On Violence, Culture and Literature

A few weeks ago I presented at a conference about human rights, and I discussed conflict about land between LeBarons (a group of polygamous Mormons with an exceptionally violent history) and primarily Indigenous ejidatarios (people who live on collectively owned land granted or restituted by the Mexican government). My conclusion pondered the merits of consuming representations of the obviously violent aspects of this conflict, particularly as it is situated in Mexico.

“This talk about violence, and the overt representation of violence, may do harm than good. It is another way to exoticize Mexico. It overshadows the structural violence that leads to abject violence, which is then represented in visual and print cultures. I wonder if paying attention to the everyday bureaucratic actions and corresponding acts of resistance and the ways that they are represented would be a better approach. It would allow us to return to the reason we study literature, culture and history: the chance to glimpse times, people and places outside of our own experiences and to offer us ways to pay attention and to understand what we prefer to ignore. Returning to why we began such an unproductive career path in the first place allows us to trace the history of the machine that produces so much violence it has now become palatable for us.”

Meditation for a Faculty Meeting

Today I come to you with a heavy and uncertain heart. I know that many of you are feeling afraid, feeling threatened or feeling exhausted. In the country where we are living, people with power have taken advantage of these feelings to divide people and to present stereotypes and prejudices as if they were facts. Today, I offer you three short stories and a prayer to encourage us to live and work with honesty and integrity in this context of uncertainty, heaviness and divisiveness.

The first is about how we might see the good in others. About five and a half years ago I lived in a house with three roommates. One of them, who had grown up Catholic, and joined a non-denominational church as a teen, had a shelf full of statues of the Virgin Mary. I was very curious about this, as Mennonites of my background and friends from non-denominational evangelical backgrounds have not not often had saint statues. She told me that she thinks of the Virgin Mary as the Biblical/religious figure, and, as Madeline L’Engle pointed out, one who was obedient to God’s creative work. The concept of Christian obedience has often had awful consequences for women; however, I still like to light candles to the Virgin to remember to notice and to magnify what I believe is the divine light in all of us.

The second story is about finding ways to create conversation. I did not want to come back to school. My summer was amazing. I got to research in archives, research by talking to people and attend cultural events at least once or twice a week that directly pertained to my interests. Then we had faculty/staff retreat. That’s never the most uplifting part of the year for me. The following weekend, I went to a conference about Low German women, on a day when only women were speaking. It was in London, Ontario, close to large communities of Low German Mennonites. The panels were set up with kringel, a traditional braided breadstick-item as if we were going to visit. In this way, my research on how Low German people are seen in Mexican and Canadian culture (too often as drug traffickers) could more easily converse with the experiences of Dietsche women, and the social workers, teachers, public health researchers and MCC staff who work with them. This conference helped me realize that my research matters.

The last is a story of encouragement. In 1952, my maternal grandparents were called by the Mennonite Brethren Board of Missions to work in Paraguay with refugees who had recently arrived there from the Soviet Union. They had come to Canada from the Soviet Union as young children and so they shared a language, church, and culture with these people. My grandfather was a teacher and a preacher and my grandmother was a nurse. But, my grandma did not want to go and found it very hard to live there. She often said that one thing that kept her going was a verse that a couple from Kansas, who also belonged to their denomination, had sent them before my grandparents left for Paraguay. It was such an important piece of paper to her that she kept it in her wallet until she died, about a month ago. It said, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deutoronomy 33:27a).

And that is my prayer for you. That in the coming days and months we might find strength to magnify the divine creative light in one another and in our students, and to see how our research can deepen our relationships with marginalized people and to trust in God’s everlasting arms.

Mexico City

I have been in Mexico City for over a month now and I am not ready to leave. I don’t even know where I am going to. Is Ohio my home? I remain uncertain. This summer has been wonderful. First, I hosted by mom and our dear friend for a week. That was a bit stressful, but, I actually saw a number of my favourite tourist sites again – the basilica, the Frida Kahlo house in Coyoacán the Popular Art Museum, and we did parts of my friend Nacho’s patented Mexico City tour. We also had some problems with water in our airbnb, but I just recently got a refund so I’m now again fully on board with the precarious economy.


