To some Mennonites in Mexico, Russia looks like Promised Land
Two young Mennonite women with traditional long dresses are seen in Cuauhtemoc, a city in Mexico's Chihuahua state. | El Universal/MCTBy Tim Johnson | McClatchy Newspapers
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.
In February, in the midst of the harsh Russian winter, the Mennonite delegation will return to Tatarstan to deepen discussions about what land may be available and whether Russian authorities will grant them the freedom to run independent schools, practice their religion and exempt young men from military service.
The Mennonite return to Russia, if it happens, would be more than just a historical oddity. It also is a reflection of the challenges of intensive agriculture in Mexico’s arid north, where farming depends on massive irrigation and arable land is at a premium. Water tables have dropped dramatically from overuse for farming, and disputes between Mennonite and non-Mennonite farmers have turned violent.
“The No. 1 reason to emigrate is to find land for our future generations,” Voth Penner said. “No. 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.
“They came because the Bolsheviks were going to expropriate their land,” said Dr. Karl Koth, a historian at the University of Manitoba.
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. Some 7,000 of them boarded chartered trains to Mexico in the early 1920s.
They largely settled in an arid region west of Chihuahua’s capital clustered around the towns of Namiquipa, Riva Palacio and Cuauhtemoc. Over the decades, their farms flourished, irrigated by wells and the intermittent Rio del Carmen.
In the 1950s and 1960s, some Mennonites moved south, resettling in Mexico’s Campeche region, and also to Belize, Bolivia and Paraguay. In the 1970s, a few hundred resettled in West Texas.
As the decades passed, Mennonite farms in Chihuahua spread into new crops, turning to nuts, sorghum, cotton, wheat and apples, as well as beans and corn. Today, they produce as much as one-third of the yellow corn that’s grown in Mexico.
But water for irrigation remained scarce, and the Mennonites began sinking new wells far deeper than the 100 or 200 feet initially required.“There are wells that are 600 meters deep now,” said Sergio Cano, a state manager in Chihuahua with the National Water Commission. That’s nearly 2,000 feet.
In the aquifer underlying the city of Cuauhtemoc, farmers pull 300 million cubic meters of water from wells each year, while rain replenishes the water table with only 115 million cubic meters, Cano said, adding that “over-usage is very high.” Both Mennonite and non-Mennonite farms are thought to have obtained licenses for wells through bribes or to have drilled illegal wells.
A severe drought that lasted until earlier this year – the worst in more than 70 years – exacerbated tensions between Mennonite communities and other farmers over water rights, leading to clashes. A non-Mennonite peasant activist and his wife were slain Oct. 22 in Cuauhtemoc, inflaming tensions.
Another unsettling factor is the presence of drug traffickers in Chihuahua, a border state that’s a key corridor for smuggling cocaine northward.
“It is a region penetrated by drug trafficking. Not everyone is innocent, including among the Mennonites,” said Castro, the academic.
Beginning in the late 1990s, drug agents made a handful of arrests of Mennonites taking part in cocaine-smuggling rings to Canada, and young Mennonites began turning up at a rehab facility in Cuauhtemoc or jailed in Ciudad Juarez on smuggling charges.One group of Mennonites is thought to have forged alliances with La Linea, an enforcement wing of the Juarez Cartel, to protect its interests, Castro said.
While Mennonite family patriarchs don’t express it openly, they seem eager to retreat to areas where such worldly temptations are less readily available.
A Mennonite farmer who went on the trip to Tatarstan, Peter Friesen, said he was impressed with Russians, whom he described as “very orderly and well dressed.”
Asked how many Mennonites might immigrate to Russia, Friesen said: “It could be a lot if they respect our right not to take part in military activities and give us freedoms for schools and all this. People will go.”
Voth Penner offered a similar forecast.
“If we see that it is good there, there will be very many (who emigrate), and not just from one community but also from all over Chihuahua,” he said.
An English-language report Sept. 17 in The Kazan Herald in the Tatarstan capital reported on the possible arrival of Mennonite immigrants, saying the group’s leaders were “very keen and interested” in learning about prospects.
It said the Mennonite delegation met with senior Tatarstan development officials as well as representatives of farm supply industries, slaughterhouses and construction companies.
A tentative date for the first Mennonite migration is early 2014, it added.
Chihuahua state officials worry that some Mennonites might sell their farms and emigrate. But Victor Quintana, a farming expert, minimized the impact.
