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.
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.
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.