Monday, January 20, 2014

Sex and the Colony part one

Most women would get pregnant soon after they got married.  As children, we knew that after marriage most women’s bodies got bigger right away.  We were told that when a girl gets married, that’s when she becomes a woman and her body just changes into a woman’s body.

If anyone was brave enough to ask how this would happen, we were told to shame ourselves for asking such questions and we would know when it would happen to us, not if, but when.
Women wore loose fitting cloths to hide their pregnancies, especially from the kids; they were never to know what was going on.  

It was shameful for the women to walk around noticeably pregnant, because people would know, then, what she had done to get that way.  When we saw a Mexican women that was noticeably pregnant or breastfeeding her baby, we were told not to look at her. It was rude to stare.

“They have no shame.” “They” simply meant people of the world: non-Mennonite people. We did those things in private, we didn’t show the world “everything,” which meant Mennonite women breastfed in private.  

So no one would ever see Mennonite women breastfeeding their babies and wearing tight cloths to show pregnant belly’s.  “They don’t have rules like we do.”  We were to live by these rules, no questions asked.

Women would use opportunities like that to (sort of) tell us things that were expected of us. I always figured they used those short windows of opportunity to tell us things so that we wouldn’t ask questions.  

We clearly knew what they were talking about without actually being told directly. We knew in terms of dressing and how to behave when we got married, but how we would get that “women shaped body,” we would figure it out and learn as it happened to us.  
There were people who never left their colony, especially the ones that lived far from the town of Nuevo Ideal.  So they never had opportunities to talk about sex and pregnancy, the birds and the bees.  

Sometimes girls got pregnant and had no clue that sex would have such huge consequences.  Nobody ever said DO NOT HAVE SEX, or described WHAT SEX IS and that WHEN YOU DO THIS YOU WILL GET PREGNANT. 

From the age of 13 on Sunday afternoons from 1-5 in the afternoon, we would go out to a friend’s house or go out to the street of our Colony, and we were just told schmock senne (to behave).  We were supposed to know what that meant without an explanation.  

Some of us knew exactly what our parents meant to the point where we would just run and hide from the boys that wanted to talk to us.  That way there could be no confusion about what schmock senne meant.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

In 1922 President Álvaro Obregón invited Mennonites to settle in Mexico

Presidente Álvaro Obregón
In 1922 Mexican President Álvaro Obregón invited Mennonites to settle in the northern regions of the country. He offered them cheap land and freedom from taxation for 100 years as long as the Mennonites agreed to supply cheese (now called Queso menonita) for northern Mexico. The Mennonites were also given freedom to organize their own education system and freedom from military service. A total of 20,000 Mennonites arrived in 1922 in a mass migration beginning in March 1922. 

                this photo comes from

Over a four year period a total of 36 trains of 25-45 cars made the journey from Canada to Mexico carrying the settlers and their farm equipment. A total of 200,000 acres (810 km2) was obtained by the church. In the 1930s the Socialist government attempted to remove the special rights that had been granted to the Mennonites but they were re-established by President Lázaro Cárdenas in 1936.

 Presidente Lázaro Cárdenas

Using modern methods the Mennonites established farms, machine shops and motorized vehicles for transporting produce (although automobiles were forbidden for common use). Canadian oats, beans, apples and corn were the main produce. 

Forty settlements were established. The villages followed Mennonite architectural styles existent in Russia and Canada and the names were based on former names in Canada such as Rosenort, Steinback and Schönwiese.  

Three Colonies were established; the Santa Clara Colony, the Swift Current Colony and the Manitoba Colony. The Colonies were based on former Mennonite social structures in terms of education and similar prayer houses and unsalaried ministers. Conservative dress and traditional roles for women were the norm.

In Chihuahua, Mennonites continue their lifestyle with several reforms, such as the use of automobiles, although most use horse and buggy. They coexist, learning Spanish and English and living side by side with Tarahumara Indians in the hill country of the state. 

