Mennonite Miss Chihuahua Part II: Entrepreneur, Public Servant, and Cultural Ambassador

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.  

4. Ibid.

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.

7. Ibid.

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.

Mennonite Miss Chihuahua Part I: Pageant Politics, Family Tragedy and the Crown

The history of the presence and influence of beauty pageants in Latin America is expansive and has permeated all levels of society, so much so that political and economic actors, including drug cartels, have passively and actively engaged with them, even to the point of handpicking contestant participants, fixing the outcomes, and running former contestants for political office and/or giving them other positions of political influence.

Additionally, pageants in Latin America have long been a stage for political messaging as well as dissent, like in 2007 when Miss Mexico, Rosa Maria Ojeda, came under scrutiny for a dress design that depicted violent scenes of from Mexico’s Cristero War1, including Catholic rebels hanging from posts, which reignited long-standing tensions between Catholic and secular socio-political factions in the national discourse. In 2015, Mexico’s pageant organizers from the media network Televisa boycotted the Miss Universe pageant2 after Donald Trump’s comments referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “drug dealers.” More recently, Alejandra Gavidia, Miss El Salvador, participated in the National Costume Parade in the 2021 Miss Universe pageant wearing an outfit that alluded to the country’s Monument to the Constitution3 complete with a blindfold that read “Not one more disappeared” and a dress with red handprints, highlighting victims of femicide in her country.

In Mexico, beauty pageants are big business and have always been intertwined with political influence, scandal and policy and have been subsidized by the government from the beginning. The Señorita Mexico pageant, the first national level pageant in the country, was established by President Miguel Alemán Valdés4 in 1952 (one year before women gained the right to vote) to promote tourism, but a scandal arising from fraud allegations in 1959 resulted in the pageant being suspended for 5 years, relaunching in 1965. For the last 70, years local, state, national and international pageants have continued to hold close ties to government actors with pageant winners and participants holding influential positions and relationships with the government. In 2021, Miss Universe 1991, Lupita Jones Garay5, who had since become famous actress, producer, and political influencer, was urged by the National Action Party [PAN] to run for governorship of Baja California Norte, which she subsequently lost.

The level of power and influence that pageants hold in Mexico against the backdrop of gender discrimination, family violence and femicide, prompted the Gender Equality Commission [La Comisión para la Igualdad de Género] in 2021 to propose banning the use of public resources, promotion, and subsidies for beauty pageants6 as one of the provisions of the general law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence [la Ley General de Acceso a las Mujeres a una Vida Libre de Violencia]. Jones Garay fired back at the commission7, “Trying to typify these platforms as symbolic violence seems completely wrong to me and unfounded….Teaching her to cultivate her self-esteem, self-confidence and security. Providing her with professional opportunities so that she can stand out in what she is passionate about. Where is the violence?” further highlighting the enduring and complex relationship Mexico has had and continues to have with beauty pageants.

The 1987 the crowning of Kataharine Renpenning, a Mennonite of Russian descent, born and raised in Cuauhtémoc, as Miss Chihuahua, in many ways is a microcosm of the dynamics of beauty pageants in Mexico. Renpenning, who is still widely known as “the Mennonite Miss Chihuahua,” used her fame as a state pageant winner and national pageant participant to launch Keers, a language tourism business in Chihuahua City that focuses primarily on helping children and young adults learn English abroad and to help establish a state governmental agency focused on providing social services and community development in Mennonite communities across the state.

In the late 1980s, Katharine Renpenning had recently completed her coursework in Communications at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez and had returned home to Cuauhtémoc, when she was approached on the street by a man from the local Chamber of Commerce requesting that she participate in the Miss Chihuahua pageant. Despite his promises of charm training and prize money she turned him down saying, “It’s not for me,” and “They never give out the prize money, it’s all lies.”8

After returning to Juarez to present her thesis and receive certification her area of study, she received a phone call from her parents saying the President of the Chamber of Commerce and his wife had come to their house to request that she participate in the Miss Chihuahua pageant stressing that, “It will be very respectful and her mom can always be by her side.” She responded, “No, I don’t want to.”

Time passed, and Katherine completed her certification in Juarez, returning to Cuauhtémoc to accompany her mother to Durango to visit relatives. To her surprise, the Chamber of Commerce came to her house again and asked her to participate in the Miss Chihuahua pageant. The persistence of the Chamber of Commerce prompted Katharine and her mother to wonder if this was an opportunity from God. They began to pray and read through the book of Esther. Renpenning reflected on this experience in 2018 for the Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders Oral History Project (REBB), remarking, “We asked God for his blessing. I said, ‘I’m not going to win. I’m just going to participate.” Her older brother was the only family member who was resistant to the idea, “What are the Dietsch going to say about us today? ‘What is going on with those Renpennings?’

Katharine’s family was used to the tenuous relationship they had with the larger Mennonite community in the region. Her grandparents emigrated to Mexico in the late 1920s from Russia, rather than Canada, and settled in the city of Cuauhtémoc because they were not permitted by church leadership to live within the colonies. Despite the fact that her grandfather became known as a master carpenter in the region, serving the Mestizo and Mennonite communities, and her grandmother, Catalina Schroeder, profiled in “Trajchtmoakas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos”9 was a respected and sought-after midwife and healer, they were largely excluded from the Mennonite community while not being fully accepted in the Mestizo community. Katherine related her experiences to REBB:

