In early 1930, 1500 Russian Mennonite refugees arrived in the Gran Chaco—a semi-arid, lowland region of dense bush on Paraguay’s western frontier. While their new home may have seemed far-removed from the conflict that had characterized their lives in post-revolutionary Russia, only two years later these pacifist Anabaptists found themselves at the center of the largest inter-state conflict in twentieth century Latin American history.
Anabaptist Historians readers are invited to read the complete article, “Reshaping the Chaco: Migrant Foodways, Placemaking and the Chaco War,” which explores the strategies that these Russian Mennonite settlers employed to solidify their tenuous claim to an unfamiliar and highly-contested landscape (Instructions for accessing the article are available at the bottom of this post).
Mennonite colonists engaged in a range of seemingly contradictory place-making practices—from the agro-environmental and the political, to the spiritual and the cultural. Ideas of food security, seen in terms of both production and consumption, linked these diverse exercises. In the Paraguayan Chaco, these former Russian wheat farmers experimented with new crops and foodways. Although pacifists, they supplied the Paraguayan military efforts and provided food aid to wounded soldiers even as they also sent symbolic shipments of their new crops to Nazi Germany. Finally, as an ethnic group practicing endogamy and seeking isolation from their neighbors, they unexpectedly initiated a campaign to evangelize the Chaco’s indigenous population centered, in part, on reforming the latter’s ‘deficient’ diet.
These diverse practices are evident in the pages of Mennoblatt, the small German-language newspaper that colonist Nikolai Siemens published and distributed to his fellow settlers in Fernheim colony. In Mennoblatt, colonists debated issues from the mundane to the dramatic. An article advocating for bread produced from varying portions of sorghum or manioc flour would appear next to a reflection on Mennonite’s place in the global Volksgemeinschaft. A discussion of the Chaco’s intense heat and the recent cotton or peanut harvest might follow an account of military troops passing through the colony or a report on the status of Mennonite’s new mission work among the Enlhet, a local indigenous group.
Published in the Journal of Latin American Studies, this article also seeks to bring the experience of Latin American Mennonites (a rapidly growing community of over a quarter of a million) into greater dialogue with Latin American history. Mennonites arrived in Latin America at times, and in places, that provide a compelling window on agro-environmental change, food security and state formation. Over the last century, they settled in frontier zones like the Gran Chaco on lands that governments considered of ‘marginal’ agricultural value. While the Russian Mennonites in question arrived in Paraguay immediately prior to the outbreak of the war, Canadian Mennonites settled the frontiers of Mexico and Bolivia in the wake of national revolutions and along Belize’s contested border with Guatemala as that small nation gained independence.
In those regions, Mennonites formed endogamous, isolated and ‘traditional’ colonies, but also became ‘model producers’ for domestic economies. In doing so, they consolidated and successfully leveraged a form of agricultural citizenship to sustain a conspicuous autonomy characterized by religious, educational and military exemptions. By turns considered ‘Russians’, ‘Canadians’, ‘Dutch’ or ‘ethnic Germans’, Mennonites benefitted from a racialized ideology of immigration as ‘whitening,’ even as their settlement was conditional upon a legally sanctioned refusal to assimilate into national society. They also maintained strong connections to their brethren throughout the Americas and Europe. This simultaneous engagement with a dispersed diaspora and distinct national identities might have represented an untenable paradox for earlier scholars of an assimilationist paradigm. Recently historians have adopted a more fluid approach to the complex, but often complementary, transnational–national negotiations among Latin American migrant communities. Finally, as one of the earliest Mennonite settlements in Latin America, the experience of Chaco colonists remains critical to understanding this evolving state–settler bargain as Mennonites—and their accompanying foodways—expanded across Latin America.
Instructions for Interested Readers:
Published by the Journal of Latin American Studies and currently available on Cambridge Core’s First View the article can be accessed for free at the link below.
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