MEXICO CITY — It’s been nearly a century since pacifist Mennonites fled Russia for the plains of western Canada, immigrating later to northern Mexico to turn some of its arid high desert into model productive farms.
The Mennonites, the men in their overalls and straw hats and the women in ankle-length skirts, nurtured their corn, cotton and bean estates and apple orchards in the state of Chihuahua into some of the most bountiful farms in Mexico.
But not all is well in Mexico’s Mennonite communities, and, in a curious turn of the historic wheel, a smattering are now pondering a return to Russia, the country their grandparents and great-grandparents fled amid the upheaval of the Bolshevik revolution.
“There are a lot of people who are interested in going,” said Enrique Voth Penner, one of 11 Mennonites who in August visited fertile Tatarstan, along the Volga River at the edge of the European part of Russia.
In February, in the midst of the harsh Russian winter, the Mennonite delegation will return to Tatarstan to deepen discussions about what land may be available and whether Russian authorities will grant them the freedom to run independent schools, practice their religion and exempt young men from military service.
The Mennonite return to Russia, if it happens, would be more than just a historical oddity. It also is a reflection of the challenges of intensive agriculture in Mexico’s arid north, where farming depends on massive irrigation and arable land is at a premium. Water tables have dropped dramatically from overuse for farming, and disputes between Mennonite and non-Mennonite farmers have turned violent.
“The No. 1 reason to emigrate is to find land for our future generations,” Voth Penner said. “No. 2 is the situation with the water. We aren’t permitted the water we need.”
Officials say some 50,000 Mennonites reside in Mexico, most of them speakers of a Low German dialect who dwell in isolated farming communities that operate their own schools and churches. Pious and humble by religious training, Anabaptist cousins of the Amish, the Mennonites largely stick to their communities, venturing to cities only to sell cheese and grains or to conduct business. Unlike the Amish, many Mennonites use gasoline-powered vehicles and cellular telephones.
Some Mexicans admire the Mennonites’ success and work ethic but the lack of assimilation, despite more than nine decades of living in Mexico, also has fueled resentments.
“They are Mennonites, and only Mexican when it suits their interests,” said Pedro Castro, a historian and expert on Mennonite issues at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City. “They are white, and they are ‘German.’ ”
Persecuted in their homelands, the Mennonites emigrated from Prussia and Germany to Russia on invitation from Catherine the Great in the 18th century.
With the October Revolution of 1917, which brought the Communist Party to power in Russia, many Mennonites fled to Canada.
“They came because the Bolsheviks were going to expropriate their land,” said Dr. Karl Koth, a historian at the University of Manitoba.
Only a few years later, amid fears that religious guarantees were eroding in Canada, a few thousand Mennonites won a pledge from Mexico’s then-president, Alvaro Obregon, himself a farmer, to respect their way of life. Some 7,000 of them boarded chartered trains to Mexico in the early 1920s.
They largely settled in an arid region west of Chihuahua’s capital clustered around the towns of Namiquipa, Riva Palacio and Cuauhtemoc. Over the decades, their farms flourished, irrigated by wells and the intermittent Rio del Carmen.
In the 1950s and 1960s, some Mennonites moved south, resettling in Mexico’s Campeche region, and also to Belize, Bolivia and Paraguay. In the 1970s, a few hundred resettled in West Texas.
As the decades passed, Mennonite farms in Chihuahua spread into new crops, turning to nuts, sorghum, cotton, wheat and apples, as well as beans and corn. Today, they produce as much as one-third of the yellow corn that’s grown in Mexico.
But water for irrigation remained scarce, and the Mennonites began sinking new wells far deeper than the 100 or 200 feet initially required.
“There are wells that are 600 meters deep now,” said Sergio Cano, a state manager in Chihuahua with the National Water Commission. That’s nearly 2,000 feet.
In the aquifer underlying the city of Cuauhtemoc, farmers pull 300 million cubic meters of water from wells each year, while rain replenishes the water table with only 115 million cubic meters, Cano said, adding that “over-usage is very high.” Both Mennonite and non-Mennonite farms are thought to have obtained licenses for wells through bribes or to have drilled illegal wells.
A severe drought that lasted until earlier this year – the worst in more than 70 years – exacerbated tensions between Mennonite communities and other farmers over water rights, leading to clashes. A non-Mennonite peasant activist and his wife were slain Oct. 22 in Cuauhtemoc, inflaming tensions.
Another unsettling factor is the presence of drug traffickers in Chihuahua, a border state that’s a key corridor for smuggling cocaine northward.
“It is a region penetrated by drug trafficking. Not everyone is innocent, including among the Mennonites,” said Castro, the academic.
Beginning in the late 1990s, drug agents made a handful of arrests of Mennonites taking part in cocaine-smuggling rings to Canada, and young Mennonites began turning up at a rehab facility in Cuauhtemoc or jailed in Ciudad Juarez on smuggling charges.
One group of Mennonites is thought to have forged alliances with La Linea, an enforcement wing of the Juarez Cartel, to protect its interests, Castro said.
While Mennonite family patriarchs don’t express it openly, they seem eager to retreat to areas where such worldly temptations are less readily available.
A Mennonite farmer who went on the trip to Tatarstan, Peter Friesen, said he was impressed with Russians, whom he described as “very orderly and well dressed.”
Asked how many Mennonites might immigrate to Russia, Friesen said: “It could be a lot if they respect our right not to take part in military activities and give us freedoms for schools and all this. People will go.”
Voth Penner offered a similar forecast.
“If we see that it is good there, there will be very many (who emigrate), and not just from one community but also from all over Chihuahua,” he said.
An English-language report Sept. 17 in The Kazan Herald in the Tatarstan capital reported on the possible arrival of Mennonite immigrants, saying the group’s leaders were “very keen and interested” in learning about prospects.
It said the Mennonite delegation met with senior Tatarstan development officials as well as representatives of farm supply industries, slaughterhouses and construction companies.
A tentative date for the first Mennonite migration is early 2014, it added.
Chihuahua state officials worry that some Mennonites might sell their farms and emigrate. But Victor Quintana, a farming expert, minimized the impact.
“The Mennonites have always moved on because their population grows, but there’s no land left,” Quintana said. “This is a demographic pressure outlet for them.”
Voth Penner, who has 11 children, forecast that Chihuahua shouldn’t worry about a departure of some Mennonites.
“We have enough people for 10 times the amount of land we have,” he said. “There will be plenty of people who remain behind.”
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