There was a lot of discrimination. It was terrible. It was also terrible that the Mennonite church had also rejected us. Well, with the Mennonites you were from the “Mexas” and with “The Mexas” we were, “The Mennonites.” So, you don’t belong to anyone, right?. . . For the women, it was much easier than for my male siblings. So, they also felt the Mennonites’ rejection, it was very hard. Very difficult because physically we looked like them, right? On questions of religious principles and other aspects. And it was difficult sometimes for my older brothers because it came to blows, right? To get in fights with them, or well, attacked when they were walking to school. These attacks-they weren’t just verbal attacks, they were strong attacks and still to this day my brothers have that feeling of “Neither from here, nor from there.” Right? The attacks they suffered from the Mexicans . . . they were really, really, really ugly. At school, for example, I always felt bad because they said that the Mennonites had stolen the land from the Mexicans. And that was, “Oh, well, yes” They would point at me like this, “You stole the land!” In classes, in middle school, elementary school that’s how one would be addressed.10

Despite the inevitable rumblings from the local Mennonite community and mixed acceptance from the Mestizo community, the desire to heal from a family tragedy was what ultimately propelled Katharine to participate in the pageant.  In 1985, Katharine’s brother Tony was killed by a drunk driver while riding his motorcycle. “It was terrible. The whole family was in shock.” Katharine reflected that the pageant offered an opportunity for the family to focus on something other than the tragedy and was the first time that they had felt happy in a long time. She described the preparation for the regional competition:

We asked God for his blessing and we realized that the sign-ups had already closed and we said, “Ok. Well, they’re no longer going to accept us” that’s what we thought, right? . . . I entered and they accepted me. After I was accepted, there were preparations in the gym. They taught us diction, how to pronounce, how to cover ourselves, how to put a pencil between our lips and everything about speaking. In total, we were about 13 or so girls, very beautiful. All were from the northeast region. So, there were girls from Madera, from Guerrero, from some small towns, and it was very important that each municipality for Chihuahua that the girls were prepared and of good character, they always said it wasn’t enough for her to be just beautiful, but also had to be intelligent, know how to speak and everything. Overall, the preparation went well and the day got closer. A girl who hadn’t spoken well won and another girl who hadn’t either got 2nd place and I was left in 3rd place. So, just 1st and 2nd place were going to participate at the state level. But, because I was the other person, they said, “No, you are also going to participate.” “Me too? Well, I’m also going. Ok. That’s good right? That’s no problem for me.11

After receiving 3rd place in the regional competition, she travelled to Juarez to participate in the statewide competition. The event was rocked by scandal and it was alleged that the Institutional Revolutionary Party [PRI] fixed the results for Gabriela Trespalacios, the participant of their choice, which rocketed the scandal all the way to Associated Press syndication which described the pageant in this way:

Police were posted in every aisle and outside the auditorium where the Miss Chihuahua beauty queen was chosen, as the event was marred by rumors that the contest was rigged by the ruling political party.

Rumors had run rampant before and during the contest that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, had fixed the pageant in this city across the Rio Grande from El Paso Texas, so that Miss Chihuahua City, Gabriela Trespalacios, would win the crown.

Every time she walked on the runway or tried to speak, she was booed and hissed by the crowd of nearly 5,000, but she never lost her composure.

In fact, Katharine Rempenning [sic] Semadeni, 24, of Chuauhtemoc [sic], was crowned Saturday as Senorita Chihuahua. Miss Trespalacios, 22, was first runner-up and Patricia de la Garza, 18, of Delicias, was second runner-up.

Officials had prepared for possible protests from the opposition National Action Party, or PAN, if Miss Chihuahua City were chosen.

PRI controls the municipal governments of Juarez and Chihuahua City and has been undefeated in the federal government for 58 years. Juarez, formerly a PAN stronghold, is the largest city in the state of Chihuahua, and Chihuahua City is the state capital.

PAN claimed that last summer’s municipal elections throughout the state were fixed by PRI, which nearly swept every election. PRI officials denied the accusations.

The crowning of Miss Rempenning [sic] at the University Cultural Center brought cheers from the audience.12

Katherine went on to represent Chihuahua in the national Señorita Mexico pageant,13 where she showcased traditional Mennonite clothing in the opening sequences where participants wear traditional clothing from their home state. Though she was eliminated in the first round of judging, the impacts of her participation in the pageant were long-lasting in her personal life and for the presence and role of the state government Campos Menonitas.  


1. “Miss Mexico ‘war gown’ toned down,” BBC News, 19 April 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6571061.stm.

2. Tanya Basu, “Mexico Pulls Out of Donald Trump’s Miss Universe Pageant,” Time, 30 June 2015, https://time.com/3942024/mexico-donald-trump-cheryl-burke-miss-universe-nbc-univision/.

3. Javier Maldonado, “Salvedoreña Alejandra Gavidia sacude Miss Universo con mensaje: ‘Un una menos, ni un desaparecido más,’” El Mundo, 11 December 2021, https://diario.elmundo.sv/salvadorena-alejandra-gavidia-sacude-miss-universo-con-mensaje-ni-una-menos-ni-un-desaparecido-mas/.

4. “Señorita México,” Wikipedia Español, https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Se%C3%B1orita_M%C3%A9xico.

5. Salvador Rivera, “Former Miss Universe Could be Mexican Border State’s Next Governor,” 30 January 2021, https://www.borderreport.com/politics/former-miss-universe-could-be-mexican-border-states-next-governor/

6. “Federal Lawmakers Move to Outlaw Beauty Contests,” Mexico News Daily, 4 July 2020, https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/federal-lawmakers-move-to-outlaw-beauty-contests/

7. “Beauty Pageants May No Longer Exist in Mexico and Here’s Why,” LatinaWatch, 10 July 2020. https://latinawatch.com/news-update/beauty-pageants-ban-mexico/

8. 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.  

9. Abigail Carl-Klassen, “Trajchtmoakas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos,” Anabaptist Historians, May 7, 2020, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/05/07/trajchtmoakas-parteras-and-midwives-100-years-of-maternal-care-in-chihuahuas-mennonite-campos/

10. 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. 

