After all they were leaving Canada; a land of promise and freedom where self-determination and human rights were the covenant the Government of Canada had made with religious and economic refugees who had responded to the call to help develop the Canadian West.
Nomads of necessity
However like many throughout history who have endured bold and arduous
treks in search of security, prosperity, and freedom of religion, the
Mennonites who came to Canada found both dreams and disillusionment.
Today, there are over one million adult members of the Mennonite faith in
60 countries around the world, and almost 130,000 members of Mennonite
churches in Canada. Their separate and distinct Christian beliefs and way of life date back to the 1500s to the Anabaptist movement and the
Reformation. It was during this watershed time in world history that the
hierarchical authority of the Catholic Church was challenged, leading
eventually to the establishment of the Protestant Churches. In a parallel movement, a small group of inhabitants of the northern German states and
the Netherlands — followers of Menno Simons — also began to assert their belief that religion was not a political nor a state affair but a way of life.
This solitary group was distinct from both a religious and ethnic point of view. Although the concept of separation of Church and State is a common principle in the current century, it was the most radical demand made by
the Mennonites for whom the head of the church (Jesus) is divine whereas
the head of the state is a mere human being. Their belief in a higher
authority than the law inevitably brought them into conflict with state
forces. Their pacifism disallowed them from serving in the military and
their forsaking of secular ways in order to live close to the earth in
separate communities set them even further part. Their loyalty was to God; they could not swear allegiance to any temporal state.
In search of self-determination
Their persecution for their beliefs and lifestyle was inevitable. They
were soon scattered throughout Europe searching for new homes. So when
Czarina Catherine II of Russia, who was looking for industrious immigrants to develop newly acquired lands in southern Russia, offered the Mennonites land, money, and complete religious and political independence, a mass
migration to a new homeland occurred. And despite the challenges of
farming the steppes of south-eastern Europe, the Mennonites thrived and
contributed to the area becoming the "breadbasket" of Europe. However, by the 1870s, state policies of "russification" were impinging on the
Mennonite way of life; by 1866 the exemption from military service was
revoked and the requirement that Russian be the only language of
instruction in schools was imposed. The promise was broken. The Mennonites were on the move again — this time to North America.
Seven thousand came to southern Manitoba where the Canadian government through its Dominion Lands Act — designed to develop the western provinces in particular — was also promising free land. And to the Mennonites it also offered political, religious, and educational autonomy in one of the least developed parts of the country.
In Manitoba and later Saskatchewan, the Mennonites diligently applied
their traditional agricultural ways and faith-based social structure and
thrived once again. But the secular world would again intervene when the
Manitoba Municipal Act of 1880 established secular local governments. And the Manitoba Schools Act in 1890 would require English as the sole
language of instruction in schools as well as a secular curriculum.
Furthermore, following the First World War, the Mennonites were facing the threat of conscription. Pressure was also being felt from other
"progressive" Mennonites who were increasingly integrating into the
majority Canadian culture. For Old Colony Mennonites — the most
traditional and orthodox — this acculturation and state "interference" was a disturbing turn of events. Their subsequent legal battles with the government cost them large sums of money, and in some cases Mennonites were imprisoned for refusing to send their children to public schools. And so, rejecting any compromise and with a firm conviction that the State has no place in matters of conscience, Old Colony Mennonites from Manitoba and Saskatchewan began to seek another promised land.
The Road to Mexico
Six elders from Manitoba and Saskatchewan made a long exploratory trek to Mexico in 1921. Hardy, common sense farmers, these six men travelled great distances throughout the hot, dry and often mountainous terrain of Mexico, at times travelling by mule on the edge of cliffs and through deep
ravines. They carefully assessed the land that the Mexican government in
its turn was offering for development. After much searching, they returned home with good news.
As a non-Mennonite, it is with detachment and curiosity that I set out to follow the route that these people took — or at least part of it. Until recently I knew very little about Mennonites, the diversity of their religious beliefs and practices, and how most lead quite contemporary
lives. I had a vague stereotypical image in my mind of sombre,
ultraconservative people in horse and buggy as I was accustomed to seeing in St. Jacobs Country of Ontario — visible minorities are always more apparent even in multicultural Canada.
But when we cross the U.S.-Mexican border from El Paso, Texas to Juarez,
Mexico the discordance of the transition between two very different
realities makes me think about the depth of conviction and determination
that the Mennonites from Manitoba who crossed at this same spot so long
ago must have had. I am also now more curious to discover who they were.