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Me and my mom in Coyoacán at the Frida Kahlo house

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Santa Muerte

Then, since the beginning of July I have been in an apartment with my friend from my writing group and fellow Mexicanist. Every morning at home we wake up at 6:30 and go onto whatsapp and write. Anyone can join, but no one wants to. She makes me coffee every day and then we write every morning. We did other things during the day that pertained to both of our current book projects. I often went to the archives and museums. We also did yoga, at a great studio around the corner. It turns out that after a month of near-daily yoga I am pretty good. I can almost hold crow pose for a whole breath!

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Wearing a sweater from my roommate

I ate a lot of comida corrida, and my favourite and best tacos, where I went last year with my friend Santiago, his hilarious nephew and one of Santiago’s thesis committee members.  I went to a few museums, saw the altar to the Santa Muerte (Saint Death) and soaked up the energy of this incredible city.

Mérida and Progreso

Every time I come to Mexico I like to go on vacation. I know for some people it seems that my life here is a vacation, but I guarantee to you that no one on vacation would wake up at 6:30 in the morning to write. I am here to do research, and the first part of that involved visiting with people and conducting informal and perhaps one could say unauthorized by my research board interviews. The next part of my work here has been to visit archives, as you can see by my previous couple of posts, and gain permission to reprint some images, and then to write. And write. And write. Writing is exhausting. That is why I need a vacation.

A few weekends ago, I went to Mérida. Overall as a travel destination I’d give it a solid B+. This is because it was terribly humid and because of the sexual harassment (way worse than Mexico City on a day-to-day level. Although, in Mérida, there are no signs on public buses telling me I should blow my whistle (provided by the city) anytime I am assaulted. Maybe men should blow their whistles when they feel tempted? But I digress). I think the other part of this is my fault for flying a cheap airline that is always late and flies out of the most crowded corner of the Mexico City airport.

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La Chaya Maya Cochinita Pibil

The first evening I was in Mérida I just wandered around and at really good food at La Chaya Maya. The next day I went to Chichen Itza. That is the type of place that doesn’t even look real.

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Tacos PM

But, all my pictures look worse than the ones on the internet, and I think that mine look pretty good. That afternoon I ate some more tacos (Thanks again for the rec. Brian) in a very fancy neighbourhood with some smoky charbroiled flavour to the meat.


2016-07-17 10.44.24After that, I decided to go see some Cenotes. I highly highly recommend the ones in Cuzama. Really easy to get to as long as you don’t mind Mexican van travel. And if you have a long time to wait. I ended up being in the same van as two other guys who were visiting the cenote and so we took a little moto-taxi that I thought was going to break, and then shared a possibly former mining train-cart (horse-drawn)… little did we know we would spend like 5 hours together. We took one cart, to another moto-taxi, and then to another really long horse-drawn train cart. The first cenote, pictured, was pretty open, and like one I had seen before in Tulum. Then we went to two other cenotes, each one more closed up than the last, so that by the end we were wandering through a cave. It is among my top three travel destinations: Copper Canyon (Chihuahua, Mexico) and Semuc Champey (Guatemala) are tied for first.

My final afternoon (that would be after the cenotes) I went to the Progreso beach, which was insanely busy. My hotel also had overbooked (they say overbooked, I say, you are a bed and breakfast so you have 5 rooms, so you are disorganized) so I ended up staying at a decent Mexican hotel for the same price. It was clean, nice enough, and had terrible wifi. Everything a Mexican hotel should provide. The next morning I got to experience the beach without so many people. Much much better. Then I began my trek back to Mexico City.



Archivo Conagua and Striking Teachers

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Teachers are too dangerous for bike shares…

After I finished up at the Agrarian Archive I decided to go to the National Water Commission (Conagua) archive. My logic was that if there was conflict over land, there certainly would have been conflict over water. I was correct. There was conflict over water. But, that was not the most interesting thing that happened to me at this archive. I decided to walk there, since it was about 30 minutes away from my apartment here in Mexico City,

While on my way there, I happened upon a plantón de maestros. That was the first most interesting thing. This is essentially a camp of teachers from the national union who are protesting education reforms. I am, of course, theoretically in favor of unions. I am not in favor of unions as corrupt as this one. I am also not in favor of educational reforms that do not address this corruption, or even take into account the very difficult conditions for many teachers and students in Mexican public schools. There needs to be reform, but of a very different kind.