11. Ibid.

12. “Politics Invades Mexican Beauty Pageant,” Associated Press, 27 April 1987. https://apnews.com/article/ce63225db234b53394b48e62a6bef496

13. Darp Stories, “Señorita México 1987 con Katherine Renpenning (Nuestra Belleza Mexicana Excerpt)” YouTube video, 6 minutes, November 16, 2021, https://youtu.be/hgoCu3rvHo0

“Very Steady Steps Toward Education”: 50 Years of Education Reform in Chihuahua’s Southern Mennonite Colonies

Along with the introduction of electricity, vehicles, and running water during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, during tumultuous times of community and colony reorganization in Chihuahua’s southern Mennonite colonies near the city of Cuauhtémoc, in Mexico’s Tres Culturas Region, one of changes that most deeply impacted daily life for Mennonite residents was the wide-reaching education reform that completely changed the educational landscape in the colonies over the course of fifty years, providing a greater level of educational access and diversity of school experiences within the Campos Menonitas, which still continues to impact education in all but the most traditional communities to this day.

Until the late 1960s, schooling in the Tres Culturas Region of Chihuahua followed the traditional Darpe Schule model beginning with Fiebla (basic reading and writing) around age six and continuing with Katekjisem (catechism) and Jesankbuak (hymnal), and ending with Bibel (Bible) around age thirteen with basic arithmetic also integrated throughout. In this model, which is still used today in the most traditional communities, instruction is given by one male teacher in High German in a one-room schoolhouse and involves recitation, dictation, and Langeviese singing and has an end goal of preparing students for baptism and daily life within the traditional Darpe community. Billy Froese, who attended a traditional Darpe Schule in the 1980s, described his experiences to the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project,

The girls are on one side, the guys are one side. That can also be a punishment. You go sit with the girls. And I at one time thought that was a punishment! But the fule Benkj” is the “lazy bench.” And if you’re not doing your work, up there beside the teacher, there’s a bench. This hard bench. And you go sit up there. Of course, there were spankings, stuff like that. But they had these big windows. And you had to stand in the window, facing the street [if you got in trouble]. I just remember the teacher coming to my desk and putting the pen in my right hand. Or the chalk. Whatever it was then. We had those little Tofels too. Those little chalk boards. And the chalk. So, he would start me off writing, and then he would leave. And I would just put it back in my left hand….My experiences, my most memorable experiences in the school aren’t positive. They’re interesting, but not so positive. It was usually getting punished.

Education reform occurred first in the Manitoba Colony and then was implemented later in the Swift Current, Ojo de la Yegua, and Jagueyes colonies. In each colony and each Darp within individual colonies, reforms were propelled by external and internal factors and often came in waves. Reforms were implemented at different times and to different degrees depending on the community and educational infrastructure, pedagogy and curriculum remains in flux across the Mennonite colonies in the Tres Culturas Region.

One of the largest external factors impacting reform, was the establishment of the Álvaro Obregón school in the Quinta Lupita community, located near the outskirts of Cuauhtémoc at the edge of the Manitoba Colony by Mennonite missionaries from Canada’s General Conference in the late 1960’s. The founding of the Álvaro Obregón school was followed in subsequent years by mission churches and schools from other Mennonite conferences as well as other from other denominations, such as the German Church of God. These schools had multiple instructors and classrooms divided by age, a wider range of subjects including geography and history, and instruction in Spanish. These schools became known as Konferensa (Conference) schools because of their association either directly or indirectly with General Conference missionaries and churches and enrolled students not only from their congregations, but also students from more traditional backgrounds whose parents were interested in educational options that were different from the traditional Darpe Schule.

At times, Konferensa churches, particularly with the assistance of missionaries of Canada, would build relationships with a much more traditional community and launch a school within the community primarily designed to serve traditional students, but with a more modern pedagogy and academically diverse curriculum, which included Spanish, like in Konferensa schools. With the introduction of Spanish into the curriculum, Mestizo teachers began working in Mennonite schools for the first time as Spanish language instructors and gained access and proximity to traditional communities that was previously unheard of. One of these teachers, Diana Sandoval Arballo, who began teaching in 1998 at a school launched in the Ojo de la Yegua Colony by Iglesia Anabautista Ebenezer, a Spanish-speaking Mennonite church in Cuauhtémoc whose congregation is about evenly split between Mestizo-Mennonite converts, ethnic Low-German Mennonites and Mestizo and Mennonite couples and their bicultural children, shared her experiences in 2018 with the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-cultural encounter in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project

The church at Campo 67, in a Mennonite community, was looking for a Mestiza teacher, but with Mennonite faith, to work in the community. So, they invited me to go to work for a year, and I accepted. And that was the first time I had direct contact with the more traditional Mennonite community….I lived in the Campo. There was a couple that were teachers, and another couple that were the pastors. So, I worked with these teachers and lived with the pastors. But I lived in the community from Monday to Friday, and for the weekend I returned to Cuauhtémoc, to my house…The first years it was difficult. For them it was difficult seeing and living with a Mestiza in the middle of the community. Maybe my way of dressing was also different, and that drew attention. There was also a bit of fear, because they had someone unknown and didn’t know who I was, what I was going to teach, what I was trying to do…. I came for one year and I stayed 20, but I think my biggest motivation has always been to serve and I think that I have a desire because God uses me to be able to serve. And I saw that this would be the way the God would use me. Teaching people the faith, mainly, that is my first goal, and the second is, well, the language. And I also believe that one of the things that has always impassioned me is that they can see that the Mestizo culture is different than the idea that they have always had in their head. That I think is one of the biggest motivations in my life. And also, I fell in love with the Mennonite culture. For me, it was never difficult being with them. I can’t say that there was anything I had to sacrifice, it was a pleasure.

