Surprising finds: Mennonites in Mexico and archives of movement

Kat Hill

The National Archives in Kew, London seems an unlikely place to find records for Mennonite history; Mennonites have never been a major presence in the UK and the London Mennonite Centre closed in 2010.1 But documents are funny things and end up in odd places. On a visit to check out some material related to early modern migrations, I typed in ‘Mennonite’ to find a series of documents held by the Foreign Office and the Dominions Office, relating to Mennonites in Mexico and Europe in the twentieth century.

FIgure 1: The National Archives, London, Image from https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/project-alpha-building-an-archive-for-everyone/

One cache of documents deals with British discussions about European Mennonites who were part of the complex negotiations over displaced persons and refugees after the Second World War.2 Others discuss emigration plans after World War Two.3 One very rich collection, and the focus of this piece, relates to the back and forth conversations in the 1930s between Mennonite communities in Mexico, the British Consulate, and Mexican and Canadian authorities.4 Some items are official reports of government representatives, others handwritten scrawls by individual Mennonites. The documents reveal a story about changing definitions of identity, shifting borders and nations, and movement in the interwar period, and how Mennonites tackled these challenges. Focusing in on these allow us to examine the way in which citizenship changed as the British Empire disintegrated and as states and nations redefined themselves. And it also reminds us of the complex archival remnants which are the legacy of movement and migration.

FIgure 2: One of the folders with documents related to Mennonites in Mexico, THe ational Archives. Image Kat Hill.

Moving to Mexico

Around 8000 Mennonites left Manitoba and Saskatchewan to head to northern Mexico in the early 1920s. Demands placed on Canadian communities by a series of governmental acts, including the use of the English language in schools and compulsory attendance at recognized educational establishments, drove some Mennonites to seek out a location where they could avoid these restrictions.5 After investigating possibilities in several south American countries, they were able secure privileges from Álvaro Obregon, president of Mexico.

But in the 1930s, dissatisfaction set in. The threat of similar restrictions on schooling and Mennonite ways of life from the Mexican authorities, as well as increasing violence and conflict with indigenous Mexican communities, prompted restlessness and thoughts of migration. Some talked of a return to Canada, but in a letter to British Consul-General Joseph Pyke, P.H. Peters also mooted the possibility of transplanting communities to Australia.6 As they considered the possibility of return, Mennonites asked for British passports: Canada was an independent British Dominion. In the end, a mass return to Canada never happened, but the stack of papers housed in south west London give glimpses into the decisions, negotiations, and the lives of theses communities in myriad ways.7

New Languages of citizenship and movement

As some Mennonites in Mexico sought to return to Canada, they navigated a political landscape of shifting nations, empires and states which deployed novel and emergent vocabularies about citizenship and migration in the interwar world. Many nations hardened their borders and tightened up controls after World War One, at the same time as economic transformation and political upheaval caused mass movement of people, with rising numbers of refugees and migrants.8 Vocabularies reflected this reality. Writing to Gerhard D. Klassen in April 1936, the Acting British Consul-General J.D. Murray listed the evidence needed for British nationality, talked about naturalization, and underscored the importance of authorized documentation.9 In October of the same year, the Canadian Department of External Affairs made it very clear that a medical officer and immigration official had to assess any returning migrants to stop the entry of ‘undesirable’ individuals.10

Figure 3: Extract from Laurent Beaudry’s letter to the British Consul-General, 29 October 1936.

Living in a country recently torn apart by revolution and coming from an independent Dominion of the British Empire, Mennonites in Durango and Chihuahua encountered the structures and institutions of the British, Canadian and Mexican authorities. They also looked back to their lives under Tsarist rule before they had emigrated west at the end of the nineteenth century. The documents lay bare the reality of living lives across borders and regimes. Jacob Klassen, who wanted a British passport, was born in Lekopol, Russia in November 1876, and naturalized in Canada in 1908, with papers to prove this. He counted as a British subject, and his wife and child, born in Saskatchewan in 1923, could also be included in this definition as long as records of the marriage and birth could be verified. Being a British subject mattered when dealing with the authorities, but it remains unclear how important this categorization was for the Klassen family’s own sense of belonging.11 The demands of citizenship and the language of nationalism also hint at some of the tensions in new classifications which did not always sit easily with Mennonite conceptions of community. Being a national subject was at odds with many of the ways in which Mennonites perceived themselves as separate communities who resisted the demands of nations and states. Yet these games of belonging mattered in official discussions. Writing to Pyke, Cornelius D. Fehr signed off as ‘Your very friend and British subject’ and gave his passport number, appealing to Pyke’s emotional and national loyalties.12

Documenting identity

Klassen and Fehr’s cases underscore the reality that movement between regimes and authorities required the right papers. Different regimes had different ways of indexing identities, whilst Mennonites themselves kept their own records. The archives reveal the way in which the requirements of documentation by nations and states intertwined and often clashed with the record-keeping practices of Mennonites communities. Mennonites requesting the right of return to Canada and negotiating for British passports had to prove the dates and locations of births and marriages. John P. Wall, Mennonite representative for the Durango church, wrote to Pyke in April detailing responses to Pyke’s questions about the documentation kept by the Mennonites. Their original records had stayed with the church in Canada, but they did have copies.13 Even if Mennonites could prove the details of births or marriages from their own church records, registered with the Mennonite elders, these may not have been verified by the various local authorities and would not be considered proof in their own right. The question of children who had been born in Mexico and to a couple whose marriage may not have been recognized by the relevant authorities was particularly fraught. Pyke wrote to W.C. Rempel of the Blumenort church to say that for children to be considered legitimate, he needed an endorsement from the Mexican authorities that any marriages were legally contracted and officially recognized as such by the Mexican authorities. The official date had to predate the birth date of any children.14