“The Mennonites have always moved on because their population grows, but there’s no land left,” Quintana said. “This is a demographic pressure outlet for them.”
Voth Penner, who has 11 children, forecast that Chihuahua shouldn’t worry about a departure of some Mennonites.
“We have enough people for 10 times the amount of land we have,” he said. “There will be plenty of people who remain behind.”
Monday Nov 12
I do not not what the writer is saying in the fact that they have not have not assimilated. They all speak Spanish.
I drove with my Mexican wife up to Namiquipa to see more of Mexico about two weeks ago. We live in Chihuahua. We were blown away. All the public roads were free of litter and garbage and groomed. The yards and houses were like something you would read about in a story book. Perfect yards and everything in order. The crops were nothing like I could imagine. Every single row of plants was like someone had painstakingly made them perfect and straight. Perfect furrows for water flow. They were maintaining this land perfect. My wife asked if it was like this in the USA. I told her it was nice but nothing to this degree anywhere I had ever seen.
The people were very polite. I know I could have left my keys in my car and nobody would have bothered it. They were all speaking Spanish. Not assimilating? There was not music blasting and loud speakers coming from cars going down the streets and vending their wares. There were no drunks at 10:00 in the morning walking around. No murders. I can guarantee you no one using drugs. You do not have to watch you back for rampant crime.
I went into the store to buy a couple of pops and everything was in order and the floors were spotless. They were doing inventory. I asked them if they spoke English but they did not, so I spoke to them in Spanish.
If anyone new how to take care of the land and manage the water as best they can, they had it down to a science. The corn crops were amazing and very tall and green.
I asked my wife why the Mexican farmers do not learn from this. Just down the road were the Mexican farms and the crops were stunted and smaller. The irrigation systems were terrible and a lot of water was being wasted. They were very unorganized and disheveled.
With all the shortages of corn and other farm products in Mexico this year the Mennonites were a blessing. They were growing and supplying the foods that Mexico so needed this year. Mexico needs to learn from these people. They have their own schooling and that is good. Because the education in Mexico sucks. I have children in school here in Mexico that are a product of my Mexican wife. I have been to the junta's and seen what is happening first hand. Mexico needs to learn from these people. They are a society without violence in a Country filled with violence and crime.
We passed by the farms in Delicious, Mexico 3 days after going through this marvel Near Namiquipa. They have water oozing to the surface. But the crops were week, dwarfed and nothing like the Mennonites. This is a case that I would think the writer of this story would not want these people to assimilate, but rather used as a mold for the Mexican society to follow and learn from them. I think there is a lot of jealousy.
These are the type of people that would fit right into the USA, without a problem. They would not use the system. They would be self sustaining and there would be no crime from them.
If they loose these people they are loosing some of the good that is happening in Mexico.
If you come to Chihuahua, take the exit just about 40 kilometers North of Chihuahua City. The sign will say Namiquipa. Drive through the beautiful canyon until you reach the flats at the top. You will think you just left Mexico and drove to another country or in this case another planet.
You will be amazed. As my wife said, it is amazing that we the Mexican people cannot do the same here in Mexico.
These people are often kidnapped and extorted because of their success and because there hard work ethics have helped them proper.
I think the writer is jealous, and should write about the good that these people do for Mexico and the things they provide with land that is better managed then in the rest of Mexico.
What do they need to do to assimilate? Become corrupt?
Tuesday Nov 20
Concerned, as a Mexican I can say that I will be always interested in diversity within my country and learn from other peoples. But what I see in your writing, besides the positive admiration to this people, is hate and contempt for Mexico and Mexicans.
As you say, they maybe will fit well in the US, wouldn't have problems about racism, and German-speaking communities abound in nortern USA.
Why they then didn't leave in masse? Something good they get here, in my beautiful country. And if they don't, or they see there is something better elswhere, they are free to leave.
Mexico will progress with them or without them. Hopefully will be with them. But that's their choosing.
Tuesday Nov 20
Your description of corruption in Chihuahua I do not object. In fact, I guess the more you approach the US border, the more violent and more corrupt things get.
When you are really far from the border, in Central Mexico, you will be surprised to see a very flourishing communities of Americans, Europeans, Asians (specially Koreans) that find here a pretty good enviroment to settle and live.
The Menonites are not the only ones that give us diversity.