Though external intervention from Conference churches and schools, which included the transformational role of teachers like Diana Sandoval Arballo, played a large part in implementing education reform in the Tres Culturas Region, it would not have been possible without internal proponents for school reform, like Peter Rempel Enns, whose lifelong advocacy for education reform in the Mennonite Campos was chronicled by the State of Chihuahua’s Mennonite Resource Office’s 2016 publication, Hombres y mujeres menonitas destacados: Caminos inspirantes (Outstanding Mennonite Men and Women: Inspirational Paths). These local advocates for school reform were concerned about what they perceived to be low educational standards, low levels of literacy among graduates, harsh punishments, and an incomplete curriculum. Often advocates for school reform, particularly those within more traditional communities faced strong backlash from community leadership and some were excommunicated for their stances; however, as more families chose Konferensa schools at the same time that tensions were high in traditional communities concerning increased business and social relationships between Mennonite and Mestizo communities, the use of vehicles with rubber tires, and the introduction of electricity, questions began to arise with traditional church leadership about the best path forward concerning education. Some remained steadfast in their Darpe Schule model, but many more began to make small, but significant changes to their education systems.

Faced with external and internal pressures for school reform, Kleingemeinde and Old Colony communities sought a solution that they felt would allow them to raise their academic standards while maintaining their distinctive values and cultural practices. Beginning in 1995, through the MCC and a variety of other Mennonite aid agencies, they built relationships with Amish communities and schools in the United States and began receiving Amish teachers, not just in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua, but across Mexico, to teach in Kleingemeinde and Old Colony schools, and to assist in the restructuring of administration, curriculum, and assessment. (This topic is addressed more in depth in Rebecca Janzen’s 2019 Anabaptist Historians blog post, “How Much to Change: Amish Teachers in Mexico.”)

Perhaps the most significant impact to education in the Tres Culturas Region in recent history, was when many private, Mennonite church schools began seeking accreditation from Mexico’s Secretary of Public Education (SEP). SEP accredited Mennonite schools have to meet specific national curriculum, assessment, achievement and enrollment standards, but are allowed to have religious instruction and maintain cultural practices. While the majority of SEP Mennonite schools only include Primaria (Grades 1-6) and Secundaria (Grades 7-9), which are the levels of compulsory education in Mexico and the most common level of education among Gen-Z Mennonites in the Campos, particularly among those from less traditional communities, a few SEP Mennonite schools offer Preparatoria (Grades 10-11/12), which was previously only available at non-Mennonite public and private schools in Cuauhtémoc.

More and more students from the Campos have been going to study at the universities in Cuauhtémoc and Chihuahua. Even some of the most traditional Darpe Schule in the region have been taking steps to examine educational practices and standards within their cultural context. Adults from traditional backgrounds are beginning to finish SEP accredited Primaria and Secundaria schooling through ICHEA (The Chihuahuan Institute for Adult Education), while other traditional adults, including Peter Rempel, the principal of a Kleingemeinde school in the Manitoba Colony, who shared his experiences with the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, have taken advantage of a government program called Prepa Abierta to finish their high school equivalency online. From Darpe Schule to high schools that prep students for university and everything in between, the Campos Menonitas in the Tres Culturas Region have an educational diversity that is unique and 50 years in the making.

From her teacher housing, provided to her by the SEP school that serves traditional students in Campo 38 ½ where she currently works, Diana Sandoval Arballo looked out her window into the Darp and commented on the changes that she had seen during her 20 years as a Spanish instructor in Mennonite schools

Over the course of years, the parents became more interested in the education of their children. They saw it as more important, the fact that they could learn. And they are more motivated to make the school grow. I think it happens with the passing of the years. They have lost the fear towards education, that is different than what they got. And they have been motivated more so that their children can go further, even though they learn different things, they dream of being a doctor, not just working in agriculture. So, I think that the change in these years that I have been here have been very big and the steps have been very steady toward education.

Casa Geburt Birthing Center and Midwifery Training School: “Quality Care for Every Woman in Her Mother Tongue,” 2016-Present

The following is the fourth article in the series Trachtmaokas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos.

Today, after nearly a half-century of decline, midwifery is undergoing a resurgence not only in Mennonite communities in Chihuahua, but all across Mexico, particularly in rural areas and Indigenous communities. A MacArthur Foundation report on public health in Mexico found, “In recent years, more than thirty organizations—from small, indigenous led organizations, to government institutions and non-profit organizations—have worked together to bring back professional midwives with the hopes of improving access and quality of care for mothers and babies and respecting the reproductive rights of women. This movement wants midwives to be more respected and acknowledged and for them to be seen as a safe and reliable alternative, which according to many women is more comfortable and dignified than current hospital methods, especially in rural areas. After education and promotion, the number of training programs has grown to more than a dozen and the number of clinics that work with midwives has doubled. Hundreds of seminars, workshops and basic courses have become available to health authorities and practitioners throughout the country.”1

Casa Geburt Birthing Center and Midwifery School, located in Campo 6 ½ in the Manitoba Colony, approximately twenty kilometers north of Cuauhtémoc, is part of this movement to provide “partos humanizados” or “humanized births” that respect and empower women to be active agents in their reproductive choices and experiences. Founded in 2016 by Katia LeMone, a midwife, and public health practitioner with more than thirty years of experience, Casa Geburt is at the center of reproductive and maternal care in the Tres Culturas region of Chihuahua. Originally from New Mexico, Katia relocated to the Mennonite Campos in 2015 at the request of members from the Mennonite community to train doulas and midwives in the Tres Culturas Region.

