Thursday, February 27, 2014

Sinner Lost in Translation

Continued from Mennonite Schmuck

Growing up in a Mennonite colony in Mexico, I remember at a very young age hearing all sorts of talk about the ¨end times,¨ the ¨mark of the beast¨ and how much sin there was in the world. Canada was associated with sin in most conversations. Nevertheless, poverty and hardship left many families with no other option but to dig out their dusty old Canadian Citizenship cards, tucked away since moving to Mexico some seven decades prior, and drive back to Canada to work in agriculture.

Some families returned home to Mexico at the end of October every year. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I could only assume that what was sinful about the people returning were the items they brought back—such as cameras, watches, colourful socks, and shiny Christmas decorations, which we all knew were not allowed.

Like most others from my colony, I was illiterate when I first came to Canada at the age of 16. I had only written my own name a handful of times. In a Mennonite colony in Mexico there was no need for girls to know how to read and write. To work in agriculture in Canada, reading and writing weren’t necessarily a requirement either.  But we all knew that one had to have a ¨worker’s card¨ and that this card was very important. I had a trusted cousin who helped me apply for it as soon as I arrived.

Not long after I received that card, I was lucky enough to be hired at a sewing factory. I hit the job jackpot for a Mennonite girl who was illiterate and only spoke a few words of English. What I had actually won quickly became more complicated than I had anticipated. When I received my first paycheque I went to the first bank on my way through town. I was so happy. For the first time ever, I held in my hands a cheque with my name on it. I had never seen my name printed on paper like that before.

I stood in the line-up at the bank feeling all sorts of happy feelings. Finally, when it was my turn to go up to the teller, I carefully placed my cheque in front of the man and said, ¨Cash, please.¨ I could tell right away that this man was not as nice as all the other English-speaking folks I had met up to that point. He began laughing under his breath as he asked if I had an account at that bank.

¨No,¨ I said.

¨Okay, then I will need to see some ID and your SIN card,¨ he said.

My heart skipped a beat, ¨A SIN card?¨ I asked.

My thoughts immediately traveled back in time and began connecting the dots. I decided right then and there that that was the reason why it was such a sin to come to Canada.

¨Yes, do you have your SIN card with you?¨ he asked.

¨No, I don’t have a SIN card,¨ I explained.

¨Well, you need one in order to open a bank account,¨ he said.

A woman came over and asked, ¨What’s going on?¨

¨She wants to open an account but she doesn’t have a SIN card,¨ answered the teller.
They looked at each other and the teller said some things to the woman that I couldn’t understand. They both looked at me and laughed. When the woman caught her breath she asked, ¨Where are you from?¨


¨Of course,¨ she said and continued to laugh as she picked up my cheque. She studied it for a while and asked, ¨So, you work at that factory down the street and you don’t have a SIN card?¨

By that time I had already concluded that I was doomed. I knew that it was true that I couldn´t cash my paycheque without owning such a card. I thought to myself, ¨It’s happening, just like I heard people talk about back in the colony.¨ One day we would all be faced with a choice: take the ¨666¨ mark of the beast or starve to death. At that very moment, I was standing on the threshold of that choice. ¨It’s not too late; I could still make a run for it,¨ I thought.

The story that was unfolding in my head was becoming too real to handle as the bank tellers were enjoying themselves making fun of me. The woman proceeded to tell me, ¨You know, you can’t work in Canada if you don’t have a SIN card; you can get deported.¨  I took my cheque and ran out of the bank as fast as I could, thinking, ¨What does deported mean anyway?¨

I had hellish nightmares that night about the ordeal. The next day I went to work feeling sick to my stomach with worry. I told my fellow Mennonite co-worker about my experience, and she explained to me that the ¨worker´s card¨ was a SIN card, and that’s the day I learned about acronyms. Also, it was true that all people working in Canada had to have such a card.

I explained my concerns to my co-worker. She assured me that a Social Insurance Number card would not contain the mark of the beast. I decided that I couldn’t trust anybody with something as important as that. When I got home after my shift, I carefully inspected my ¨SIN¨ card. I wanted to make sure that there wasn’t a combination of the numbers 666 on my card in any way, shape, or form. I was relieved when I couldn’t find any such combinations on the card anywhere.

The next day, I took my ¨SIN¨ card and went to a different bank. The man who helped me was very nice and even asked if he could help me with anything else. It was sinfully easy to open a bank account. To this day I am a loyal customer. Click here to continue reading my story.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

"The more learned, the more misguided"

We are Russian Mennonites not Mexican Mennonites.  My ancestors came to Canada in the 1870s from Russia.  The Old Colony Low German speaking Mennonites emigrated from western Canada to Mexico in the 1920s. 

The name, “Old Colony”, derives from the origin at Chortitza, the oldest Mennonite settlement in Russia. 

They were Russian settlers that originally came from Prussia and the Prussian Mennonites can be traced to Holland.  You can read how this happened in my post “Low German Mennonite History”.  In Canada, I often get asked. 

“Were your grandparents Old Order Mennonites?” 

The first time someone asked me that, I had never heard of Old Order Mennonites and I would say, “You mean Old Colony?” 

They would say, “No, Old Order.”

Growing up in Mexico we never heard of other types of Mennonites. We thought we were the only ones. Our parents probably knew but never told us, since history or any kind of knowledge is not important to the Old Colony.  

The Old Colony group represents the Old Order element of Dutch Mennonites, a separate branch from the Swiss Mennonites from which the Amish and Old Order Mennonites descend.  The Old Colony Mennonites emerged as a distinct group in the 1880s in Manitoba, Canada.