About 50,000 Mennonites reside near the city of Cuauhtémoc in Chihuahua. In Durango, there are 32 Mennonite communities (30 in the Municipality of Nuevo Ideal and 2 and the Municipality of Santiago Papasquiaro). Mennonites in Durango number more than 7,000 most of them living in Nuevo Ideal.

Nuevo Ideal's lies around 124 kilometers, north of Durango City. Once in Nuevo Ideal, it becomes central transit point where the main roads that communicate Northwest and Northeast Durango separate (the road going northwest to Tepehuanes is paved while the one going to Escobedo, Durango towards the northeast, is a dirt road).

Mennonites benefit from this transit point since many travelers and truck drivers stop in Nuevo Ideal in search of Menonita Cheese.

The largest denomination as of 2006 is Altkolonier Mennonitengemeinde with 17,200 members. Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference is having 97 members, Kleingemeinde in Mexiko is having 2,150 members, Reinländer-Gemeinde is having 1,350 members & Sommerfelder Mennonitengemeinde is having 2,043 members.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Part four: Low German Mennonite History. From Canada to Mexico

This image is from

March 1, 1922, the first train with Old Colony Mennonites emigrants left Canada for Mexico.  Houses were disassembled and loaded onto the train cars, along with farm machinery and animals.  The train made tow stops a day to feed and water the stock and milk the cows.  The water was taken along in tank cars.  Thirty-six trains, hired at about $25,000 each, left Canada from 1922 to 1924.  During that time, more than 6,000 Mennonites left the rich Canadian prairies for the semiarid desert land in northern Mexico.

This image is from

The leaders’ plan was to move the entire church to Mexico.  But not all the Old Colony people made the move.  Some did not see the Canadian school laws as a threat.  Others were too poor to move.  Ministers returned to Canada to hold communion services until 1926.  Eventually, all the ones remaining in Canada were excommunicated.

Even though the villages were laid out before the move and the families had decided how much land they would buy and which village they were going, few really understood what type of land they were going to.  The first settlers arrived in March before the rainy season, and feed was not available for the cattle and heavy Canadian horses.

The first attempt at growing wheat failed in Mexico.  New farming practices and growing crops such as beans and oats had to be learned.  Bountiful crops grew when the rain came, but during the 1920s, there were several years of drought.  The pioneers survived, but it was difficult.

The Mexican Revolution had officially ended, but roving bands of Poncho Villa’s army raised the villages.  A number of Mennonites died at the hands of Mexican attackers.  Finally, troops were brought into the aria for protection.  Malaria, typhus, and smallpox also took their toll, as the nearest doctor was fifty miles away.

The Old Colony people had a hard time communicating with their Spanish neighbors.  It is hard to imagine the hardship the Mennonites including my great grandparents had to endure as they cleared the land and built villages in a strange country with a different climate. During this time, my grandparents from both sides were small children.

But here in Mexico, they found the freedom to live their faith and lifestyle similar to that of their forefathers in Russia.  Their churches, their schools, and their village affairs were entirely left up to their control. Here they were an isolated group among natives with whom they couldn't communicate.  To the leaders, this appeared to be a protection from the world.  

Credits go to beautifully written book (Called to Mexico.)

Friday, January 3, 2014

Part three: Low German Mennonite History. From Russia to Canada

Mennonite people who immigrated to Western Canada from Russia in the early 1870s.

Canada rolls out the welcome mat to nearly 8,000 Mennonites from Russia.  In the 1870s, Canada was looking for settlers to lay claim to her western lands.  When they heard that a large number of German people from the Russian Ukraine were looking for a sizable tract of land in another country.  Agents from Santa Fe and Northern Pacific Railroads, which both owned land in western Canada, were dispatched to the Mennonite colonies in Russia.
A Mennonite delegation visited Canada at the government’s expense.  The rich, flat prairie land in southern Manitoba reminded them of their beloved steppes back home.  But more attractive than the prairies were the Canadian government’s promises: the Mennonites would be exempt from military service.  They would have the privilege to worship as they pleased and to keep their German language.  Plans were immediately made for a mass migration to southern Manitoba between 1874 and 1876.