In 2018, she shared how her decision to become a midwife and to train midwives had its origins in an encounter she had with an Indigenous Rarámuri woman in Chihuahua in the late 1970s with the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders Oral History Project (REBB)2:

In 1979, I was living in Parral and I met a Tarahumara [Rarámuri] woman on the street     and she invited me to her house. We were talking and drinking tea and she asked me if I wanted to see her “instruments.” She showed them to me and said, “I’m a midwife. I help      women give birth.” I was very interested and when I returned to the United States, I volunteered in El Paso with some friends of mine who were training to be midwives. At   that time, I had a transformative experience during a difficult birth and I decided that I not only wanted to be a midwife, but I also wanted to train midwives. Women didn’t have and still don’t have access to the care that they need. I wanted to be an advocate for women and provide them with what they need. The important thing is women supporting women.

Katia had her first client from the Campos Menonitas in Chihuahua come to her midwifery practice in New Mexico in 2008, a Trajchtmoaka who was well known in the community, and by 2014, Katia had attended more than twenty births for Mennonite women from the Campos.

After a few years [of attending births], I was invited to come to the Campos Menonitas and teach some training classes in the community. The first time, I came for ten days to train doulas, but in December of 2015, I moved to the Campos to train midwives because      there was a high demand for the course. My goal was to train women who could then later train others in Low-German. We have had two graduating classes from the midwife        training course so far. The first class had fifteen participants and all of them were Mennonite,      both liberal and conservative. There were students from such conservative communities   that I was surprised that they wanted to come and train with us. In the second class we had 7 Mennonites, 2 women from the Rarámuri Pueblo and a Mestiza woman. In the second class I tried to integrate public health training in order to create relationships with churches and the community.

She continued, sharing about the challenges, successes and future goals for the work of Casa Geburt in the Campos Menonitas and the larger Tres Culturas Region.

We have really high maternal mortality rates and in this environment midwives and doulas have to be promotors of public health3. We have really big goals. I couldn’t have imagined what we have been able to accomplish. In 2016, we opened the Casa Geburt Birthing Center and Midwifery Training School. We have partnerships with La Asociación Mexicana de Partería (The Mexican Association of Midwifery) and some hospitals. We want for every woman to have quality care in her mother tongue. This is what I would love to see. There is always the goal of raising up more Mennonite women to be educators, midwives, childbirth educators, breastfeeding educators, doulas. To raise up those ranks so that we have a doula for every woman. A midwife that every woman can feel comfortable with. And then, the Tarahumara [Rarámuri] community, and working with them. Developing our program so more of our programs can be in Spanish and Tarahumara [Rarámuri]. More of them can be in Low-German. Those are the things that are all really important to us. The ultimate goal would be to have a functioning school with dormitories that’s associated with the Maternity Center Clinic where women in any of these communities could come in, and get care by women from their community.

Clara Enns, a seamstress and midwife from the Swift Current Colony in the Mennonite Campos in Chihuahua, Mexico, was one of the first graduates from Casa Geburt’s Midwifery Training Program in 2016. She spoke with REBB about the importance of Low-German speaking midwives and doulas as public health practitioners, educators and advocates in the Tres Culturas Region of Chihuahua4.

The return to midwifery is really modern in a lot of ways, but there also is a respect and a deep knowledge of the traditional, of what used to be. Deep down that makes sense to   many of the traditional women. In our communities there’s a lack of information, a lack of education. Childbirth and women’s health in general, is not talked about. There’s very little knowledge. There’s a shame surrounding it. Women have lost the information they did have. Breastfeeding is completely a lost art for so many women here. The high rate of C-sections needs to change5. The World Health Organization guidelines are there and we need to change6. Mexico in general has a very, very high C-section rate, and is being pushed and incentivized to change that7. We Mennonites form a big part of that. The C-section rate in our communities is much, much higher than it is in general in Mexico in general8. A big part of it is language barrier. It may be the biggest one. We have a lot of traumatized women. We want to empower women in our community to take back what they need.

The fifth article in this series will feature first-hand accounts of present-day pregnancy, birth and post-partum care in Chihuahua’s Campos Menonitas, and will explore perspectives concerning midwifery within and outside the Campos, including the transcript from a segment that aired on the nationally syndicated news program El Milenio in early 2020 that featured Casa Geburt.


Part 1: Trajchtmoakas, Parteras and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua

Part 2: “This Woman Saved Lives”: Prohibitions on Midwifery in Post-Revolutionary Mexico

Part 3: “She Came Back to Help”: Aganetha Loewen Wiens’ Experiences as a Nurse and Midwife in the Ojo de la Yegua Colony, 1980s-Present


1. Sharon Bissell, “Strengthening Midwifery in Mexico.” MacArthur Foundation, January 17, 2019, https://www.macfound.org/press/perspectives/strengthening-midwifery-mexico/

2. Katia LeMone, interviewed by Abigail Carl-Klassen, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, 2018.

3. World Health Organization Maternal Mortality Rate for Mexico, 38/100,000 (2015).

4. Clara Enns, interviewed by Abigail Carl-Klassen, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, 2018.

5. World Health Organization Estimate for Medically Necessary C-section Rate, 10-15% (2017); World Health Organization C-section Rate for Mexico, 45.5% (2017).

6. World Health Organization Statement on C-Sections, “While many women in need of caesarean sections still do not have access to caesarean section particularly in low resource settings, many others undergo the procedure unnecessarily, for reasons which cannot be medically justified. Caesarean birth is associated with short- and long-term risks that can extend many years beyond the current delivery and affect the health of the woman, the child and future pregnancies. These risks are higher in women with limited access to comprehensive obstetric care.”

7. Word Health Organization C-section Rate for the state of Chihuahua (2017), 37.6% (public facilities) 60% (private facilities).

