by Andrea Dyck
Mexico Connections – a travelogue series on Mennonite places
I arrived in Cuauhtémoc with my head full of the stories I’d read about the Mennonites in Mexico in the pages of the newspaper Die Steinbach Post. For about two or three years during my university days, I read every letter written by Mennonites who had migrated to Mexico that had been published in this newspaper between 1922 and 1965. This work was conducted for my Masters thesis on how Mennonites in Mexico viewed their Mexican neighbours. I remember lots of the stories told in the letters, but I’d never seen the Mennonite colonies in Mexico with my own eyes.
At the end of 2019, I was invited on a trip to Manitoba Colony in northern Mexico. The Old Colony Mennonites who established the colony are Canadian-descendant Mennonites who left Manitoba and Saskatchewan in the 1920s when provincial school laws changed to require children to be educated in an English-language public school setting. As a protest to what they perceived to be a betrayal of the privilege they had been granted in 1873 to educate their children as they saw fit, about 8,000 Mennonites left Canada for Mexico and Paraguay.
Our time in Manitoba Colony was spent meeting with religious (“Aeltester”) and civic (“Vorsteher”) community leaders, with teachers and students. A highlight of the trip was hearing the traditional “Lange Wies” singing during the Old Colony worship service we attended on Sunday, which was echoed in the songs of children at the schools we visited and at a special Christmas program.
One of the most meaningful experiences during the trip, however, was to see some of the things I’d studied during my Masters degree come to life. For example, a few wooden structures, some of the first homes built by Mennonites in Mexico, were still standing. When Mennonites migrated from Canada, the wealthiest among them shipped building supplies like wood so they could construct dwellings mirroring those they were used to in Canada. Wood soon gave way to buildings made out of adobe brick, more
suitable to their new Mexican environment, so only the very first buildings would have been made of wood. Here we were, nearly 100 years later, still looking at them. Similarly, the Museo Menonita, the local Mennonite museum, had a massive wooden threshing machine on display which had also been shipped with those first Mennonites from Canada.
Over time immigrant groups adapt to new environments by picking up new skills and new ways of living from the ‘host’ society. Mennonites in Mexico were no different and in time they moved from building with wood to constructing houses and barns made of adobe brick. Some of these types of buildings were also still in existence, although many of them have been torn down and replaced with more modern homes made of cement. But despite all the change that has taken place among Mennonites in Mexico over the last 100 years, we still saw evidence of a unique Mennonite building method that has its roots in Prussia, was honed in Russia, transplanted to Canada, and then brought to Mexico: the Mennonite housebarn, where the house and the barn are connected to one another, often through a small connecting hallway or a small building like a summer kitchen. As someone who studied Mennonites adapting as immigrants in Mexico and who works to interpret Mennonite material culture today, it was a poignant experience to see in real life how this persistent pattern of living had been adapted from its Canadian form for survival in the Mexican environment.
ED note: In 2020, the Mennonite Heritage Village will be fundraising to restore the foundation, the central clay oven heating system and external woodwork of our Chortitz housebarn. Housebarns are somewhat unique to Mennonites and we would appreciate your support to restore ours to full operation!