Bottom (c) El Universal.com.mx
Honestly, this story is difficult to navigate – it is full of contradictions and surprising vitriol, but if true, it could indicate a hundred-year reversal of Mennonite immigration out of Russia back to the steppes and arid lands of their forefathers – well, a few of the fore-parents anyway… but Mexico’s Mennonites, or at least some of them, might be heading back to Russia and Kazakhstan by 2014. The ink might already be drying on the new deeds.
The reason this story is difficult to follow is that it takes place in at least three very different languages – none of which are English – and I am not certain of either the electronic translations or search results for further information. [Note: I have contacted various groups to obtain more reliable “official” information, and will share this via the blog as I receive responses.]
According to GAMEO.org, several thousand Mennonites chose to leave Canada for Mexico in 1922-1927, representing the entire Alt Kolonie subculture and many Sommerfelder (later to be also joined by numerous conservative Kleine Gemeinde who would settle near and in Belize). According to GAMEO.org, the settlers migrating to Mexico represented the most conservative of the earlier Russian Mennonite immigrants into Canada and their move to Mexico was in reaction to early 20th Century governmental efforts to Canadianize the Mennonite immigrants – especially in the area of education and language rights, felt to have been guaranteed under the original agreements with Crown authorities extended to encourage Mennonite immigration to Manitoba. While GAMEO.org focuses on language rights, one must assume that struggles by Canadian Mennonites to maintain their exemptions from military service during World War 1 – and American imprisonment of conscientious objectors during the same war, probably played a similar role in the decision to immigrate, as well as the perennial need for additional farmland and cultural seclusion.
Similar to immigration patterns long-established by Mennonites of the Martyrs’ Trek, certain guarantees and exemptions, known as Privilegium, were sought from the Mexican government including religious freedom (non-interference in religious self-governance), exemption from military service, freedom from the swearing of oaths, freedom to establish and run their own schools and to use whatever language they chose, and general freedoms to establish their own segregated economic systems (GAMEO.org). President Alvaro Obregon of Mexico was happy to agree and Mennonites began moving to Mexico.
J. Winfield Fretz’s 1957 article in the Mennonite Encyclopedia is interesting in matter of tone and concerns. A brief extract:
The future of the Mennonites in Mexico in the 1950s seemed somewhat uncertain. Some thought of Mexico as a somewhat temporary stopping place on a pilgrimage to a yet unknown land, others as a permanent place of settlement. The entire Mennonite settlement in Mexico presented an interesting experiment in the contact of two different cultures. Mexico had a Latin culture, which included the Spanish language, the Roman Catholic religion, and many moral standards and customs alien to those of the Mennonites, who were a Germanic Protestant group with generally higher standards. The influence of the Latin culture was felt by the Mennonites, and outsiders could notice many adaptations that the Mennonites made to it. The Mennonites, though a minority group, made a significant impact on the Mexicans, especially in agricultural methods, and introduced modern farming machinery and highly superior types of livestock. Slowly Mexican neighbors began to imitate these examples. The process of cultural interaction was continuing. The privileges which the Mexican government granted the Mennonites had been scrupulously upheld in the mid-20th century. The severe drought of 1951-1954 placed a very heavy strain on the economic welfare of the settlements. Several hundred returned poverty-stricken to Canada in 1954-1955.
In an interesting twist of historical fate, Mexico’s Mennonites might be responding to ideas that that more permanent home in a far-off country might be the very point from their ancestors immigrated during the 1870s – Russia.
Today’s issues seem to do more with potential racism, xenophobia and land lust on the part of Mexico’s native Mestizo population – an interesting twist for other North American Mennonites to consider in their own behavior towards immigrants, migrants and refugees – what goes around seems to come around, and inter-ethnic competition for farm land and agricultural resources (notably water).
According to GAMEO’s 1990 update, only 12% of Mexico is considered arable due mostly to a lack of water for agriculture and settlement, indicating to some degree the extent of the problem.
