I am a scholar of Mexican literature and culture, which means that I grew up, academically, studying novels and short stories written in Spanish by people in Mexico. My early research was informed by my understanding of the Anabaptist tradition—it was about state oppression of marginalized people in Mexican history and literature, and how literature helps us imagine creating alternative forms of community. Ultimately, that research became a book, The National Body in Mexican Literature
I have always enjoyed studying Spanish and learning about Mexican history. The stories I read and analyzed were aesthetically and politically interesting. I also had some connections with Latin America. My mom was born in Paraguay, where her parents were working on behalf of the Mennonite Brethren Church, and my dad had many relatives throughout Latin America. These Low German-speaking Mennonites migrated to Mexico—and then to Belize, Bolivia, and other countries—from Canada. Some had spent decades in Latin America and migrated back to Ontario or Alberta. He also spent years working on people’s citizenship paperwork as part of his work with the Mennonite Central Committee. These Mennonite connections with Latin America did not have much to do with Spanish—even though there are many Mennonites in Latin America who speak Spanish and indigenous languages.
These areas of research combined in the book Liminal Sovereignty: Mennonites and Mormons in Mexican Culture. It compares Mennonites to Mormons, because Mennonites are also confused with Mormons in the media, archival documents, and popular culture. In Mexico, Mennonites are usually conflated with the most conservative Old Colony people who use horse and buggy as their form of transportation. (This is as accurate as saying most Mennonites in the US are Amish). Mennonites have been most famously portrayed on screen in Carlos Reygadas’ film Silent Light. They have also appeared on Mexican television, in Los héroes del norte. They appear in archival photographs and in documents that relate to land claims and resulting conflict.
One of the most compelling examples of Mennonite immigration to Mexico are the 4,000 registration cards in the Mexican archives. Between 1926 and 1951, all foreigners in Mexico were to register themselves with the federal government. These documents are unlike stories of church leaders, or generalized narratives of immigration, because they portray the lives of ordinary people, and allow us to imagine what their lives might have been like. The following is adapted from my research examining the registration cards used by Mexico during this period.
The requirement for registration came out of the Mexican government’s desire to solidify control over Mexican territory. It had only settled on a new constitution in 1917, and, through the influence of José Vasconcelos, and other thinkers, began propagating a doctrine of racial mixture or mestizaje. The immigrants would have to become part of this new vision of Mexico.
Katharina Bueckert Epp’s card gives us remarkable insight into this woman’s life, and to what the Mexican government considered to be important. The card gives information about her physical appearance and her entry into Mexico. We see that she registered herself as a foreigner living in Mexico in 1933, and that she was thirty years old. She had been one of the early arrivals of Mennonites in Mexico, having crossed the border from the US in 1922. She was single and her occupation was her home, almost certainly her parental home; further, that her first language was German and that she spoke no other language. Her nationality was Canadian and her religion was Mennonite. She was said to live in Campo 5, which the Mennonites called Grünthal. This was in the Manitoba colony, near the city of Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua. The card, as we can see, also includes a photograph. In the photograph, her dress is dark and appears not to have a collar, which is in keeping with what was expected of Old Colony women. Her hair, with a parting in the middle, is combed back and tied in a bun. The way she has written her name, similar to the handwritten Gothic German script that she learned in her school, is not confident. Her facial expression suggests that she was uninterested in the then-lengthy photography process. We don’t know about her hopes or dreams or how she felt about Mexico. We do see that she was trying to present her life in accordance with the values of her church, and that the Mexican government was trying to find a way to include her in its society.