Digital Mennonites

By Samuel Boucher

When leaving the gates of our tightly knit Mennonite community, and we´re often asked, ¨What’s your nationality?¨ in a language, we may or may not understand well, the answer becomes messy very quickly, ‘I’m Mexican, holding a Canadian citizen, I don’t really speak Spanish or English, I speak Plautdietsch which is a non-written language, and the High German written language I was supposed to learn I didn’t really learn.1

On a cold February morning during the Canadian winter, the bedroom window was completely frosted. I shuffled out of my make-shift bed in the home office of my friend, David2—the principal of an elementary school in a small town in Ontario. I had been touring western Ontario giving a series of lectures to ‘Mennonite’ schools in small Canadian towns. Listowel—the town my friend worked in—had a sizable amount of Old Colony Mennonites, so David had invited me to give a lecture on Mennonite history. Many of these students are recent migrants from Mexico (while still holding Canadian passports). It was a surreal experience to see Mennonite boys and girls in winter coats and fleecy ear-flap hats dropped off by horse-and-buggy to rush into the heated school and pick up their school-issued Ipads and laptops to play academic programs and to write essays. This made me wonder how much Old Colony Mennonites and Old Order Amish are willing to accept these new digital technologies—specifically social media. In the following paper, I will explain the origins of the Mennonites, their conception of migration, their use of social media, and how virtual space may become the new horizon for migration to preserve their cultural identity.

Originating in the Radical Reformation, the Mennonites are an ethno-religious community dispersed in small colonies throughout the Americas. These followers of Menno Simmons have tended to split into small, decentralized churches, beginning with the Swiss Mennonites and the Dutch Mennonites. These two groups followed two different historical trajectories that led their descendants to end up in the Americas. As part of the Radical Reformation, the Mennonites were constantly on the edge of persecution under the pronouncements of the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 (Cuius regio, eius religio/Whose realm, his religion).  The Dutch Mennonites fled repeated rounds of persecutions, first to East Prussia, then to New Russia, and finally to Canada. From Canada, the more conservative members and churches left in the 1920s for Latin America in order to maintain their Low German language schools and colony system; they are now known as the Old Colony Mennonites. The Swiss Mennonites fled Switzerland for the New World arriving in the Thirteen Colonies and slowly spreading westward into the Midwest and Canada. These are the familiar Old Order Amish well-known for their Pennsylvania Dutch language and anti-modern outlook.

Several characteristics bind the Mennonites together despite their diffusion.  Theologically—like other Anabapists—they reject infantile baptism and believe that church membership should be a conscious decision. Additionally, they uphold absolute pacifism and believe they must remain separated from the ‘World’ following their conceptualization of Two Kingdoms theology.3  For this reason, they tend towards anti-materialism and non-political engagement. Culturally, these insular communities speak their own language (Low German or Pennsylvania Dutch), have their own strictly enforced set of rules (called the Ordnung), and maintain their own customs and beliefs—probably the most well-known one being that they avoid or eschew much of modern technology. Despite these similarities, some differences are rather pronounced between the Old Order Amish and Old Colony Mennonites.

While the Amish have spatially remained in North America and slowly creeped outward from their communities with nearby land purchases, the Low German Mennonites have a history of migration which has become a key aspect of their mythos. Because of their constant movement—The Netherlands-East Prussia-New Russia-Canada-Latin America—the Mennonites never truly settled any geographic parameter long enough to develop a mythic attachment to it.  Therefore, they do not hold ties to a nation-state for the ‘Kingdom of Heaven is their fatherland.’

Even beyond not having an attachment to a specific location, Mennonites have an internal need to migrate to replicate their colony system. It is via migration itself that Old Colony Mennonites maintain their community. The Mennonites enter each country with the promise to aid in the development of colonial projects and “accepting citizenship while simultaneously rejecting nationality through the building of a community that spans across state borders.”4 Ironically, it is the anti-modernist sects of the Mennonites who have tended to migrate most frequently transnationally and developed new regions. In the words of historian Royden Loewen, Mennonites “court modern economic forces in order to sustain an antimodern culture.”

