonites themselves have never been solely confined to those areas. What new information might we have gathered about the experience of Mennonites during the civil rights movement or the Sanctuary movement by looking in the National Archives, the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, or even the Luis Muñoz Marín Foundation in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, which currently has an electronic collection of over 20,000 photos of Mennonite service work on the island in the 1950s and 1960s?
For those of us working on rewriting the Mennonite story in the United States, deterritorializing Mennonite studies—moving it away from its current ethnic and place-based trappings—has the potential to open new avenues that take us to the different locations where Mennonite history occurred: in the West, the South, the Pacific Northwest, and across national borders. Doing so can help us to better understand how racism and oppression take place, how people of color have redefined the Mennonite experience, and what the range of Mennonite and Anabaptist history can teach us about religious experiences in the United States and across the globe. I know that in my corner of the world, in the barrios of the Texas/Mexico borderlands, there are many stories yet to be told.
- See the work of Edward Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other Real and Imagined Places (Blackwell Publishers, 1996). ↩
- Paul Toews, “The Quest for the Mennonite Holy Grail: Reflections on ‘the Mennonite Experience in America’ Project,” Direction Journal 26, no. 1 (Spring 1997), 43. ↩
- Ibid. ↩