On March 1, 1922, just as the winter snows were beginning to melt, the first group of Old Colony Manitoban Mennonites began a long train ride to Mexico. As I leave Canada in the same month and look down over the
constantly changing terrain of the American mid and southwest, I visualize that long journey from Manitoba through Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas (where large numbers of other Mennonites had relocated from
Europe), New Mexico, and Texas. As the Mennonites from Manitoba headed
south, Canada geese were making their northward migration.
Over the next four years, 36 trains of 25-45 cars each, would make the same journey. At chartering costs of $25,000-$35,000 (US), these convoys
of emigrants were enormous undertakings. They were bringing with them
everything they could: household goods of all kinds; tractors and other
farm implements; building materials; Canadian strains of wheat, flax, and oats; horses, pigs, chickens, turkeys, geese, pigeons, cats, dogs, and
rabbits. These were not impoverished refugees; they were not without a
sense of direction.
Scrutinizing and divining
Historically Mennonites have been experts in land reclamation and
transformation and the six men who initially reconnoitred this potential
new home brought those skills with them. They found the desert lands of
Sonora where they were offered 120,000 acres at 60-70 cents an acre
unsuitable as they did other land offered at higher prices. Essentially
what they were looking for was water. And they found it in the northern
state of Chihuahua. There they found a huge semi-arid desert prairie on a high plain surrounded by mountain ranges. This too was steppe land; with
the promise of productive grasslands. They observed the local Mexicans and how they tilled what soil there was. As they would eventually discover,
they could work this land as they had other less desirable terrain they
had been offered — but not without difficulty. The work, once again, would prove extremely arduous. The Mennonites would have to deal with new climatic conditions; to acculturate in a different sense. And it would be the torrential rains of the months of July, August, and September in
Chihuahua that would be a mixed blessing and the saving grace. What the
Mennonites would learn to do was to irrigate and to harness the forces of nature in this land of extremes. Although the summer rains would bring
wrathful thunderstorms, the like of which the newcomers had never
experienced, and dried-up river beds would suddenly become raging
torrents, they would turn these climatic conditions to their advantage.
They would make the desert bloom.
Mexico in general is as unlike Canada as you can get. Chihuahua even more so. And a high plains desert over 2000 metres high seems the most unlikely area for agricultural settlement. Equally hard to imagine is those six
Mennonite men from Canada being formally received in the elegant
presidential palace in Mexico City where they eventually signed a
"document of privileges" assuring them the same rights as they had been
promised in Europe and Canada. But this time, the land was not free. They would eventually buy 200,000 acres at $8.25 (US) each in order to
establish the two mother colonies of Manitoba and Swift Current in
A modern four-lane highway connects El Paso with the capital of the state, Chihuahua City. A colourful city with its own special charm and ambiance, Chihuahua has numerous historic sites. This is Pancho Villa territory, the famous revolutionary leader of the Mexican Revolution. In the house in which he lived (now a museum) you can visit neat, decorous rooms and cool, quiet courtyards. You can also see the car in which he was riding when he was assassinated in 1923.
The state of Chihuahua is also a unique destination known for, among other highlights, its vast deserts with their own unique ecologies; the ancient ruins of Paquimé where a highly developed civilization flourished in the 12th century and then mysteriously disappeared before the arrival of the Spanish; the desert "Zone of Silence" known for its strange magnetic anomalies; the impressive mountain ranges; the stupendous Copper Canyon - a geological wonder larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon; and the
indigenous Tarahumara people who have lived in the area for over 10,000
years, preserved their language and culture, and to a great extent have
not become acculturated.
Chihuahua is a long way from Canada, but in an odd way its eclectic
character seems quite consistent with a migration of Mennonites to the
state where once again they transplanted their socio-religious culture.
A sense of order
The road to the Mennonite colonies near the city of Cuauhtémoc traverses
desert terrain that has a remarkable visual texture. It also passes
through typical Mexican towns noted for adobe-style buildings, churches,
and pottery shops. About 100 kilometres west of Chihuahua, we enter
Mennonite territory. The landscape begins to change subtly, almost
imperceptibly. Arid rocky ground dotted with cacti and small dilapidated
structures slowly gives way to larger and larger plots of land in which
staple crops — wheat, corn, beans — are growing. And then as the road winds up and around low rolling hills, a blend of desert and immense grain fields becomes apparent. In the distance, tidy communities sit amid the vast fields. The intense blue of the sky and the sweeping horizons accentuate the sequestered villages. The brilliant sunshine and pure air create a telescopic view of the meticulous Mennonite "camps" with their single main street, linear order, and muted propriety.