The Canadian government reserved 450,000 acres for them to settle and farm.  This land was known as the East Reserve and the West Reserve, with the Red River dividing the two.  The first Mennonite settlers faced many hardships as they pioneered the land.  Villages were laid out as they had been in Russia, with one wide street nearly half a mile long.

Most of the Mennonites who migrated from Russia to Manitoba Canada in the 1870s came from Chortitza and two of her daughter settlements, Bergthal and Fürstenthal.  The more progressive Bergthal people settled on the East Reserve, along with some kleine Gemeinde Mennonites.  (The Kleine Gemeinde had its beginnings in Russia in 1812, when they branched off from the Old Colony Mennonites.)  The more conservative Chortitza and Fürstenthal people settled on the West Reserve.

In the 1890s many of the Bergthal Mennonites moved to the West Reserve and settled next to their more conservative brethren.  Conflict soon arose because of the Bergthalers’ more progressive thinking.  They were abandoning the practice of settling in villages, and they put much emphasis on advanced education.  The Chortitza and  Fürstenthal leaders saw a real danger in this threat toward their traditional way of living.  Major regrouping took place. 

The largest and most conservative group became known as the Reinland Mennonite Church or “Old Colony” while the more progressive group became the Bergthal Mennonite Church.  A small conservative group of the West Reserve became Bergthaler became known as the Sommerfelder.  

The Old Colony continued their traditional village pattern. During the early years in Canada, the school system was somewhat neglected, as taming the land and building houses came first.  By now few trained teachers were available and the system was already deteriorating.  Overcrowding on the West Reserve led to Old Colony expansion into Saskatchewan, were the Hague-Osler settlement began in 1895 and swift Current in 1905.

Canada’s involvement in Wold War I moved the government to assimilate the minority groups in its territories.  In 1916, all men between the age of sixteen and sixty-five were to register.  The Mennonites saw this as a military threat.  A draft was established in 1917.  The Mennonites were not required to serve, but conscientious objectors were at times summoned to court.

Public resentment flared toward the German speaking people.  English was to be the sole language taught in Canadian schools.  Private schools that did not meet provincial standards were closed in the fall of 1918.  Government operated schools were opened in the colonies.  Children between the age seven and fourteen were required to attend these schools.  Families who did not send their children to school were fined or the fathers imprisoned.  Parents who sent their kids to these schools were excommunicated by the Old Colony Church.

The Old Colony believe “ji meha jiliehet, ji meha fitchiehet” (the more learned the more misguided).  The Bergthal Mennonites were not as resistant and accepted the public schools or met the standards set by the government in their own private schools. The Mennonites felt cheated by the government, who, in their eyes, was not keeping the promises that had been made to the Mennonites before they came to Canada.  

They accused the government of making vain promise because they wanted people to settle the land.  Conferences were held by Old Colony leaders in 1919, and the conclusion to migrate was reached “with a heavy heart” they felt “compelled to seek another home.”  The leaders were looking for isolated, location in a country that would respect their school, language, and religion.  Delegates from Manitoba (West Reserve), Swift Current, and Hague-Osler were sent to investigate various land offers from railroad companies and land dealers in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and several places in the USA. 

After repeated disappointments, a delegation again visited Mexico in 1921.  After personally meeting with president Alvaro Obregón, a privilegium was worked out in nine days.  A large tract of land was purchased from the Don Carlos Zuloaga estate in the semiarid Bustillos Valley.  Manitoba Colony (West Reserve) bought 150,000 acres for $8.25 an acre in U.S gold, and Swift Current Colony bought 75,000 acres.

  Now that the land was found, emigration plans were made at once.  They disassembled their houses, and loaded them and their cattle onto trains, and headed for Mexico.  The main reason most of the Old Colony Mennonites left Canada, where they had settled a mere half a century earlier, might best be summed up by words of Old Colony Mennonite Bishop Isaac Dyck: “When the school, as the first plating place in man’s heart, was held in common with the world, then the church also couldn't remain free from it.” Click here to continue reading Part four: Low German Mennonite History. From Canada to Mexico.