By 1990, H. Leonard Sawatsky, in his GAMEO.org update, would summarize the social and economic position of Mexico’s Mennonites as follows:
In Mexico conservative Mennonites encountered a social and political environment more like that of the Russian Empire than that of Canada. In Mexico, within the provisions of the Privilegium, it proved once more possible to establish and maintain aloofness, if not isolation. The host society was very different in language, culture, and religion, and was so structured politically that ultimate recourse maybe had to a final arbiter in the person of the president. After more than six decades the Mennonites in the 1980s were significantly influenced by the host society, but not in ways that made great inroads on the traditional aloofness between the Mennonites and Mexican society. Social contacts were still minimal, and intermarriage was rare. The government adhered to the terms of the Privilegium to a very high degree, although in dealing with occasional tensions between Mexicans and Mennonites it found itself in the political and moral dilemma of adjudicating between citizens with rights, and aliens with privileges. Nevertheless, perceived threats to their status have provided considerable basis for emigration, most notably to Belize in the late 1950s, and to Bolivia and Paraguay in the 1960s and 1970s. Examples of points of tension with the government included the proposed universal implementation of a social security system in the 1950s, and several subsequent cases in which Mennonites had to forfeit lands with defective title to ownership. More profound appeared to have been the gradual dissolution of internal solidarity due to increasing divergence of opinion in sectarian and secular matters. This stimulated some migration within Mexico, and a great deal to new frontiers in Bolivia and Paraguay. Also, there has been a persistent flow, mostly to Canada, some to the United States, and, since 1986, to Argentina, primarily for economic reasons. The majority of Mennonites still in Mexico in the late 1980s, however, entertained little thought of emigration, and their continuing presence and the associated economic impact upon the regions in which they have settled, appeared to be assured (GAMEO.org).
Despite programming and arbitration by Mexican authorities and groups such as the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), and a growing social and cultural profile by Mennonites of Mexican nationality, few of the original problems seem to have been resolved.
While water scarcity seems to be the major issue, one does not have to scratch too deeply to see the old issues of land scarcity and inter-ethnic jealousies also playing significant roles in establishing and maintaining dissatisfaction. Spanish-speaking Mexicans remain skeptical of the Mennonite’s special rights and priviliegiums while some Mennonites have countered with charges of increasing anti-Mennonite attitudes and policies by a false manipulation of the democratic process by the majority Mestizo culture. Recent articles in the Mexican Spanish-language press indicate that inter-ethnic rivalries recently surged when local authorities in Chihuahua sought to impose a property tax increase of 1,800% against the Mennonites of Manitoba Colony. In contrast, non-Mennonite residents of Chihuahua faced a mere 8% increase in taxes. Manitoba Colony responded with a seemingly unprecedentedly well-organized and unified written response, Postura Oficial de Habitantes, Empresarios y Jefes de Colonia Manitoba, Respecto al Tema del Predial (the Official position of the People and Leaders of the Manitoba Colony Regarding the Property Tax), and offered to negotiate a 20% tax increase against Mennonite-held lands.
Mexican journalist Enrique Lomas looked into the situation and found a rather circular logic of local jealousies, “According to Lomas, the Mennonite directive also expressed concern at the tone the local government has taken against the Mennonites and with the spreading of false or misinformation indicating that the Mennonite community is evading paying their fair share of local taxes, that the Mennonites are demanding special treatment and that they are not loyal to the local region. … Lomas quotes, “Unfortunately these comments and information are creating a negative view towards the [Mennonite] inhabitants of this colony, which are generating division and maybe even hate,” (see Wall below).
Other signs of competition seem to be in the necessity of wider cooperation between agricultural enterprises. One notable change has been the regionalization of the famous trademark queso Mennonitas under the new regional name queso Chihuahua. Other Mennonite farmers are finding it useful and necessary to cooperate with Mestizo neighbors to improve cattle breeding, access to water and basic utilities. Though this increased local assimilation seems to be mostly beneficial and hardly the stuff of jealously competitive xenophobia by either side – that is, if you can handle the vitriole and the rhetoric.
Recent charges that Mennonites in Chihuahua were illegally extracting and utilizing public water resources resulted in public meetings between Mennonite representatives and local water committees (similar to Irrigation Districts in the rural USA?) or (COTAS) wherein the Mennonites and their representative, Ronaldo Portillo, presented their documents allowing for access and use of the water in question. “For Ronaldo Portillo, representative of the Mennonites, this act of goodwill and will help remove the stigma against the Mennonite population. … ‘The producers have stigmatized us as Barzón producers who do not respect the laws, we do not appreciate the value of water deliveries and these certificates will give us reason about our willingness to be in a situation of legality,’ said Mennonite leader.” A Barzón is seemingly an arrogant middle class gentlemen who fails to pay his own way.
