Cuauhtémoc Mennonite Settlement (Chihuahua, Mexico)
This article was written in the early 1950s
The Manitoba colony and the Swift Current colony, with a joint population of approximately 10,000 in 1950, composed the Old Colony Mennonite settlement in the San Antonio Valley near the city of Cuauhtémoc in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. These colonies, named after their respective places of origin in western Canada, resembled each other in pattern but were under separate leadership. The Swift Current group is the smaller of the two and borders the Manitoba colony to the northwest. These settlements, established between 1922 and 1927, are located about 230 miles (370 km) south of El Paso, Texas, and 75 miles (125 km) west of the capital city of Chihuahua.
The Mennonites went to Mexico because the Canadian government withdrew the educational privileges which it had granted the first Mennonite immigrants from Russia in 1874. They felt that a nationalization of their schools was a direct threat to their beliefs. President Obregon of Mexico assured them the educational and religious liberties which they desired, and steps were immediately taken to dispose of real estate in Canada and move to Mexico as rapidly as possible.
The first purchase of land consisted of 155,000 acres. The price, eight dollars per acre, was reasonable compared with prices in Canada, but was far above prevailing prices in Mexico. This land was surveyed and laid out in villages, following the same pattern they had used in Russia and in Canada. In 1950 there were about 45 villages in the Manitoba colony and 16 in the Swift Current colony. An additional 12 villages composed a daughter colony at the northern end. The latter are situated on a separate 7,200-acre tract of land purchased in 1945 for the purpose of settling landless young married couples from both colonies. Each village is provided with enough land for 10 to 30 farm families. The farmyards were arranged on either side of a broad main street, with the various fields in the background. The average farm was about 160 acres, parceled out so that each farmer had to take his share of unproductive land along with his fields of fertile land. Each village also reserved a specified acreage for the common pasture. Technically, the farmers did not own their land. They had no titles or deeds, and could not mortgage their land or sell to outsiders. Usually the Oberschulze (general manager) and another person in the colony had these documents for a large parcel, and from them the individual farmer made his purchase. A record of payments was kept by the Oberschulze, and, in practice, when all the payments were made, a farmer was considered owner, although he had no legal documents to prove this. Apparently the integrity of the Oberschulze was never doubted.
The Mennonites in Mexico were farmers. Farming methods and types of crops, partly limited by climatic conditions, were invariably the same in all settlements. Due to the semiarid conditions, crops were seeded when the rains began in June or July. Irrigation was used only on a small scale for gardens and orchards, and for the occasional small patch of alfalfa. Oats, corn, and beans were the principal crops. Corn and beans were the staple food of the Mexican, and had a ready home market, but the price of the oats fluctuated according to the law of supply and demand. Wheat could not be grown successfully because of unfavorable climatic conditions.
During the first five years farmers met with bitter disappointment because they tried to apply the same crops and methods they had used in Canada. However, they became adjusted to their environment and were superior farmers. Power machinery became increasingly popular; farmyards were neat and orderly; buildings, although of mud-brick construction and simply furnished, were comfortable and adequate. Livestock, especially horses, was far superior to that of the Mexican. Gardens and orchards were productive and formed an attractive background to the farmyard. Some of the shrubs were brought directly from Canada.
Business and industry, although frowned upon by the church, developed in certain areas, partly out of necessity. Although trading was done mostly in Cuauhtémoc and occasionally in Chihuahua, 75 miles to the east, many stores were found in the villages. Cheese factories were scattered throughout the colonies. They not only provided a market for the milk, but also gave employment to a few landless men. There were blacksmith and machine shops, and there was a drugstore and a print shop. In this print shop several books were printed, the type being set by hand by three or four adolescent employees. There were several self-educated dentists and doctors serving the colonies, but medical and health practices were many years outmoded by American standards. Since Old Colony Mennonites prohibited their members from living in towns, it was obvious that industrial opportunities are limited.
The strongest organization in the community was the church. Church membership and citizenship in the community were synonymous. To step outside the church regulations meant ostracism and loss of social status. The Manitoba Colony in 1950 had eight churches served by one bishop and several preachers, who had ultimate authority in matters pertaining to life and conduct in the colony. Discipline was maintained by the threat of excommunication.
Worship services, two or three hours in length, were conducted in plain meetinghouses furnished with backless wooden benches. The Vorsänger (choristers) who selected the hymns and set the pitch for the congregation, had a place beside the pulpit next to the ministers. The melodies and singing resembled those used by the Amish in the Ausbund of several centuries ago. The use of harmony or musical instruments did not occur. The sermon was read in High German and expository comments were made in Low German. Young people were baptized in their early twenties, usually just before marriage. It is reported that there were approximately 100 marriages a year in the colony. Intermarriage with Mexicans occured but rarely. Concerning the moral and ethical status of the colony there are differences of opinion; some colony leaders expressed fear that contact with the natives was having a detrimental effect on the colony's original high moral reputation. The writer's observation, although not conclusive, indicated evidence of moral laxity, intellectual stagnation, and perhaps spiritual dormancy.
The Old Colony Church was concerned about its schools. It was on this issue that they migrated to Mexico. The church and the school were closely bound together. Each village had its own school, which was usually in session from November to April or May. The teacher was selected from the male church membership without special training. The schools were under the supervision of the ministers. The Fibel, Catechism, Bible, and Gesangbuch constituted the main study materials. Instruction was by rote and in the High German language, although all of the children spoke Low German at play, and many teachers had but a poor knowledge of the High German. Reading material was scarce, even in the home. The Steinbach Post was frequently the only source of reading. Some of the more alert members of the community were dissatisfied with the condition of their schools, but the general philosophy was to prevent people from learning too much so that they would be content to remain tillers of the soil within the colony. It was true, however, that very few of the young people left the colony, but the tendency for the landless and unattached to drift away was increasing with an increase in population. A long-continued drought caused the return of several hundred to Canada in 1954.
The government of Mexico was friendly toward the Mennonites. They were looked up to as model farmers. Social intercourse between Mennonites and Mexicans was restricted mainly to business transactions. The Mennonites were glad for their freedom in religious, educational, and agricultural matters, but they had not yet become Mexican citizens.
Fretz, J. Winfield. Mennonite Colonization in Mexico. Akron, Pa., 1945.
Fretz, J. Winfield. "Mennonites in Mexico." Mennonite Life (April 1947).
Schmiedehaus, W. "Mennonite Life in Mexico." Mennonite Life (April 1947).
Schmiedehaus, W. Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott. Cuauhtémoc, Mexico, 1948.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 744-745. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Enns, John. "Cuauhtémoc Mennonite Settlement (Chihuahua, Mexico)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 20 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/cuauhtemoc_mennonite_settlement_chihuahua_mexico.
APA style: Enns, John. (1953). Cuauhtémoc Mennonite Settlement (Chihuahua, Mexico). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/cuauhtemoc_mennonite_settlement_chihuahua_mexico.