Protective Retreat: Mexico's Mennonites Consider a New Migration

Article excerpt

Abraham and Tina Peters step down from the battered bus and move to the intersection of the dirt road that leads to Colonia Capulin. They are still fairly young, large-framed, robust, round-cheeked, fair-skinned, and blue-eyed. Tina wears the long, floral-print dress and broad straw hat typical of Mennonite women; Abraham the characteristic blue coveralls and straw cowboy hat of the Mennonite farmer. In another part of Mexico they might draw stares, but not here.

In a choking cloud of exhaust fumes, the bus pulls away and heads south along the two-lane blacktop that shimmers in the oppressive heat of the dry landscape of northern Chihuahua. The couple wait patiently for a lift to Capulin, where they share a farm with Abraham's parents in the village named Blumenort. They are returning from Juarez, 150 miles to the northeast, where they had gone to sell about fifty pounds of their home-produced cheese.

Tina and Abraham are Old Colony Mennonites, a conservative schismatic group, approximately five thousand of whom live in Mexico. Old Colony Mennonites are a comparatively small group in the Mennonite world body, but they, like all Mennonites, reject worldly values, based upon their "rejection of carnal or worldly loyalties."

It must be noted that the designation Mennonite, applied to these people (as opposed to other Mennonite communities throughout the world), is as much--if not more--ethnic and cultural as religious. The Mennonites of Mexico are a Germanic people, descendants of colonists who emigrated from western Canada to preserve traditions and lifestyles they feared would be lost as the isolated prairie that was their home became increasingly settled by non-Mennonites.

The largest concentration of Mennonites is in the original area of colonization, just north of Cuauhtemoc, about seventy-five miles west of the city of Chihuahua. When Abraham and Tina's grandparents arrived in 1922, this region was an undeveloped frontier. There was no town, just a cattle-shipping station and some services for the local ranches. But over the next seventy-five years, modern Mexico grew up around the old colonies. The very Mexican town of Cuauhtemoc has grown to a bustling sixty thousand, and the busy highway runs through the heart of the Mennonite region.

Joining the couple in the horse-drawn buggy ride into Capulin is like taking a trip back in time. It is not just that the region seems so oddly European, for there is no longer anywhere in Europe quite like this. This is definitely the Old Country transplanted into the New World: an eighteenth-century, north German farm community settled in the stark desert landscape of Chihuahua.

The contrast is startling. The place and its population of blond farm folk seem preserved in time by the desert air. The people might remind us of their more familiar Anabaptist brethren, the Amish, but this is hardly Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. And a speaker of modem German would be hard pressed to understand the Low German dialect, kept intact for hundreds of years, that is still spoken here.

The ever-moving frontier

Capulin was founded in 1950 by a conservative faction from the main colony settled at Cuauhtemoc. The Capulin group was essentially continuing a long-standing pattern of retreat from encroaching modernity, employing strategies of insularity and withdrawal from the modem world. [See sidebar on page 190.]

The story of the settlement really begins during the second half of the nineteenth century. The Canadian government, intent on securing its western prairie with large numbers of productive settlers, invited emissaries from the Mennonite communities in Russia to inspect the land. To encourage the migration, the Canadians offered the Mennonites free land and transport.

Russia, seeking to retain the Mennonites, suggested concessions that were acceptable to liberal Mennonites, but more conservative factions were set on emigration. …