Typically, the Mennonites migrate primarily as a means to escape persecution and assimilation. Yet, in many ways, Mennonite colonies also exist as sacred spaces to be differentiated with the outside world as they seek to separate themselves from the evil of the ‘world.’ They construct sacred spaces here on Earth in the form of their colonies, which are conceptually attempts at neo-kingdoms of Heaven. But where can Mennonites now migrate when every territory has now come under the control of the nation-state paradigm? For anthropologist Bottos, the answer is through this transnational network. Bottos explains, “cross-border strategies to flout their incorporation into the nation seems to be the Mennonite answer to the globalization of the nation-state.”5 Yet, another possibility exists. More and more Old Colony Mennonites (as well as Old Order Amish) are using social media as means to maintain this network. The internet has created a means to distort spatial reality by shrinking the distance between these dispersed colonies. It is quite possible that Mennonites will now turn to virtual space as the new frontier of migration.

Several studies have examined the social media and internet use of the Amish and Mennonites. Anthropologist Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar conducted a comparative survey of the Old Order Amish and Orthodox Jews. Rivka specifically studied whether the Amish women themselves viewed social media and the internet as a net positive or negative. Rivka surveyed forty women of the Old Order Amish community living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.6 None of the Amish women interviewed had smartphones and only eight percent had ever browsed the Internet.7 While a small number, this may be surprising for the average reader who conceives of the Amish as embodied visions of a distilled past. Despite this minority, most Amish women cast an evil eye toward the internet. Rivka categorized the responses to social media and internet use by the Amish women into:

(1) destruction and ravage—danger, dangerous, catastrophe, spoils the spiritual world, a weapon, harmful; (2) degrading—garbage and filth, bad, shocking, filthy, horrible; (3) temptation—seductive, slippery slope; (4) access—uncensored information, worldly; (5) religious exclusion—impure, evil things forbidden by the church; (6) spiritual effects—destroys souls, influences thoughts; and (7) a waste of time—takes time away from family time.8

In this way, Rivka found that the Old Order Amish women maintained a primarily negative view of social media.  But while the mothers are rejecting social media, some of the youths are embracing it.

 ‘No other site . . . has taken off as massively as Facebook amongst the Amish teens. Everyone is on Facebook.”9 This was told to investigative journalist Justine Sharrock, writing for the popular online blog Buzzfeed in 2013, by twenty-two-year-old who had recently left the Amish. Anthropologist Charles Janzti has recently studied this phenomenon in his article, “Amish Youth and Social Media: A Phase or a Fatal Error.” He has found that many Facebook posts by Amish teens show context of parties and drinking alcohol. One such photo of ‘Amish beer pong’ received twenty likes and three shares.10 Still, the degree to which Amish youth have accepted social media is difficult to estimate. A separate estimate suggests that the earlier quote is widely exaggerated with only one to two percent of Amish youth using Facebook.11 Other specialists on Amish society have suggested that these teens were most likely still in their Rumspringa12 years and moreover, that “many of the youth on Facebook are on the margins, not mainstream Amish youth.”13 But it is very possible that social media is set to take off with the Amish in similar ways that have happened with their religious cousins, the Old Colony Mennonites.

It is estimated that about eighty-five percent of Old Colony Mennonite students in Canada have cell phones while most still do not have televisions nor access to internet in their homes.14 In the 2014 article, “Living on the Edge: Old Colony Mennonites and Digital Technology Usage,” scholar Kira Turner has found that “OCM accept digital technologies more readily than other traditional Mennonites; notably they use cell phones, communicate through social media such as Facebook, and text their families in Mexico.”15 This is especially important when one considers the Mennonites in their transnational context. The Old Colony Mennonites are connected via digital space to their relations in colonies in Latin America while residing in North America. In this way, ironically, certain Mennonites have utilized social media in order to maintain their colony structure and anti-modernist outlook.

Mennonites have used social media for a variety of reasons—including business, networking, and cultural promotion. Mennonite businesses make use of social media for purposes of marketing. A good example is juwie16, an apple juice company hailing from Mexico with the tagline—El Gran Sabor Menonita—the great Mennonite flavor (see the picture below). The Mennonites in Chihuahua are well-known for their apple orchards—controversially, at times, because of the overuse of limited water resources by the Mennonites to irrigate their thirsty orchards. Logically, these Mennonites have then processed their apples into apple juice for added value.

These Mexican Mennonites are much more modern and are more willing to make technological and cultural concessions than the typical horse-and-buggy sects. Importantly, on their website, juwie notes how Cuauhtemoc is considered of the city of the three cultures: Mestizo, Raramuri and Mennonite.

