BACK TO THE MOTHERLAND? ; to Some Mennonites in Mexico, Russia Looks like Promised Land

By Johnson, Tim | The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV), November 17, 2012 | Go to article overview

BACK TO THE MOTHERLAND? ; to Some Mennonites in Mexico, Russia Looks like Promised Land


Johnson, Tim, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV)


MEXICO CITY - It's been nearly a century since pacifist Mennonites fled Russia for the plains of western Canada, immigrating later to northern Mexico to turn some of its arid high desert into model productive farms.

The Mennonites, the men in their overalls and straw hats and the women in ankle-length skirts, nurtured their corn, cotton and bean estates and apple orchards in the state of Chihuahua into some of the most bountiful farms in Mexico.

But not all is well in Mexico's Mennonite communities, and, in a curious turn of the historic wheel, a smattering are now pondering a return to Russia, the country their grandparents and great- grandparents fled amid the upheaval of the Bolshevik revolution.

"There are a lot of people who are interested in going," said Enrique Voth Penner, one of 11 Mennonites who in August visited fertile Tatarstan, along the Volga River at the edge of the European part of Russia.

"The Number 1 reason to emigrate is to find land for our future generations," said Voth Penner. "Number 2 is the situation with the water. We aren't permitted the water we need."

Officials say some 50,000 Mennonites reside in Mexico, most of them speakers of a Low German dialect who dwell in isolated farming communities that operate their own schools and churches. Pious and humble by religious training, Anabaptist cousins of the Amish, the Mennonites largely stick to their communities, venturing to cities only to sell cheese and grains or to conduct business. Unlike the Amish, many Mennonites use gasoline-powered vehicles and cellular telephones.

Some Mexicans admire the Mennonites' success and work ethic but the lack of assimilation, despite more than nine decades of living in Mexico, also has fueled resentments.

"They are Mennonites, and only Mexican when it suits their interests," said Pedro Castro, a historian and expert on Mennonite issues at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City. "They are white, and they are 'German.'"

Persecuted in their homelands, the Mennonites emigrated from Prussia and Germany to Russia on invitation from Catherine the Great in the 18th century.

With the October Revolution of 1917, which brought the Communist Party to power in Russia, many Mennonites fled to Canada.

Only a few years later, amid fears that religious guarantees were eroding in Canada, a few thousand Mennonites won a pledge from Mexico's then-president, Alvaro Obregon, himself a farmer, to respect their way of life. …

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