Moreover, while walking through this urban camp, I began to wonder: for whom is this

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Next to the archive

convenient? I cannot imagine it is convenient for the teachers, sleeping on streets. It might be convenient for a government that wants to look like it supports striking workers even though it restricts where they can march, and camp out; it might also be convenient for a union to appear to be working with its members; it might be even more convenient for the same government and union to have millions of children without teachers. That is always convenient for authoritarians.

Inside the archive, I kept thinking. The woman in charge was extremely helpful (I recommend this archive highly) and the database was actually useful. This is quite rare. I found most of what I wanted, but I could not find anything to corroborate my suspicion (and newspaper reports) that Mennonite people in Chihuahua are digging too many wells and wells that are too deep, and that in time, there will be no water left. I didn’t really expect to find proof of that, really. But it would have been so cool.

Archivo Agrario

Sometimes I think I should have been a historian because I love archives. So much. Last year, as some of you may remember, I visited the Archivo General Agrario for the first time. Last year, I was kind of annoyed with this archive because they were slow, I needed to write a letter on letterhead in order to be able to take pictures, etc. etc. etc. Classic bureaucracy. Then, I went back in March and I learned I couldn’t even take pictures! What the heck! I took some notes, and thought I would never have to return.

I was quite happy about this turn of events because this archive is a bit crazy. It is actually used by normal people, and in Mexico this means people who don’t know how to use computers well (the archive search engine is computer based) and sometimes people who can barely read. This means that the few people who are actually helping the patrons have an even more difficult job than in other archives. And the documents are in the process of being digitized so sometimes it takes a while to get them, and sometimes by around 11 or 12 there are so many people that they can take up to half an hour. So then I would go home and have lunch.

2016-07-11 12.22.58Then, I began to do some more research for my project and to talk to some people about agrarian reform in Mennonite and Mormon communities. I learned that one Mennonite colony, La Batea, was particularly notorious for problems with ejidos. I had read some information about final agreements, but then I realized I would have to go back and see how and why this conflict had started. So I had to read some documents (they were cool btw. Pieces of paper and carbon copies from 50-100 years ago are my jam). While I was staying with the Mormons, they and other people I met in the region also started telling me about Mormon problems with land reform, and that one of the reasons why they had fewer colonies now than 100 years ago was because of agrarian reform… when I went to look up two conflicts… the files were enormous. There was no way I could take notes, even if I made the questionable choice of bringing my computer on the subway to go to the archive (close to a neighbourhood, Tepito, that is not considered the best).

So, I decided to ask the staff if there was any way I could take pictures – I could pay to have photocopies made, but those took at least three weeks of turnaround. They were priced reasonably, but the time made me a bit concerned. Finally, I asked the right person, and he (pictured above) told me that according to his boss, I would need a letter, and a camera. So, once I had found out which documents I wanted to have for posterity, and after griping for a while to my housemate, I went back to the archive. The only problem with this is that I left my camera in my apartment (because it was breaking) and only had my phone. The phone also has the advantage of being able to use programs like genius scan to convert images to PDF, and then I can use Acrobat Pro to make the PDF searchable… so basically it is way more convenient. I decided to put on my best new t-shirt from Los Hipersensibles and my white privilege and hoped for the best.  It worked. I now have so much information about ejidos, Mormons in Chihuahua and Mennonites in Zacatecas that it’s ridiculous. The question remains: why could I do this and why do people who are trying to ascertain their own land titles have to pay money and then wait for an interminably long time?

Nuevo Ideal, Durango

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Nuevo Ideal

People often ask me why I wanted to study Mexico. They are commenting, without saying anything, of course, that I am, after all, not Mexican. (And we must want to study ourselves, and only ourselves. Second sidebar: studying my affinity group, white ladies with PhDs who specialize in Mexican literature would lead to some pretty entertaining interviews. Just saying). The desire to study oneself may lead some to psychoanalysis,  and it, you could say, led me to Durango.

