Friday, October 27, 2006

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The Mennonites in Mexico

Someone on Lonely Planet brought up the subject of the Mennonites living in Mexico. Since one of my favorite uncles used to be a practicing Mennonite in Northern Indiana, and since I'm always interested in the subcultures who have settled in Mex, I've decided to write a bit about them. Menonas (Mennonites) are a conservative Christian religious group which originally chose to live in communities which shun secular life. After being pushed out of Europe and Russia, they scattered to Northern Africa, U.S., Canada, Brazil, Paraguay, Mexico, and to Belize, etc. seeking religious freedom. The Mennonites pledge their allegiance to a higher power (God) and steadfastly refuse to pledge allegiance to a nation. They are pacifists and will not fight in wars. They still speak in low German (Plautdeitsch), which is an old unwritten language. It is the issue of refusal to join the military that often causes the most friction in the countries they reside in. Migration map from 1500's to present When Canadian laws changed, Mennonites, who refused to send their children to government schools, faced imprisonment. Mononas insist on educating the children in their own private schools. The strict rules of the Mennonite community prohibited conscription into the Canadian armies and the teaching of English. The believers didn't want to interact with "outsiders" and rejected modern technology (electricity, automobiles, telephones, etc). So in 1921, six elders left Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Canada for Mexico. Long story short, the exodus began in 1922 for many Mennonites to found two main communities near Chihuahua, Mexico. The government of Mexico signed an agreement with them allowing for religious freedom that complied with the groups needs. Today, there are approximately 65,000 Menonas residing in these two communities. They dress in stark contrast to their fellow Mexicans. The men wear denim overalls or jeans with suspenders and flannel shirts, and straw hats with brims. Some of the women wear white mesh bonnets, full, modest blouses, and full pleated skirts. Inter-marriages are rare, so the Mennonites still retain their European appearance. Women spend most of their time inside the community, and most do not even speak Spanish.... men have more interaction with "outsiders", and most do speak some Spanish... but little or no English. It's a patriarchal society with work duties divided along gender lines. Bet I can guess who has diaper duty. Today, you can spot differences between the two Mennonite communities which are a mere 40 miles apart near the town of Cuauhtemoc (west of Chihuahua). Both are located in the vast arid desert. El Sabinal maintains strict and pious lives in accordance with Biblical teachings. Radio, television, music, autos and electricity are taboo. In the eyes of these Mennonites, they represent the worldly consumer society. Tractors may be used to plow the fields, but they may not use rubber tires on them as they aren't allowed for transportation. The second community of El Capulin has recently opened itself up to the outside world and has begun to embrace technical innovations. Teenaged boys wear baseball caps and Levis. The group may use cars, listen to the radio, ect. The use/abuse of alcohol is creeping into community and has caused a rise in crime and is of great concern to members. When I've spent time in Juarez, Mexico, I've seen groups of these Cuauhtemoc Mennonites selling their popular cheese to restaurants and to the public. That didn't surprise me, but what did, was that I witnessed them being picked up around 4:00pm by 'brothers' driving shiny new passenger vans. No more horse and buggy for the more "opened ones". The Cuauhtemoc based Mennonites still stay connected with their Canadian groups and often make treks back to their origins. Although some men take menial jobs outside their communities, most families support themselves by farming the land. During periods of droughts, the Canadian brethren give their Mexican brothers financial help to get their families through the rough periods. It seems that the people are getting more exposure to the outside in the larger Mexican cities and it's bringing in problems that the Mennonites have not faced in the past. For US police forces, the entry point into the labyrinth of today's Mennonite drug network came via a grandfather named Cornelius Banman. It was November 23, 1989, and the Old Colony Mennonite sat in an aging pickup truck that inched towards a busy US border crossing in El Paso, Texas. Banman had pocketed several thousand dollars to deliver a load of Mennonite-made furniture from Cuauhtemoc to Winkler, Man. He had made the long, monotonous journey often. This time, however, he was in for a surprise. A drug-sniffing dog was in another lineup when it suddenly charged towards Banman's vehicle, barking hysterically and furiously pawing the ground beneath his truck. When startled agents tore into the furniture, they discovered over 100 kilograms of marijuana 'bricks' hidden in the false bottoms of a few couches. The estimated street value of the haul was $1.5 million. A 52-year old farmer who attended church regularly with his wife and children in Winkler, Banman was a 'mule' paid to courier drugs. Soon, a trickle of Mennonite mules holding dual Canadian-Mexican citizenship would be detained by US border agents who realized they were encountering an unlikely new breed of drug smuggler. By the late 1990's, a fifth of the marijuana sold on the streets of Canada could be traced back to Mennonite drug kingpins holed up in Mexico. The slew of arrests did little to deter a steady strean of willing new recruits from teenagers to the elderly. And as confidence in the smuggling apparatus grew, so did the quantity and size of shipments. Source: Mexico Symposium What can I say??? There are other Mennonite communities established near the town of Hopelchen in the state of Campeche, some outside Merida, in Chiapas, and in the suburbs of Mexico, City. As far as I know the group in Hopelchen is just farming. I drove down the dirt roads to their community a few years ago while on my way to the city of Campeche. The farmhouses and barns looked just like the ones I'd seen in Northern Indiana.... white, large and well-kempt. It's saddens me to think that some of the groups are breaking down because of the same addictions and greed that afflict the rest of society, but it's probably inevitable. I don't know where these other communities came from before settling in Mexico or when they arrived. I do know that each has their own rules regarding acceptance of the things in the secular world. Some groups are stricter/ more traditional than others. I have seen some Mennonite "tourists" in Merida who were taking in the city sites with their families. They did dress in their Prussian-influenced duds and were speaking in low-German, but I didn't follow them around to see if they rode back home in a horse drawn wagon or in a Ford stationwagon. I've spoken with indigenous Mayan mothers in the Yucatan who have lamented to me that their young teens insist on dressing in trendy clothes rather than traditional clothing and that they are concerned about losing their kids to big city ways, too. With the constant blurring of cultural boundaries happening at such a rapid pace, it's nearly impossible to hold onto old traditional ways of living. Once the people, who maintained an isolated existance, began interacting with the "outsiders" their lifestyles are at risk of being forever altered in positive and negative ways. This is why one Mennonite community has sequestered itself deep into the jungle in Brazil.

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