Mennonites in Mexico
May 16, 2013 7:51 AM   Subscribe

If you fancy diversity in cheeses, you might have come across queso Chihuahua, or Chihuahua cheese, a Mexican semi-soft cow milk cheese. But if you're in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, the cheese is called Queso Menonita or Campresino Menonita, for the Mennonites who first made the cheese in this region. The Mennonites in Mexico are a small but growing socio-religious pocket of that has retained much of their traditional Dutch and German heritage, despite a series of moves, from Russia to Canada, and finally Mexico. Mexican photographer Eunice Adorno spent time with Mennonites in Durango, capturing moments in their lives.

Adorno first had to overcome the language barrier, as she spoke Spanish and English, but no Plautdietsch, or Mennonite Low German.

Though the Mennonites retained their language, they shared some of their culture with their new neighbors, including their cheese. The Old Colony Mennonites have stayed closer to their roots, while most of the Modern Mennonites speak Spanish, drive trucks and buggies and their schools are a mix of the Mennonite and Mexican educational system. In the 1990s, there was also Mennonite drug-smuggling rings, who accounted for about 20 percent of the drugs smuggled into Canada.

Some Mennonites are looking to move again, but this time, it's because of drought and limited farming land, not religious persecution. About a dozen Mennonites traveled from Mexico to the prairie of Tatarstan, 900 km (~560 mi) east of Moscow and similar to Manitoba with its cold winters, hot summers and flat prairie.

Mennonites have also moved into Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil, with smaller groups in Uruguay and Argentina. In Paraguay, the Mennonite community is almost completely self-contained. They administer their own schools, conduct various community services, have political structures, and maintain law and order in their colonies. Only in serious criminal cases do the national authorities step in.
posted by filthy light thief (18 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Very interesting collection of articles, thanks.

I used to have some of them travel to shop at the fabric store I stocked just over the border in Texas. They'd come in groups of about six or seven women, with a few kids, and buy bolts and bolts of fabric; I can't remember now if they bought notions (buttons, thread, zippers) as well.
posted by tilde at 7:55 AM on May 16, 2013

Fascinating! Mennonites are in Belize too. It was pretty surprising to see them in the markets, but my mind was officially blown when I heard them speak. Nothing quite as unexpected as a Mennonite with a thick Carribean accent saying, "Hey mon, you want to buy some cheese?"
posted by vorpal bunny at 7:57 AM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Interesting collection of articles, and an interesting fact about the cheese!
posted by artdesk at 8:16 AM on May 16, 2013

From wikipedia: "Due to the harassment of criminal groups,[10] to severe and continuous droughts and conflicts with Mexican farmers, the Mennonites have begun to migrate to the Russian Federation invited by the government of the Republic of Tatarstan. It is scheduled that by 2014 all Mennonites have been evacuated to Russia."

When your country is in such a mess that it drive the Mennonites away, that does not bode well.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:18 AM on May 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

leotrotsky, from the Macleans article under the break about their visit to the prairie of Tatarstan notes that there have been serious conflicts over water, which is in part to a serious drought in the region. You can't control droughts, and water conflicts are older than the country of Mexico.

Anyway, the Canadian drove the Mennonites out, when they demanded that everyone go to public schools, while the Mennonites wanted to maintain their culture through their own schooling. Canada wasn't "bad," per se, but wasn't supporting the Mennonite culture.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:31 AM on May 16, 2013

I recently visited a remote Mennonite community in Campeche. In stark contrast to communities I saw in the US midwest, this one was poorly maintained and most dwellings gave the impression of poverty and neglect, though there was one house with a nice truck and tractor. The Mennonites that come to my city to sell cheese in the streets often appear to have physical or mental variations from the norm that local Mexicans say comes from everyone being related. Based on what I've seen, it's not a cheerful situation, though I've heard reports of a better-off community in the area.
posted by ceiba at 8:42 AM on May 16, 2013

I just found a 2006 NPR piece on Mexico's Canadian Mennonites, which focuses on how the Mennonites survived the harsh climate with their dairy cows and the cheese which is "famous throughout Mexico," and another article on El Sabinal, an orthodox Mennonite community in Chihuahua.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:44 AM on May 16, 2013

Mennonites have been generally a familiar site for me, in most places where I live, be it selling pies and baked goods in one spot, or farming in another. You always know you're approaching a Mennonite house / farm because in Missouri, at least, they like to put up little signs with scriptures or religious statements. One of the most interesting things I ever saw was a group of Mennonites playing softball on a field out in the countryside. It felt both out of place and delightful to see them, both men and women, in their traditional clothing standing in position, at bat waiting for a pitch, or to run to the next base. It was also the last time I ever saw such a scene and a sense of regret always fills me when I drive by that field.

I wasn't really aware of Mennonite populations so far flung, so thanks for sharing!
posted by Atreides at 8:50 AM on May 16, 2013

I like Mennonites, I like Mexico, and I like cheese. So this is a good post.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:51 AM on May 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

A few years back, Mexican Mennonites made the art house circuit as the subjects for the sublime and dreamy drama, Stellet Licht (Silent Light).
posted by 2N2222 at 9:26 AM on May 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

it's because of drought and limited farming land, not religious persecution. About a dozen Mennonites traveled from Mexico

I was under the impression that to own land in Mexico you had to be 'native born'.
posted by rough ashlar at 10:07 AM on May 16, 2013

There are quite a few Menonites in the St. Louis area. They love the zoo. There are always, always Menonites looking at the elephants when we visit (except this time, when the elephant exhibit was closed).
posted by Foosnark at 10:08 AM on May 16, 2013

A load of Mexican Mennonite farmers moved away from Southern Ontario when the buyer for their cucumbers (a large pickling firm) announced they could now get cucumbers so cheaply from India that the local farmers were welcome to pay to provide their produce. Not good.

