“Very Steady Steps Toward Education”: 50 Years of Education Reform in Chihuahua’s Southern Mennonite Colonies

Along with the introduction of electricity, vehicles, and running water during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, during tumultuous times of community and colony reorganization in Chihuahua’s southern Mennonite colonies near the city of Cuauhtémoc, in Mexico’s Tres Culturas Region, one of changes that most deeply impacted daily life for Mennonite residents was the wide-reaching education reform that completely changed the educational landscape in the colonies over the course of fifty years, providing a greater level of educational access and diversity of school experiences within the Campos Menonitas, which still continues to impact education in all but the most traditional communities to this day.

Until the late 1960s, schooling in the Tres Culturas Region of Chihuahua followed the traditional Darpe Schule model beginning with Fiebla (basic reading and writing) around age six and continuing with Katekjisem (catechism) and Jesankbuak (hymnal), and ending with Bibel (Bible) around age thirteen with basic arithmetic also integrated throughout. In this model, which is still used today in the most traditional communities, instruction is given by one male teacher in High German in a one-room schoolhouse and involves recitation, dictation, and Langeviese singing and has an end goal of preparing students for baptism and daily life within the traditional Darpe community. Billy Froese, who attended a traditional Darpe Schule in the 1980s, described his experiences to the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project,

The girls are on one side, the guys are one side. That can also be a punishment. You go sit with the girls. And I at one time thought that was a punishment! But the fule Benkj” is the “lazy bench.” And if you’re not doing your work, up there beside the teacher, there’s a bench. This hard bench. And you go sit up there. Of course, there were spankings, stuff like that. But they had these big windows. And you had to stand in the window, facing the street [if you got in trouble]. I just remember the teacher coming to my desk and putting the pen in my right hand. Or the chalk. Whatever it was then. We had those little Tofels too. Those little chalk boards. And the chalk. So, he would start me off writing, and then he would leave. And I would just put it back in my left hand….My experiences, my most memorable experiences in the school aren’t positive. They’re interesting, but not so positive. It was usually getting punished.

Education reform occurred first in the Manitoba Colony and then was implemented later in the Swift Current, Ojo de la Yegua, and Jagueyes colonies. In each colony and each Darp within individual colonies, reforms were propelled by external and internal factors and often came in waves. Reforms were implemented at different times and to different degrees depending on the community and educational infrastructure, pedagogy and curriculum remains in flux across the Mennonite colonies in the Tres Culturas Region.

One of the largest external factors impacting reform, was the establishment of the Álvaro Obregón school in the Quinta Lupita community, located near the outskirts of Cuauhtémoc at the edge of the Manitoba Colony by Mennonite missionaries from Canada’s General Conference in the late 1960’s. The founding of the Álvaro Obregón school was followed in subsequent years by mission churches and schools from other Mennonite conferences as well as other from other denominations, such as the German Church of God. These schools had multiple instructors and classrooms divided by age, a wider range of subjects including geography and history, and instruction in Spanish. These schools became known as Konferensa (Conference) schools because of their association either directly or indirectly with General Conference missionaries and churches and enrolled students not only from their congregations, but also students from more traditional backgrounds whose parents were interested in educational options that were different from the traditional Darpe Schule.

At times, Konferensa churches, particularly with the assistance of missionaries of Canada, would build relationships with a much more traditional community and launch a school within the community primarily designed to serve traditional students, but with a more modern pedagogy and academically diverse curriculum, which included Spanish, like in Konferensa schools. With the introduction of Spanish into the curriculum, Mestizo teachers began working in Mennonite schools for the first time as Spanish language instructors and gained access and proximity to traditional communities that was previously unheard of. One of these teachers, Diana Sandoval Arballo, who began teaching in 1998 at a school launched in the Ojo de la Yegua Colony by Iglesia Anabautista Ebenezer, a Spanish-speaking Mennonite church in Cuauhtémoc whose congregation is about evenly split between Mestizo-Mennonite converts, ethnic Low-German Mennonites and Mestizo and Mennonite couples and their bicultural children, shared her experiences in 2018 with the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-cultural encounter in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project