Other more anti-modern groups also make use of the internet and social media for business. Several Amish and Mennonite businesses have combined to publish their businesses on JustPlainBusiness.17 These Amish and Mennonites are joined together as ‘plain’ to distinguish from other Mennonite groups. Plain designates that sect is anti-modern and enforces strict rules for clothing and behavior. One such business is Helmuth’s Country Store which sells Mennonite-built furniture and other home goods (see the photo below).


It is not solely Mennonites in North America using social media for business. I have found several Instagram accounts tied to the Mennonite colonies in Argentina. Of particular note is the coloniasmenonitas account,19 which appears to be a business account for a Mennonite business specializing in the manufacturing of silos (an interesting niche20 that the Mennonites have developed in the Pampas). Despite the commercial nature of their account, the business also posts general photos of the colonists on their farms, churches, and in everyday life (see the photos below).

The Mennonites in Argentina are Old Colony conservative and horse-and-buggy sects. This is evidenced by the primary photos found with the #menonitasargentina. This compares interestingly with the hashtag #menonitasbrasil where the Mennonites exist mostly as a religious category and have culturally assimilated into the mainstream Brazilian society (see the photo below).

Colonias Menonitas are also on Facebook as a business account:

As the posts are primarily in Spanish, it seems that the Facebook business account is mostly marketing to the wheat farmers (needing silos to store grain) in the pampas of Argentina.

No Mennonites have used social media in order to become an ‘influencer’ with one notable exception: Dietsche mejal, German Girl, (see the photo below) who has accounts on almost all major platforms. Her followers are in the hundreds of thousands across her platforms, and she maintains millions of likes and views. Dietsche mejal—schooled in Canada and living in Mexico—provides content in three languages: English, Low German, and Spanish. She creates content both for Mennonites (with inside jokes and cultural references) as well as non-Mennonites (explanations of Mennonite culture and history).

Dietsche mejal is not the only account to promote Mennonite culture. Comparable to The Onion or The Babylon Bee, The Daily Bonnet21 is a satirical news site written by Andrew Unger based in Steinbach, Manitoba (a historically Mennonite city) catered to a Mennonite audience. Unger also operates a local news site with his wife Erin called Mennotoba which plays off the history of the pioneering Mennonite settlements in Manitoba.  These two publications re-enforce Mennonite identity with readership residing across various nation-states including but not limited to Mexico, Canada, United States, and Bolivia.

While business and cultural promotion are interesting uses, the main application of social media by Low German Mennonites is to maintain familial connections across various states and nations. Despite being a transnational group with far-flung colonies across the Americas, Mennonites are a close-knit community. As most transnational groups, families end up being split up on two sides of the globe. In The Madonna of 115th Street, Orsi notes the stress and hardship of this separation for Italian families in the early twentieth century when he writes,

Some immigrants, to be sure, pined for the old country and longed to be back in familiar surroundings. This desire was particularly acute in times of crisis or loss. It could be strong enough to kill: Edward Corsi’s mother died after a long depression brought on by the dislocations of immigration. This powerful nostalgia was alive among the first generation, and those who felt it most acutely served as revealing mirrors to those who were trying to still this longing.22

In the 1920s, many of the Mennonites returned to Canada due to this same feeling of longing for family. Today, WhatsApp and Facebook are the primary platforms for older conservative Mennonites in order to maintain these contacts.

Of these two, perhaps the most important platform for the Mennonite transnational network is WhatsApp. Both Low German and Pennsylvania Dutch are primarily spoken languages. Thus, Mennonites’ preference for WhatsApp is due to its VoiceNote function. With the VoiceNote function, Mennonites are able to leave vocal recordings to their contacts rather than writing and reading text messages. As Mennonites exist in various nations, they may write and read English, Spanish, German, or Portuguese to varying degrees. Low German is the connecting language for this community. As a spoken language, only a social media platform with internet usage that provided a function that enabled a primarily oral message system would the Mennonites have been able to properly use in their transnational context. This was noted by Anna Wall, a healthcare interpreter, in her blogs on the Mexican Mennonite community in Canada. Wall writes,

As the years passed and the rest of the world evolved, more and more of us became illiterate. Living in a Spanish-speaking country, speaking Plautdiesch at home, also known as Low German and reading and speaking only High German at school and church, writing letters as a means to stay connected became more and more challenging, to say the least.23

Wall goes on to state that the app is especially useful for transnational groups that crisscross borders since it does not change plans or phones, a transnational media for a transnational group.

