Nuevo Ideal, Durango

2016-06-19 19.47.27

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.

2016-06-18 19.41.26

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.

2016-06-19 10.12.21

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.”


Mormons in Mexico

So just over two weeks ago I arrived in a pretty Mormon area of Mexico. I have been curious about Mormons for a long time ever since some kids at school confused Mennonites with Mormons (they also confused us with Jehovah’s Witnesses, but, we are not the same). As I became involved in a group that researches Mexico I got to know several Mormons. I also read a lot of books by and about Mormons and listened to some really great podcasts about the history of Mormonism in the US. I then realized that the Mormons from the US had expanded into Canada and Mexico and currently live in areas very close to where Mennonites live (in both countries, actually). Today, most Mormons in Mexico do not live in the small American/English-speaking areas in the North, called Colonia Juárez and Colonia Dublán. Rather, they live throughout the country and were converted through missionary efforts of the LDS (the largest and most mainstream group that uses the name Mormon) church.

In some ways, it turns out that Mennonites and Mormons are quite similar. One Mormon friend put me in touch with some of his distant relatives, who then opened their home to me. That is what has happened many times here in Mexico with my own relatives or family friends, who have been unbelievably kind to me. Many of the people I met had sacrificed a lot of time and money for their church, and the same could be said about Mennonites. In other ways, I would say that Mennonites and Mormons are not that similar. The Mormons believe in an additional revelation beyond the Bible, which I’d say is a pretty substantial difference. Also having a church where everyone in that denomination is doing the same thing on Sunday would not happen in any group of Mennonites I have ever known.

I spent just a few days in Colonia Juárez, where, thanks to my kind hosts, and some of their friends, I got to go to the end of a wedding reception of a Romney, legit talked to some people with the last name Romney, went to a funeral and went to church. The weirdest thing about the church service was that they only had three hymns, and they sat for all of them. These people could sing well. Why would they not stand so that their voices could be more beautiful?

It was a very fine few days, and from there I went and had a vacation in El Paso, Texas, and a town called Truth or Consequences, in New Mexico.


Mennonite Mexico

I have now been in Mexico for almost a week. I have travelled from Mexico City to the beautiful beautiful state of Chihuahua and am having a lovely time in the Mormon Colonia Juárez. But, this post will be about the first few days of my trip in the largest concentration of Mennonites in Mexico.

I visited some Mennonite people in the Cuauhtémoc area. I got to learn lots of interesting things about different projects happening, about Mennonites who are starting to vote, and that even in Mexico there are some Mennonites around my age who are not married. They were like unicorns.

I spent an afternoon at a bookstore and library my dad’s second cousin runs. There I got to volun-tour. I was cataloguing English books. People want to learn English so badly they have Amish teachers during the summer months. While cataloguing I got to talk to Anna and Elena, and learn a little bit more about their lives. I also had lunch at an Aeltenheim, or Old People’s Home. Classic Mennonite food in Mexico – bread, potatoes, fried chicken and maus (fruit soup). The soup was so delicious, and unlikely to be nutritious. Other classic Mennonite food in Mexico are tacos and beans.

working, más o menos

Me and Anna

I also got to spend some time with my second cousin, Peter, who wrote an anniversary book on his colony, La Honda. He and his family were lovely people. I convinced one of their kids to teach me a little bit of Low German. I had more Mexican Mennonite food with them – pizza in a restaurant owned by a Mennonite family. That had a play structure for their kids.

cutest children

Me and some family

After that very nice dinner, I went on to the Colonia Juárez. More on that later.


Summer Travels 2016

So I’m finally Manitoba, Mexico, and will eventually be heading to the Mormon colonies in Chihuahua and also the Mennonite colonies in Durango and Zacatecas. I’m doing research for my book. I have almost drafted the manuscript. And then I “just” need to revise the entire thing. Then my faithful editor, my dad, will make sure that it’s good enough. The writing is going fairly well, in part because a lot of these ideas have been percolating since I presented them for the first time at LASA in May of 2013. The other part of why it’s going well is my faithful unpaid editor.

I am reluctant to finish the manuscript, in part because I worry that my conclusions are going to offend someone. I am, of course, always worried that I am going to offend someone. The conclusions go against conventional academic discourse, that the Mennonites are separate somehow from Mexico; the research suggests some level of integration since arrival. Or, the research is from a perspective that serves to unite people from different Mennonite groups, and so focuses more on a Mennonite identity and less on how the Mennonites fit into Mexico. Research on Mormons is also primarily from an identity-based perspective. But, I believe that they are aware of their integration with Mexican society because it has been intentional for a longer period of time. Of course, I have not yet visited them, so perhaps I will come up with more problematic conclusions later. To date, I have only corresponded with some wonderful Mormons (who are also scholars of Mexico), so I am not sure whether and how well my research matches up to the typical experience. (Professors, teachers and church leaders might not be typical in any group. It is, somehow, easy for me to understand and relate to them though. I wonder why?).

