Katharine Renpenning’s journey to becoming “Mennonite Miss Chihuahua” is explored in Part I of this series: Mennonite Miss Chihuahua: Pageant Politics, Family Tragedy and the Crown.
After being crowned Miss Chihuahua and competing in the national Señorita Mexico pageant in 19871, Katharine Renpenning’s life was never the same. She moved to Chihuahua City to work for the government promoting tourism, which was one of her duties as Miss Chihuahua, and then went to Canada to study English. The director of the English school in Canada was so impressed with her English and entrepreneurial skills that he suggested that she offer English courses and travel experiences from Mexico. And so, in 1994, she started Keers2, a travel agency focused on English language immersions for children and adults ranging from summer camps and semesters abroad to IELTS and TOEFL preparation and professional work-study opportunities. Over the years, the agency began to offer educational travel opportunities outside the English-speaking world and expanded its language immersion program offerings to include French, Portuguese, German, Japanese and Mandarin. In 2018 in an interview with the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders Oral History Project, Katharine reflected on nearly twenty-four years of being in business:
We’re dedicated to managing study abroad programs, primarily we have courses for children: summer camps, or a high school course. We have contacts with schools, for example, Mennonite schools in Canada, government schools, private schools. We have contact with universities, sometimes I go visit the schools, the University of Winnipeg and Bartolomeos. I manage primarily Canada for people from Mexico. It’s very attractive because the English they speak there is more in-line with the media, more economical in terms of the exchange rate of the Canadian dollar. Now, we also manage, for example, my nephew is studying high school in Austria. We have children who go to study in Germany, school or just German or they go to France and study French combined with culture, with scents, with gastronomy. Chinese [also], right? We manage visas to go to China, as a visitor, as a student, or to Japan. And we [also] have Australia, which is also a country that offers an opportunity to study and work3.
In the oral history interview, Katharine mentioned that she has a showroom on the first floor of her business that is decorated like a traditional Mennonite home where she serves Faspa and hosts educational workshops about the Mennonite community. And that her business, travel and life in Chihuahua was all made possible by her pageant involvement.
[After the pageant] many things in life changed. . . . the family stopped thinking about my brother who had died and everything changed. I had a lot of opportunities, right? To grow. To know and to get to know who the Mennonites are, right? I’m identified as a Mennonite. The Mennonites say I’m not Mennonite and the Mexicans that I’m not Mexican, so, “What am I?” But, from that time onward I had the opportunity to grow a lot and also for the Mennonites be an ambassador of Mennonite culture. It’s been thirty years and it has been very beautiful. There are still many people who recognize me where I go. Now, for example, I’m very interested in people getting to know Mennonite culture. I like that the people who don’t know, who are outside, can get to know what it really is, right? And what God wants from us. That gives me the opportunity sometimes to talk with people about Mennonites and who they are.4
In the midst of running her successful business, Katharine was approached by staffers from Jose Reyes Baeza Terrazas’ governor’s campaign. Baeza Terrazas, who had previously served as a representative from Chihuahua in the National Congress (2003-2004) and as the mayor of Chihuahua City (1998-2001), wanted her to assist him in his campaign and in his government in exchange for the creation of a state resource office that was focused on the needs and development of Mennonite settlements across Chihuahua. Katharine remembers refusing his offer at first, but then accepting after Baeza Terrazas personally assured her that he would keep his word.5
I was invited to work for the government with the Reyes Baeza campaign. So, I said no that I couldn’t because those politicians always tell lies and never do what they say they are going to do and I was not going to make myself available to be doing something like that. So, they promised me that if the governor was going to offer something that he was going to follow through on it. And when he won, he said to me, ‘Well, ok . . . you are the person who can help me keep my word.’ So, the program was created and the program was to have a resource office between Mennonites and the government.6
The program, Chihuahua Vive Con Los Menonitas, ran from 2010-2016 under the leadership of the PRI party and was the first iteration of the government resource office that served as a liaison between the state of the Chihuahua and Mennonite communities across the state.
The program was created and the program is to have a resource office between Mennonites and the government. So, there were programs of every type. Education, for example, we did for education. ‘This is what has to be done in education, in rural development, in health, in transit.’ It was very beautiful, a little difficult. It was my first close contact with the community because all my contact had been more from afar. Many people had known that I had been the Miss Chihuahua that was Mennonite, right? And I felt sometimes that they saw me as a specimen of admiration and rejection, right? And people, yes, know me a little, but during the program period, well, we brought programs, for example, in rural development.
