In the early years of our current century I lived in New Mexico, far away from the place I was born. I was a student in the department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico and during the summers of the early 2000’s I was part of a bilateral US-Mexico project conducted near the site of Casas Grandes in Chihuahua, Mexico. Crossing the Columbus/Palomas US – Mexico border for the first time for this project I was in for a surprise. In the little trailer where we had to have our visa’s stamped we joined a line in which a family stared at me as if they’d seen a ghost. It is not impossible they interpreted my gaze in the same way. I was told the family belonged to the Mennonite community, returning home in northern Chihuahua. 

Remembering the Chihuahuan Desert, Homeland of the Rarámuri 

Fast forward to 2021. Just moved from Schleswig-Holstein in Germany to -culturally related- Friesland in the Netherlands, a place where, according to my mother, my relatives from my mother’s father’s side come from. Only in the back of my mind do I recall the Mennonites coming from this region, but I have very little knowledge regarding their history. But since I live in these different worlds, I am curious about the relationships between these places I feel connected to, the histories of cultivators of the land.

It is a complicated history, for which I need a bit more time to flesh out, but alas, in a nutshell the Mennonites are a religious group, anabaptists, rising up during the Reformation in Europe, and are named after Menno Simons (1496-1561) of Friesland. The Mennonites followed the teachings of the Bible, initially following Luther. After Luther condemned the German peasant Revolt (1524-25) and chose a state-church model, their relationships changed dramatically as the Mennonites believed in a peoples’ church, with room for multiple denominations. The anabaptists were persecuted and because of their commitment to pacifism, many chose to move rather than to fight for their religious freedom in place. Taking the word of the Bible very seriously, the Mennonites have always been dedicated and successful farmers of the land that was given to them to cultivate. 

Their path first took the Anabaptist from Friesland to Russia where they lived for about 250 years, then around 1880 many migrated to the United States, Canada and Latin America. Around 1920, Mennonites who had settled in Canada in Manitoba, moved and established themselves in Chihuahua and later in Durango and Guanajuato in Mexico. 

During the time I worked in Mexico almost a century later, things however changed quickly, and in recent years, growing poverty, water shortage and drug-related violence has made many Mennonite families decide to leave Chihuahua and migrate to Canada. I remember the Mennonite families as very distinct people of the community in Chihuahua, their clothing, houses and agricultural practices. Especially, all my colleagues in the project praised the Mennonite cheese, well known and popular all over Mexico.

Today, I am in Friesland, land of dairy cattle and the land of Menno Simons, and since not all Anabaptist left, the communities in the area I live, Holwerd, Dokkum, Ameland, all are considered Anabaptist. The majority of dairy farmers do not make their own cheese anymore, their milk is  collected and mostly processed in large dairy plants especially by Friesland-Campina, following production-oriented conventional farming methods, heavily subsidized by our state, cows and potatoes. 

And so I wonder, the teachings of Menno Simons, the peasant revolt of 1524-25, the defeat that left the peasants with little rights at the mercy of the justice system operated by the clergy or wealthy burgher. And I wonder, has anything changed since that time, farmers are still at the mercy of the ‘wealthy burghers’, politics, banks, and corporations.

During our  present time, voices rise up to live and cultivate sustainably, we desperately seek other voices, we invite Indigenous leaders to share their stories. Do we listen? And what I wonder, does the Bible have to say, the stories that underpin the road the Anabaptists took from Friesland all over the world. A peasant revolt, maybe this time it can be successful. 

Northern Friesland today