8. El Heraldo de Chihuahua, “Incrementan partos por cesárea hasta 90%” (“Caesarean Births Increase to Upwards of 90%), January 24, 2018 https://www.elheraldodechihuahua.com.mx/local/noroeste/incrementan-partos-por-cesarea-hasta-90-748516.html; Estimated C-Section Rate for Tres Culturas Region Based on Samples Collected by Health Care Providers, 80-95% (2018).

She Came Back to Help: Aganetha Loewen Wiens’ Experiences as a Nurse and Midwife in the Ojo de la Yegua Colony, 1980s-Present

The following is the third article in the series Trachtmaokas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos

The 1960s and 70s were a turbulent time within the Mennonite settlements in the Tres Culturas Region of Chihuahua, Mexico. Communities split over the introduction of electricity and running water, which were previously forbidden. Excommunications for putting rubber tires on tractors and buying cars and trucks were so common that colony land directly adjacent to the outskirts of Cuauhtémoc was settled by excommunicated people and became known the Quinta Lupita colony. For poor, landless young men in the colonies, referred to by some as “Mennonite cowboys,” semi-truck driving became a path to economic and social freedom. With newfound access to vehicles, families began joining migrant farm labor circuits in the U.S. and Canada, earning more in a few months than they could earn in years in Mexico.1 Suddenly, the Campos weren’t so isolated from Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, and the rest of the world. Commerce between Mestizos and Mennonites exploded since it was no longer limited to the distance that could be covered by a horse and buggy.

However, this increased mobility did not typically extend to women in the colonies, particularly young, single women like Aganetha Loewen Wiens. Aganetha grew up in a traditional Old Colony community during these tumultuous years and feeling the buzz of this movement around her, she was determined to pursue and education beyond the sixth grade. Although she didn’t speak Spanish and was the only Mennonite in the school, she insisted on attending the only accredited secondary school in the area at the time, in the village of Alvaro Obregon. She told the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project (REBB) in 20182:

I did it practically without speaking any Spanish and all of school was in Spanish. I struggled a lot in those first months to understand the teachers. Sometimes, I would find out later that they assigned homework. But I had some good classmates who saw I was struggling who came and asked me if I understood what homework we were supposed to do. It was an extraordinary experience.

Aganetha always pushed against the boundaries of what was acceptable in her community, moving to Chihuahua to attend college after completing secondary school, years before anyone else, male or female, would do so.

I had the idea of going to Chihuahua to study nursing, I had a lot of obstacles, especially from my family, there was no economic support, nothing. Nobody supported me when I had this idea, but there was a teacher from the Campo 101 school who gave me economic support and support in every sense of the word to be able to study there. During those years, I learned that, yes, change is possible, yes, that it’s possible to live differently. Afterwards, I told myself: Yes you can, if you want to, anything is possible.

She became a nurse and married a Mestizo man, a doctor, whom she met at the hospital during her year of assigned government social service and had three children. She also trained to be midwife during an era in Mexico, the second half of the twentieth century, which historian Ana Maria Carillo referred to as “the death of the midwife.”3 Aganetha described the dynamics with the traditional Ojo de la Yegua Colony where she and her husband moved and opened a clinic in the 1980s:

It was a very traditional community. When we started there, there was no highway, no electricity. . . . In the practice we had a room where we attended births. The women were very isolated. I had been rejected because I left the community. But they came for medical attention. That was not rejected. They accepted that. There was no problem. Lots and lots of people came. Those who didn’t know Spanish struggled a lot to go to the doctor. For this reason, they sought us out. We had the advantage that we could communicate with them in their language.

When Aganetha began attending births in the Mennonite Campos in the 1980s, it was nearly impossible for Mennonite women, traditional or non-traditional, to have any formal medical training and those who would have wanted to obtain it would have had to go to Chihuahua to receive it. During this period from the 1980s to the early 2000s, the gap between the Spanish speaking medical establishment and Low-German speaking Mennonite women remained wide, and at the same time, many birthing and post-partum practices traditionally practiced in Mennonite culture, such as home births and breast feeding, were becoming less and less common in many colonies for a variety reasons internal and external (following contemporary national and global trends), leaving many Low-German speaking Mennonite women, particularly in the most conservative communities, without adequate access to care from either the Spanish speaking medical establishment or from traditionally trained Mennonite midwives.4

Aganetha’s training as a nurse and cultural and linguistic background gave her the ability to provide maternal care to women who would not have otherwise had access. Running the clinic with her husband, a medical doctor, provided her with a framework for acceptance within the professionalized, male dominated medical establishment and gave her credibility in an environment that was increasingly skeptical of midwifery. Her training as a nurse; however, provided her with skills and knowledge unavailable to previous generations of traditional midwives and was a pre-cursor to later movements in maternal health care that would incorporate modern medicine with the care, skill, support and advocacy provided by midwives to give women a voice known in their pre and post-natal care and in the birthing process. In Mexico, this movement toward a more woman-centered standard of maternal became known as the fight for “partos humanizados,” or “humanized births.”5 During the time Aganetha and her husband ran their clinic in the Ojo de la Yegua Colony, Mennonite women wanted hospital births, but did not have access to them in their remote location. Aganetha was able to serve as a bridge the medicalization and professionalization of maternal care and midwifery by providing Mennonite women with the culturally appropriate medical care in their language that they were unable to get anywhere else.

