Dust­bowls turned into lands of plenty

Men­non­ites bring old-school tastes to north­ern Mex­ico

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - KEN­DALL HILL

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

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