Monday, April 25, 2011

Mexico's Mennonites and Irma Voth

Since my first trip to Mexico in the early 1980s I've been fascinated by the Mennonites. I knew many migrated from the Canadian prairies, where Mennonites continue to have a strong presence. It was thrilling to encounter one in Merida for the first time a few years ago, a tall blond man in overalls selling cheese from table to table in the Alameda restaurant. For some reason I assumed he'd speak English and would know stories about life in Canada - perhaps I felt a connection between their history and my own farming relatives who settled in Manitoba. But no, he was from Campeche state, period; there were no stories of Canadian or any other foreign roots. He was puzzled by my questions. The cheese was excellent, though.

I've seen Mexican Mennonites occasionally since then. Most recently in a group at a building supply store in the Mejorada neighborhood: the men dressed in formal black overalls, the women covered in their long dark printed dresses. First time I'd seen Mennonite women in town. A small boy, maybe aged three or four, perched on a crate in his wee black overalls, white shirt and hat. I started to go for my camera, then hesitated, realizing that taking a photo might violate their cultural and religious rules.

So I was excited to discover Canadian writer Miriam Toews' new novel, Irma Voth, about a young Mennonite woman and her family in Mexico. Toews is of Mennonite background herself, and happened upon the subject matter after she was inveigled to play the role of a Mennonite wife in the art film, Stellet Licht (Silent Light), by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas.

I don't know how closely Irma Voth reflects the Mennonite experience in Mexico, or even Chihuahua state where it is mostly set. There are narcos and violence, and a deep, oppressive unhappiness. I loved the book anyway. The story line  includes the making of a film involving the Mennonites and a foreign actress. Beyond the drama, it gives a view into the sensibility of this tribe who, as the fictional Irma says in the book, "live like ghosts", and "move all around the world in colonies looking for freedom and isolation and peace and opportunities to sell cheese."

Here's an article  from the Globe and Mail if you'd like to read more about Toews and Irma Voth . Now I can't wait to see the film, Stellet Licht, if I can track it down.


  1. I saw the picture before reading your subject title and thought, "Hey! That's a Mennonite name. Wonder what Deb's writing about today." *smile*

    My dad's family is Holdeman Mennonite, a different sect from the ones I've seen in Mexico. They're allowed to have their picture taken, they're just not allowed to have photos in their possession. Not sure if it's the same for the Mexican Mennonites, though.

  2. Hi Debbie.

    The film, which is called Silent Light, is actually available at our very own Greater Victoria Public Library. Beautiful photography, as I recall, and interesting subject matter, of course. I didn't know much about Mexican Mennonites before hand, and have never been to that part of Mexico so the terrain was also very unfamiliar. Anyway, it's worth a viewing.


  3. My counter culture genes resonate somewhat with those anabaptist stories, too. But I surely would get kicked out of such a community for questioning authority and tradition.

    I think most of the Mennonites in western Canada arrived from Russia. It's important to note that there is a great diversity of practice in the denomination. We have a local church about one mile from our farm, but the members aren't readily distinguishable from any other worshippers in town. And I don't know that any of them make cheese, although their church suppers are much talked about.

    Several years back I had the Amish (an offshoot sect, often more strict) replace the roof of my house. Thirty guys arrived at 6am, in several vehicles, driven by "English"— often outsiders who have married into the sect, or refuseniks who have left. They pulled a trailer which was full of fancy power tools. (They allow no electricity in their homes, but bend the rules for commercial work.) I supplied all materials, and lunch. I even built an outhouse, as at the time we were having a drought. Thirty guys using our plumbing would surely have emptied the well! They were done by 3pm. "Many hands make light work" they say.

    You might also want to look at a book on the best seller list: MENNONITE IN A LITTLE BLACK DRESS.


  4. Hi Barb, Lee, Eric,
    Thanks for the further enlightenment about our Mennonite neighbors. Pardon my typo about the film title. Of course night would be "nacht", one of the few German words I do know. I did find the the film at the local library, thanks Lee! Eric, wow, we sure don't have such interesting roofers up here. What a neat experience that must have been.

  5. Hi again, Debbie.
    On the subject of films worth watching, have you ever seen a film called "Lake Tahoe"? In spite of the name, it's a very Mexican film that really has nothing to do with Lake Tahoe. It was filmed in Progreso, and to me it really captures something about the Mexico I've experienced, and have grown to love. And it's also available at GVPL!

  6. Thanks Lee, I have now put a hold on that one too. Looking forward to it.