Amongst themselves, the use of new technologies is a constant debate in horse-and-buggy communities such as the Old Order Amish and Old Colony Mennonites. Typically, the Mennonites have addressed new technologies in three ways: assimilation, limited adoption, or separation. Additionally, some Mennonites have circumvented this problem of modern technology has been to outsource the function to a third party: they hire someone. This is especially common for horse-and-buggy communities to hire taxis for travel into town when they are forbidden to own cars. Other debates have split churches. Rivka notes that “The emergence of landline phones set off a big debate among the Amish and led to a schism in 1910, with one-fifth of the congregation leaving the Amish church. The Amish see the telephone as ‘an umbilical cord tied to a dangerous worldly influence.’”24 In today’s context, the debate consists of prohibition of cellphones and social media use being a constant feature in their preachers’ sermons.25 Still, several Amish interviewees seem unworried about this development. Janzti writes, “An Amish father, who grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, suggested that there is little difference between what can be seen on Facebook today and what exists in photo albums tucked away from his era of Rumspringa.”26 Each Mennonite community has contended with these new technologies in different ways. Turner elaborates, “The David Martin Mennonites keep their computers in the barn or shop for business purposes but not in the house, while Markham-Waterloo Mennonites have gone to great expense to create their own server so they can manage their members’ Internet access.”27 Therefore, the response to technology exists on a wide spectrum for the Mennonites. More progressive Amish and Mennonite communities have phones and use social media while the stricter communities do not have access to smartphones, the internet, or social media.28

It is important to understand that Mennonites do not simply reject all technologies out of hand. New technology is simply not accepted without stiff deliberation. The main focus is on the net benefit or negative that the adoption of the technology will have on the community. Thus, Mennonites consider the usefulness of the technology while technology for entertainment’s sake is rejected out of hand in the more restrictive communities. There is also a distinction between spaces. Business spaces are considered separate from the home space and are given more allowances for more technological use due to this consideration. Business is inherently connected to the outside world due to the needs of supply and customership.

Limited adoption has often been taken by these communities where they have implemented technologies with modifications that allow a certain degree of social control on their usage. Plainizing digital technologies into non-internet access contraptions.29 This ‘plainization’ has even become a verifiable niche industry within the Amish community. One entrepreneur, Allen Hoover, retrofits tools to run on alternative power with the tagline—made specifically for the plain people by the plain people. He has also created what he calls Classic Word Processors, essentially computers without internet access.30 The Hutterites—a related Anabaptist group—have even created their own internal network service within their colonies to maintain control over what comes in through their servers.31

Several scholars have commented on the possible consequences of social media on these isolated communities. Rivka views the use of social media as contrary to the core values of community-oriented groups such as the Amish. She writes, “The individualism, autonomy, personal empowerment, and networking that characterize new media pose a challenge to the core values of religious communities: traditionalism, cultural preservation, collective identity, hierarchy, patriarchy, authority, self-discipline, and censorship.32” For Rivka, the internet and social media poses a danger of breaking the self-imposed boundary of sacred space (home) and ‘the world.’33 Rivka believes that social media use will break down community boundaries following studies by scholar Meyrowitz (1985) who observed that electronic media erodes the boundary between the private and public spheres.34 Importantly, Rivka primarily interviewed Amish women due to the concept of ‘gatekeeper’ for traditional values. According to Rivka, women exist in Amish Mennonite communities as the main gatekeepers for religio-cultural preservation.35

While Janzti ponders that “perhaps Amish young people have always engaged in this level of self-reflection and discussions regarding their perceived experience and the perception that those outside of the Amish have”, but he ultimately seems unconvinced. He notes that “the difference today, however, is that the internet both provides a window on the Amish world and gives the Amish a platform to reflect on themselves and their culture in a public fashion.”  Ultimately, Janzti agrees with Rivka that Facebook (and other forms of social media) are contrary to Amish-Mennonite beliefs. These platforms are designed to be self-oriented with “the whole premise of the ‘selfie’ is the individual.”36 Furthermore, these platforms have a fundamental difference between earlier technologies such as television: they allow for the interactive engagement of the user with the outside world.37 Janzti argues that the internet’s true danger is not in exposure to sex and violence or in change of Amish behavior during their youth but in changing the core values of the Amish community.38

Anthropologist Kira Turner disagrees with Rivka’s and Janzti’s conception of the Mennonites. Turner explains that “While digital technologies may create tensions within the community, they also act to blur lines between geographical boundaries, extend social networks, and allow Old Colony Mennonites to create their own vision of the society in which they wish to live.”39 Adoption of new technologies are becoming increasingly necessary in order to navigate and function in the modern world. This includes but not limited to: schoolwork, filling out tax forms, accessing government documents such as immigration requests, banking, applying for employment, and making purchases.40 Furthermore, Turner notes that “digital technology usage within the Old Colony (community) expands and contracts the walls surrounding isolation and separation from mainstream society. Although it allows ideas to flow between groups, it also allows for the shrinking of space locally and globally. It may inevitably lead some to move away from the church, but it also may lead some to strengthen their ties.”41 Evidently, Turner assumes a moderate course for digital technology in Old Order Amish and Old Colony Mennonite communities through deliberate adoption.