As Fehr’s signoff in his letter to Pyke indicates, definitions of identity inscribed on papers and forms were complex and confused. A Mexican identity card for Margarethe Dyck reflected the entanglements and compromises across cultures, citing her nationality as Canadian but her religion as Mennonite; the identity card itself was of course written in Spanish for the Mexican authorities.15 What these differences meant for lived experience and subjectivities is harder to uncover, although Fehr’s letter hints at the way in which ideas about belonging changed and could even be used by Mennonites. As they have always done, confessional belief, birthplace, language, and culture all shaped notions of belonging, but these practices and expressions were also applied in new ways as they intertwined with the demands of national sovereignty.

Migrant lives, culture and violence

Finally, the documents reveal something of the migrant lives of Mennonite communities, both in the contents of their letters and the materiality of the documents themselves. The very fact these records have ended up in London in The National Archives, with other documents residing in Mexican and Canadian archives and others undoubtedly in family collections, bears witness to the types of archives which resulted from migration. Each document, too, in its physicality tell us story. We can contrast the neatly typed missives of the authorities and official, sometimes adorned with offhand marginalia, with the poorly expressed hand scribbled note of an individual Mennonite.16 Archivalities always tell their own stories.

Figure 4: Extract from Gerhard D. Klassen’s note to the British Consul-General, 21 April 1936.
Figure 5: Marginal Note by Canadian Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs

There are of course silences in the records and stories not told. This is a record of men and their negotiations – the women and children who are talked about so often in the documents do not feature as individuals. A marginal note on a letter from the Canadian Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs reveals the dismissive attitudes: on the subject of wives and unmarried children joining family heads established Canada, exempt from certain immigration conditions, he merely writes ‘Presumably does not arise!’17 And there is the deafening silence of what local Mexican communities made of the presence of Mennonites in their landscape, who also battled for land and rights, or who entered into violent altercations with the neighbors who remained very distant despite their physical proximity. But this remarkable set of documents, in their detail and their silences, their contents and their materiality, give us a window onto questions of land, movement, violence and identity which continue to be asked in the present day.18


[1] Harriet Sherwood, ‘UK Mennonites end Sunday services after numbers dwindle’, The Guardian, 16 March 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/16/uk-mennonites-end-sunday-services-after-numbers-dwindle, accessed 16 April 2020.

[2] The National Archives (TNA), FO 1050/1565; FO 1043/2579; FO 945/480.Packet_Emails_2010

[3] See for example TNA, FO 371/126537.

[4] TNA DO 35/679/7; DO 35/814/8; FO 723/720; FO 723/721.

[5] Luann Good Gingrich, Out of Place: Social Exclusion and Mennonite Migrants in Canada (Toronto: Univeristy of Toronto Press, 2016),15; Royden Loewen, Village Among Nations: Canadian” Mennonites in a Transnational World, 19162006 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 40–79.

[6] TNA, FO 723/271, 2 June 1935, P.H. Peters to British Consul-General Joseph Pyke.

[7] Other places also featured as suggested destinations. For more details on the discussions over a possible return and the situation in the 1930s see Loewen, Village Among Nations, 120 –165

[8] See for example Daniela L. Cagliotti, ‘Subjects, Citizens, and Aliens in a Time of Upheaval: Naturalization and Denaturalization in Europe during the First World War’, The Journal of Modern History 89 (2017), 495–530; John Torpey, ‘Coming and Going: On the State Monopolization of the Legitimate ‘Means of Movement’, Sociological Theory 16.3 (1998), 239–259; Claudena M. Skran, Refugees in Inter-War Europe: The Emergence of a Regime (Oxford: OUP, 1995).

[9] TNA, FO 723/271 28 April 1936, J.D. Murray Acting British Consul-General to Gerhard D. Klassen.

[10] TNA, FO 723/271 29 October 1936, Laurent Beaudry Acting Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs Canada to British Consul-General, fo. 1.

[11] TNA, FO 723/271 16 September 1936, Laurent Beaudry Acting Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs Canada to British Consul-General, fo. 1.

[12] TNA, FO 723/271 2 April 1936, Cornelius D. Fehr to Pyke to Joseph Pyke British Consul-General, fo. 2.

[13] TNA, FO 723/271, 6 April 1935, John P. Wall to Joseph Pyke British Consul-General.

[14] National Archives, FO 723/271, 28 March 1936, Joseph Pyke British Consul-General Pyke to W.C. Rempel.

[15] Janzen, Liminal Sovereignty, 20.

[16] TNA, FO 723/271, 21 April 1936, Gerhard. D. Klassen to J.D. Murray Acting British Consul-General.

[17] TNA, FO 723/271, 18 February 1936, Acting Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs Canada to British Consul-General, fo. 2.

[18] See for example Rebecca Janzen’s recent piece, ‘Mexican Mennonites combat fears of violence with a new Christmas tradition’, The Conversation, 11 December 2019, https://theconversation.com/mexican-mennonites-combat-fears-of-violence-with-a-new-christmas-tradition-127982, accessed 19 April 2020.

