Feature image: You’re looking at a gorgeous ceramic mug created by Veronica Enns, a visual artist from Mexico. She’s created a Mennonite Heritage line of pieces to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mennonites in Mexico. This exquisite design is called “diuk” and I treasure it.
A starting point.
I need to write this before taking in the Leaving Canada exhibit at the MHV and actually truly learning about this and then pretending I was knowledgeable all along.
I am not.
Here we go.
Let me tell you everything I know about Mennonites in Mexico.
That is to say, I know precious little. But let’s lean into that a bit. Why do I know so little about Mennonites in Mexico… and is that even true? Do I know more than I think I do?
Well, let’s start with the typical, obvious answer: I don’t have any close family connections to the Mennonite migration from Canada to Mexico of 1922. By that time my ancestors were in Canada and here they stayed.
I didn’t think much about this all until Raul Kigra interviewed me about this specific topic. I’m simultaneously frank and ignorant, which I’d imagine is somewhat promising but ultimately disappointing (incidentally, this is pretty much reflects all the teacher-comments on my high school report cards).
I should mention, all these pictures are from spending this past Saturday with Veronica Enns and Raul Kigra, who live among the Mennonites in Mexico. I was aware of her Instagram and was completely dazzled to meet her in person.
I tried to show them connections to the migration to Mexico, here on the East Reserve (today the R.M of Hanover) but found that the only villages I knew to empty themselves to a migration… had been related to a migration to Paraguay. That is not the same. Those two countries are very very far apart. I often conflate everything to the south and that is most definitely not accurate.
Even the Historical Atlas of the East Reserve doesn’t yield much in terms of a connection to Mexico — and I have used this as my guide in local historical exploration. Upon reflection, I think the reason for this is that there really is not a tremendous direct link — because the East Reserve was settled first, but as the land was crappy, many MANY villages were abandoned simply because Mennonites were moving to the West Reserve where it was far easier to grow crops and whatnot. Then from there, many moved to Mexico in 1922. That is what I think. This is probably written about somewhere. There is a lot I have not yet read. Either that or I’m jumping to wild conclusions (YET AGAIN).
So, I want to work to expose my knowledge of Mennonites in Mexico (or, lack thereof).
I think the first I heard of “Mexican Mennonites” was pretty close to home — one of my first best friends in elementary school was a “Mexican Mennonite” (is this a proper term? I think it might not be, hence the quotations). She had eight siblings and they were our neighbours, so not only was she in my classes in school, but we also rode the school bus together every day… and it was a LONG ride because the bus driver was also our neighbour.
Mostly she and I would discuss school, books we were reading, and just stuff in our daily lives. But she did tell me some things about Mexico. To be very brutally frank, I think this subject first arose in grade five when a classmate of ours mocked her, calling her a Mexican. He was being derogatory. This is painful to remember. From his tone, it seemed he was implying there was something bad here, but I didn’t know what it was — like, why was this kid using this as an insult? I had questions. I mean, I did know she dressed differently, always wore a flowered dress and never cut her hair. (I admired her very long blonde hair.) This “Mexican” comment didn’t seem like a very good foundation for an insult.
But the fact remains, this kid tried to insult her by yelling that she was a Mexican. Also a note on this kid — I did not like him. He just seemed like a useless human being to me. So it seemed to me that if he was using this as an insult… it was probably actually a good or interesting characteristic.
I think this is a pain point I should press into. This is something no one wants to talk about. But it swims in my memory. This incident came from somewhere, you know? There’s something here to lean into and expose, I think.
I don’t think my dear friend had been born in Mexico. I think she may have been born in Ontario, if I recall correctly (and, my memory is hazy). Her parents probably were born in Mexico, and held close connections with family and community there (but also Ontario). But from what I knew of Mexico (Speedy Gonzalas was really it, with his little sombrero) my friends’ family didn’t exactly match up. Something else was going on here. And when I asked around about this, that was when I learned that some Mennonites had left Canada a long time ago and now some were returning, and they were changed. We were the same people yet our cultures had evolved differently in the time between so now “Mexican Mennonite” was a thing.
However, I don’t recall anyone else mocking her for her heritage. In fact, she was fairly popular. She was pretty, friendly, intelligent, gregarious, carefree, warm and caring. And this is how I remember our friendship.
We lost touch after leaving our little country school. My memory is not too reliable, but I think I remember running into her in the bus line at the high school in Steinbach and she told me she would not be attending anymore. I know she married someone from her church and her ties to the Reinlander community intensified and once we were no longer in the same little school with the same long bus route, our lives went in different directions.
I think she (my best friend from elementary school) was the first person to mention the Mennonite Mafia to me — the drug runners. (Is that bad to mention?) I was so shocked that I laughed and laughed. (Probably not actually that hilarious…)
Okay but is it really true that I know nothing of the Mennonites of Mexico? I’ve been taught a lot in the last few years and have maybe absorbed a little. I’ve learned that the youth on Mennonite colonies in Mexico text each other all the time, but still dress distinctly, which is very interesting to think about. (I apologize for being vague.)
I’ve also realized that in adulthood I have two close friends of Mennonite background whose families had returned from Mexico. Both are fabulous cooks and make stellar tacos from scratch. Neither was born there. One is proud of her family’s food traditions that stretch back to Mexico. The other is disconnected and has no interest in Mexico, yet can speak Plautdietsche quite naturally because of that close connection to the Mennonite community in Mexico.
Food and language. Such important cultural markers.
What else do I know? Well, I did watch Silent Light when it first came out because how could I not? Miriam Toews stars in that movie! (She portrays a Mexican Mennonite wife.) After her experience, her next novel Irma Voth spoke into this, and I read it with great fascination. I read it a long time ago, and need to read it again. I cannot remember what I learned from this. But the book is there on my shelf so I should pick it up again.
And then there is also this book, which I certainly should’ve read:
One day we waltzed into the Mennonite Post which is located very near us here on Main Street in Steinbach. They have a bookstore and Andrew and I went to investigate. We found this amazing book and bought it. It is an art book about Mennonites in Mexico. We now own it.
AND I HAVE NOT READ IT YET.
When Raul and Veronica were in our home, Andrew showed Raul this book. He was very jealous that we have it. He has been trying to purchase it for himself for quite some time. If it were available for sale somewhere, it would cost more than twice what we paid here in Steinbach at the Mennonite Post. Isn’t that something? It definitely pays to visit the Mennonite Post bookstore.
(But also, how horrible am I that I have not read it yet????)
Anyway. I have disappointed myself with my lack of knowledge about the Mennonite migration to and from Mexico and now that my brain is more aware and awake and I see this gap in my knowledge I will ask better questions of others, and myself. And I will also do the reading that is right in front of my face. AND I will see the exhibit at the Mennonite Heritage Village! (It goes without saying that you should too.)
All my personal experiences with Mennonites from Mexico have been warm and joy-filled. I feel very grateful. Now I will dive into learning what I should have learned a long time ago.