Complicating things are the historic problems over Mennonites purchasing and being issued false titles to land and in this case, falsified documents for water rights – leaving both sides feeling cheated.
So we come to Luis Fierro’s piece for El Universal, “Comunidad menonita planea migrar del país: Advierten que prevén arribar a tierras rusas para el año 2014,” or “Rural Mennonite Community Plans to Migrate, Announcing the Russia has Made Land Available in 2014,” dated 23 September, 2012. Fierro states, “Tras 90 años de haber arribado a México, parte de la comunidad menonita chihuahuense pretende volver a sus orígenes y planea regresar a Rusia, de donde partieron hace dos siglos sus ancestros en busca de mejores oportunidades,” (Fierro). Or, courtesy of Google.Translate, “After 90 years of having arrived in Mexico, part of the Mennonite community in Chihuahua seeks return to its origins and plans to return to Russia, from where their ancestors [arrived] two centuries ago in search of better opportunities.”
Fierro’s piece seems to be the lynchpin of current rumors and bears the greatest aspect of accuracy and respectability. He states that Mexican Mennonites have recently met with officials from the Russian Republic of Tatarstan looking for fertile land with sufficient water resources for agricultural re-settlement. After touring Kazan, Yelabuga and Alabuga and businesses in Orenburg, Samara and Moskovskaya, Fierro reports that the Mennonite delegation has determined to purchase lands and to immigrate to Russia in 2014.
Fierro also repeats charges by Mennonites in Chihuahua of racism, discrimination and unequal access to justice and civic authorities within the state, “After suffering the consequences of a severe drought, and a series of conflicts with mestizo producer groups who accuse them of exploiting illegal agricultural wells, [Mennonites] felt cheated by the National Water Commission (CAN), who sold them apocryphal titles, [the Mennonites] have decided to immigrate to Tatarstan,” (Fierro, courtesy Google.Translate).
The State of Chihuahua denies that the Mennonites would have to leave Mexico for lack of resources. Fierro quotes Gov. Cesar Duarte stating that while the region has suffered drought for the last 16 months, that adequate infrastructure for wells and irrigation is being built.
What is at stake might be some of Mexico’s prime agricultural producers. According to Fierro, Mennonites produce 60% of all oat crops in Mexico and are especially known for their cheese [queso Menonitas].
Fierro goes on to discuss what he understood of the Tatars’ presentation indicating that they stressed the existence of an estalbished Russian Mennonite community in Tatarstan that maintains the same customs and language as the Mexican Mennonites and that according to broadcasts on Tatar media, the government is offering lower electric rates, tax incentives and other benefits to develop under-exploited agricultural lands – all things that the Mennonites have found increasingly difficult to access in Chihuahua.
But here is where the confusion sets in. On 17 Oct 2012, an editorial by Antonio Payan appeared in El Portal that the Mennonites never intended to immigrate back to Russia and that local Mennonite populations were being defrauded by one Jose Ramon Vega Flores who was masquerading as a member of the State Board of Agriculture in order to recruit Mennonites to resettle in Russia following the problems the local Mennonite community has had with mestizo neighbors and local authorities.
Payan quotes Hector Alejandro Cabrera-Fuentes of the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Trade that the offer Flores claims to be arbitrating is not real – that the Russian government denies having offered Mennonite migrants tax exemption and free electricity in exchange for developing lands in Tatarstan.
Payan seems to work for a specialized department that helps set up trade missions and trips for opening up new markets for Mexican entrepreneurs and is upset at how Flores actions have cast a dark shadow over Chihuahua. It seems that Payan set up a trip for Flores and a group of Mennonite businessmen farmers. Payan ran into this group of Mennonites at the airport on their return trip and traveled from Kazakhstan to Frankfurt with them (it is somewhat confusing in that Payan refers to Kazakhstan as a Russian Republic – is he truly meaning Tatarstan?).
