How much to change: Amish teachers in Mexico

The average person is not a revolutionary even though the average person might want some kind of change. I noticed this tendency to be especially strong in the Mennonites and Mormons I spent time with in Mexico, because of the strong communal ethos. And yet, in every community, there are people who risk a lot to make changes.

One way that people attempt to make change is in the realm of education. Education, particularly of young children, is a highly contentious area in most communities because changing young children’s experiences will change the future. Maintaining religious education in German is one of the reasons that Mennonites initially moved from Canada to Mexico, and for that reason, education is especially important in Mennonite communities in Mexico. There have been some efforts to change traditional schools from within Mennonite communities in Mexico and from people in Canada and the United States.

Students playing broom jail. (Muddy Creek Farm Library, Ephrata, Pennsylvania)

Many different aid groups have worked in Mennonite colonies (groupings of villages) in Mexico, most notably MCC. One of the most surprising groups to find there, at least from my perspective, were Amish people. I first came across this cultural exchange when I began researching Mennonites in Mexico. Many people would ask me if I knew any Amish people, because I lived in Ohio, and Amish people lived in Ohio. I didn’t and would say so.

Mennonite people usually encounter Amish people as teachers. (I should note that the family and friends who first asked about Amish teachers were in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, where it is my understanding that people from the Conservative Mennonite Conference teach in summers, not from any Amish group). Moreover, not all the teachers that come to Mexico through the “Amish” board were Old Order Amish – some were Old Order Mennonite and others were New Order Amish. Still other Amish people, namely the Beachy Amish, are involved in aid work with Mennonites in the Southern Mexican state of Campeche and in other countries.

I have just mentioned approximately four Christian denominations (Beachy Amish, Old Order Amish, New Order Amish, Old Order Mennonite) and have grouped together all Mennonites in Mexico, who are divided into a multitude of church groups, the largest of which is the Old Colony church. These words are really unimportant for the story I am telling today – although the distinctions between groups are important for people who are part of them. The important thing for today is that all these people dress differently from their surrounding country, be it Canada or the United States. They are also involved in cultural exchange with one another.

Steve Nolt has discussed the roots of this exchange in his Article “Amish Stories, Images, and Identities,” and it was basically fostered by the Mennonite Central Committee through a learning tour for some of their Amish donors in the 1990s. After this trip some kind of board was formed for teaching in some parts of Mexico – where church leaders were already familiar with ideas of educational reform thanks to the work of people like George Reimer and others. Then, this board began sending young women from the United States to Mexico to go teach (or to go to Kansas and teach Old Colony Mennonites there). The teachers, by and large women, go to Mexico in groups and live with house parents from their community who look after them and house sisters to do some of the housework.

This movement is fascinating because this exchange replicates the colonial missionary engagement either at home or in other countries and likely a lot of the negative things that happened as part of the fresh air movement, which Felipe Hinojosa discusses in Latino Mennonites. At the same time as it repeats these troubling patterns, it gives the people who participate in it a new experience of travel and also of ability to see the world and meet a different kind of person – which is challenging in a closed religious community.

This travel has many of the same effects on the Amish women as it had on previous generations of women missionaries, which Marlene Epp talks about in Mennonite Women in Canada. They can be leaders in a way they would not be able to be at home. At the same time, the teachers and others who are part of the project exercise agency very much within their communal boundaries

The people to change education in Mennonite communities in Mexico, including those who participate in this project, as well as the children in these schools likely did not set out to be revolutionaries. They did set out to make small changes that made sense within their communities and I hope that it has a positive effect.

This post relates to an article I’ve written: “American Old Order Teachers Write Home from Mexico: Reflections on Gender, Religion and Caregiving.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 36 (2018): 237-258 and to some of the background research I conducted for this research note ““Expanding Low German Childhood: The Children’s Feature in the Mennonitische Post [Mennonite Post].” Mennonite Quarterly Review 92, no. 1 (2018): 471-481. If you’d like to read either article please let me know and I can share a copy with you.

Bibliography

Epp, Marlene. Mennonite Women in Canada: A History. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2008.

Hinojosa, Felipe. Latino Mennonites. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2014.

Nolt, Steven M. “Amish Stories, Images, and Identities: Two Windows and a Mirror on Contemporary Culture.” The Conrad Grebel Review vol. 33, no. 1, 2015, https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/publications/conrad-grebel-review/issues/winter-2015/amish-stories-images-and-identities-two-windows-and-mirror.

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