Despite keeping separate from the community, parts of their geographic heritage wears off on them. I was at a Mennonite friend's wedding a few years ago whose family had done the Prussia-Ukraine-Chile-Canada trip over the years. There were his elderly relatives, all with spectacular German names, speaking Spanish while passing the maté gourd around and snacking on the best home-made pierogies ever.
posted by scruss at 10:30 AM on May 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

rough ashlar: "I was under the impression that to own land in Mexico you had to be 'native born'."

Not at all. You do have to be a citizen (naturalized or otherwise) to own land within a few hundred kilometers of the coast and the borders, though, which is stupid. But there are no limitations on anything to native born citizens except for a couple of things mentioned in the constitution (presidency and a few other high public offices).
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:55 AM on May 16, 2013

rough ashlar, here's a long article on the Old Colony Mennonite settlements in the San Antonio Valley near the city of Cuauhtémoc in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico.
President Obregon of Mexico assured them the educational and religious liberties which they desired, and steps were immediately taken to dispose of real estate in Canada and move to Mexico as rapidly as possible.

The first purchase of land consisted of 155,000 acres. The price, eight dollars per acre, was reasonable compared with prices in Canada, but was far above prevailing prices in Mexico.
The article goes on to talk about life in the new settlements, as they were in the early 1950s.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:05 AM on May 16, 2013

I live in southern Alberta (just north of Montana), and we have a big population of Mexican Mennonites who live here in the summer and move back to Mexico every winter. Basically, they just work as seasonal labourers wherever (Canada/Mexico) there is work to do. My wife used to do a job where she would lead crews of Mexican Mennonite women and teens in hand-weeding Canola fields (weeds so closely related to Canola the only way to get rid of them is by hand). They would speak a combo of Spanish and low German, eat a combo of Mexican/Canadian/German food, and bring Mexican candies to share. My wife learned a lot from her crew, and even got invited to a wedding.
posted by arcticwoman at 11:34 AM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this post. When my family visited Nuevo Ideal, the town mentioned in the Eunice Adorno link, I found the cheeses and method of production quite good and deservedly famous. I was young, but I recall the small factories full of stainless steel equipment for preparation of milk at various stages into large blocks of cheese. Young men in blue coveralls moved some piece of equipment I couldn't even tell you what back and forth. Others worked in tandem to cut blocks of cheese from larger blocks. There were different farms with different levels of industrialization, modernization. The photographer's impression of those haunting and mysterious looks from some in the Mennonite community is spot on...

Why were we in Nuevo Ideal? The town was founded by my grandfather, and it is where my mother grew up. As a child, when she and her sisters had to take the laundry to the river to be washed, they'd walk along the dirt roads until a Mennonite driving a horse and buggy would come along, then they'd hide and wait for it to pass so they could jump on the back of the cart to hitch a ride as far as was convenient. Some places were easier to accomplish this maneuver, like say by the railroad tracks or at a dip in the road.

My mom has shared plenty of stories about the Mennonites, a distinct fixture in such a small town. There are several about Mennonite courting/dating. One of my favorites is the story of a Mennonite man who fell in love with a young Mexican woman, and who could not, as such things go, marry her. He stayed out at the local bar getting drunk shouting in mangled Spanish "Pa'que pare Menon?!" The whole town of course became aware of his plight, and my family at least still utilizes this phrase appropriately. You know, on the right occasion.

Oh as for the above claim, 'founded' may not be quite the right term, but it is true as true can be, as far as such stories go, which is farther than you'd think. So I'll provide the story, but I'll leave it to others to tell it well:

The town, before it was a town and was only another place, was known as 'Patos', or 'ducks', maybe because alot of ducks lived there or because ducks regularly alighted upon a lake there (I don't know, but I gather that the lake no longer exists or that it is too dirty for ducks to take any interest in it). So this place grew into something like a proper town with the introduction of the railroad and did not remain just a chapel by some farms or a couple of houses by the road like many a place in the high desert of the Sierra Madre. This being a proper settlement with wide, well laid out streets, it needed a proper name. Now I am told, on good authority, namely by each of my six aunts, my mother and my uncle, not to mention cousins and other relatives, that my grandfather, by name Leonides, at a council convened to incorporate the town, proposed the name 'Nuevo Ideal', which was lauded by all in attendance. And so the town was named.

What new ideal could take root in a town in the middle of nowhere? If, as is likely, the ideal is that of The Revolution, an end to the rule by wealthy elites exploiting the indigenous poor and unlanded farmers, maybe that ideal is as likely to have been achieved in the middle of nowhere, where one lives by hook or by crook and elites have less reach. But by the same token, how can one live by any ideals where there is no rule of law? Perhaps, like the Mennonites, one must live by some ideals under such conditions for an isolated outpost of humanity to survive. Maybe my grandfather envied the position of the Mennonites, who could live in community isolated from persecutors. I don't know. Leonides, investigating a rash of cattle rustling (he was also sheriff) was shot in the stomach and died three days later on his kitchen table (the horrific cry for 'water' echoing through the generations). When I visited his town, the family farm was still intact (my uncle took over at age 12 and still maintained it), but drug traffickers and low-wage garment factories had long made inroads into Nuevo Ideal and the only records of the town's founding were a bunch of cock-and-bull stories wealthy families had paid to have etched into plates in the town square.
posted by architactor at 2:02 AM on May 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

architactor, that's fascinating. Thanks for sharing!
posted by filthy light thief at 7:17 AM on May 17, 2013

« Older Baby doesn't like you. I don't like you either.   |   Science Fiction (or something like it) Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments