Reflections on Selective Immigration and Questions of Belonging

There is a strange thing about academia, namely, that once a book or article is published, one’s research has often moved to other topics. My research remains related to larger questions involved in my book about Mennonites and Mormons in Mexico, such as the relative power or weakness of the nation-state, and how and why a nation-state might include or exclude various minority groups, but no longer focuses on a group of people related to the topic of Anabaptism. More importantly, for the purposes of this short post, none of my recent research would help me write a post for this blog.

Then, last week, I received an invitation to speak about the work that led me to this blog in the first place, and I am reminded that while Mennonites are not the largest or most important group in Mexico (my area of study) let alone anywhere else, the questions that came up in my research for Liminal Sovereignty, remain relevant. The country where I live (the USA), the country I’m from (Canada), and the country I study (Mexico) are all trying to regulate who gets to come in.

I am particularly struck by the commonalities between my own experience as an immigrant to the United States, and those of early Mennonite immigrants to Mexico. I moved to the US for a job, and my current employer was willing to sponsor me to become a permanent resident. This process – which is inaccessible to millions of undocumented immigrants, and incredibly lengthy for people who immigrate for the purposes of family reunification – was remarkably easy for me. My employer has an office to do most of the work, to coach me for my interview, to make sure every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed. I also am white, middle class, educated and speak English in a way that makes people immediately realize these things about me.

I think again about the Low German Mennonites who migrated to Mexico. They also had “brokers” who dealt with the Mexican government to negotiate their initial immigration and “brokers,” like David Redekop, who could assist them with their dealings with Mexican officials once they arrived. I still wonder, though, how with all the troubles that these people face how they went about creating a new life, how they went about trying to understand the ways that Mexican agrarian reform would affect them, and how, in more recent years, their lives would be changed by drug trafficking.

All this wondering is because I want to understand who these people were, what they were doing, and why. Sometimes, the way the past resonates with our lives today can give us some indications.

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.

Mennonites in Mexico

I am a scholar of Mexican literature and culture, which means that I grew up, academically, studying novels and short stories written in Spanish by people in Mexico. My early research was informed by my understanding of the Anabaptist tradition—it was about state oppression of marginalized people in Mexican history and literature, and how literature helps us imagine creating alternative forms of community. Ultimately, that research became a book, The National Body in Mexican Literature

I have always enjoyed studying Spanish and learning about Mexican history. The stories I read and analyzed were aesthetically and politically interesting. I also had some connections with Latin America. My mom was born in Paraguay, where her parents were working on behalf of the Mennonite Brethren Church, and my dad had many relatives throughout Latin America. These Low German-speaking Mennonites migrated to Mexico—and then to Belize, Bolivia, and other countries—from Canada. Some had spent decades in Latin America and migrated back to Ontario or Alberta. He also spent years working on people’s citizenship paperwork as part of his work with the Mennonite Central Committee. These Mennonite connections with Latin America did not have much to do with Spanish—even though there are many Mennonites in Latin America who speak Spanish and indigenous languages.

These areas of research combined in the book Liminal Sovereignty: Mennonites and Mormons in Mexican Culture. It compares Mennonites to Mormons, because Mennonites are also confused with Mormons in the media, archival documents, and popular culture. In Mexico, Mennonites are usually conflated with the most conservative Old Colony people who use horse and buggy as their form of transportation. (This is as accurate as saying most Mennonites in the US are Amish). Mennonites have been most famously portrayed on screen in Carlos Reygadas’ film Silent Light. They have also appeared on Mexican television, in Los héroes del norte. They appear in archival photographs and in documents that relate to land claims and resulting conflict.

One of the most compelling examples of Mennonite immigration to Mexico are the 4,000 registration cards in the Mexican archives. Between 1926 and 1951, all foreigners in Mexico were to register themselves with the federal government. These documents are unlike stories of church leaders, or generalized narratives of immigration, because they portray the lives of ordinary people, and allow us to imagine what their lives might have been like. The following is adapted from my research examining the registration cards used by Mexico during this period.

The requirement for registration came out of the Mexican government’s desire to solidify control over Mexican territory. It had only settled on a new constitution in 1917, and, through the influence of José Vasconcelos, and other thinkers, began propagating a doctrine of racial mixture or mestizaje. The immigrants would have to become part of this new vision of Mexico.

Migración Canadienses 2-49-1

Katharina Bueckert Epp’s Registration Card

Katharina Bueckert Epp’s card gives us remarkable insight into this woman’s life, and to what the Mexican government considered to be important. The card gives information about her physical appearance and her entry into Mexico. We see that she registered herself as a foreigner living in Mexico in 1933, and that she was thirty years old. She had been one of the early arrivals of Mennonites in Mexico, having crossed the border from the US in 1922. She was single and her occupation was her home, almost certainly her parental home; further, that her first language was German and that she spoke no other language. Her nationality was Canadian and her religion was Mennonite. She was said to live in Campo 5, which the Mennonites called Grünthal. This was in the Manitoba colony, near the city of Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua. The card, as we can see, also includes a photograph. In the photograph, her dress is dark and appears not to have a collar, which is in keeping with what was expected of Old Colony women. Her hair, with a parting in the middle, is combed back and tied in a bun. The way she has written her name, similar to the handwritten Gothic German script that she learned in her school, is not confident. Her facial expression suggests that she was uninterested in the then-lengthy photography process. We don’t know about her hopes or dreams or how she felt about Mexico. We do see that she was trying to present her life in accordance with the values of her church, and that the Mexican government was trying to find a way to include her in its society.