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/

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.