The diversity of the Mexican population never ceases to amaze me. Whether being in Mexico City, Mazatlan, Oaxaca or Palenque I always admire the beautiful Mexican faces ranging from light to mocha to coffee brown. Enjoying an ensalada de frutas in a comedor in Merida during my second visit to Mexico I noticed a lady. Her extremely pale face; long wide cotton dress; white blouse and sunbonnet struck me. She was alone. The solemn look on her face concealed her emotions and her distant gaze refrained her from paying attention to the people around her. She was clearly waiting for someone. A few minutes later a bearded man in overalls and straw-hat appeared. He sat down with the lady and they quietly started talking to each other. The image of them threw me back in time. Was I in 16th century Europe instead of 20th century Mexico? Who were these people and what were they doing here?
From Anabaptists to Mennonites
The couple I encountered in Merida were Mennonites, descendants from the 16th century European Anabaptist movement. Catholicism was the ruling religion in 16th century Europe but many people objected to the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. This protest led to a religious revolution called the Reformation. Catholic beliefs and practices were abandoned and Protestant reform took place.
The Anabaptists however wanted stronger reforms than the Protestants, for example they believed in adult baptism instead of child baptism. Hence they were called Anabaptists, meaning re-baptisers. The Anabaptist movement was founded in Switzerland in 1525 but it was a young Dutch Catholic priest named Menno Simmons who influenced the religious group profoundly. He joined the Anabaptist movement in 1536 and his writings and leadership united many of the Anabaptist groups, which were nicknamed ‘Mennonites’. Due to severe persecution by Catholics and Protestants the Mennonites spread to Russia, France and Holland. The Dordrecht Confession of Faith, embodying main Mennonite beliefs, was issued in Holland in 1632.
From Europe to Canada to Mexico
Why did the Mennonites cross the ocean to North America and finally Mexico? The English Pilgrims emigrated to Holland in 1608, due to religious persecution in England, and stayed for almost 12 years, during which time they were influenced by Dutch Mennonite beliefs. Their dream of complete religious freedom could not be realized in Holland so they returned to England and eventually sailed to America in 1620, hoping to start a new life. They took some basic Mennonite teachings with them, including their tradition of infant baptism. At the end of the 17th century William Penn came to America. He promised the Mennonites complete religious freedom if they came with him. Mennonites from Russia, Germany, Switzerland and many other European countries came to America and settled in the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and in Canada.
With the emigration of Mennonites to Mexico in the 1920s two birds were killed with one stone. Friction between the Mennonites and the Canadian government arose. The Mennonites, who do not believe in educating their children past the sixth grade in fear of them becoming too worldly and who refrain from military service, were pushed towards confirmation of Canadian law by the Canadian government.
The Mexican government needed farmers to work on land previously owned by William Randolph Hearst, one of the many foreign landowners expelled from Mexico after the end of the Mexican revolution in 1921. The Mennonites agreed to purchase this land. In return they were freed from Mexico’s educational laws and military service. They were also promised a tax-free life in Mexico. A 2nd emigration wave from Canada to Mexico took place in the late 1940s when the Kleine Gemeine (small church) Mennonites, originally from Russia, settled in Mexico.
Chihuahua Cheese: A Mennonite Delight
Today the Mexican Mennonite community is centered about an hour west of the town of Cuauhtemoc, in the state of Chihuahua in Northern Mexico.
Throughout the years the Mexican Mennonites have separated into two groups: The Old Colony Mennonites and the Modern Mennonites. The Mennonites coming to Mexico in the 1920s rejected worldly concerns, hence lived in their ‘own world’. They had their own communities; schools; wore simple clothing; refrained from worldly things such as dancing and drinking; opposed violence and mainly spoke 18th century German. Today the Old Colony Mennonites still live this life-style. Although the Modern Mennonites also live within the Mennonite community; dress simple and oppose violence, most of them also speak Spanish; drive trucks and buggies and their schools are a mix of the Mennonite and Mexican educational system. They have been influenced by the General Conference Mennonite Church, which has fewer rules.
The Mexican Mennonites are economically self-sufficient. They are expert farmers well known for their apples and cheese. The famous Mexican queso chihuahua is also known as queso menonita, named after the Mennonites who first produced it.
Old versus Modern
It seems that the Mennonites, at least the Modern ones, are living between two worlds. While they have partially adapted to Mexican society by speaking Spanish, being economically independent and integrating the Mexican school system within their own, they still continue to live and marry within their own community.
They live peacefully side-by-side with the Tarahumara Indians and form a part of Mexico’s fascinating ethnic diversity.
Want to know more about the Mennonites?
Have a look at the links below:
- Check out Mennonite recipes at: https://www.allrecipes.com/directory/920.asp
- General info on the Mennonites can be found at: https://www.themennonite.org/