Ancestral Russia lures land-hungry Mexican Mennonites

Thu Dec 6, 2012 2:49pm EST
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By Dave Graham

CUAUHTEMOC, Mexico (Reuters) - More than a century after Mennonite farmers left Russia for North America in search of new lands and religious freedom, hundreds of their descendants in Mexico are thinking about completing the circle.

Shortage of farmland, drought and conflict with rivals have made some Mennonites in northern Mexico wonder if the best way of providing for their families is to go back to the plains of eastern Europe their ancestors left in the 19th century.

This summer a delegation of 11 Mexican Mennonites went to Tatarstan on the southern fringe of European Russia to look at land that could help them protect their spartan way of life from the impact of population growth and climate change.

"We're looking for a future for our children and grandchildren," said Peter Friesen, 59, one of the farmers who traveled to the town of Aznakayevo in August, himself the great-grandson of Mennonites born in the Russian Empire.

Descendants of 16th century Protestant Anabaptist radicals from Germany, the Low Countries and Switzerland, Mennonites rejected Church hierarchy and military service, suffering years of persecution and making them reliant on the patronage of rulers keen to exploit their dedication to farming and thrift.

Many Mennonites like Friesen living in the colonies around the city of Cuauhtemoc trace their origins to families that settled parts of Imperial Russia in modern Ukraine in the 18th century during the reign of Catherine the Great.

During the age of European nationalism, their freedoms came under threat and they began to leave for North America in the 1870s. More followed in the years of turmoil that convulsed Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution and the World Wars.

Still speaking Plautdietsch, a unique blend of Low German, Prussian dialects and Dutch, the Mennonites that came to Chihuahua state from Canada in the 1920s have helped turn some of the most barren expanses of northern Mexico into model farmland yielding tonnes of golden corn, beans, milk and cheese.   Continued...

Members of a family from a Mennonite community pose for a photograph at their home in Cuauhtemoc November 9, 2012. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez