Thursday, February 27, 2014

Sinner Lost in Translation


I remember from very young age that the dietsche Mennonite people in Mexico would say that going to Canada was a sin. Not so much Canada itself but what it did to the families that went. People would bring back sinful things such as fancy watches, cameras, and colorful socks we had never seen before. I remember the preachers talking about that at church, and how disappointed they were that parents let their children change so much while they were working in Canada. 
There were about ten families from my colony that would go to Canada and work in the fields from Easter to the end October. They would work in tobacco fields and pick cucumbers to make extra money so that they could build a bigger house, a new barn, and feed for their cattle when they returned to Mexico.

Some of the families would stay and work in Canada for a couple of years before returning back to Mexico. When they returned they bragged about how nice it was that, in Canada, if you couldn’t work during the winter months because you didn’t speak English, you could just go to Wilhelm Fehr’s house and pick up money to live off of.

I often thought how nice it would be to come to Canada and meet the Fehrs. It was a big secret and not too many people knew about them. We had no idea if this was actually true or if the kids were just telling stories, but we sure thought it was interesting.

Every year more people decided to go to Canada and work because it was too hard to maintain their dairy farms in Mexico. Even if they had land to grow crops, if it didn’t rain they lost everything that they had invested. And it was nearly impossible to make a living doing anything else since most other jobs were considered a sinful. The Mennonites would get excommunicated if they went and worked among the native Mexicans.

When families came back to Mexico from Canada they were expected to sell their vehicles right away or park them and go back to using only the horse and buggy for transportation. Some families did that but others just stopped going to their Mennonite church and continue to drive their motorized vehicles until they went back to Canada for the summer.

When I came to Canada I learned that when people talked about Wilhelm Fehr they meant Welfare, but I was lucky and didn’t need to visit the Fehrs because I got a job right away, even though I didn’t speak any English. I got hired at a factory because I knew how to sew. About half the workers and most of the supervisors there were Low German-speaking Mennonites. Some of them had lived in Canada long enough to learn English.

I knew that in order to work in Canada I had to have an oabeits koat, (a worker’s card).  I applied for one right after I arrived in Canada and luckily got it before I started working.

In order for me to cash my pay cheques, I needed to open a bank account and I was determined to do this on my own. I took my pay cheque and went to a bank. I walked up to the teller and said, “Hi. I, Anna, cash cheque.”

The bank teller began smiling and struggled to keep from bursting out laughing. She asked, “Do you have your SIN number?”

“A SIN number?” I asked. I was so confused and thought, “This is why it is such a SIN to be in Canada. You actually need a card to SIN here! And I have to have one to open a bank account? I guess I don’t have a choice about this.”

A few of the other bank tellers caught on and decided to have a little fun. They asked me where I was from. I told them. They laughed and said, “So, you work at the factory down the road but you don’t have a SIN card? You shouldn’t be allowed to work in Canada if you don’t have a SIN card. It won’t be long before you get sent back to Mexico.” 

On my way back to the factory I thought “I really need to get a SIN card because I don’t want to go back to Mexico.”

Back at the factory, I asked one Low German ladies if she had a SIN card and she said, “Yes, everyone has to have one to work in Canada. Has du nich ena oabeits koat? (Don’t you have a workers card?)” She asked.

“Yes, I have a oabeits koat but not a SIN card and I really need one because I can’t open a bank account without a SIN card.”

She started laughing and said, “Oba Anna, the oabeits koat is called a Social Insurance Number and here they call it a SIN card, the first letter of each word.”

I felt like such an idiot. I think I even had an out of body experience that night. I fell half asleep and dreamt that the man from the bank that joined the teller in making fun of me, held me down on my bed and whispered into my ear, “Anna, you are such a sinner… sinner… sinner… over and over and I couldn’t move. It was like I was asleep and I told myself to wake up but I wasn’t asleep and I couldn’t wake up. It was terrible.

The next day I went to a different bank with my “SIN” card and the man that helped me was very nice to me. He even complimented me on my accent. I know he was just being nice to get through the process because my English was terrible, but it was sinfully easy to open a bank account.

I realized that all those families that were always going back and forth to Canada from Mexico had had SIN cards all along and just never told me about it. I thought that they must obviously have been more concerned about Wilhelm Fehr than their SIN cards. 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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