Trajchtmoakas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos

Abigail Carl-Klassen

This article is the first in a series investigating the history of Mennonite midwives and doulas in the Tres Culturas region of Chihuahua, Mexico, including personal narratives of Mennonite midwives in the Campos, past and present and as well as an exploration of the intersection of midwifery training, culturally appropriate care and public health outcomes in the Tres Culturas Region.

On the surface it would appear that Catalina Schroder and Susanna (Fast) Shellenburg lived very different lives and embodied the differences and tensions that existed between traditional and non-traditional Mennonite communities in Mexico during their lifetimes, which spanned from the early 1900’s to the last quarter of the twentieth century. However, differences in country of origin, dress, religious and cultural practices, and approaches to education did not keep them from building bridges between communities and providing maternal care to women from all ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds in region surrounding Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, for nearly sixty years.

Catalina, who married her husband after a nontraditional courtship (which included learning to cook from her fiancé) was formally educated as a midwife in what is now modern-day Ukraine. The young family arrived in the Mexican state of Veracruz in 1926 via a ship from Russia, fleeing violence and religious persecution. Eventually, after many delays, including the loss of newly-issued government documents in a fire, they made their way north to Cuauhtémoc in the state of Chihuahua along with small number of other Low-German-speaking Mennonites who had immigrated directly to Mexico from Russia with the hopes of settling alongside five thousand Low-German-speaking Altkolonier Mennonites who arrived from Canada in 1922, after negotiating a Privelegium from President Álvaro Obregón.

Catalina’s grandson, Walter Rempening Rico, pastor of Templo Ebenezer, a Spanish-speaking Mennonite congregation in Cuauhtémoc, shared with the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders Oral History Project (REBB) in 2018 how his grandmother, grandfather and their young children settled in the city of Cuauhtémoc and quickly integrated into many aspects of local Mexican culture because Mennonites from Russia were not allowed to live in the nearby Altkolonier colonies because of their less traditional lifestyle, dress and approach to education. Despite community prohibitions, Catalina worked tirelessly as a Trajchtmoaka, a sobadora (bonesetter), and midwife, and was, highly sought after to attend births for traditional Mennonite women and was beloved in the traditional, non-traditional, and Mestizo communities she served. 

Susanna Shellenberg, on the other hand, was a traditional Altkolonier Mennonite woman from Canada who arrived in Mexico with her husband Heinrich and young daughters in 1927 and was able to live in the traditional Mennonite Darpe, which was settled many kilometers outside of Cuauhtémoc in the years following the initial 1922 migration from Canada. 

In Canada, Susanna had trained under two Orthodox Jewish women as a midwife and herbal healer, and she continued her work upon her arrival in Mexico. Her granddaughter, Susanna Thiessen, who is also a midwife, related in a recent interview with Casa Geburt, a midwifery and doula training school and birthing center located in the Campos Menonitas about twenty minutes north of Cuauhtémoc, “At that time there were no doctors in the Cuauhtémoc area. She immediately began to care for the sick. After some years in Mexico, she also began to provide midwifery services. She served in the Campos Menonitas, as well as in the Mexican ranches. Sometimes, people came for her in the middle of the night in a horse and buggy to take her to attend births or to heal the sick. Many times the people were so poor, they couldn’t even offer her a coffee. She attended many births where she didn’t receive payment of any kind. She also took along baby clothes and blankets because she knew that the people didn’t have anything to keep their babies warm.”

Susanna worked as a midwife until she was eighty years old. Near the end of her life, after she had attended her last birth, the birth of her great-grandson, she was asked about the number of babies she helped bring into the world and she responded, “How many births have I attended? I don’t know. I never wrote it down. For me, it is good that God knows.”

Since the days of Catalina Schroder and Susanna Shellenberg, midwives in the Campos from traditional and non-traditional communities have occupied a vital role in community life and have been at the center of changing dynamics in the region over last century. There is a strong heritage of midwifery in each of Cuauhtémoc’s three cultures (from which the Tres Culturas Region derives its name): Mennonite, Mestizo, and Indigenous Rarámuri Pueblo. Midwives in each community, while distinct, are powerful advocates for women who are marginalized because of language, ethnicity and/or socio-economic status and serve as public health practitioners and educators in some of the most at-risk and underserved regions for maternal and child health in the country. Often operating at the margins of the official community rules, subverting taboos surrounding reproductive health, pregnancy and breastfeeding, midwives in the Mennonite communities of Chihuahua have always been invaluable in the creation of support networks between women and as agents of cross-cultural women’s solidarity and as bridge builders between communities that have historically experienced tension for a variety of cultural, economic and socio-political reasons. 

The next article with further explore Susanna Shellenberg’s life and experiences as a midwife and will include perspectives from her great-granddaughter Susanna Thiessen who, in keeping with family tradition, is a midwife in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua.

