This week’s post comes from Dr. Patricia Islas Salinas. She is a research professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, México. Her books include: Mennonites of Northeastern Chihuahua: History, Education and Health and The Mennonite Colony in Chihuahua: Case Studies for Social Well-Being.
Since the beginning of times, different human groups have developed the patriarchal culture as the basis of interaction between genders, the role of women on different societies has been a reason of for vulnerability and discrimination.
In endogamic communities such as the Mennonites, the worldview is centered on a main axis: The religion. Since its formation, these communities took the Bible as their guide for behavior, beliefs, customs, and gender roles. Due to this, Mennonite women have been the target of gender violence within their own community, however, lately we can see that an interesting phenomenon of sorority and catharsis is occurring due to the amazing art creations in the kitchen between conservative and liberal women.
The Mennonite population in Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, Mexico are divided in two groups: 80% are traditionalist or conservative and the 20% are liberalist or progressist, both factions share the territory on two main colonies: ‘Manitoba’ and ‘Swift Curret’, the first one is characterized by the fact members that lives there and by the traditional type fields they have, both with different ways and lifestyle very different, while in the second the original houses and lifestyle originally inherited through the different countries are preserved.
The members of the liberal community even when they constitute the lowest percentage, have great economic power. They’re owners of enterprises located all long through Commercial Corridor ‘Alvaro Obregon’ (the biggest of Latin America). Additionallytheir schools are incorporated to the Mexican Educational System. The liberal community share some characteristics with the American System and the lifestyle of the families is similar to the American or Canadian with modern houses, modern cars and avant-grade electronic devices, use of internet and social network.
In the other way, families of the conservative or traditional faction posses austere houses, some work with Mennonite businessmen and another keep doing planting and cultivation work as a main economical activity. They have a country lifestyle even when they had added trucks, new technologies on their labor and they try to not interfere in the daily family life.
Traditional women follow the role imposed and inherited by their ancestors. Raising their offspring, the house, the kitchen, seam, the farm, the care of birds, cows and pigs, in addition to the cultivation of vegetables and fruit trees for family consumption, they conserve the traditional clothing, as well as the customs inherited from grandmothers and mothers.
On the other side, liberal women probably do not spend most of their time on the farm, but they’ll do on taking care of the family, a lot of them still have their vegetables and pretty gardens. Their kitchens are modern and well equipped, their dressing are not traditional, most of them drives a car and buy the products that they used to produce.
Despite this, the gender roles on both factions are very similar. The men can work outside the house, make commercial transactions, travel and speak Spanish, while the gender role of the Mennonite women has reminded static for almost six centuries. The conservative lifestyle and their behavior remains, even when the lifestyle of both liberal and traditional women are different both are deeply attached to the teachings of their mothers and grandmothers that indicate that the women has to be quiet, obedient and resigned.
Many churchmen condition women to believe that their prime duty is motherhood and household care. Headship for a husband, silence for women in the church, and primacy or normativeness of male experience characterize most Mennonite gender role teaching and practice. Based in androcentric (male-centered) interpretation of Scripture. Nyce, (1989, párr. 6).
This role imposed from its formation as a religious group is patriarchal in nature, and affects them in the most important aspects of their daily life such as health and communication. In this sense, both traditional and liberal are represented by their husbands, fathers or brothers, since most of them cannot go on their own to receive medical care, they must be accompanied by a man from their family so that he can speak to the doctor or nurse on their behalf.
The social vulnerability of the majority of Mexican Mennonites also has its origin in the decision to maintain an endogamous community, they live the most isolated as possible from the mongrel community. Despite that the Mennonite colonies are very close to the urban sprawl and all people can transit through the settlements, there’s a cultural barrier imposed to women, children and seniors since for generations they have been instilled that they should not associate with the “mexas” because they become contaminated.
