“We Are Very Good Friends:” Two School Directors Build Bridges between Mennonite and Rarámuri Communities in Chihuahua, Mexico

Abigail Carl-Klassen

Note: This article is sourced from the “Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua” Oral History Project conducted in northern Mexico in the spring of 2018 with funding from the D.F. Plett Historical Research Foundation. The complete audio recordings, transcripts, and translations of the project interviews are housed in the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Selected audio interviews in English and Spanish (with English subtitles), featuring landscape photography by local photographers Marcela Enns, Veronica Enns, and Raúl Kigra are available on YouTube as part of a series titled Darp Stories which will run from May to December 2018. Bruno Ramos Rivas and Alicia Bustillos González’s interview will be available after November 23, 2018, and Peter Rempel’s interview will be available after November 9, 2018. After the Darp Stories series runs to completion, all videos will remain online as a public access archive.

In 2008, Bruno Ramos Rivas, like an increasing number of Rarámuri Indigenous people1, left his home in the mountains of Guachochi, Chihuahua, Mexico, to find work in the city. Instead of the bustling capital, Chihuahua, or the border metropolis of Juárez, both popular destinations for Rarámuri people fleeing economic insecurity and narco-violence, Bruno found himself in the Manitoba Colony of the Campos Menonitas, the Mennonite settlements just north of Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua. Cuauhtémoc and the surrounding region is celebrated as “La Tierra de Tres Culturas,” “The Land of the Three Cultures”: Mestizo, Rarámuri, and Mennonite. Once the stomping grounds of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, the Tres Culturas region, like much of northern Mexico, known for its industry, commercial agriculture, and higher wages, now attracts migrant labor from across Mexico and Central America. A billboard in the small town of Rubio, forty kilometers north of Cuauhtémoc, that reads “Rubio Tierra del Trabajo,” “Rubio the Land of Work” greets travelers on the Corredor Comercial, the commercial highway that connects the Mennonite settlements of the Ojo de la Yegua colony, Swift Colony and Manitoba Colony to Cuauhtémoc. “The Land of Work” delivered on its promise and Bruno soon found work in a Mennonite-owned sand plant alongside Rarámuri, Mestizo, and Mennonite employees, and within the year, his wife Alicia and their children joined him in the Campos Menonitas.

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The Rarámuri school, Ministerio de Amor, and its programs. (Photo provided by Pete Rempel, director of the Gnadenthal Kleingemeinde school)

Upon arrival, Bruno and Alicia did not anticipate the close relationships they would build with the Mennonite community, or the opportunities they would have to empower Rarámuri children, youth and their families who migrated to the Campos Menonitas by serving as educators at a bilingual (Rarámuri/Spanish) school in Campo 14, Ministerio de Amor, funded by a Kleingemeinde Mennonite church. The school, which has been in operation since 2011, was founded by Maria Wiebe Enns, the wife of Kleingemeinde pastor Jacobo Enns, who was concerned that the children of Rarámuri workers living in the Manitoba Colony did not have access to education. In the 2017-2018 academic year, the school served forty students in preschool through sixth grade, employed six Rarámuri teachers, and became a fully registered and accredited school through Mexico’s Department of Education. Bruno, who has served as the school’s director for the last three years, anticipates that the school will continue to grow, as a result of increasing Rarámuri migration, and he hopes to be able to serve students through the end of secondary school in the near future.

The first Mennonites arrived in San Antonio de Arenales (now Cuauhtémoc) from Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Canada, on March 8, 1922, in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, and in the nearly one hundred years since, they have been navigating the complex socio-political dynamics of the region and building cross-cultural relationships with their Mestizo and Rarámuri neighbors. From early conflicts concerning land sales and distribution to later disputes concerning military service exemptions to present-day tensions concerning water rights and narco-violence, the Mennonites’ time in Chihuahua has not been without challenges. Because the Campos Menonitas were originally separatist, both in ideology and geography, and had a large amount of autonomy granted by the Mexican government, contact with people outside the colonies until recent decades was almost exclusively business related and done by men. Educational, social, and romantic relationships were frowned upon and many times, forbidden outright with the threat of excommunication. Despite these risks, however, there have always been members of the Mennonite community who have pushed the boundaries. In recent years as a result of reforms within communities, such as the transition from horse and buggy to vehicles and education reform to include Spanish instruction in many schools (with the exception of the Sabinal Colony in far northern Chihuahua), interactions of all kinds between Mennonites and people from Mestizo and Rarámuri communities, like the formation of Ministerio de Amor, have been increasing.

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The Rarámuri school, Ministerio de Amor, and its programs. (Photo provided by Pete Rempel, director of the Gnadenthal Kleingemeinde school)

Pete Rempel, the director of a Kleingemeinde school in Gnadenthal (Campo 22), where he also teaches ninth grade, is one such example of this increased contact between communities. His great-grandparents were among the first colonists to arrive in 1922, and he credits his interests in building relationships across cultures to his grandmother whose warmth, hospitality, and humor was extended to her Mestizo neighbors, despite her limited Spanish. A young man approaching thirty, Pete remembers when the primary language of instruction in Kleingemeinde schools shifted from German to Spanish when he was in third grade, which gave him and subsequent generations of students the language skills necessary for increased interactions outside the Mennonite community. Because of his Spanish abilities and openness to build relationships cross-culturally, Pete serves on a committee that funds and advocates on behalf of Ministerio de Amor where Bruno and Alicia work. During their time working together, Bruno and Pete have formed a close friendship that has provided opportunities for growth and self-reflection. Pete speaks frankly about working to overcome his prejudices, saying, “Don’t think that I am a saint.” He addresses how his friendship with Bruno has allowed him to more clearly see racism in the Mennonite community, as well as the need for individual and systemic changes in the ways in which Mennonites interact with Mestizo and Rarámuri communities, particularly in terms of fair wages: “There are some [Mennonites] that take it to an extreme. They pay them as little as possible.” He believes that friendships like his and Bruno’s are a good first step, saying, “I think it is by the grace of God that yes, I have changed in some way. It is because God was patient with me and helped me, but I continue to struggle with this, and I think it partly due to how we are raised. We need to raise our children differently. Not raising them to see other cultures with discrimination, or to discriminate against them.”

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The Rarámuri school, Ministerio de Amor, and its programs. (Photo provided by Pete Rempel, director of the Gnadenthal Kleingemeinde school)

Bruno notes that despite his close relationship that he has with Pete and the Mennonite community, upon his arrival to the Campos Menonitas he was wary of people outside his community because of the long history of repression of Indigenous peoples. “The Tarahumara live with that feeling of self-defense toward white people because of the history we bring with us.” However, over time Bruno’s feelings changed based on the positive experiences he had with the community. “Since I have gotten to know these Mennonites, I discovered that yes, I can trust them. I can trust because they have demonstrated it to me. Not just because I think so, but because they have demonstrated it.” He views his friendship with Pete as a way to begin to rebuild trust and a way to for him to advocate for justice and opportunities for the Rarámuri community: “We are very good friends despite being from another nationality. You can see that brotherhood. That friendship that can break with race, with language. With color. With social conditions. It is just a matter of getting to know one another. I would like the Tarahumara to have freedoms, to feel the freedom to speak with a Mestizo, with an American, with a foreigner. To think freely without being ashamed that he is Tarahumara.”


  1. An alternative term, Tarahumara, is often used to refer to the Rarámuri Pueblo. This term has its origins in Spanish colonization, and while both Rarámuri and Tarahumara are often used interchangeably, I chose to use the term Rarámuri because it is the term officially used by the Pueblo to refer to themselves. 

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