Mexico's Canadian Mennonites In the 1920s, the Mexican government wanted to settle the barren northern areas of the country with industrious farmers. At the invitation of the then-president, 20,000 Mennonites left Canada and settled in the state of Chihuahua.
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Mexico's Canadian Mennonites

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Mexico's Canadian Mennonites

Mexico's Canadian Mennonites

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Later this week, Mexico will get a new leader. President-elect Felipe Calderon will be sworn in on Friday. The country's main Leftist party vows to spoil the ceremony. A poll released yesterday indicates most Mexicans disapprove of any disruption.

Former candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been trying to impede the Calderon administration. Last week, he swore himself in as Mexico's legitimate president and set up a parallel government. Lopez Obrador's supporters have vowed to block President-elect Calderon's inauguration but have not specified how they planned to do that.


More than 80 years ago, the Mexican government wanted to settle the barren northern areas of the country with industrious farmers. Responding to a presidential invitation, 20,000 Mennonites left Canada and settled in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The community is still flourishing and supporting itself through the production of a signature cheese.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports that cheese is famous throughout Mexico.

(Soundbite of animal sounds)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: The sun has just risen, spreading its cold, cellophane light on the Chihuahua hills. With that, the workday begins on the (unintelligible) farm. First it's feed the animals, then it's into the shed to milk the cows.

(Soundbite of milk falling into bucket)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The mother of this family is Susanna(ph). She methodically squeezes the udders of a hobbled cow. Hot milk squirts in a metal bucket, steaming in the cold. She's dressed in the traditional outfit of the Mennonites here - a headscarf, an apron over a homespun long dress.

SUSANNA (Mennonite Farmer): (Plattdeutsch spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The language the Mennonites here speak is Plattdeutsch, a type of German that is a verbal history lesson of where the Mennonites came from.

SUSANNA: (Plattdeutsch spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a long road that speaks of hardship, religious persecution and resilience. The Mennonites of northern Mexico trace their roots to the low countries in north Germany. They then moved to Russia, and from there they traveled to Canada. The Mexico branch arrived here from Manitoba in the early 20th century, making their home in the harsh landscape of northern Mexico.

The Mennonites are Anabaptists, Christians who believe in adult baptism. Their faith exhorts them to live close to the land and give up secular life. While Susanna only speaks Plattdeutsch, her daughter Anna(ph) does speak English and Spanish. She tells me that milk is the most important product on the farm.

Ms. ANNA (Susanna's daughter): We just drink from it.

(Soundbite of liquid being poured)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But that's not the only reason. The milk from the Wall(ph) farm and dozens more like it will be transported to the local cheese factory that operates as a cooperative. The factories support the community.

Mr. ABRAHAM PETERS(ph) (Mennonite Farmer): The reason of the milk industry is the income. We didn't have income. We didn't have crop because it's a dry area where we live.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sixty-three-year-old Abraham Peters is a Mennonite farmer and an amateur historian. He explains that when the Mennonites first moved to Mexico, they found a difficult environment. Cows became their means to survive in the inhospitable land, and from there came the cheese, queso Menonita, as it's known throughout Mexico now.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Here at one of the cheese factories near the town of Gualtimo(ph), machines churn the milk and other ingredients while blond and blue-eyed Mennonite men help with the work. Conveniences like electricity and cars were allowed in the 1970s when the Mennonite leaders decided to let a little of modern life into the community.

Some refused to give up their horse and buggies, and the group split again with members moving to Belize and South America. But for the around 50,000 who remained, it was permitted. Change, though, comes slowly to this group, but it is happening again.

Cornelius Wall(ph) is the manager of this cheese factory that's been around for about 50 years. He says in Spanish that the Mexican government will require Mennonite cheese to become pasteurized in December, and they aren't happy about it.

Mr. CORNELIUS WALL (Manager of Cheese Factory): (Through translator) It's going to change. The molds will be the same but the cheese won't. For me it won't taste as good. I think the change will be very difficult, and many people tell us that they don't want the cheese to become bland and pasteurized.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: To taste Mennonite cheese as it is now, I'm invited to Father Abraham Peters' home, where I meet his wife.

Ms. CATHERINE PETERS(ph) (Wife of Abraham Peters): I'll give you a taste, if you want it.

Catherine Peters bustles around her kitchen and takes out a huge chunk of yellow cheese.

Mmm, that's really good.

It's sharp and tangy. As we eat, we talk. Catherine tells me that they have eight children and the house we are in has a long history.

Ms. CATHERINE PETERS (Abraham Peters' Wife): My father-in-law has built for more than 60 years ago. And my husband is born in this house and grown up in this house. So living in this house, so it's something special for us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For her, the imminent pasteurization of this community's signature foodstuff is just another example of how life is moving too fast for her liking. Young Mennonites are also increasingly facing problems with drug and alcohol addiction, among other modern ills.

Ms. PETERS: There's not good that we have not kept everything like we had it. It would be easier, our life, if we had kept that way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, she says, the life here is a good life ruled by God and the land and a community that is still fiercely independent.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Gualtimo, Chihuahua.

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