Anabaptists and Minority Languages

Mark L. Louden

Recently a sobering report was released by the United Nations stating that as many as one million of the roughly eight million animal and plant species on Earth – about 13% – are threatened with extinction. On the human cultural front, the statistics are even grimmer. Of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken around the globe today, at least half, probably many more, are predicted to die out, that is, they will no longer be spoken natively by the turn of the next century. While the loss of biodiversity is likely to initiate a negative cascade effect on our natural world, the extinction of a language deals a critical blow to the cultural heritage with which it is associated.1

Most of the world’s languages, including all those that are endangered, are spoken by small minority populations. In the United States and Canada, for example, all indigenous languages are threatened to some degree, including Navajo in the US, which has the largest number of native speakers at around 150,000, and Cree, which is spoken by about 117,000 in Canada. Among the descendants of immigrant populations in North America, only English and French (in Canada) are considered “safe” languages. Contrary to popular opinion, Spanish as a heritage language in the US is not in a robust state of health among those who were born in this country. The vast majority of fluent native speakers of the language are first-generation immigrants from Latin America. Were the migration of Spanish speakers to the US to cease tomorrow, within a generation the language would be just as critically endangered as, say, Mandarin, Hmong, Somali, Arabic, and a host of other languages brought to the North American continent by immigrants.

There is a small group of languages spoken in North America and elsewhere that are successfully resisting the threat to minority languages worldwide. These include the native tongues of hundreds of thousands of traditional Anabaptists and Orthodox Jews, languages that are coincidentally all members of the Germanic language family. The primary vernacular of most Hasidic Jews is Yiddish, while members of Amish and many traditional Mennonite groups speak languages that descend from regional dialects of German.

Amish family at Niagara Falls (Photo credit: Gila Brand)

The two largest Anabaptist heritage languages are Pennsylvania Dutch, spoken by most Amish and many Old Order Mennonites in the US, Canada, and Belize; and Plautdietsch, a form of Low German used by the descendants of Russian Mennonites, most of whom live in North and South America, especially Mexico, Paraguay, and Bolivia. Pennsylvania Dutch and Plautdietsch each have about 400,000 native speakers. Other Germanic heritage languages spoken by Anabaptists include Hutterite German (Hutterisch) and the languages of the so-called Swiss Amish (Shwitzer) subgroup within the Old Order Amish, most of whom live in Adams and Allen counties in Indiana. The Swiss Amish, who descend from nineteenth-century immigrants from France and Switzerland to North America, speak either a variety of Bernese Swiss or Alsatian German.

These five Anabaptist minority languages, along with Yiddish, are in a robust state of health. Despite being mostly oral vernaculars, they are acquired by children without formal instruction and actively used in a range of informal and formal settings. Four key factors promote the health of these languages.

First, each of these languages has become an important external symbol of group identity and a way of marking the socio-religious distance between their speakers and the larger societies in which they live, a distance that for the Anabaptists is explicitly grounded in their understanding of separation from the world. It should be pointed out, though, that all speakers of these Germanic heritages languages are bilingual and in some cases multilingual, for example, knowing both English and Spanish in addition to their mother tongue.

Hasidic family in Brooklyn, New York (Photo credit: Adam Jones)

A second crucial factor is that these traditional faith communities are strictly endogamous: marrying outside the faith – which would mean marrying someone who does not speak their heritage language – is not an option for those seeking to formally join or, in the case of the Hasidim, remain within the community, which the overwhelming majority do. This high retention rate is the third factor.

Finally, another important plus-point for groups like the Amish, traditional Mennonites, Hutterites, and Hasidim, and not only with respect to language, is their exceptionally high birth rates, which are between three and four times the national averages in the US and Canada. No other human populations anywhere are increasing more rapidly, which means that minority languages like Pennsylvania Dutch, Plautdietsch, and Yiddish are not only surviving but in fact now have the distinction of being fastest growing languages in the world.

For linguists and community members who seek to revitalize endangered languages, there are few practical lessons to be learned from groups like the Amish. Forbidding intermarriage and expecting couples to have at least a half-dozen children are not likely to be popular strategies for even the most ardent members of minority linguistic communities. But speakers of all languages, large and small, safe and endangered, can appreciate the emotional value that traditional Anabaptists and Hasidim attach to tongues that are a tangible connection to a treasured spiritual heritage.

Mennonite family in Campeche, Mexico (Photo credit: Adam Jones, Ph.D.)

When people who grew up speaking the Germanic languages discussed here leave their heritage communities, the shift to English monolingualism is usually swift, typically within one generation. But there are exceptions. In my own experience, I have found that people of Amish background living in Holmes County, Ohio, are more likely to maintain Pennsylvania Dutch than folks in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, or the Elkhart-LaGrange area of northern Indiana. And in places like Mexico and Bolivia, the continued use of Plautdietsch among people no longer affiliated with Old Colony groups is not uncommon. The Ekj Ran (I Run) ministry based in Bolivia is one excellent example.

I will close with the thoughtful reflections of an Amish schoolteacher from Pennsylvania who taught in Mexico as part of the Old Colony Mennonite School Project and whose experience living among Plautdietsch speakers deepened her appreciation of her own native language.

Learning Plattdeutsch allows you to feel more connected with the Russian Mennonite culture. It also opens the door to a very fascinating language. My impression is that Plattdeutsch is somehow more colorful and descriptive than either High German or English. For example, the Plattdeutsch poem and song that the first graders learned one Easter were so alive with meaning. The clear word pictures, the powerful way the emotions of Good Friday and Easter were portrayed in the poetry, seemed singular to me. I have grown to appreciate the beauty of the language.