We pass the largest apple orchard I have ever seen. The precise and
immaculate rows of trees flow across the landscape in waves of rosy spring blossoms. An immensely elaborate system of tepee-like structures with
black netting march along the rows. In the event of hail or other natural hazards, the netting will be spread like black gauze over the trees.
Everywhere there is evidence of highly coordinated and mechanized farming.
As we come up over a rise, endless cultivated orchards stretch for many kilometres against a backdrop of blue mountain ridges. In the foreground, desert sand, rock, and sparse growth underscore the fertile land in the
At the Museo y Centro Cultural Menonita in Cuauhtémoc, Jacob and Lisa
await us. The museum is not unlike many heritage or pioneer village
museums one sees in Canada, a snapshot of past generations. But the artifacts — stoves, traditional wooden furniture, pendulum clocks,
basins, farm equipment, photographs, even an enormous iron safe made in
Toronto, and a wooden trunk from Russia — all have travelled a very long way to bear witness and affirm the life the Mennonites of Mexico
established for themselves.
Jacob is very much an Old Colony man, patriarchal and accepting of the old ways. He calmly but firmly tells us the story of the colonies. He is accompanied by his very pretty soft-spoken wife and their two angelic daughters. Jacob is welcoming, polite, and forthright. He seems to anticipate a certain scepticism or critique on our part but is unconcerned. He gives us the information we need correctly and precisely but with very little self-expression. His explanation of the Old Colony Mennonite ways does not avoid dealing with any of the gender or modernist questions that we might have, but we see little reason to enter into such a dialogue. He does however touch on the perennial issue of encroaching secular society, and it is happening here too. Jacob wishes he could do more to stop some of the young men in the colony from drinking and smoking. And his sister did marry a Mexican. When asked whether this was difficult for the family, he replies that it has taken some getting used to but says, somewhat more brightly, "We like him."
Lisa is a more modern "New Conference" Mennonite who speaks excellent
English, which she learned in Kansas. As an unmarried woman she works in
the museum, one of the traditional jobs available to her in the community. She speaks with considerable enthusiasm and expresses a longing to visit Manitoba where her grandparents came from. She is eager for us to come to a choral performance this afternoon but unfortunately we must be on our
Jacob and family pose for photos in the bright sunshine against the wooden house-barn structure that is typical of a Mennonite home of the early years. We say goodbye, smiles all around, and go our separate ways.
Promises to keep
Back in Canada I visit St. Jacobs Country again and speak with community
members working with Mexican Mennonite families who return periodically to the area, most of them poor landless villagers. The overpopulation, uneven distribution of wealth, and severe social stratification in the Cuauhtémoc area force many of these people to return to Canada for what are sometimes only brief stays. I also learn that water resources in the Cuauhtémoc area are often at a critically low level especially in the "dry years" — an ominous sign.
A social worker I speak with explains the problems that many of the
returnees face: literacy; cross-cultural conflicts; isolation in remote
areas when they have been used to living in close-knit communities;
educational discrepancies; and health and nutrition issues. Most speak
Plautdietsch (Low German) for which there is no standardized written
language, and this can pose serious difficulties, in education and health care especially.
A sentence from a document for community workers who assist these reverse immigrants catches my eye. "Be understanding of their values and
traditions for they form the basis for their behaviours, some of which may no longer be acceptable in Canada."
The same week, a shocking feature story in the Canadian magazine Saturday Night is published. It is titled "The Mennonite Mob" and is a disturbing exposé of drug trafficking into Canada by Mennonites from Mexico. I speak to a friend, a Mennonite, about the article. She has read it and is "horrified," but suggests that wrong-doing is not unknown in Mennonite communities. The facts presented in the article relate to very serious crimes allegedly committed by Mennonites. This is an invasion of the very worst of secular culture. But I suspect that Mennonites, whether Old Colony or of a more contemporary world view, will deal with this new
threat to their community in their own way.
For more information on the state and its attractions, go to
and follow the links to Chihuahua. To learn more about Mennonites, visit the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada at www.mhsc.ca
Bob Fisher is a freelance Canadian travel journalist, editor and educator.
His work has appeared in Canada and internationally in such publications as
FiftyPlus, Travelworld International, and Pet Commerce magazine. He is also a
regular contributor (Destination Canada) to Talkin' Travel, a talk-travel
radio show in Sarasota, Florida, and a member of the Travel Media Association ofCanada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. You can visit
Bob's website at www.pathcom.com/~robefish