Monthly Archives: July 2016

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.

La Honda, Zacatecas

After I left the Colonia Juárez I spent a few wonderful days with close academic friends in El Paso and Truth or Consequences. Well, some of them. Then, I proceeded to travel to several places not advised by the state department. In fact, just today I began reading up on the travel advisory for Mexico and realized I should never have gone to the Mormon colonies, taken a side day trip to the Capulín colony, or really ever left my home in Ohio.

To leave El Paso I got on a bus whose stops are not marked, and which has no phone number you can call, to get to the Ciudad Juárez airport. I showed no passport to re-enter Mexico and I think I only had my luggage scanned out of what can only be called a Canadian sense of duty. Upon my uneventful arrival in the airport, I waited for a plane, went to the city of Chihuahua, charged my phone, left my phone charger in the airport, and got on another plane to Torreón. In Torreón, I followed the advice of my friend Rafa and ate truly delicious Lebanese food as well as some good gorditas. But the gorditas were better in Durango. It’s just a thing. I also went to starbucks and bought a phone charger at radio shack. My new charger works better than my old one, so I’ll call that a win. I have now just realized that this was apparently a dangerous state for travel. After an uneventful day (and two nights in an un-airconditioned Airbnb – never making that mistake again) I woke up and went to the bus station to go to Juan Aldama, Zacatecas. The bus was everything that is good about Mexican transit – a stop long enough to use a bathroom not on the bus and (in Durango) someone bringing gorditas onto the bus. I have now also realized that I should never have gone to the state of Zacatecas because it is too dangerous. (Some people I met in La Honda, Zacatecas told me they let their daughters take some forms of transit by themselves in the city during daytime hours, so I think I was ok).

In the Mennonite colony (or grouping of villages) in the former hacienda of La Honda, now called the La Honda colony, I had a great time. I stayed with one of my second cousins, Anna, and her husband, Peter. Anna speaks English, Spanish and Low German, and her husband speaks Spanish really well, as well as Low German. Since Anna is not as good at speaking any language I speak, she started teaching me Low German. This was an excellent use of my time, and I am sure provided entertainment for her. It provided entertainment for me! The first day I was there I ate sunflower seeds and drank coke (this is simultaneously the most Mexican and the most Mennonite thing I have ever done). Then I had faspa. Of chocolate cake. And coffee. It was so good. And then there was supper after. I need to re-institute faspa into my life. Who doesn’t want a non-nutritious bread-or-pastry based snack around 3 or 4? (Of course, the people were probably only feeding me this additional meal because they had a guest. But whatever. It was amazing).

I also had the opportunity to visit with some other people who are related to me, and who know my dad (hashtag Menno-famous by association). The first day I spent with a family whose parents are deacons in their church, and who have four daughters. They fed me enchiladas (amazing), showed me around their colony (grouping of villages), and the school where two of the daughters are teachers. While the mom and daughters were getting a meal ready, I played a bit with the youngest daughter and got her to teach me some animal names in Low German. Some of them I knew. She called a cow a vaca, for example (that’s Spanish).

Later on that day, I continued with my learning. For supper, Anna took me out for tacos. She ordered fifteen for each of us and I thought I’d die, but then I realized that they were tiny. And delicious. And I ate them all. Then I went to Low German Bible study. I had brought along a Bible in English, so at least I understood part of what the minister was talking about. The lesson was, in part, about being fearless, and I, being of the anxious persuasion, was already familiar with some of that vocabulary in Low German.

The final day, two of my second cousins made me tacos. I watched them so I kind of figured out how they prepared the meat and the salsa. They showed me some of the pictures of their students (they are teachers in their church’s school) and took me to visit some other relatives. It was wonderful to reconnect with some people I had met before, and to see a bit more of the villages.

My time in La Honda was full of visits – some with family I had met before, and some with family I had not had the opportunity to meet until a few weeks ago.People were so kind to me, feeding me what can only be called the most delicious cuisine – Mennonite sommerborscht, Mennonite anise-flavoured nuddelsuppe and Mexican tacos (not at the same meal). Always with a side of instant coffee. I would venture to say, in Low German, even though the language, like the culture, surely eschews pride, that this was a very successful “Spat’seare met Frintschoft.”