Mexican Mennonites: from Religious Group to Ethnic Group, a Perspective from Cultural Anthropology

Dr. Patricia Islas Salinas

From their formation as an Anabaptist religious group in the sixteenth century during the Protestant Reformation, Mennonites have defended their beliefs and values through community sentiments and a religious identity that is based on their relationship with the Bible. The importance of faith and the notion of grace allowed them to survive the sociocultural atrocities they have suffered since their founding and that today distinguishes them from other groups.

In the 1870s, after experiencing a complicated diaspora, opportunities for growth as a society and Anabaptist community during one hundred years in Russia, and the imminence of the government imposition to end the privilegium, the more conservative Mennonites migrated to Canada and were afforded fifty years more of traditional community life. However, history repeated itself and the group was divided. Those who were not disposed to coalesce to the governmental provisions concerning their education and language decided to retreat, directing their gaze toward the Latin American continent.

The history of the Mennonites in Mexico began in 1922 when they decided to emigrate, driven by the conviction of preserving their group under the canons of their lifestyle and way of thinking, under an agreement with General Álvaro Obregón, president of Mexico, who granted a privilegium which allowed the purchase of the lands offered in the northwest of the state of Chihuahua, including the inhospitable Bustillos land. This series of events formed the San Antonio de los Arenales Agricultural Colony created for the settlers who were already there when the Mennonites arrived practically at the same time and the two groups began life in what is now known as Cuauhtémoc.

The original members of the Mennonite community in Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, Mexico, were undoubtedly the basis for the ethnic origin of this group, using religious worship first as a means of keeping the community together, and later, to remain isolated from the receiving community. Under the provision of preventing women and children from learning Spanish and living with the Mestizos, they managed to ensure that the majority preserved their traditional lifestyle.

A central pillar of Mennonite community is the family, where education in values ​​based on the Christocentric perspective is practiced. The primary means to achieve these values is enculturation. This phenomenon occurs in the family nucleus and is defined by the learning of traditions, customs and ways of thinking developed over time and inherited from parents to children so that children usually reflect domestic and cultural life in their practices, as indicated by Harris et al (1990) who argues, “enculturation is a partially conscious and partially unconscious learning experience through which the older generation encourages and forces the younger generation to adopt traditional ways of thinking and behaving” (4). Coupled with the sense of union and collaborative work to survive, some of the defining characteristics of group members are the values of being self-taught, self-managed, self-contained and the defense of their traditions and customs. 

The cultural study of groups concerning the anthropology of everyday life is highlighted by Agnes Heller who observes, “daily life is the set of activities that characterize the reproduction of particular men, which, in turn, create the possibility of social reproduction” (25). Following Heller’s maxim, “everyday life is the reflection of history,” it can be deduced that Mennonites have preserved their worldview from the collective memory of their traits such as clothing, gastronomy, labor according to gender roles, religious worship at different times of the day, Faspa and other aspects that are observed in the day-to-day life of family members.

After the settlers arrived, the Mexican Mennonite identity was born. They acquired the nationality of the country that had welcomed them by decree, thus forming a unique community in the world with very specific ethnic and cultural characteristics. Integration and cultural homogenization characterize an ethnic group, as well as persistence and the right to cultural difference in a context that, of course, is not their own and, therefore, requires a greater effort from the social actors, who forge their identity from family nuclei thus converting ethnicity into a social process from the perspective of the other, of the different. “There are those who define an ethnic group, not by one or another cultural and identity qualities, but because they are bearers of a culture and an identity that is maintained and reproduced in opposition to others that are dominant” (Pérez, M. 2007, 40).

In this sense, the Mexican Mennonites are an ethnic group due to the contemporary cultural specificity that comes from the original group, which sowed the worldview that gives them ethnic identity, a product of the interrelationships between generations through social, political and power practices among the members of the community since they have their own socio-political and economic system, as well as their cultural norms, community conflict resolution mechanisms and decisions based on their own authorities who work partially and conveniently with the Mestizo authorities.