Speakers of Plattdeutsch seem also to be aware of this beauty and therefore treasure it enough not to lose it. To us, as conservatives from the States, this stands out because of the trend towards English and away from Pennsylvania German in our circles. Among our people, one of the first things lost in a more liberal move is the German language. In Mexico, even the most liberal of the Russian Mennonites retain the speaking of their mother tongue. There are many beautiful Plattdeutsch songs and hymns, and recently Plattdeutsch Bibles and dictionaries are available. Plattdeutsch is still their favorite language to speak, even for those who know High German, Spanish, and English.2


  1. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) maintains excellent resources in endangered languages: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/atlas-of-languages-in-danger/..
  2. Called to Mexico, Old Colony Mennonite Support, 2011, p. 318..

 

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.

 

 

“We Are Very Good Friends:” Two School Directors Build Bridges between Mennonite and Rarámuri Communities in Chihuahua, Mexico

Abigail Carl-Klassen

Note: This article is sourced from the “Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua” Oral History Project conducted in northern Mexico in the spring of 2018 with funding from the D.F. Plett Historical Research Foundation. The complete audio recordings, transcripts, and translations of the project interviews are housed in the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Selected audio interviews in English and Spanish (with English subtitles), featuring landscape photography by local photographers Marcela Enns, Veronica Enns, and Raúl Kigra are available on YouTube as part of a series titled Darp Stories which will run from May to December 2018. Bruno Ramos Rivas and Alicia Bustillos González’s interview will be available after November 23, 2018, and Peter Rempel’s interview will be available after November 9, 2018. After the Darp Stories series runs to completion, all videos will remain online as a public access archive.

In 2008, Bruno Ramos Rivas, like an increasing number of Rarámuri Indigenous people1, left his home in the mountains of Guachochi, Chihuahua, Mexico, to find work in the city. Instead of the bustling capital, Chihuahua, or the border metropolis of Juárez, both popular destinations for Rarámuri people fleeing economic insecurity and narco-violence, Bruno found himself in the Manitoba Colony of the Campos Menonitas, the Mennonite settlements just north of Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua. Cuauhtémoc and the surrounding region is celebrated as “La Tierra de Tres Culturas,” “The Land of the Three Cultures”: Mestizo, Rarámuri, and Mennonite. Once the stomping grounds of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, the Tres Culturas region, like much of northern Mexico, known for its industry, commercial agriculture, and higher wages, now attracts migrant labor from across Mexico and Central America. A billboard in the small town of Rubio, forty kilometers north of Cuauhtémoc, that reads “Rubio Tierra del Trabajo,” “Rubio the Land of Work” greets travelers on the Corredor Comercial, the commercial highway that connects the Mennonite settlements of the Ojo de la Yegua colony, Swift Colony and Manitoba Colony to Cuauhtémoc. “The Land of Work” delivered on its promise and Bruno soon found work in a Mennonite-owned sand plant alongside Rarámuri, Mestizo, and Mennonite employees, and within the year, his wife Alicia and their children joined him in the Campos Menonitas.

IMG_7360

The Rarámuri school, Ministerio de Amor, and its programs. (Photo provided by Pete Rempel, director of the Gnadenthal Kleingemeinde school)

Upon arrival, Bruno and Alicia did not anticipate the close relationships they would build with the Mennonite community, or the opportunities they would have to empower Rarámuri children, youth and their families who migrated to the Campos Menonitas by serving as educators at a bilingual (Rarámuri/Spanish) school in Campo 14, Ministerio de Amor, funded by a Kleingemeinde Mennonite church. The school, which has been in operation since 2011, was founded by Maria Wiebe Enns, the wife of Kleingemeinde pastor Jacobo Enns, who was concerned that the children of Rarámuri workers living in the Manitoba Colony did not have access to education. In the 2017-2018 academic year, the school served forty students in preschool through sixth grade, employed six Rarámuri teachers, and became a fully registered and accredited school through Mexico’s Department of Education. Bruno, who has served as the school’s director for the last three years, anticipates that the school will continue to grow, as a result of increasing Rarámuri migration, and he hopes to be able to serve students through the end of secondary school in the near future.

The first Mennonites arrived in San Antonio de Arenales (now Cuauhtémoc) from Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Canada, on March 8, 1922, in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, and in the nearly one hundred years since, they have been navigating the complex socio-political dynamics of the region and building cross-cultural relationships with their Mestizo and Rarámuri neighbors. From early conflicts concerning land sales and distribution to later disputes concerning military service exemptions to present-day tensions concerning water rights and narco-violence, the Mennonites’ time in Chihuahua has not been without challenges. Because the Campos Menonitas were originally separatist, both in ideology and geography, and had a large amount of autonomy granted by the Mexican government, contact with people outside the colonies until recent decades was almost exclusively business related and done by men. Educational, social, and romantic relationships were frowned upon and many times, forbidden outright with the threat of excommunication. Despite these risks, however, there have always been members of the Mennonite community who have pushed the boundaries. In recent years as a result of reforms within communities, such as the transition from horse and buggy to vehicles and education reform to include Spanish instruction in many schools (with the exception of the Sabinal Colony in far northern Chihuahua), interactions of all kinds between Mennonites and people from Mestizo and Rarámuri communities, like the formation of Ministerio de Amor, have been increasing.

