‘I Couldn’t Shake These Stories’: 5 Questions with Abigail Carl-Klassen

Abigail Carl-Klassen is a writer, researcher, poet, educator and translator. She grew up in the rural west Texas community of Seminole and worked for many years in public education and community development on the U.S.-Mexico border. She has done narrative collection and docupoetic work with migrant workers, Mennonite communities in Mexico and Texas, social workers, homeless communities, immigrant communities along the U.S.-Mexico border, and with Central American migrants and asylum seekers in Mexico. She earned an MFA from the University of Texas El Paso’s Bilingual Creative Writing Program and taught at El Paso Community College and the University of Texas El Paso. Her work has appeared in ZYZZYVA, Catapult, Cimarron Review, Willow Springs, Rhubarb, The Center for Mennonite Writing Journal, Guernica, Aster(ix) and Kweli, among others. She is a staff writer for Poets Reading the News, and her chapbook Shelter Management is available from dancing girl press.


1. What are/what is Stories From The Darp?

Darp Stories is a YouTube series that features selected full-length interviews and interview clips from the “Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua” oral history project that was conducted by my husband, Jonathan Klassen, and I in and around the Mennonite communities in northern Mexico in the spring of 2018. The project gets its name from Darpe, the Low-German word for the collection of villages that together make up a traditional Mennonite colony and a Darp is a single village within that larger colony.

The oral history project sought to document and explore the ways in which Mennonite, Mestizo, and Indigenous individuals and communities have interacted with one another in spite of fears, prohibitions, and taboos, in the nearly 100 years since Old Colony Mennonites arrived from Manitoba and Saskatchewan to settle in the region in 1922. We especially wanted to capture personal stories to explore how life has changed in the Campos and to document the depth and variety of cross-cultural interactions occurring between individuals and communities at the present moment.

We release new videos every Friday and each week we highlight a different person who was interviewed for the project. So far, some of our featured stories have included: Carolina and Amelia Pacheco Loewen, who discuss growing up biracial and bicultural in a conservative Mennonite community, Clara Enns, a certified midwife who was also a contestant on MasterChef Mexico in 2016 and José Luis Domínguez, a Cuauhtémoc based author who wrote La Otra Historia de los Menonitas and worked as a day laborer on Mennonite farms as a child in the 1970s. Coming up, we have stories from Katharine Renpenning, who was Miss Chihuahua in 1987, Angélica Chávez Licon, who was the director of Chihuahua’s Mennonite Resource Office, and Bruno Ramos Rivas and Alicia Bustillos González, a couple from the Pueblo Rarámuri, who run a bilingual school (Rarámuri/Spanish) for indigenous children whose families have migrated to Campos Menonitas from the Sierra Tarahumara to work.

About half of the interviews are in English the other half are in Spanish with English subtitles. The interview audio is accompanied by landscape photography of the Campos generously provided by local photographers Marcela Enns, Veronica Enns, and Raúl Ramírez “Kigra”. The series will run through early December 2018, but will remain online afterwards as an open-access resource for the public.


2. What’s your connection to the Campos Menonitas?

Mennonites from the Campos in Chihuahua, Mexico, began settling in Seminole, Texas, in 1977. Since the late 70s, Seminole has been part of many cycles of Mennonite transmigration to and from Mexico and Canada and is home to a large and vibrant Mennonite community.

I grew up in Seminole in the 1990s and early 2000s and had many Mennonite friends who had immigrated to Seminole as children and whose parents were raised in very conservative communities in Mexico. In their homes I heard stories about excommunication, rebellion, struggle, triumph, reconciliation and forbidden relationships with Mestizo people.

I couldn’t shake these stories and when my husband and I got married in 2010, I began to hear even more stories from the Campos Menonitas. Three of my husband’s grandparents were born in Campos and spent a significant amount of their lives there. My husband’s paternal grandfather, Cornelius Klassen, who passed away in 2010, was excommunicated from the Old Colony in the 1960s for being a truck driver. My husband’s father, Dave Klassen, who was actually the first person interviewed for this project, was born in the Campos and grew up there until the early 1970s when he immigrated to Canada with his family.