Credits go to beautifully written book (Called to Mexico)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Part two: Low German Mennonite History. From Poland to Russia the Ukraine

When the Russian czarina, Catherine the Great invited German farmers to come and settle the wide, empty steppes of the Ukraine, she was trying to hold her claim to the land that Russia had seized, from the Turks during the Russo-Turkish war. A 176-acre homestead was offered to many settlers who were adventures enough to tame the wild land.  The Russian Colonial Law guaranteed, among other things, permanent religious freedom and military exemption.

This greatly applied to the Mennonites in Prussia.  Here they could worship as they pleased, operate their own schools in the German language, and run their own local government.  This was also an opportunity for the many landless people.  A ten-year tax break and monetary loans were among the ten proposed articles.

In 1786, two scouts, Jacob Hoeppner, and Johann Bartsch were sent to Russia to explore the land, meeting with Russian officials, including Catherine the Great herself.  A year later they returned with promising stories.  The government cooperative and the soil was fertile.  The migration to the steppes of the Ukraine was soon under way.  Two years after the scouts returned, 228 families were homesteading the wide, open plains. No ministers were among this group, so men appointed to read sermons to the others.

Taming the land required intense labor.  There were new farming methods to learn.  The industrious Mennonite farmers spread animal manure out over the fields instead of burning it like the Russian peasants did.  During the early years in Russia, the children were needed at home and school came in second.  Teachers were haphazardly picked.  School was mostly centered around the Bible and the Katechismus (catechism).

Small villages with fifteen families living along a wide central street were started throughout the colonies.  The farmers’ fields lay outside the village, as well as the communal pasture.  Houses and barns were usually connected.  A church or schoolhouses were in the center of the village.  The first colony was Chortitza, hence, it referred to as “the old colony.”  This is where the name Old colony Mennonites originates.  By the turn of the century, eighteen villages were established in Chortitza, with 400 families farming thousands of acres. 

Migration continued for the next fifteen years. The second wave of immigrants brought more well-to-do and educated people.  Many were added.  Molotschna became the largest colony with over 300,000 acres and fifty-eight villages.  By 1850, the golden Age for the Mennonites in Russia had begun.  Thousands of acres of hard red winter wheat were raised. 

The steppes of the Ukraine became the bread basket of Europe.  Bustling businesses manufacturing farm equipment and brick and tile were owned by Mennonites.  Never before had the Mennonites enjoyed this much freedom and many became prosperous.  Some of the wealthier ones owned large estates with thousands of acres.

This image is from Online Exhibits - From Far Away Russia

But not everyone lived in prosperity. Russian law forbade dividing the 176-acre homestead. Eventually, this caused a large group of people to be homeless.  These families, known as Anwohner (marginal people), lived along the edges of the villages.  Voting rights for the church and village issues were based on land ownership, so people without land had no influence and usually had no choice but to be landless workers.  In 1865, the Molotschna Colony alone had 2,356 landless works and 1,384 farmers owning land.  Later efforts were made to resolve the matter.

After Russia lost the Crimean war, efforts were made to “Russianify” the foreigners who were living in the country.  Many native were irked at these prosperous German-speaking people.  Some Mennonites couldn't even speak the Russian language, though they had lived their entire life in Russia.  The Russian language was to be taught in the classroom.  Threats were made to revoke the promise of permanent military exemption.

Many Mennonites became uneasy and could see no future for their people in Russia.  In 1873 and 1874 about one-third of the Mennonites left Russia for North America.  About 10,000 settled in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, while 8,000 from the more conservative Chortitza (Old Colony) were invited to Canada.

Much could be said about the Mennonites that remained in Russia—incredible prosperity , war terrors during the Bolshevik Revolution, young men who formed an army for self-defense, the terrible famine that followed, untold suffering during the social revolution, and mass migration to South America and other places.  But the Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico today are mostly descended from the 8,000 conservative Chortitza Mennonites who left Russia for Canada before these sad events took place. Click here to continue reading Part three: Low German Mennonite History. From Russia to Canada.

Credits go to beautifully written book (Called to Mexico.)

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