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The Rarámuri school, Ministerio de Amor, and its programs. (Photo provided by Pete Rempel, director of the Gnadenthal Kleingemeinde school)

Pete Rempel, the director of a Kleingemeinde school in Gnadenthal (Campo 22), where he also teaches ninth grade, is one such example of this increased contact between communities. His great-grandparents were among the first colonists to arrive in 1922, and he credits his interests in building relationships across cultures to his grandmother whose warmth, hospitality, and humor was extended to her Mestizo neighbors, despite her limited Spanish. A young man approaching thirty, Pete remembers when the primary language of instruction in Kleingemeinde schools shifted from German to Spanish when he was in third grade, which gave him and subsequent generations of students the language skills necessary for increased interactions outside the Mennonite community. Because of his Spanish abilities and openness to build relationships cross-culturally, Pete serves on a committee that funds and advocates on behalf of Ministerio de Amor where Bruno and Alicia work. During their time working together, Bruno and Pete have formed a close friendship that has provided opportunities for growth and self-reflection. Pete speaks frankly about working to overcome his prejudices, saying, “Don’t think that I am a saint.” He addresses how his friendship with Bruno has allowed him to more clearly see racism in the Mennonite community, as well as the need for individual and systemic changes in the ways in which Mennonites interact with Mestizo and Rarámuri communities, particularly in terms of fair wages: “There are some [Mennonites] that take it to an extreme. They pay them as little as possible.” He believes that friendships like his and Bruno’s are a good first step, saying, “I think it is by the grace of God that yes, I have changed in some way. It is because God was patient with me and helped me, but I continue to struggle with this, and I think it partly due to how we are raised. We need to raise our children differently. Not raising them to see other cultures with discrimination, or to discriminate against them.”

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The Rarámuri school, Ministerio de Amor, and its programs. (Photo provided by Pete Rempel, director of the Gnadenthal Kleingemeinde school)

Bruno notes that despite his close relationship that he has with Pete and the Mennonite community, upon his arrival to the Campos Menonitas he was wary of people outside his community because of the long history of repression of Indigenous peoples. “The Tarahumara live with that feeling of self-defense toward white people because of the history we bring with us.” However, over time Bruno’s feelings changed based on the positive experiences he had with the community. “Since I have gotten to know these Mennonites, I discovered that yes, I can trust them. I can trust because they have demonstrated it to me. Not just because I think so, but because they have demonstrated it.” He views his friendship with Pete as a way to begin to rebuild trust and a way to for him to advocate for justice and opportunities for the Rarámuri community: “We are very good friends despite being from another nationality. You can see that brotherhood. That friendship that can break with race, with language. With color. With social conditions. It is just a matter of getting to know one another. I would like the Tarahumara to have freedoms, to feel the freedom to speak with a Mestizo, with an American, with a foreigner. To think freely without being ashamed that he is Tarahumara.”


  1. An alternative term, Tarahumara, is often used to refer to the Rarámuri Pueblo. This term has its origins in Spanish colonization, and while both Rarámuri and Tarahumara are often used interchangeably, I chose to use the term Rarámuri because it is the term officially used by the Pueblo to refer to themselves. 

Rising through Mennonite shame, Reflections on Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries

Anna Wall

This post first appeared at Mennopolitan.

Life is like a Kjrinjel1: you never know how it’s going to twist.

A year ago, when I received an invitation from Abigail Carl-Klassen to participate in a panel at a conference at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, I said “YES!” before I’d even finished reading the email. The panel would showcase creative work by and about women from Mennonite communities in Mexico, discussing transnational identities and issues.

Editor’s Note: While Anabaptist Historians generally focuses on historical research, in the interdisciplinary spirit of “Crossing the Line”, we are broadening our scope during this series to include a wide variety of Anabaptist studies.

As the date of the conference drew closer, I became overwhelmed with fear and self-doubt. I thought, “Who am I kidding?  I can’t do this!” So I did what I always do when that happens: drop everything and read a book, because now, I can. Luckily, my friend and co-worker Sidney Bater has a library full of books that are written just for me. I picked up one of the books whose title spoke to me: Rising Strong by Brené Brown. After reading this book, I thought, “So what if I screw this up and fall flat on my face? I will rise strong and do it again.”

That was easier said than done. But I was able to stay focused enough to go through with it. It began with a ten-hour drive to Virginia from Ontario in a black minivan with four amazing women. We came from different backgrounds, yet we all had so much in common.

Upon arriving at EMU campus, I was thrilled to learn that I was sharing a room with Laura Morlock, one of the women that I had just gotten to know during the ten-hour trip. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and the reason for her company was to keep me from letting self-doubt crush me.

What an overwhelmingly humbling experience it was as I remembered George’s words: “Life doesn’t happen in the same order for everyone, and there is nothing wrong with that.”

I thought, “Finally! Not only do I get to sleep in a dorm at a university, but at a Mennonite university.”I giggled a little on the inside, because the butterflies in my stomach were going insane with excitement.

The next day, after walking around on campus in disbelief, and taking it all in, I met with Abigail Carl-Klassen and Veronica Enns, who were part of the panel. I immediately connected with both of them. The experience was deeply moving.

That evening, I sat beside my new friends Abby and Vero in the theater listening to women speak. I mostly spent the whole time fighting back the tears, because every word that was spoken touched me so deeply.

After successfully holding back my tears, I made my way to the art gallery. As I stood in front of an art piece, staring at it and trying to feel what it was telling me, a man joined me there. I glanced at him nervously, and it was none other than Canadian History Professor Royden Loewen. I recognized him because I had met him at a lecture and book signing I had attended at Conrad Grebel University a while before with my friend Shirley Redekop. As Shirley flipped through Royden’s book, Villages Among Nations, she pointed out a picture of a Rev. Johann P. Wall, and asked if I could be related to him. And that’s when I discovered that not only was Rev. Johann P. Wall my great-grandfather, but he was one of the leaders who took part in the decision to migrate to Mexico from Saskatchewan Canada in the 1920s.  