When I was younger, my family would often go to visit our extended family in Western Canada. One of those stops was Blumenheim, Saskatchewan, to visit my grandparents. My dad would often take us to visit the cemetery where his brother (who died as an infant) as well as some other relatives our buried. This cemetery is on land that my grandparents used to own, and so my dad grew up farming this land, along the South Saskatchewan River. Saskatchewan is really quite beautiful. It is somewhat strange that my dad never took us to visit his grandfather Wiebe’s grave, which was on the farm next to his parents’ place, but it didn’t have the same connection to the land and the river.

As part of my parents’ overall project with me and my brother, we learned about my mom’s side of the family, who came to Canada from what is now Ukraine as small children. We also learned about the family who had moved to Mexico. When I was about 12 and had a somewhat large library fine, my dad paid me to type up the story of his grandmother Wiebe’s life, which my Grandpa Janzen had written, in consultation with my grandma. So, as a small child I learned a. to stop taking books out of the library because I was always going to get fined and b. that some people’s lives have been very hard, especially when they moved from Canada to Mexico.

My great-grandmother and five great-aunts and uncles moved to Jagueyes, in Chihuahua, in 1948, and then when their church leader gave up and went back to Canada, they moved to Nuevo Ideal, in the state of Durango, because some people from their part of Saskatchewan had moved there in the 1920s. She is buried there, along with two of her children. So, I wanted to see where they were buried and to try and imagine what it must have been like for them when they first came to Mexico. Their house is no longer standing, so the graves are all that is left.

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My great-aunt’s grave

I asked two people who work for MCC if they could host me, which they kindly did, mostly because they knew my dad. They picked me up in La Honda, and drove me to Durango, because they “had to go to La Honda anyway for work.” It still seemed like a huge favour to me. Nuevo Ideal is quite different from the other places I had visited, because there the Mennonites and the nearby town seem to be a lot more familiar with each other. They are all quite isolated. Most of Mennonites only were officially allowed to use electricity fairly recently; according to a friend from the town, they did not have dependable electricity or telephone service either when she was a child. It seems that there are some good relationships between the two communities. (In fact, the best book that I have read about Mennonites in Mexico in Spanish was written by someone from Durango).


They took me to this cemetery. One of my dad’s cousins in La Honda told me where it was in the colony, in the village of Hochstaedt. My hosts only kind of  knew where that village was located (and one of them had even grown up in Durango). When we drove there, we had to ask some kids where the cemetery was located. (We meaning not me. My Low German is confined to explaining how I am related to my relatives, who my dad and grandfather are, and saying that someone has made delicious food or has nice flowers). The kid we asked was trying to hide the gun he was playing with. Then we drove onto the yard, and we had to ask some young guys to be able to drive across their yard and into their back field. The guys (three trucks with Ontario plates) were eager to hide what they were doing. Likely making what I like to call bad life choices.

Then we went to the cemetery. It was quite sad – the earliest graves had no markers – and even the oldest graves had been made quite rudimentarily. There were only flowers on one grave – likely a Canadian relative. I soon learned why people thought this was so strange – most Low German people in Mexico don’t visit graves and they certainly would never decorate them. In the distance, we could see a lot of small trees, and my host explained that all of the area used to look like that. I could hardly even imagine what it must have been like for the first people who arrive in the 1920s.

My short time in Durango also included a five-hour church service. It was so long because it involved a bilingual (Low German-Spanish) worship service, baptism by immersion in a river that was probably pretty cold, and taco buffet afterwards. I could only understand the Spanish sermon, and it was telling me everything that I was doing wrong with my life. The Low German preacher did not seem to have that tone, and I hope my intuition was right.

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Church happened here

I also met a few relatives, who showed me a whole bunch of old pictures from their/my family, saw a home for people with disabilities run by the Old Colony Church, where some of my relatives from La Honda were working for a month, and where one of my second cousins in Nuevo Ideal works, and generally tried to communicate (to some limited success) in a new language.