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.