Dustbowls turned into lands of plenty
Mennonites bring old-school tastes to northern Mexico
AS we head south on Federal Highway 16 towards Cuauhtemoc City, something curious happens to the landscape.
The untamed freedom of the Chihuahuan high plains is suddenly reined in, neatly parcelled, and given numbers — campos 114, campos 113, campos 112.
The campos, or camps, of the Bustillos Valley are near-identical settlements comprising a main street lined with sober houses where cows graze at the front and crops flourish at the rear. Agriculture occupies every horizon in between. Vast stretches of highway are hemmed by apple orchards, wheat and oat crops and endless hectares of perfect cornfields.
The cornrows have been planted with military precision not by machinery but by men who see such earthly order as a matter of great personal pride. Nature never looked so trim and tidy.
Clare Enns smiles at the mention of her people’s precise ways when I ask her the secret of the immaculate corn. ‘‘We have good seed, for one, and good machinery, and someone who really knows how to drive straight,’’ she explains. ‘‘The first line is the most important. If you get that right, the rest will fall into place.’’
This is the way of the Mennonites, Amish-like Anabaptists with a remarkable affinity for farming and old-school tastes in clothing, lifestyle and cornrows.
They arrived in Mexico’s arid north almost a century ago from Canada, emigrating after World War I to escape conscription and new curbs on their religious and cultural freedoms.
Originally from The Netherlands, the Mennonites are no strangers to forced migrations. Their refusal to compromise their strict religious beliefs led them to seek asylum in Germany, Russia, Canada and then Mexico.
In each of their adopted homes they have transformed unproductive land into food bowls. That’s why president Alvaro Obregon invited them in 1922 to settle in and revive the country’s neglected north. He wooed them with tax breaks and guaranteed freedom of religion and language.
Today there are about 80,000 in Mexico, with the majority settled in Chihuahua, an area larger than Spain. They are famously industrious, responsible for more than half the state’s agricultural output, stocking the national larder with apples, beans, corn and, most importantly, cheese.
Queso chihuahua, or queso menonita, is a pale and very adaptable cheddar-like cheese that has become a staple of the northern diet. Each day the communities’ 22 dairy factories churn out 60,000 tonnes of cheese to satisfy an insatiable Mexican appetite for quesadillas, fundidos and choriquesos.
Despite their vital contribution to the economy, Mennonite communities keep largely to themselves. They have their own schools and language (Low German), while their height, colouring and costumes starkly separate them from the average Mexican.
Women dress in plain, neck-toankle dresses secured with buttons and head-covering scarves. Sober-looking men wear spruce dungarees or braces and almost always sport a straw hat.
Outsiders can glimpse inside this closed world at the Mennonite Museum in Chihuahua. Set in a traditional barnhouse, the museum’s various galleries mimic the rooms in a traditional home. The kitchen features butter churns and sausage stuffers,
A Mennonite cheese dairy