3. How did this project begin, and/or where did the idea come from?

This project is the result of years of work and many, many people who came together to make this dream a reality!

When I moved to El Paso, Texas in 2003, I brought the stories that I grew up hearing in Seminole with me, but I didn’t know what to do with them, and it was only later I began to realize that the stories were part of a larger narrative surrounding immigration and the socio-political dynamics of the U.S.-Mexico border. In 2009, I began writing docu-poetry based on my experiences working in public education and the non-profit sector on the border, and at this time I also began writing down the some of the stories I had heard from the Campos Menonitas.

In 2013, I put together a collection of poetry for my graduate thesis at the University of Texas El Paso titled “Pressing Seams” that explored the ways the narratives from the Campos Menonitas and the non-profit sector converged on the U.S.-Mexico border. After completing the collection of poetry, the project still seemed unfinished. I really wanted to turn the mic around and provide a platform for people from the Campos to tell their own stories in their own words. Around the same time, I also became very interested in collecting narratives about Mennonite settlement in Mexico from Mestizo and Indigenous perspectives, but I wasn’t sure how to turn this idea into a reality. I continued writing and researching independently and focused on other narrative collection projects, like Shelter Management, which features the narratives of people experiencing homelessness on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In 2015, I presented “Darp Mechanics and Flower Women: Poems of Old Colony Experience in Mexico” at the Mennonites Writing VII: Movement, Transformation and Place conference at Fresno Pacific University. While at the conference, I met Elsie Neufeld who in turn introduced me to Veronica Enns, a visual artist born and raised in the Campos, who had recently returned to Mexico after many years living in Canada.

In 2017, Veronica Enns, Anna Wall, a wonderful writer and public health worker in Ontario who grew up in a conservative Mennonite community in Durango, Mexico, (check out her blog Mennopolitan), and I presented a panel, “Art, Migration, and (Home)making: Mennonite Women, Mexico, and the World” at Eastern Mennonite University’s Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries conference. Through that experience, we were able to work together to form the relationships on the ground in the Campos and secure the funding from the D.F. Plett Historical Research Foundation that made this project possible!


4. What are you hoping that “Stories From The Darp” will accomplish?

First and foremost, I want Darp Stories to be a place where people from the Campos can share their stories on their own terms and in their own words. I’m excited that the viewership has been pretty evenly split between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada with a number of viewers also in Bolivia and Belize. People from Old Colony origin Mennonite communities across the Americas are using social media to create content that shares their experiences, identity and culture. I hope that Darp Stories can be a part of that movement and that it can encourage others to be storytellers in and for their own communities.

Another goal of this project is to bring Mestizo and Indigenous perspectives to the forefront of the conversation about Mennonite settlement in Chihuahua. I want to highlight Mestizo and Indigenous voices and document the experiences of Mestizo and Indigenous individuals in their relationships with Mennonite communities. Mennonite settlement in Mexico has a complex racial, socio-political, linguistic and economic history and I wanted to include perspectives that I feel are oftentimes missing from narratives and scholarship about Mennonites in Mexico.

Last, but not least, I want to highlight the Spanish language research, publications and resources that have been produced by scholars, journalists, community members and the government in Mexico about Mennonite communities in Chihuahua, for an English speaking audience. I also wanted to contribute Spanish language research materials to these existing resources by providing easy access to the transcripts and audio of interviews conducted for this project in Spanish.


5. What’s one of the most surprising things you’ve learned through this project?

I will never cease to be amazed by what people were willing to share (and continue to share) both on and off the record! Some secrets were revealed and some secrets will forever remain secret! People were generally more candid and forthcoming about taboo subjects and were more willing to be interviewed than I anticipated.

Mennonite Lucha Libre? An insider’s look at an Old Colony rehab center? An encounter with Pancho Villa? A descendant of President Roosevelt’s Mexican Repatriation policy? A Mennonite Miss Chihuahua? Those were just some of the surprising and wonderful stories we were able to record for this project.

I was not surprised by the generosity and hospitality we encountered during our fieldwork, but I remain grateful for the openness and kindness we received from Mennonite, Mestizo, and Indigenous communities during our time in the Campos region.