Apparently, the Mennonites toured several regions in Russia examining land and business relations – so that part of the story seems to be agreed upon by all persons.
Payan claims, however, that Flores falsely used the credentials of the an agency meant to open markets for Chihuahua ag products and then introduced the Mennonites to a business associate in Russia – a sort of development land agent named Jose Lois Rodriguez.
After meeting up with the Mennonite delegation at the airport, Payan and his boss attempted to investigate where they had been and who they had met – confirming that they had meetings at the Russian Ministry of Agriculture, but finding no information regarding the special deal being offered to Mexico’s Mennonites for resettlement. He is unclear however in that while the Russian government did not make the offer, it seems that a private business did – perhaps Rodriguez.
While Payan claims that state authorities in Chihuahua will attempt to press charges against Flores and his contacts who attempted to defraud the Mennonites, it seems the Mennonites have indeed pursued immigration opportunities.
Mennonites of Lausan, Central Asian Russia, courtesy Silkroadpilgrims.blogspot.com
So here is where the story truly unravels… while claims are being made that the Mennonites of Chihuahua are happy and content, it is apparent that a group of Mennonites is indeed seeking out options for immigration. Whether or not they were defrauded or in danger of being defrauded by Flores and Rodriguez would seem irrelevant. More to the point, numerous families are no longer feeling secure. So indeed – this group does not seem to feel that local authorities are doing enough to ensure peace to the Mennonite community in Mexico or arbitrate disputes between competing ethnic groups in Mexico and rival claims to resources. In other words, there is a leadership breakdown somewhere.
So are Mexico’s Mennonites leaving to return to Russia? Maybe or maybe not. It is true that in the past, Mennonite colonies existed in the area under discussion from the Kuban north of the Black Sea to modern day Kazakhstan. Also, students of Mennonite history will recall the well documented history of the Great Trek Mennonites who sought freedom and religious inspiration by moving from Russia into the central Turkish republics along the giant mountain ranges of Central Asia. Finally, many Russländer Mennonites were exiled to Central Asia under the Stalin deportations. So we do indeed already possess a cultural awareness of this region and immigration to underdeveloped lands with superior water resources would indeed be a draw. Similarly, just as in the United States, many states do indeed offer incentives for settlement of rural frontiers.
At the moment, it seems that the larger story is probably not the potential for immigration, but rather the need for greater cultural and political leadership both within Chihuahua and amongst the Mennonites of Chihuahua to better deal with inter-ethnic conflict and competition for resources and that failure to do so will probably lead to increased immigration out of the area – whether to Chaco, Canada or Russia, the local impact would be the same. On the other hand, the Mennonites of Chihuahua are well-established and generally respected, chances of a substantial migration out of the region would seem relatively small barring increased pressures from the state or a continuing failure on the part of the state to rectify existing conflicts at their present stage.
Carefully, I am finding that people are already reaching out to resolve these and other potential conflicts of interest and petty jealousies, but it also seems that greater efforts would seem to be required in the future – possibly increasingly referring to the global Mennonite diaspora – both to hold our Mexican cousins accountable for our shared heritage, but to also prevent our often geographically isolated communities from being further victimized for being seen as “other,” “different,” or just plain “vulnerable.” In other words, while Mennonites are known world-wide for helping others, sometimes we might also find it necessary to become our own client.
- Akronoticias.com, “Certificará Conagua posos menonitas en el noroeste de Chihuahua,” http://www.akronoticias.com/2012/10/9814-4173.htm, 14 Oct 2012.,downloaded 18 Oct 2012.
- Fiero, Luis, “Comunidad menonita planea migrar del país,” El Universal, 23 Sept 2012, http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/estados/87866.html, downloaded 18 Oct 2012.
- Fretz, J. Winfield and H. Leonard Sawatzky. "Mexico." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. November 2010. Web. 19 October 2012. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/M492.html, downloaded 19 Oct 2012.
- Payan, Antonio, Editorial, El Portal, 17 Oct 2012, downloaded 18 Oct 2012.
- Wall, Steven, “Have the Mennonites Outgrown Their Tolerance (2 of 2),” Neu Brüderthaler, http://bruderthaler.blogspot.com/2012/03/have-mennonites-outgrown-their_23.html, downloaded 19 Oct 2012.