It is my understanding that the most conservative group among the Old Colony Mennonites settled in Nuevo Ideal, in Durango province, Mexico originally.  They tried to keep it very conservative but it was really tough to survive.  

In the 1990s, when the Old Colony church in Nuevo Ideal, Durango agreed to allow us to drive cars and use hydro, a large group of the Old Colony Mennonites did not approve of this change and left for Campeche,Mexico. 

I was a teenager during this time. I remember wondering, “Why don’t they want to drive cars? You can get to grandma’s house so much faster and it’s nice plugging in the lights instead of putting oil in the lamps every afternoon.”  

We had to do this in the day light so they would be ready to be lit when the sun went down.
When I first came to Canada in the summer of 1993 I felt like I didn't know anything. I felt stupid in a way.  I couldn't read or write and I could barely write my name.  I didn't know any history at all, let alone Mennonite history. 

There were occasions when I was in a group of people with Low German backgrounds that would talk in English about Menno Simons; I could figure out that they were talking about a person.  I once asked, “Fonn wäaem fe'tal jie?” Who are you talking about? 

Some of them would look at me and roll their eyes.  I wasn't sure what exactly the meaning of the eye rolling was.  But I was not going to ask those people anything again that I was sure of.   

It made me feel so stupid and just for a brief moment I wanted to go back to never asking any questions again.  Who cares about this “Menno” person anyways?  

It didn't take long for me to learn who OJ Simpson and the Kardashians were.  When the radio alarm woke me up in the morning, all I heard was OJ murders and the Kardashians.  I was comforted by the fact that this was happening in the US; surely my new home country would not have murderers! 

I would sometimes cry myself to sleep, feeling so overwhelmed by all the things I needed to learn.  Especially if I wanted to speak English as fast as all those people talking about Menno Simons did!  

Now I know that it wasn't that I didn't know ANYTHING when I first came to Canada. I knew some things but what I knew was just different from what the rest of the people living in Canada knew.  

Now that I know how to read, I’m reading that the very reason my great grandparents left Canada is because I was not supposed to learn how to read. Darn it to heck, it’s too late for me and a bit messed up I would say. There is no delete button.

They disassembled and loaded their houses onto the train cars, along with farm machinery and animals and moved to Mexico.  They didn't even speak Spanish.  They did this so they could save me from “ji meha jiliehet, ji meha fitchiehet” (The more learned, the more misguided.)

I didn't know any of that history and I couldn't wait to come to Canada.  Knowing this now does make me feel guilty.  Most of my life I have felt like I am doing the right thing by doing the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing by doing the right thing, but I wouldn't change it for the world. 

Not knowing any of the history and the reasons why such sacrifices were made is what caused me to search for my sense of belonging. Leaning how to read actually literally saved my life!

During a book signing of Royden Loewen's book Village among Nations at Conrad Grebel University College. I learned that I am actually the Great Granddaughter of Johann P. Wall one of the men  who sacrificed so much and lead his people to Mexico.  

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Why are most Low German people illiterate?

The Old Colony believe “ji meha jiliehet, ji meha fitchiehet” (the more learned the more misguided).

“Why waste all that time going to school?” “You don’t need to go to school to learn how to be a good hard worker, a house wife or a mother.”  I went to an Old Colony Mennonite school in Mexico.   At this school we learned how to do basic math and how to copy verses from the Bible.  We learned only from the Bible.

We did not need to learn how to write our name, or read anything else.  We were even told not to read the Bible too much because we were not supposed to know too much about the Bible either.

There are four levels we learned.  The High German Bible, the Old and New Testament, the Catechism and the Fible.  We would sing from the hymnbook in High German as well.

The photo to your right is from the Fible that is the first book we learned from when we stared school. we would learn how to copy the ABC'S you see in the photo.

When I read the Bible I only understood a few words I was reading because at home we spoke Low German and at school we read and spoke High German.  We were never introduced to High German before we started school.

I didn't like school at all.  It was not a fun environment.  There would be one teacher per school for all the kids in the village ages 6 to 13, about 75 to 85 kids in total.  The boys sat on the right side of the school and the girls sat on the left side.  

If you were caught looking out the window you had to sit in the window if you were late, you had to stand in the door for 10 minutes.  I often sat there and pretended to read, but I would fantasize about being a Mexican school girl. Whenever we drove past a Mexican school, those kids looked so happy.  They would play basketball and skip and laugh. 

I would be having pleasant time thinking about this and then the teacher would throw the belt at me.  Whenever this happened you had to bring the belt up to the front, so everyone could see who was slacking.  I barely got to the third level by the end of my last school year.

Most kids went to school until they were 12 or 13 years old. I went only from the age of 7 until I was 10 years old.  I got to stay home and learn how to cook, bake, sew, clean and do the laundry because I was labelled a “hard learner.”

“Anna is a hard learner.”  “That was a never ending story,” That is why she is not at school,” my mom would explain to everyone she met.  It was embarrassing and I felt like a failure.  

Being a “HARD LEARNER” I spent a lot of time alone, in hiding reading Spanish books that Mexicans would sometimes drop off while driving through our village, old books their kids would no longer need.  

I heard some kids singing the alphabet in Spanish.  It was so interesting to me that I memorized it not even knowing that it would help me to read Spanish.  My mom didn't care as long as I was done doing my chores. 

I could read all I wanted i even understood some words I was reading. That was foreign to me.  I remember the feeling of being lit up from the inside out, which was the first time I felt a tingling sensation in my stomach that was not from being scared.

Words of Old Colony Mennonite Bishop Isaac Dyck: “When the school, as the first plating place in man’s hart, was held in common with the world, then the church also couldn't remain free from it.”

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