To this point, it is interesting to note that the aforementioned Amish youth on Facebook do not seem to be interacting with youth outside of their Amish circles.42  Chris Weber who works with Amish teens in Indiana notes that ‘they use Facebook to do what they would do anyway—connect with one another—and they would not spend their time playing video games on their phones or Facebook.”43 In Pennsylvania, one Amish group have even created a Facebook page solely due to the promotion of benefit volleyball tournaments—a common sport amongst Amish youth.44 The Amish youth have primarily used social media in similar ways that they have used previous technologies.

Social media can be used as a means to maintain Amish-Mennonite separation with the world. In Diaspora in the Countryside, historian Royden Loewen examines how global economic forces uprooted rural folk and displaced them from their family farms. Diaspora uses the comparative history of two Mennonite communities (one in the United States and one in Canada) to explain the ways in which historical and cultural differences between these two settings influenced the Mennonites response to the Great Disjuncture.  Mennonites in Hanover had more critical mass to sustain their cultural cohesiveness and lived in a more openly multiculturally accepting Canadian society which allowed for the maintenance of their culture.  On the other hand, Mennonites in Meade had more social pressures to assimilate into the general American consensus.  The author writes, “Clearly what sociologists of the 1950s claimed to be seeing, an assimilation into mainstream America, was occurring.  Mennonites were dressing, speaking, and thinking like their American neighbors.”45 In this way, it is possible that the Mennonites could use social media such as WhatsApp as a means to sustain their critical mass globally and prevent assimilation.

Much work has been done considering the ideas of space and identity. In her book, Performing Piety, cultural anthropologist Elaine Peña writes how:

De los Angeles also spoke of the need to keep and teach “nuestra cultura, nuestra lenguaje” (our culture, our language) to our children . . . Her statements made layers of time and history, tradition and migration, spirituality and affiliation explicit. Michel de Certeau’s claim that “space is a practiced place” provides an optic through which to examine the idea that the specters of past performances . . . Space, as de Certeau suggests, is always in the process of transformation.46

Pena is attempting to understand the production of sacred space. Following ethnographer Pena, I am attempting to consider questions of space and sanctity. Much like Catholics in central Mexico and the Chicago area created Guadalupan shrines as a means to produce spaces of sanctity in a processual manner, Mennonites also produce sacred spaces in the form of their closed colonies. Rather than a single building or shrine, it is the colony territory and the colony network itself that is the sacred space which is created via the process of migration and construction. The act of separation from the proverbial ‘World’ and the Old Colony Mennonite and Old Order Amish attempts at living a simple and peaceful lifestyle produces this sacred space. In this way, I follow Pena’s advice to view “the migration networks and the approaches to local integration as a process— as layers of culture, history, and traditions imbued in specific locations at specific times.”47 Mennonites connect their transnational network via Mennonite mythology to “reinforce the idea of connectivity among sacred spaces in disparate locations based on comparable embodied practices.”  I also follow Orsi who explains that the sacredness of a space can be separated from its location. For Orsi, meaning and sanctity is derived from the ‘lived religion’ embodied in the practice and imagination of certain spaces. Thus, spaces become sacred due to the actions and beliefs of the actors using these spaces rather than in the spaces themselves. The behavior of the Digital Mennonites themselves will convert these online platforms into sacred spaces.

 From the Reformation to the present, the Mennonites have consistently attempted to develop their own sacred spaces in their colony network. Fleeing persecution and modernity, the Old Colony Mennonites constantly migrate between nation-states while the Old Order Amish settled apart from society within North America. With the complete coverage of territory on the globe within the nation-state paradigm and the increasing interconnectedness of society, the Mennonites need to assimilate, adapt, or use virtual space as a new frontier of digital migration. As previously shown, with Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, these Digital Mennonites have used and are continuing to use social media as a means of preserving their cultural cohesion by transferring their closed colonies which exist as sacred spaces (their neo-Kingdoms of Heaven) into virtual sacred spaces in online isolated communities.