After her husband’s death in 1998, Aganetha continued running the clinic and pharmacy and attending births on her own. Though she eventually closed her clinic and pharmacy in the Ojo de la Yegua Colony, she relocated to the Swift Current Colony where she continues to practice to this day. During her interview with the REBB Oral History Project, Aganetha excused herself from the interview to attend to a patient who honked her horn in the driveway to alert Aganetha that she had arrived. After about fifteen minutes, Aganetha returned and poured more coffee before sitting down to finish the interview. Reflecting on how her work as a nurse and midwife has changed over the course of nearly forty years, she smiled and said:

I still work here. I still do what I love and use what I learned. I have a pharmacy and I love working there and seeing people in the practice. Recently, there has been one birth after another. Children are still born here, and I love attending the births. I can’t really say anything has changed about the work itself because I do it the way I’ve always done it. In the thirty-five to forty years since I went to school, things have improved a lot. The mentality is more open. It’s not so closed anymore.

Though Aganetha and became a nurse and midwife against the wishes of her family and community, the transition between the tumultuous times of change and reform in the Mennonite colonies and today, where there is a greater diversity of religious expression, more educational opportunities, and increased access to healthcare, was very difficult, and it would not have been possible without the work of women who left the traditional church (through excommunication or by their own choice, like Aganetha) who later returned to their communities to serve and support the women who still lived there.

Part four of this series on the history of midwifery and maternal health in the Mennonite Campos of the Tres Culturas Region of Chihuahua will explore the dynamics concerning the resurgence of midwifery in Mexico, particularly in rural areas, as well as, the role of Katia LeMone, a Certified Professional Midwife from New Mexico, whose close relationship with her Mennonite clientele laid the groundwork for the creation of Casa Geburt Birthing Center and Midwifery Training School that serves clients and midwifery students from Mennonite, Mestizo, and Indigenous Rarámuri backgrounds in the heart of the Campos Menonitas.


Part 1: “Trajchtmoakas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos”

Part 2: “This Woman Saved Lives: Prohibitions on Midwifery in Post-Revolutionary Mexico”


1. David Klassen, interviewed by Abigail Carl-Klassen, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, 2018.

2. Aganetha Loewen Wiens, interviewed by Abigail Carl-Klassen, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, 2018.

3. Carrillo, Ana Maria, “Naciemiento y muerte de una profesión. Las parteras tituladas en México” (“Birth and Death of a Profession. Certified Midwives in Mexico.” DYNAMIS, 167-190, 1999.

4. Katia LeMone, interviewed by Abigail Carl-Klassen, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, 2018.

5. Alejandra Saena Izunza, “Parir en México es un acto de resistencia” (“Giving Birth in Mexico is an Act of Resistance”), Washington Post, Jan. 13th, 2020.

This Woman Saved Lives: Prohibitions on Midwifery in Post-Revolutionary Mexico

The following is the second article in the series Trachtmaokas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos

In the years following the Mexican Revolution, a Mennonite midwife, Susanna Shellenberg, whose life and work was referenced in Part 1 of this series on the history of midwifery and maternal care, was ordered by the government to stop attending births and providing the local communities of Cuauhtémoc, Cusihuiriachi, and Santa Rita with herbal remedies. What happened next was the result of a perfect storm of contemporary socio-political and religious dynamics unfolding at the national level, as well as changing sentiments about midwifery and traditional healing that coincided with the development of Mexico’s national public health system and its focus on modernizing medical treatment in rural areas.   

The years following the Mennonites’ arrival in San Antonio de los Arenales (modern-day Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, Mexico,) from Canada in 1922, were marked by an intense period of national political and social reorganization following the Mexican Revolution. Pancho Villa’s soldiers in the north and Emiliano Zapata’s soldiers in south and central Mexico, returned home to conditions that were similar under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and continued pushing for increased land reform through armed revolt and political action. Some of these conflicts played out in and near the Mennonite Campos, detailed by local historian José Luis Domínguez in his book The Other History of the Mennonites (La Otra Historia de los Menonitas), and led to the creation of the Two Hundred Colony (Colonia Dos Cientos), so called for the 200 pesos paid for in exchange for giving up their claim to land now occupied by Mennonites.1

President Álvaro Obregón, who during his term (1920-1924) granted privilegium to the Mennonites to settle in the state of Chihuahua, enforced land reform provisions that had been laid out in the 1917 Constitution, but had not implemented in practice into the Mexican government’s infrastructure. He was viewed by many as a force that quelled unrest and that navigated the unification and modernization of Mexico, while negotiating increased commercial relations with the United States. However, in years following his term (1926-1929), an armed conflict, known as the Cristero War (La Cristiada), raged in the western and central regions of the country (excluding border states like Chihuahua) between President Plutarco Calles’ anti-clerical forces that advocated for a secular state and the enforcement of punitive “Calles Laws” and the Cristeros who supported the Catholic Church. In 1928, Álvaro Obregón succeeded Calles and was re-elected president, but was assassinated soon after because of his support of Calles and his anti-Catholic policies. A peace between Calles’ forces and the Cristeros and was brokered in 1929 through a complex web of international negotiations, which included a U.S. ambassador, the Knights of Columbus, and representatives from the Vatican.2

The 1930s ushered in the beginning of a period of relative stability and the election of Lázaro Cardenas in 1934 marked an increased push to modernize Mexico, with special attention to its rural areas. This period of reorganization, while tumultuous, shaped the economic, socio-political and religious dynamics in Mexico to this day and gave birth to some of modern Mexico’s institutions such as the Ejidal public land system and the national public health system3 and serves as the historical backdrop to the following oral history testimony concerning a confrontation between a Mennonite midwife, Susana Shellenburg, two local Cuauhtémoc doctors, and the Mexican government.