I moved on to the coffee lineup, and there I spotted another familiar face. It was the one-and-only author, Saloma Miller Furlong. I had read her memoir, Bonnet Strings, a couple of months before, and had afterwards sought out information about her online.

After reading about Saloma, I dreamed of meeting her someday. I told myself that if I ever got to meet her, I would hug her, and she would know why, before we even exchanged any words. But when I stood in front of her, I froze, and shook her hand instead. I told her many things that I hadn’t planned to say. But at the end of my ramble, she hugged me and said, “Find me tomorrow. I want to talk to you some more.”

It was hard to settle down and go to sleep after all that.

After Abigail Carl-Klassen had presented, I nervously walked up to the front to share my story. I began with the pivotal decision to cross cultural boundaries and two borders–leaving my colony in Mexico and coming to Canada. I shared that I was illiterate and didn’t speak English, and how I faced many barriers as I began my journey of finding my place in a whole new world, one that I had never been part of.

I spoke about how I began attending an adult learning center, at which point I had only even written my name a handful of times, and how simply holding a pen in my hand was awkward. I shared how ashamed I was of my literary incompetence and how embarrassing it was, as I was nineteen years old and felt like I was starting kindergarten. I said that ever since then, reading and writing have been my obsession, one of the main reasons I started blogging.  At the beginning of my presentation, I stumbled over my words and said sort of what I had written, but in mixed-up order. I reminded myself of what I had read in the book, Rising Strong, that it was alright; I should leave my mistakes behind and just continue.

When I read a post from my blog titled Fashion Faux Pas, and people began laughing with me as I read, I knew that I was back on track. That moment was the first time I felt I was doing exactly what I was meant to do. That included speaking in front of an audience about ridiculously embarrassing experiences that at one point I wouldn’t have wanted to remember, let alone tell strangers about.

It was surreal—not only being there, but being in the presence of scholars I had only read about, and discussing an art piece in Plautdietsch with a Canadian history professor. Then there was sharing with Saloma Miller Furlong my dream of publishing a memoir, and comparing our similar experiences and our struggles over how to clothe our bodies after shunning our Mennonite dresses.

I left the conference with an abundance of knowledge, hope, and new relationships. The experience has inspired me to no end. Thank you to Abigail Carl-Klassen for opening the door, and to EMU for inviting me in.

Thank you.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.


  1. From, Plautdietsch; m. (pl: s) a pretzel, twisted buns, a soft pretzel 

“Art, Migration and (Home)making: Mennonite Women, Mexico and ‘the World’” Women from Old Colony Communities in Mexico Share Their Stories and Their Art at Eastern Mennonite University’s Crossing the Line Conference

Abigail Carl-Klassen, Anna Wall, and Veronica Enns

50 years after their arrival from Prussia in the 1870s, 7,000 Altkolonier (Old Colony) Mennonites left Manitoba and Saskatchewan to form new, more conservative colonies in northern Mexico, due to conflicts with the Canadian government concerning secularization and compulsory English language instruction mandates for colony schools. The Mexican government promised Old Colony communities educational autonomy and exemptions from military service in exchange for occupying and developing remote, yet contested, territory in the wake of the Mexican Revolution. The first colonies in the states of Chihuahua and Durango were established in 1922 and 1924 respectively and grew quickly as a result of high birthrates and subsequent migrations. Today there are more than 100,000 Mennonites living in Mexico, primarily in Chihuahua and Durango, but also in more recently settled colonies in Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Quintana Roo, Tamaulipas and Campeche. Descendants of this migration have also participated in subsequent migrations and have formed colonies in Belize, Bolivia, Paraguay, and most recently Peru and Colombia.

In the early days of the Mexican colonies, residents were isolated geographically and socially from larger Mexican society; however, over time, modernization of agriculture, industry, and transportation has increased commercial contact with surrounding Mexican communities and social and commercial contact with Mennonite colonies throughout the Americas. Today it is not uncommon for colonies with modern dress, cars, Internet, and schools accredited by the Mexican education system to exist within close proximity of colonies with much more strict and traditional regulations concerning dress, education, and technology.

Editor’s Note: While Anabaptist Historians generally focuses on historical research, in the interdisciplinary spirit of “Crossing the Line”, we are broadening our scope during this series to include a wide variety of Anabaptist studies.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, Mennonites in Mexico have become increasingly mobile and transnational. In the 1970s, several thousand Old Colony Mennonites from Mexico, many of whom still retained Canadian citizenship, began migrating to Ontario while others established a new colony in Seminole, Texas. While many formed migrant worker circuits residing in Canada and/or the United States for half the year to perform agricultural work and returning to Mexico for the other half, others settled permanently. These migrations continue to the present day and impact the social and cultural landscape of colonies in all three countries.

“Art, Migration, and (Home)making: Mennonite Women, Mexico and ‘the World’” was a panel at Eastern Mennonite University’s Crossing the Line: Anabaptist Women Encounter Borders and Boundaries conference that sought to explore the personal side of this complex network of migrations and identities through the presentation of poetry, creative non-fiction and visual art.