Samuel Boucher is a historian of the Low German Mennonite colonies in Latin America. His main research focuses on the transnational network of the Mennonites and the main drives for Mennonite economic success.


Cañás-Bottos, Lorenzo. 2008. “Old Colony Mennonites in Argentina and Bolivia: Nation Making, Religious Conflict and Imagination of the Future.” Brill.

Janzti, Charles. Jan 2017. “Amish Youth and Social Media: A Phase or a Fatal Error.” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 91 71 – 92.

Kraybill, Donald. 1998. “Plain Reservations: Amish and Mennonite Views of Media and Computers.” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 13(2) 99-110.

Loewen, Royden. 2006. Diaspora in the Countryside: Two Mennonite Communities and Mid-Twentieth Century Rural Disjuncture. Toronto: University of Illinois Press and University of Toronto Press.

Orsi, Robert Anthony. 2010. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880 1950 Third Edition. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Peña, Elaine A. 2011. Performing Piety Making Space Sacred with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Los Angeles and London: University of California Press Berkeley.

Rohrer, Eunice. 2004. The Old Order Mennonites and Mass Media: Electronic Media and Socialization. Doctoral dissertation. Morgantown: West Virginia University.

Shahar, Rivka Neriya-Ben. 2020. “Mobile internet is worse than the internet; it can destroy our community”: Old Order Amish and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women’s responses to cellphone and smartphone use.” The Information Society, 36:1 1-18.

Shahar, Rivka Neriya-Ben. 2016. “Negotiating agency: Amish and ultra-Orthodox women’s responses to the Internet.” Sapir Academic College, Israel new media & society 2017, Vol. 19(1) 81–95.

Sharrock, Justine. 2 July 2013. “The Surprising, Ingenious Amish Gadget Culture” BuzzFeed News.

Turner, Kira. 2014. “Living on the Edge: Old Colony Mennonites and Digital Technology Usage.” Journal of Amish and Plain Anabaptist Studies 2(2) 165-185.

Wall, Anna. 2020. “WhatsApp With the Mennonites?” Woolwich Community Health Care. Nov 10.

[1] (Wall 2020)

[2] I had met David in my Low German course in Alymer in Southern Ontario.

[3] Each Protestant sect conceptualizes the Two Kingdoms Theology differently. For the Anabaptists, the two kingdoms are the kingdom of Earth ruled by the devil and the kingdom of Heaven ruled by God.

[4] (Bottos 2008), 2.

[5] Ibid., 71.

[6] (Shahar 2016), 84.

[7] (Shahar 2020), 8.

[8] (Shahar 2016), 86.

[9] (Janzti 2017 ), 80.

[10] Ibid., 86.

[11] Ibid., 72.

[12] Rumspringa means ‘jumping around’ and the Old Colony Mennonites have a similar conception. A similar American idea is ‘sowing your wild oats.’ Essentially, these Amish youths are not yet baptized church members and have lower behavioral expectations.

[13] (Janzti Jan 2017 ), 72.

[14] (Turner 2014), 171.

[15] Ibid., 170.







[22] (Orsi 2010), 20.

[23] (Wall 2020)

[24] (Shahar 2020), 5.

[25] Ibid., 5.

[26] (Janzti 2017 ), 87.

[27] (Turner 2014), 170.

[28] (Janzti Jan 2017 ), 81.

[29] (Shahar 2020), 5.

[30] (Sharrock, 2013)

[31] Discussion with John Sheridan

[32] (Shahar 2016), 82.

[33] Ibid., 85.

[34] (Shahar 2020), 2.

[35] (Shahar 2016), 87.

[36] (Janzti 2017 ), 87.

[37] Ibid., 89.

[38] Ibid., 91.

[39] (Turner 2014), 165.

[40] Ibid., 172.

[41] Ibid., 181.

[42] (Janzti 2017 ), 72.

[43] Ibid., 80.

[44] (Janzti 2017 ), 85.

[45] (Loewen 2006), 101.

[46] (Peña 2011), 43.

[47] Ibid., 10.

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).\4g8C426u-Ak&t=2050s

6. Progress and Prospects: Bringing Midwifery Back to Mexico. (MacArthur Foundation, November 12, 2019).

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.