So, also, I was tasked, for example to be in education and to try to bring it. They said to me, the leaders of the colony asked me if they were going to prohibit churches like they did in Canada. And I told them, ‘No, that is not the case. What the government wants is that the schools actually teach students what is necessary for life. That children learn how to read, learn math, learn geography, really learn that it would be a place where children learn, if you do that the government won’t involve itself, but if children leave illiterate, we can’t permit that.’ So, out of principle, the Manitoba Colony started a new program that they called Mejoramiento en Educación [Improvement in Education] where they also gave classes in Spanish, classes in some other areas.
So, all those programs were brought down, culture, education, rural development, overall- was very gratifying because many people well, were very happy, thankful.7
The Mennonite Resource Office went through a few different iterations during its existence and had two different directors after Katharine Renpenning. The office was in flux every six years when there was a change in political leadership at the state level. These shifts were particularly notable when there was a change of ruling political party and when the local reigning political party was different from the political party at the state level. Despite some shifts in funding, preferred projects, or ideological approaches, the goal of the Mennonite Resource Office maintained the same goal of resourcing and developing Mennonite communities with the permission, trust, and support of Mennonite community leaders
The subsequent directors of the Mennonite Resource Office, Angelica Chavez Licon8 and Claudia Perez Howlet9, were interviewed for the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders Oral History Project and the full audio and clips are available on the Darp Stories YouTube channel10. A Mennonite employee who discussed their role as a program promoter and language service provider was also interviewed for the project on the condition that they remain anonymous. Their interview summary is available by request from the Mennonite Heritage Archives.11
Claudia Perez Howlet, the last director of the resource office before it closed its physical location along the Commercial Corridor in the Manitoba Colony located about 10 kilometers north of Cuauhtémoc in 2019, described the resources, services, and development projects that the office sponsored:
In this office we serve as a resource. We have a translator, for example, who translates for large events all the way down to the smallest things, who is right now accompanying a lady, an older woman from the nursing home to her appointment with Social Security. So that the doctor understands what is being said during these appointments through this interpretation. Translation of diagnoses, of whatever they want. Whatever information you want to reach the Mennonites, we translate. We have translated many transit campaigns, many civil protection campaigns. For the winter, for heaters. We translate everything we are asked to translate. We have gotten a lot of information that we edit, translate, and print in German. We don’t have much of a budget, but sometimes we have printed that information. Also, on the topic of health, are the fairs. Health fairs in many of the most remote Campos, like I told you, we went to El Sabinal. We go to traditional schools, and the more open ones allow us to vaccinate. Well, it is completely voluntary, but every time more children come with their shot records, with parental approval to receive a vaccine. In the incorporated [SEP, Secretary of Public Education] schools, we also have many programs in which we go with the health services. Last year we went to all the schools incorporated through the Álvaro Obregón school.
We went to their schools, along with the health sector. We, the entire government, try to see ourselves as a team. And everything we have at our disposal; we pool in order to serve. For example, we worry about everything here at the municipal level and at the state level concerning the economy. The programs, lending, from the municipalities to farmers and day-laborers that work for the Mennonites, because many times they don’t know this is available from us. We work together as a team with the Centro de Salud, especially in giving health fairs in the Campos. We have general practitioners, pediatricians, OBGYNs. They do mammograms, cervical cancer screenings, vaccinations, screenings for chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes. We bring in specialists to give talks. The health sector goes to schools to present on “The Healthy Plate” and the importance of physical activity, they check height and weight, the give vaccines, and even videos on how to properly brush teeth and various other topics, and they discuss symptoms of serious illnesses that they could be on guard for. Everything the schools allow us to present, because not all the information is allowed. We have to show the directors what we are planning to present to the children, and they tell us “Yes,” or “No.” Because Mestiza education is a bit more open about many topics, right. And Mennonite education is more conservative in that aspect, so we share what we are allowed to. For those interested in education, we have an agreement with ICHEA, (Instituto Chihuahuense de Educación para los Adultos, Chihuahuan Institute for Adult Education) and we invite and help them. We have them at the fairs, so that the Mennonites who studied at traditional schools have access to education. Because the traditional schools only go to fifth grade, and only include German, Bible, and basic math. And then they go work on the farm. But many want more education, thus ICHEA. There aren’t schools or many resources, but through ICHEA they can have the books at home to study, and write an exam for our accreditation.