Abigail Carl-Klassen, who grew up in Seminole, Texas, read poetry based on ethnographic research and oral history interviews that she conducted in Seminole, Texas and Chihuahua, Mexico. The poems “Freizeit” and “Self-Portraits with the Flower Women” explored the multi-faceted encounters that Old Colony women had with personal, community, and geographic borders from the 1940s to the present day. Her work can be found at https://abigailcarlklassen.wordpress.com/

Reflecting on the panel and her conference experiences Abigail noted,

When I started writing I didn’t know there was such a thing as Mennonite literature or scholarship. I just knew that I needed to tell the compelling stories of the people around me. While I was working on my thesis, a collection of poems based on the experiences of friends and family in Old Colony communities in Mexico, I was introduced to a thriving community that welcomed me into the fold. When I slip the work of Di Brandt, Sarah Klassen, or Julia Kasdorf into the hands of women I grew up with or connect someone from my community with Rhubarb or the work of Royden Lowen it’s like experiencing that joy of discovery all over again.

I organized this panel because I feel it is important that Mennonite women from colonies in Mexico be able to tell their own stories and have a space to showcase their creative work. Though Anna, Veronica and I only knew each other through social media before the conference, I felt like we had an instant connection and would be good friends. I was overwhelmed by the positive response that our panel received and am excited about new opportunities for collaboration and about the ways these connections will open up ways for women of Old Colony origin to share their experiences and creative work whether they are living in Mexico, the U.S., Canada, or elsewhere in the Americas.

Anna Wall, who blogs at http://www.mennopolitan.com/ about her experiences growing up in a conservative colony in Durango, Mexico, read a creative non-fiction piece from her blog that explored her struggles leaving the colony and as a new immigrant in Canada.  With humor and seriousness she talked about learning to read and write, earning her high school diploma, finding her identity and her current job as a community health worker and Plautdietsch interpreter in Ontario.

Anna shared her experiences as an attendee and presenter saying,

At the age of 16, I crossed a pivotal boundary, and two borders when I left my colony that is tucked away, hidden far in the mountains of Durango, Mexico. I left everything I had ever known and came to Canada. I was illiterate and didn’t speak English. I faced many barriers as I began my journey of learning how to fit into a whole new world that I had never been part of before.

At the age of 19, I began attending an adult learning center in St. Thomas Ontario. At that point, I had only ever written my name a handful of times. Even just simply holding a pen in my hand was awkward. I was ashamed of my literary incompetence and felt like I was going to kindergarten. Reading and writing have become my obsession ever since.

Three years ago, I started a blog www.mennopolitan.com I post stories of my lived experience growing up as an Old Colony Mennonite. Going to kindergarten in Canada as an adult, being torn between two worlds and finding my place in it.

When I received and email from Abigail Carl-Klassen telling me that she had been following my blog for a while and invited me to participate in a panel that would showcase creative work by and about women from Mennonite communities in Mexico. Discussing transnational identities and issues. I said YES! Before I finished reading the email.  

Within minutes of meeting both Abigail and Veronica, I immediately connected with both of them. The experience was soulful.

It was surreal. Not only being in the presence of such scholars I had only read about, but discussing an art piece with Canadian History Professor Royden Loewen in Plautdietsch and sharing my dream of publishing a memoir with author Saloma Miller Furlong, while comparing notes on similar experiences and how we are still struggling with how to dress our bodies after leaving our communities. I left the conference with an abundance of knowledge and new relationships. The experience has inspired me to no end. Thank you for opening the door!

Veronica Enns, a visual artist, and creative director at Cabañas Las Bellotas in Chihuahua, whose work can be found at http://www.veronicaenns.com/ shared her experiences growing up in a conservative colony in Chihuahua, her immigration to Canada as a young woman, and how studying and creating art allowed her to process and heal from past trauma. She also discussed what ultimately motivated her to move from Vancouver back to Mexico, close to the colony where she was raised. Currently, she runs a ceramics studio, gives community arts workshops, has exhibitions in Mexican galleries and works on collaborative projects with Mexican artists. Most recently, her work was showcased at the Festival of Three Cultures which seeks to celebrate and bring together the indigenous Tarahumara, Mexican, and Mennonite communities in the Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua region.

She spoke excitedly about her experiences at the conference saying,

Growing up [in a conservative colony in Mexico], I didn’t think that Mennonite and education went together. I never imagined that a conference like this was possible—that people went to university to learn about Mennonites and that our life in the colony was the subject of academic study or that I would be a part of that by presenting here. When I left the colony I thought I was done being Mennonite, but over the years I’ve been brought back to my roots in new ways.

Several years ago, a friend of mine gave one of my paintings to Elsie K. Neufeld, a writer, photographer and storyteller of Mennonite origin who lives in Vancouver, Canada. Elsie was curious to find out more about the artist, as she linked my last name to be Mennonite. Thanks to social media we connected a few months after I moved from Vancouver back to my roots in Chihuahua, Mexico. Elsie met Abby Carl Klassen on a writing conference in Fresno California in 2015 and shared some details about my art and experiences. This connected Abby to me and the ball got rolling.

I trusted that my presentation would be embraced at this conference. Although not knowing anyone in person and having compiled a bunch of personal stories made me very nervous; however, a few hours after arriving on the EMU campus, I felt overwhelmed with the warmth in hospitality. I was impressed with all the highly educated personalities and how humbly they shared their own personal stories as we all had walked common grounds as woman who often encounter similar boundaries. Academics and faith had never been used together before in my educational and cultural experience. I had found my tribe.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.