Mennonites and Empire

Every Mennonite in the small town of Goessel, Kansas knows the date 1874. It is emblazoned on the “Turkey Red Wheat Palace,” erected on the centennial of Mennonites’ migration to the Great Plains from Imperial Russia. Having spent the first years of my life in Goessel, I happen to take 1874 as a historical benchmark. When I recently was back in the area to give a talk on religion and race, I did some reading on the Kaw (or Kanza) people, for whom my home state is named. White settlement pushed the Kaws south into Oklahoma, where their Nation is located today. The story of the Kaws’ removal from Kansas seemed a bit darker for having occurred in 1873.1

Image 1

“Turkey Red Wheat Palace 1874-1974,” Goessel, Kansas.

There a common belief among the Mennonites with whom I grew up that our faith has a particular affinity with liberal democracy. This idea owes much to a still-influential 1942 essay, The Anabaptist Vision, by the churchman Harold Bender. “There can be no question,” Bender claimed, “but that the great principles of freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and voluntarism in religion, so basic in American Protestantism and so essential to democracy, ultimately are derived from the Anabaptists of the Reformation period.”2

It would be hard to write a more misleading sentence about Mennonites. In the centuries prior to the Second World War, which was raging when The Anabaptist Vision appeared, the global Mennonite Church was by far a greater beneficiary and product of empire than of democracy. Bender wrote his landmark essay at a time when he and other peace church leaders were seeking to maintain alternative service options for conscientious objectors.3 Aligning Anabaptism with democracy made strategic sense at a time when the United States was at war with fascism.

But part of the context driving The Anabaptist Vision—Bender’s desire to ensure Mennonites’ exemption from military service—was itself a legacy of the Church’s long entanglement with imperial states. Beginning in the late sixteenth century, Mennonite communities found tolerance in European empires, often guaranteed in formal documents known as Privilegia. These enumerated special rights and duties available to Mennonites, including certain financial and judicial freedoms as well as non-participation in armed conflict.


Mennonites immigrants from Imperial Russia in Goessel, Kansas, 1896. Source: Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas.

In the 1870s, when 18,000 Mennonites emigrated from the Russian Empire to Canada and the United States, they were largely responding to the institution—contrary to their Privilegium—of universal military conscription. While this has been remembered in places like Kansas as the dictate of an autocratic regime, nineteenth-century drafts were often democratizing events, intended to remove social inequalities by consistently mandating national service. Many Mennonites grasped this dynamic. In Germany, some offered to renounce voting rights to keep the old system.

What drew Mennonite migrants from European empires to North America in the 1870s was not an affinity for democracy, but a desire to settle in new, expanding imperial states. Indeed, some settlers explicitly identified democracy as a draw-back of coming to the United States. What they sought was cheap land, relative freedom from legal strictures, and state protection from indigenous Americans. Records show that some migrants fleeing military conscription were willing to use weapons against natives.4 Today, narratives of dangerous Indians still suffuse white Mennonite memory.

Scholars have recently engaged in ambitious efforts to retell Anabaptist history from beyond single nations. These accounts have made impressive use of “global” and “transnational” analysis. Indicative of the former is the wonderful Global Mennonite History Series, which outlines the story of the Church in five volumes: Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. This series has shed key light on the world-wide reach of Anabaptism. But with the subject divided by continent, readers miss specificity regarding exactly how Mennonites globalized.5

The outstanding new history of Mennonites from a transnational perspective is Roy Loewen’s Village among Nations, about the hundreds of thousands of conservative Low German-speaking Mennonites scattered from Argentina to Canada. Loewen’s book stresses the separatism of these groups, explaining how they live in states “without pursuing either social or cultural citizenship in them.” For Loewen, “They were thus not Mexican Mennonites or Paraguayan Mennonites as much as Mexico Mennonites and Paraguay Mennonites, a subtle, but significant, difference.”6

But here, too, a transnational approach can elide exactly how these Mennonites have moved through the world—or what citizenship they did hold. The answer in many cases: British. This may seem surprising unless one considers Anabaptist history from an imperial standpoint. It was to the British Empire that most “Swiss” Mennonites moved when they came to colonial America. The founding of the United States led some to relocate to British Canada as “liberty’s exiles.”7 And across the twentieth century, British bureaucrats kept tabs on their Majesties’ Mennonite subjects.8

Image 3

Part of a letter to Australia from G.D. Klassen of Mexico, 1927. Source: National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

Why did migrants arrive at certain destinations? The archives of empire are revealing. In 1916, Mennonites in Imperial Russia, unhappy with restrictions imposed during the First World War, considered moving to the British dominion of South Africa. Holding affinity for the Afrikaans-speaking Boer settlers, some Mennonites described themselves as “Russian Boers.”9 Although South African officials ruled that “no obstacle will be placed in the way of these people,” war hindered migration.10 When it finally commenced in 1923, settlers went to the British dominion of Canada.

