The Casas Grandes region of northern Chihuahua has long been recognized as a place of great cultural diversity. Over the years, the region has been occupied by the inhabitants of Paquimé, Tarahumaras, Spaniards, Sumas, Apaches, Americans, Chinese, and of course, Mexicans. Two additional groups, Mennonites and Mormons, came south into Mexico to avoid persecution for their religious and cultural practices.
The Mennonite Colonies
Whether you cross the border into Mexico from Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas on your journey to the Mata Ortiz region, you will travel on Highway 2 toward Janos, the center of Apache activity at the end of the nineteenth century. Once you turn south on Highway 10 toward Casas Grandes, you will start seeing roadside stands with cheese for sale, and you will know that you're in Mennonite country.
The Mennonites in Chihuahua are descendants of sixteenth-century Swiss Anabaptists who followed the basic Christian teachings of Menno Simons, a former Catholic priest who started the movement. The Mennonites' practices of pacifism and forsaking of secular ways brought the inevitable persecution for their beliefs. They scattered throughout Europe and then southern Russia, developing an extensive farming industry wherever they went. By the 1870s, when Russian authorities stated that only Russian could be spoken in schools and that Mennonites would no longer be exempt from military service, it was time to move once again. Several thousand moved to Canada, where they were once again promised freedom from persecution for their beliefs and practices. Within twenty years these promises faded, and the faithful started looking south to Mexico. [End Page 71]
In 1921, six Mennonite men from Canada entered Mexico by train from Nogales, Arizona. They looked at several areas in the state of Sonora but found nothing suitable. In Chihuahua, not far from the capital, they found land ideal for farming, primarily for wheat. It was time to negotiate with government officials.
In 1921, Old Colony Mennonites in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Canada, received permission to immigrate and a promise of noninterference from Mexico's President Alvaro Obregón. The Mexican government was interested in having farmers settle on lands that had been owned by foreigners prior to the Mexican Revolution. They purchased around 200,000 acres of land just north of Cuauhtémoc, a city some fifty miles west of Chihuahua City. President Obregón essentially pledged that the Mennonites would be exempt from military service and could educate their children in their own fashion and conduct business among themselves in their normal manner.
In the spring of 1922, the first of numerous chartered trains left Canada for Mexico. Each train cost thousands of dollars to charter and was loaded with dozens of families with their personal items, farming equipment, and livestock. The newly arrived immigrants worked extremely hard and quickly transformed the desert prairie north of Cuauhtémoc into the breadbasket of Chihuahua. In the 1930s, the Mexican government tried to terminate the special rights that President Obregón had given to the Mennonites. Fortunately, President Cárdenas re-established these guarantees.
Then in 1960, due to a land shortage and a new paved road through Cuauhtémoc's Manitoba Colony that threatened the colony's isolation, the Mennonites founded the Buenos Aires Colony just west of Janos. In 1962 they purchased more land and founded the Capulín Colony southeast of Janos. They purchased more land south of Janos and west of Highway 10 in 1979, for what became the Cuervo Colony. More land was purchased and two more colonies, Las Virginias and Buena Vista, were established in the 1980s near Buenos Aires in the Janos region. Each colony is composed of a number of campos. The census estimate for the colonies in 1987 was about 1,500 inhabitants, and it is estimated that there were about 80,000 Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico in 2003.
As with their previous migrations, the Mennonites came to the Janos municipality so that they could maintain their culture and religion in relative isolation, much as they have done since their fifteenth-century beginnings in central Europe. Mennonites are committed to nonviolence [End Page 72] and pacifism...