And then, in the area of economics, we coordinate events. We coordinate events with businesses, for example, such as with the Expo Menonita, every other year in September. We help with the organization, distribution, getting funders to make sure in happens, as a way of boosting the economy. For farmers.
As to the cultural aspect of our work, well, we foster individual and collective participation, and we organize meetings with youth to organize activities, because many times there aren’t activities here on the Corredor. So, we have tried to implement them with various youth. What we can do within the scope of our organization, and if we can’t, well, we can look for those who can. Those with more resources. This is a project we have been pushing, and the way we broke into that last year was with a very cool event we organized in December, which was the Parade of Lights. It was with a group of youth. It was initiated by them, and it was a success. We were very happy with it. So, this year we would like to continue, maybe with baseball tournaments, or whatever they suggest. They are just hanging out in the streets, so, we need to have more healthy activities. They are far from the city. If they want to go to the movie theater or something, not everyone can, they have no way of going. They also don’t have many things, so we are worried about that. And in the cultural aspect, we also look for events, and help with organizing and support, different competitions. We encourage participation in La Festival de las Tres Culturas (The Festival of the Three Cultures) so that the Mennonite culture is also represented. And well, basically, social development includes every area, but we principally focus on what is most necessary.
All of our activities are broadcasted Abram Siemens on the radio. He has helped us a lot. In broadcasting and all that. Everything we have. He is always asking, “What can I help with? And in this? What is happening this week?” So, he does interviews and is constantly spreading the word. Thank God, we have a good relationship with colony leadership. We are in constant communication. Thanks to communication media. Now, WhatsApp is a marvelous tool. I have a WhatsApp group with about 200 colony leaders. That’s how everybody knows to go to an event. Everything we have available, or that we do, or who we are, we are here to meet their needs. And it is through them. And they have opened many doors for us, and distribute many things for us.
We have to respect the customs of everyone. They respect ours, and we respect theirs that are completely- It seems to me that we live in the same place. Different cultures, but I think that we learned to live together very well with that.12
The physical location of the Mennonite Resource Office closed at the beginning of 2019 after nearly ten years of operation; however, the Chihuahuan government maintains that they will continue the Mennonite Service Program from the state capital under the Department of Social Development13
Katharine Renpenning, the “Mennonite Miss Chihuahua,” without whom the Mennonite Resource Office would not have been founded, resides quietly in Chihuahua City and continues to run Keers, which recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. She marveled at the path that her life had taken her and emphasized the responsibility she felt to continue to bring people from different communities together.
I think we are bridge builders. Not just cultural, [but] we are generational bridge builders. We are economic bridge builders. We are bridge builders in an ecological aspect in respect for love for God, love for nature . . . bridge building is very important.14
1. Darp Stories, “Señorita México 1987 con Katherine Renpenning (Nuestra Belleza Mexicana Excerpt)” YouTube video, 6 minutes, November 16, 2021, https://youtu.be/hgoCu3rvHo0
2. Keers, “Keers 25 Años” https://www.keersmx.com/index.html
3. Katharine Renpenning, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 23, 2018, Interview 34, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.
5. Jose Reyes Baeza Terrazas. Wikipedia en Español, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jos%C3%A9_Reyes_Baeza_Terrazas
6. Katharine Renpenning, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 23, 2018, Interview 34, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.
8. Angelica Chavez Licon, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 23, 2018, Interview 35, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.
9. Claudia Yazel Perez Howlet, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, February 20, 2018, Interview 19, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.
10. Darp Stories, “Trailer: Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders” YouTube video, 4 minutes, May 1, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGy9sd_xNDQTwffveCOhvhg/featured
11. Name Withheld by Request, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 8, 2018, Interview 27, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.
12. Claudia Yazel Perez Howlet, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, February 20, 2018, Interview 19, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.
13. Maribel Alba, “Cierra oficina de atención a Menonitas,” El Heraldo de Chihuahua, 31 Jan 2019, https://www.pressreader.com/mexico/el-heraldo-de-chihuahua/20190131/282995401101925
14. Katharine Renpenning, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 23, 2018, Interview 34, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.