Australia, another dominion, was less accepting. Mennonites in North America approached Australia in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1960s, often responding to calls for white settlers. In 1927, G.D. Klassen of Mexico wrote to Australian officials after reading a propaganda pamphlet entitled “Australia: The Land of the Better Chance.” He inquired about the quality of available land, and whether Mennonites would be given military exemption and educational freedom. Klassen also wanted to know “if there are many niggers living in your Country.”11 Australian officials, however, consistently opposed group settlement.

Empire mattered. It seized land for settlement. It provided a global set of destinations. It enabled communication and transportation. It said yes, sometimes no. And it persisted. In the late 1950s, British Honduras (later renamed Belize) offered Mennonites a Privilegium and moved 1,700 individuals from Mexico.12 Empire also changed the ethnic and cultural composition of the Church. The first Mennonite mission fields were all located in colonies or territories opened by imperialism: the Dutch East Indies, Indian reservations in the American West, British India, China, and the Belgian Congo.13


Mennonite missionaries—including my great-great-great uncle Peter Penner (center)—at a leper station in British India, ca. 1903. Source: Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas.

From the Reformation to today, Anabaptist history is inconceivable without robust consideration of empires and imperialism. Even those of us, like Harold Bender, who prefer to think of the Church as a bastion of democratic principles must come to terms with the deep imbrication of Anabaptism and imperialism. You, too, are shaped by empire. This may take on innumerable different forms—whether as someone who inhabits stolen land, or as someone whose own land was taken, or perhaps both. Acknowledging and reckoning with these histories is a task for us all.

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.

  1. On the history of the Kaw Nation until 1873, see William Unrau, The Kansa Indians: A History of the Wind People, 1673-1873 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971). A brief history of Mennonite-Indian relations is available here
  2. On Bender and the Anabaptist Vision, see Albert N. Keim, Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 306-331. 
  3. On Mennonites’ navigation of the tensions between Christian pacifism and US nationalism in the mid-twentieth century, see Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998). 
  4. For example, John Gering, After Fifty Years: A Brief Discussion of the History and Activities of the Swiss-German Mennonites from Russia who Settled in South Dakota in 1874 (Freeman, SD: Pine Hill Printery), 1924, 42-43. 
  5. Consider the critique of “globalization” as a historical analytic in Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 91-112. For a full-length study of world history through an imperial lens, see Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). 
  6. Royden Loewen, Village among Nations: “Canadian” Mennonites in a Transnational World, 1916-2006 (Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 5. 
  7. This was part of a much larger exodus of British loyalists in the wake of the American Revolution. See Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Vintage Books, 2011). 
  8. For example, see correspondence from the 1930s regarding Mennonites in Mexico who were British subjects: FO 723/271, The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom, hereafter TNA.
  9. See James Urry, “Russian Mennonites and the Boers of South Africa: A Forgotten Connection,” Mennonite Historian 20, no. 3 (1994): 1-2, 9. 
  10. Acting Under Secretary for the Interior to Principle Immigration Officer, June 2, 1916, BNS 1/2/19 A629, National Archives and Records Service of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa. 
  11. G.D. Klassen to Development and Migration Commission, August 26, 1927, CP211/2 53/61, National Archives of Australia, Canberra, Australia. For an earlier discussion of possible Mennonite migration to Australia, see James Urry, “Bishop Bugnion, the Mennonites and Australia: The Immigration-That-Never-Was, 1873-1880,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 32 (2014): 175-209. 
  12. “Note on Mennonite Communities in British Honduras,” July 30, 1959, CO 1031/2769, TNA. 
  13. Here, too, colonial-era archives provide insight into the mechanics of missionary expansion. For example: “Grant of land to Revd. J.A. Ressler of the American Mennonite Mission at Dhamtari in the Raipur District, Central Provinces,” 1902, Revenue & Agriculture, Land Revenue, 39-40, National Archives of India, New Delhi, India. 

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

Abigail Carl-Klassen, Anna Wall, and Veronica Enns

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflecting on the panel and her conference experiences Abigail noted,

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

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

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

Anna shared her experiences as an attendee and presenter saying,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She spoke excitedly about her experiences at the conference saying,

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

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

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

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