In 1973 the motion picture Hazel’s People, an adaptation of Merle Good’s novel, Happy as the Grass Was Green, became one of the first mainstream films to depict Mennonite life in rural Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was also the first Mennonite-made feature film. The film followed a young “hippie” named Eric from New York City who came to Lancaster for the funeral of his close Mennonite friend, John. After the funeral, Eric decides to stay in Lancaster, and forms a close relationship with the simple and quiet Mennonites portrayed in the film. But his growing admiration is tempered when he begins working for a prominent Mennonite fruit grower in the area. The grower, who in the film goes by “Rufus,” is cast as a pious businessman who has abandoned many of the traditional values that Eric has come to admire about the Mennonites.
Soon after he is hired, Eric discovers that his new boss is housing Puerto Rican farmworkers in small shacks with no heat and charging them rent at forty dollars a month. Outraged, Eric confronts Rufus’ assistant, Stanley, demanding to know “what those people are doing out in those sheds… it’s thirty-five degrees outside!” Stanley, trying to calm Eric down, discloses that “Puerto Ricans used to give us a lot of trouble drinking and that sort of stuff . . . last summer Rufus got a hold of a Spanish speaking evangelist and since then we’ve hardly had any trouble.” When Eric shares what he saw with a Mennonite minister and close friend named Eli, his only response is “You expect too much from us, Eric . . . we disappoint you.” A few scenes later, Eric delivers a fiery sermon at the Mennonite church where Rufus attends, challenging churchgoers to stop building cages, “no more Mennonite cages… no more Puerto Rican cages!”
Have you seen this film? You should. Of course, the film is full of problems. It perpetuates the white savior myth and there are few, if any, Latinas/os in the film. To be fair, the film is not only about the poor labor practices of Mennonite farmers. It’s also about the flaws and the beauty of one Mennonite community in Pennsylvania. But ask Latina/o Mennonite leaders from the 1970s and they will remember Hazel’s People as a film about Mennonite farmers and their mistreatment of Puerto Rican farmworkers. Many Latino/as, including members of my own family, experienced similar conditions while working on Mennonite farms across the Midwest.
The Tijerina family (author’s family) with the Mennonite family on whose farm they worked, Archbold, Ohio (circa late 1950s)
But the film also came eerily close to portraying a real life case in Goshen, Indiana. In 1969 Rudolfo Blanco, a migrant farm worker, committed suicide at the Pine Manor Turkey processing plant in Goshen, Indiana. The tragedy of Blanco’s suicide exposed the dreadful working and living conditions that many Mexican American farmworkers experienced at the Pine Manor Turkey processing plant. Owned by Mennonite businessman, Annas Miller, Pine Manor regularly attracted Mexican Americans from South Texas to work in its plant. Blanco’s suicide, however, brought to light the negligence of Pine Manor’s management with regards to the living conditions of workers at the plant. Goshen News reporter Don Klassen described the living conditions at Pine Manor as “a brooder house or a tar-paper shack hidden behind tall corn or over the hill, or a room ten by twenty with two or three beds where three to five children sleep in the same bed.” To make matters worse, a large open cesspool was within a few feet of the living quarters and created an “unbelievable stench” for the workers and their families living nearby.
Local church groups in the area initiated a boycott of Pine Manor products in 1969 as the plight of migrant farmworkers in northwestern Indiana, most of whom were from Texas, took center stage for many progressive religious groups. Since at least the late 1950s, Mexican American families had been making the trip north to Indiana to work in the fields and processing plants like Pine Manor. Migrant workers were often recruited to work in the tomato cannery in Milford and the tomato fields in southern Elkhart and northern Kosciusko Counties in northwestern Indiana. In 1970 the annual report on farm labor in Indiana also counted several hundred Puerto Rican migrants from Florida who joined Mexican American workers in the fields and in the turkey processing plants. Working and living conditions for migrant farm workers in northwestern Indiana were so bad that one migrant commented how “from Utah to Wyoming, and Idaho to Kentucky, Virginia, and Alabama, THIS is the worst place… I’m sick of it here—I’ll never come back!”
The concerns that were raised over how Mennonite farmers treated their workers emerged right at the time when Latina/os took more leadership roles throughout the church. In 1971, the Minority Ministries Council (MMC) hired Lupe De León, Jr., to work as an Associate Secretary in partnership with John Powell. De León, who grew up as a migrant farmworker in the cotton fields of West Texas, immediately raised important questions about the negligence of some Mennonite business owners. De León and other Latino leaders led the charge to get official support from Mennonite church leaders for the lettuce and grape boycotts led by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Worker movement. Like Eric in Hazel’s People, Latina/o leaders expected white Mennonites to share in their outrage and openly support the farmworker movement. Sadly, white Mennonite leadership—from MCC to Mennonite Brethren, Old Mennonite, and General Conference leaders—refused to give official support to what became the most successful agricultural rights movement in U.S. history. Instead what did happen was that migrant farmworkers like the ones depicted in Hazel’s People found their greatest support from Mennonites in the pews—White, Black, and Brown—ordinary folks who marched, boycotted, stood on the picket lines, and encouraged people to only buy union lettuce and union grapes. These politics, the ones where the people in the pews and the outsiders are leading the charge, make the message of Hazel’s People so relevant for us today. But I also think the film does more than remind us about the importance of grassroots politics.
In my first post, I argued for the deterritorialization of Mennonite studies by moving beyond the familiar geographical spaces that have come to define the Mennonite experience in the United States. But as several of my colleagues have rightly noted in their own posts, much work remains to be done in those familiar spaces. In other words, even as we move out of the familiar and expand the geographic and ethnoracial limits of Mennonite studies, we must also look inward and reimagine the familiar. The notion that we must expand Mennonite studies does not suggest a complete abandonment of the ethno-Mennonite story, but instead a deeper investigation of it. As Hildi Froese Tiessen argued in the book, After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America, the issue here is “not to abandon identity issues in Mennonite [life] altogether but to probe them more vigorously.” Hazel’s People does that by portraying Mennonite piety, even as it calls out the aloofness of Mennonites whose peace theology remained silent on labor injustice. Expanding the contours of Mennonite studies will require us to explore multiple forms of evidence from film, music, architecture, and especially the familiar areas that are today being changed by the demographic revolution currently underway in places like Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Goshen, Indiana, where the Latino population has been the engine of demographic growth. My hope as a historian is that as we probe Mennonite life and identity more deeply—as we reimagine the familiar—that we also take a stand like Eric’s character did in Hazel’s People and call ourselves out of those Mennonite cages that have kept us from imagining a new and vibrant future for Mennonite studies.