Members of ethnic groups see themselves as culturally different from other social groups, and are perceived by others in the same way. There are various characteristics that can serve to distinguish some ethnic groups from others, but the most common are language, history or ancestry (real or imagined), religion and ways of dressing or adorning themselves (Giddens, 2000, p.281).

In the Cuauhtémoc region of Chihuahua, the Mennonites are perceived as one of the representative ethnic groups in the area and they are accepted and recognized as peaceful and hard-working people. However, at present, and despite the efforts of the first generations, enculturation no longer provides society with generations that pursue the same ideals and share the same thoughts and actions. Today, there is the phenomenon of the generational gap conceptualized by Margaret Mead that reflects on the evolution of the knowledge acquired under the daily experience of the new generations and the guidelines that the sociocultural context is marking them.

Individuals in a semi-insular society, such as that of the Mexican Mennonites, are immersed, on the one hand, in the daily life of their family and community and, on the other, in the dominant culture and the coexistence necessary to form part of the geographic context and socioeconomic, this generates that they are influenced by different factors such as learning the dominant language, the interrelation with people of different ethnic groups and thought, the use of new technologies, etc., which are interspersed with those learned in the family nucleus, and undoubtedly, these are stronger and the roots of their formation and cultural identity continue to be preserved.

In the Cuauhtémoc region there are two primary Mennonite colonies, Manitoba and Swift Current, the members of both communities coexist in a cordial and united way despite being divided into two main groups, the conservative (traditional) and the liberal (progressive), even when there is a diversity of churches, the guiding axis of all groups is religious Anabaptism. 

From the analysis of daily life, it is observed that the members of the Mennonite ethnic group have a strong sense of cultural identity and refer to it from a different perspective. On one hand, the conservatives are the ones who monitor the ancestral traditions and customs, decide to continue with the traditional educational system, and reject many aspects of modernity and intercultural relations, while those of the liberal branch have begun to use ethnicity as a strategy of continuity of the sense of belonging and community identity through practices and cultural and value meanings, such as the use of social networks to promote their culture, support for the Mennonite cultural center and museum, because even when they have been affected by modernity and globalization, they see themselves as different as they are seen by the dominant society.

Finally, within this cultural analysis, a noteworthy fact is the one that refers to the sociocultural openness of the liberal community with respect to mixed marriages where Mestizos are attracted and converted to the Anabaptist religion, some churches have become true intercultural spaces where the new generations share the education and values ​​of both ethnic groups creating new possibilities for community growth.

Factors like these have been creating differences within the community of Mexican Mennonites. Traditions are social constructions, and therefore, cultural exchange fosters a variation of existing and new traditions especially in the new generations.  

Additionally, tradition is a social construction that changes temporally, from one generation to another; and spatially, from one place to another. That is, tradition varies within each culture, over time and according to social groups; and between different cultures (Arévalo, J. 2010, Para. 8). 

In the Mennonite community of northwestern Chihuahua, the daily practice of rituals, attendance at Sunday service, solidarity between families, and the Anabaptist religious conviction that the sacred word and the commandments should guide their daily actions act as a mechanism of social cohesion between the members of both factions, however, the mere fact of being Mexican also generates a sense of belonging to the country where they were born.


References

Arevalo, J. (2010). Heritage as collective representation. The intangibility of cultural assets

Harris, M., Bordoy, V., Revuelta, F., & Velasco, HM (1990) Cultural Anthropology. Madrid: Publishing Alliance.

Heller, A. (1987). Sociology of Everyday Life (No. 301 H45Y).

Giddens, A. (2000). Ethnicity and race. Sociology, 277-315.

This entry was posted in Essays and tagged by islaspatricia. Bookmark the permalink.

About islaspatricia

Investigadora de la Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez en Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua, Mexico. Autora de libros Menonitas de noroeste de Chihuaha, historia, educacipon y salud y Mujeres menonitas: miradas y expresiones. Linea de investigacion de interculturalidad y procesos educativos.

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