The church at Campo 67, in a Mennonite community, was looking for a Mestiza teacher, but with Mennonite faith, to work in the community. So, they invited me to go to work for a year, and I accepted. And that was the first time I had direct contact with the more traditional Mennonite community….I lived in the Campo. There was a couple that were teachers, and another couple that were the pastors. So, I worked with these teachers and lived with the pastors. But I lived in the community from Monday to Friday, and for the weekend I returned to Cuauhtémoc, to my house…The first years it was difficult. For them it was difficult seeing and living with a Mestiza in the middle of the community. Maybe my way of dressing was also different, and that drew attention. There was also a bit of fear, because they had someone unknown and didn’t know who I was, what I was going to teach, what I was trying to do…. I came for one year and I stayed 20, but I think my biggest motivation has always been to serve and I think that I have a desire because God uses me to be able to serve. And I saw that this would be the way the God would use me. Teaching people the faith, mainly, that is my first goal, and the second is, well, the language. And I also believe that one of the things that has always impassioned me is that they can see that the Mestizo culture is different than the idea that they have always had in their head. That I think is one of the biggest motivations in my life. And also, I fell in love with the Mennonite culture. For me, it was never difficult being with them. I can’t say that there was anything I had to sacrifice, it was a pleasure.

Though external intervention from Conference churches and schools, which included the transformational role of teachers like Diana Sandoval Arballo, played a large part in implementing education reform in the Tres Culturas Region, it would not have been possible without internal proponents for school reform, like Peter Rempel Enns, whose lifelong advocacy for education reform in the Mennonite Campos was chronicled by the State of Chihuahua’s Mennonite Resource Office’s 2016 publication, Hombres y mujeres menonitas destacados: Caminos inspirantes (Outstanding Mennonite Men and Women: Inspirational Paths). These local advocates for school reform were concerned about what they perceived to be low educational standards, low levels of literacy among graduates, harsh punishments, and an incomplete curriculum. Often advocates for school reform, particularly those within more traditional communities faced strong backlash from community leadership and some were excommunicated for their stances; however, as more families chose Konferensa schools at the same time that tensions were high in traditional communities concerning increased business and social relationships between Mennonite and Mestizo communities, the use of vehicles with rubber tires, and the introduction of electricity, questions began to arise with traditional church leadership about the best path forward concerning education. Some remained steadfast in their Darpe Schule model, but many more began to make small, but significant changes to their education systems.

Faced with external and internal pressures for school reform, Kleingemeinde and Old Colony communities sought a solution that they felt would allow them to raise their academic standards while maintaining their distinctive values and cultural practices. Beginning in 1995, through the MCC and a variety of other Mennonite aid agencies, they built relationships with Amish communities and schools in the United States and began receiving Amish teachers, not just in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua, but across Mexico, to teach in Kleingemeinde and Old Colony schools, and to assist in the restructuring of administration, curriculum, and assessment. (This topic is addressed more in depth in Rebecca Janzen’s 2019 Anabaptist Historians blog post, “How Much to Change: Amish Teachers in Mexico.”)

Perhaps the most significant impact to education in the Tres Culturas Region in recent history, was when many private, Mennonite church schools began seeking accreditation from Mexico’s Secretary of Public Education (SEP). SEP accredited Mennonite schools have to meet specific national curriculum, assessment, achievement and enrollment standards, but are allowed to have religious instruction and maintain cultural practices. While the majority of SEP Mennonite schools only include Primaria (Grades 1-6) and Secundaria (Grades 7-9), which are the levels of compulsory education in Mexico and the most common level of education among Gen-Z Mennonites in the Campos, particularly among those from less traditional communities, a few SEP Mennonite schools offer Preparatoria (Grades 10-11/12), which was previously only available at non-Mennonite public and private schools in Cuauhtémoc.

More and more students from the Campos have been going to study at the universities in Cuauhtémoc and Chihuahua. Even some of the most traditional Darpe Schule in the region have been taking steps to examine educational practices and standards within their cultural context. Adults from traditional backgrounds are beginning to finish SEP accredited Primaria and Secundaria schooling through ICHEA (The Chihuahuan Institute for Adult Education), while other traditional adults, including Peter Rempel, the principal of a Kleingemeinde school in the Manitoba Colony, who shared his experiences with the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, have taken advantage of a government program called Prepa Abierta to finish their high school equivalency online. From Darpe Schule to high schools that prep students for university and everything in between, the Campos Menonitas in the Tres Culturas Region have an educational diversity that is unique and 50 years in the making.

From her teacher housing, provided to her by the SEP school that serves traditional students in Campo 38 ½ where she currently works, Diana Sandoval Arballo looked out her window into the Darp and commented on the changes that she had seen during her 20 years as a Spanish instructor in Mennonite schools

Over the course of years, the parents became more interested in the education of their children. They saw it as more important, the fact that they could learn. And they are more motivated to make the school grow. I think it happens with the passing of the years. They have lost the fear towards education, that is different than what they got. And they have been motivated more so that their children can go further, even though they learn different things, they dream of being a doctor, not just working in agriculture. So, I think that the change in these years that I have been here have been very big and the steps have been very steady toward education.

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