My goal, then, for the next three weeks or so, is to keep paying attention, and to seek out opportunities to use my contacts and hosts (who speak the same languages I do) to learn about the rest of the community that does not speak the same languages I do. It is possible to glean a lot of information from simple interactions, especially when one is given to over-interpreting everyday events for one’s job. This should allow me to pay attention to people that are less frequently in scholarly literature, and to the stories that they might tell me, or show me. I also hope that paying attention to them might allow me to flesh out the hints at their lives that I see in literature and popular culture.

Summer Travels, part 1

I am about to embark on the last leg of my summer travels and visit some friends from grad school and my parents. These travels have been interesting for a number of reasons, mostly that I returned to some places I haven’t been in a while – this is a good way to see how I have changed.

My first foray into the world this summer was a trip to visit my dear friends G and B, and all their friends, but not their dog (sniff), in Edmonton. They drove me everywhere I wanted to go, and we got to see B’s parents, my aunt and uncle (amazing) and some friends from Ottawa and Toronto. I met my friend’s husband for the first time and played with their cute kid (who is my distant relative, so, I claim ownership). I had some tea with a cousin who also lives in Edmonton and we caught up on the past a lot of years. This was a good holiday.

My next foray into summer travel was less fun. Instead of going to a conference in Puerto Rico as I had planned, I went to my grandfather’s funeral in Saskatchewan. This was undoubtedly the right decision and I spent some time with my dad and brother (my mom couldn’t make it) and my dad’s extended family grieving and remembering his life. When I came back to Bluffton, one of my friends asked me about my grandfather. I said simply that he was a good man. He was not a famous man (but he did write a lot of letters to a Mennonite newspaper, which makes him famous among my very extended family and friends of my dad in Mexico and Latin America). He did many things for his community, he loved my grandma and his family.

A few weeks later, I began my epic summer of travel in Mexico. I went to DF for a day (and went to none of the coffee shops or taquerías I had written about before), did a few errands, and then travelled to Chihuahua and Zacatecas (with brief time spent in Coahuila and 10 minutes in Durango). I felt like I encountered about 5 cultures in a week – Mexico City, airports, broader Northern Mexican culture, and, broadly speaking, Kleine Gemeinde, Old Colony (two kinds) and General Conference Mennonites in three different colonies. It was a lot to take in. I had heard of these places all my life but had never known what they were like – in some ways it was like visiting the community my dad grew up in, and in other ways, not at all. The way people’s houses are structured is, for example, more like how my grandparents’ house was than most Mexican homes I’ve visited. The food was a delicious blend between Mennonite and Mexican. A bit more coke that I’m used to, and a bit more Nescafé as well (fairly common in Mexico), but it was lovely. I of course was doing research for my new project so I was trying to take everything in. I may have succeeded.

I was able to bring some of this pseudo-ethnographic research to bear on two presentations I did when I got back to the part of Mexico I understand a bit better. But more on that next week.

Going home

This past week I was at an intense academic event and by the end I just wanted to go home. And then come back in about a week with a whole bunch of new questions. That being outside of the realm of possibility, I said to myself, I want to go home. But where is my home?

I have a lovely apartment in Bluffton, a place where I have lived longer than any other specific space since Grebel (if an on-campus apartment that was by chance the same for two years counts) or high school. But is this my home? How can I be at home in a culture where I do not fit but where others perceive that I do. Case in point: once I was crossing the border with my Nexus, otherwise known as the I paid money in exchange for the “Hemispheric Security” knowing way too much about me lane, and the US customs official said welcome home. I was, how shall we say, shocked, appalled, emotional and I started crying. Second anecdote: I was evangelizing my students about immigration – sharing with them facts such as immigrants are human, and Romney’s father was born in Mexico – and one of them said, and I paraphrase, “we want immigrants like you.”

In spite of others ascribing a Midwestern fit to my life, I feel more at home in Mexico City, a place where I do not fit. One of the happiest moments of my life in Mexico City was when someone was trying to sell me kosher goods because they thought I would use them. Because I belonged here. I then decided to explain that I had family in the Mennonite colonies, which just confused the woman. So then I bought something and left the store.

Perhaps home is that space where I can move through time and everyone else stays frozen until I can attend to them again.