Coinciding with the drafting of the 1917 Constitution, which focused on land reform, the roles and responsibilities of the secular, centralized federal government, and the protection, fundamental human rights of Mexican citizens, which included healthcare, Mexico also created the first iteration of its national department of public health (Departamento de Salubridad Pública) that focused on the provision of potable water, the prevention and treatment of contagious diseases, and the launching of vaccination campaigns. By 1931, the State Health Services (Servicio de Sanidad de los Estados) was established to build health infrastructure and access in rural areas and was the precursor to the national public health system that Mexico has today that was created in a variety of iterations beginning in the 1940s.4

The following oral history, which was shared with Casa Geburt Midwifery Training School by Susanna Thiessen, Susana Shellenberg’s great-grandaughter, occurs in the midst of these sweeping national public health campaigns and reforms.

“My great-grandmother [Susana Shellenberg] was born in Canada in 1905 and was the wife of Heinrich Shellenberg. Susana learned how to attend births and how to heal the sick with herbs from two traditional Jewish women in Canada.

In 1927, Heinrich, Susana, and their two daughters came to Mexico. 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.

Some years later, doctors began to arrive in Cuauhtémoc, including Dr. Cazale and Dr. Barba Cornejo. The city had grown with the passing of time. There were people who were jealous of the type of help that Susana was providing and made a legal complaint against her with the government. She had to stop helping people for a time until some Mexican people that she had helped before said, “This woman saved our families’ lives and we want her to continue helping people.” The Mexicans fought for Susana until after some time, the government gave her a permit to be able to continue working freely.”

Despite tensions surrounding land disputes between Mestizos and Mennonites during this period  as well as accusations that the government was giving preference to the Mennonites as a religious group in a state that purported secular governance, Susanna’s rapport with the local Mestizo community was so strong that they came to her defense and demanded that she be allowed to continue to practice. Additionally, the local community’s support of Susanna reveals resistance of many within the rural population to embrace the modern medical infrastructure they felt was being imposed on them by outsiders from Mexico City. To avoid additional unrest in an already delicate socio-political, economic and religious environment, the government conceded to the will of local Cuauhtémoc residents and Susanna was allowed to continue to practice.    

Though the Mestizo residents advocated on behalf of Susanna Shellenberg and she was given a special permit by the government to continue practicing, Susana’s story is representative of a common theme occurring at that time in Mexico. As medicine became professionalized in Mexico, midwifery was seen as a threat to medical practice the woman-centered model of maternal provided by midwives was replaced by an almost exclusively male, professional medical establishment, which in keeping with commonly held views of the time, viewed pregnancy and birth through the lens of pathology and did not provide women a voice or position within the new modern medical system.

Doctor María Graciela Freyermuth Enciso, a researcher for Mexico’s National Social Development Policy Institute (CONEVAL) and a social anthropologist who focuses on maternal health and midwifery while simultaneously chronicling the history of midwifery in Mexico writes, “Midwifery almost went extinct in Mexico….midwives were criticized by doctors and didn’t have a voice in that transition.”5 Though Susanna continued to work as a midwife and herbal healer for the remainder of her life, she was the exception not the rule.

Susanna Thiessen describes her great-grandmother’s work after she was given permission by the government to begin practicing again saying,   

“My great-grandmother continued her work out of her home where she had a small clinic and saw patients freely. Sometimes, people had kidney problems and she attended to them for weeks in her home. At first, she ordered the products for her natural remedies from Germany, but there was a problem with the package delivery and she began to place orders with Mexican companies. She needed these herbs to care for sick patients. Sometimes, she sold a little of the medicine, but very cheaply, because many times people didn’t have money.

She had two books with medicinal recipes and she made many of the remedies herself. She worked into her old age. She was eighty years old when she attended her last birth and it was the birth of her great-grandson, her granddaughter’s son. This child’s mother said that this child who was born with his great-grandmother was stronger than the other children who were born in hospitals with doctors.”

By the 1980s, when Susanna Shellenberg died, births in the Tres Culturas Region with the exception of the most rural and marginalized women from Mestizo, Mennonite, and Rarámuri backgrounds, were almost exclusively attended in hospitals. The vast majority of these births were performed by C-section, which matched trends nationally. Though the national health system drastically improved health outcomes in many areas, particularly in the prevention and treatment of infectious disease, the maternal and infant mortality rates, particularly in rural areas of Mexico, remain so high that World Health Organization, federal, state and local governments, and health care workers in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors are continuing to seek the development of community health models and culturally responsive maternal care that will improve mortality outcomes.6

Part 3 of this series will explore the beginnings of the resurgence of midwifery in Mexico generally and the Mennonite Campos specifically, exploring the origins nurse midwives who beginning in the 1970s, began practicing integrating the knowledge and community trust held by traditional midwives with modern medical training, giving particular attention to the experiences of a nurse and midwife who is still practicing in the Campos today, Aganetha Loewen Wiens.   

[Oral History translated from German to Spanish by Sara Banman, a graduate of Casa Geburt’s midwifery training school, also currently working in the Campos Menonitas.]

[Oral History translated from Spanish to English by Abigail Carl-Klassen.]


Read part one of Trachtmaokas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos


1. José Luis Domínguez. La otra historia de los menonitas. (Chihuahua: Ediciones Kleidi, 2015)

2. Michael J. Gonzales. The Mexican Revolution 1910-1940 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002)

3. Ana Cecilia Rodríguez de Romo and Martha Eugenia Rodríguez Pérez. Historia de la salud pública en México: siglos XIX y XX. História, Ciências, Saúde-Manguinhos, no. 2 (1998): 293-310.

4. Ibid.

5. María Graciela Freyermuth Enciso. La historia de partería en México. CIESAS. (YouTube, June 4, 2019). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=\4g8C426u-Ak&t=2050s

6. Progress and Prospects: Bringing Midwifery Back to Mexico. (MacArthur Foundation, November 12, 2019). https://www.macfound.org/press/grantee-stories/progress-and-prospects-bringing-midwives-back-mexico/

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..