Implicit gender violence in the social sphere of Mennonite women can be observed when, despite being Mexican by birth, they don’t have the right to learn the Spanish language. Most of the traditional women don’t know how to speak it, while the liberals, even when they understand it, they consider it unnecessary because their relationship with the members of the dominant community is very scarce; in daily life, the traditional ones communicate in Plautdietsch and the liberals in Plautdietsch or English. Their vulnerability is evident in a Mexican context in which they are considered foreigners due to their worldview and imposition.
Gender violence occurs in the community, however, often these acts towards grandmothers, mothers and daughters aren’t considered that way because they have been normalized and there is a state of conformism that has caused mental and emotional disorders to appear among women.
According wit Islas (2016), between the Mennonite community there is a disease known as Narfenkrankheit (word in Plautdietsch that means Nerve Disease), individual phenomenon brought from the social, that is, it has to do with a state of anguish that involves feelings and emotions […] it is also related to a sense of discontent with social relations in situations of inequality of power and gender. (p.94)
It is common to see women go to pharmacies located in the commercial corridor buying anxiolytic and antidepressant drugs without a prescription that are consumed indiscriminately, these actions reflect the silent suffering and perhaps resignation to situations for which they do not fight.
When the problem is too strong, the council of the minister of the church is consulted, who determines if the woman should be admitted to a community rehabilitation center, meanwhile, their children are taking care by the family, neighbors or in a support center. Often this is not enough and the women relapse into their addiction.
The soroary catharsis
In the community of Cuauhtemoc, the members of the Mennonite community are recognized according to the church to which they belong (currently there is a great diversity of them). However, in recent years liberal women have taken up community artistic initiatives that involve “the others” regardless of what church they belong to or their customs and lifestyle.
The vast majority of Mennonite women have learned sewing, cooking, and growing plants, flowers and vegetables by collective inheritance since they were little girls.These capabilities have begun to be used to generate projects for artistic creations and for gastronomy.
Art and creativity are manifested in different ways in the elaboration of homemade articles and art such as soaps, patchwork quilts, dolls, drawing, paintings, bags, kitchen utensils such as tablecloths, thermal gloves, tortilla holders, and have turned the kitchen and the vegetable garden in cathartic spaces. This activity is not frowned upon by the male gender since it has to do with the gender role of women in the family.
Sorority is a concept that is unknown among Mennonite women but that is observed in actions that indicate otherness and solidarity with each other, based on communication and support networks that generate empowerment.
Some liberal women have managed to convince traditional housewives to participate in artistic and gastronomic shows and seasonal markets (Christmas festival, pumpkin festival). Thanks to these initiatives, a resilience process can be perceived when they verify that their items and meals are valued and bought by the Mennonite and mixed-race community, and they also feel useful because they contribute to the family livelihood.
According to the research of Islas and Trevizo (2016) “some women look at art as an opportunity to express […] what is light and what is dark, protest, modern trends, the evolution of thought […]”. (p. 163)
On the other hand, the love of gardening, growing vegetables and harvesting for cooking has been preserver for generations. These spaces in the home are totally significant, it is there where women identify themselves, feel useful and valued, they also practice reflection and self-discovery to reach catharsis. “Cooking gives me an outlet for creative expression that is inspired by God’s creativity. As I move through adulthood, I find freedom in the inspiration I take with my kitchen and garden”. (Thiessen, 2017)
Gender violence is a deeply rooted social phenomenon in different societies with a patriarchal system, among Mennonite women there are still more who are violated and vulnerable, however, society is evolving, traditional women talk to each other and communicate more with liberal ones, they seek to learn their rights from each other and act accordingly.
Liberal artist and cooks say catharsis through art and sorority can lift their community out of the isolation and vulnerability of women without losing a sense of their worldview and cultural identity.
Islas, P. y Trevizo, O. (2016). La salud: una perspectiva desde el rol de la mujer menonita. En Mujeres menonitas, miradas y expresiones. Ed. ICHICULT, ISBN 978-607-8321-53-7
Nyce, Dorothy Yoder. (1989). Gender Roles. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 1 March 2023, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Gender_Roles&oldid=143578
Thiessen, D. (2017). Food and Spirituality. Preservings N° 37. P.30-32. Plett Historical Research Foundation Inc.