February 10, 2011 by Steven Worden
Without a doubt, the Plaza Hotel in Cuahtemoc, Mexico, has everything you need: on the main drag, a cathedral around the corner, cheap rooms (less than $18 US a night), good lumpy beds, central heat, and hot water. Ok, so you can hear the people next door as distinctly as if they were speaking right into your ear. No place is perfect.
After dark, as you pull into the walled parking lot behind the hotel you may notice another less conspicuous amenity: in the dark, a man sits quietly in a ‘70s model Ford pickup and eyes you closely as you unload your gear. Not to worry—he works for the hotel and his job is to sit in his old pickup all night long and keep watch over guests’ vehicles. He also is in charge of the heavy metal door in the wall that lets cars in and out after dark.
Actually, one of the nicer benefits of the Plaza is the café next door. After a restful night of tossing on your lumpy bed and overhearing and weighing the merits of disputes in neighboring rooms, nothing beats lingering over a $4 breakfast of eggs, toast, coffee, and orange juice, and watching businessmen, students, and families as they meet and enjoy the morning before the day’s work begins. Occasionally the front door jangles, and you might look up and see a tall, be-whiskered, formally-dressed, blond man wearing an old-fashioned broad-brimmed, plain hat enter, followed by a remarkably pale woman and their freckled children all decked out in small bonnets, and long, buttoned-up-to-the-throat floral frocks or dark hats and suspendered formal pants. It’s the Mennonitos.
That’s right. Here, smack dab in the heart of Central Mexico, in the shadow of the Sierra Madre Mountains, walking around peacefully like egrets in a flock of Rhode Island Reds, live some 50,000 Mennonites. You might assume, of course, that they are American, but you would be wrong. A radical Christian denomination often confused with the Amish, their Anabaptist cousins, Mennonites have lived in the state of Chihuahua since the 1920’s after having left Canada in order to follow more faithfully their non-violent ideals and to resist absorption into the more secular Canadian culture. In fact, if you were casually to attempt to strike up a conversation with the Mexican Mennonites, you might face considerable difficulty, given that their first language would be that of Plautdietsch or Low German, a language the Canadian government asked them to give up in school, a factor which prompted their migration.
In the Plaza Café, the Mennonite family chats away in Plautdietsch as much at home in their surroundings as if they were sitting in a Denny’s in Manitoba. Mestizos of mixed Indian and European heritage as well as an occasional Tarahumaran Indian sit around sipping their coffees and eating burritos seemingly oblivious to the Mennonitos.
Driving out of town into the high desert plateau, you can see the farming genius of the Mennonites at work. Before their arrival in the ‘20’s, an arid wasteland whipped by furious hailstorms and lashing downpours in the summer, the Mennonites have used their traditional skills in transforming marginal lands to good advantage. They built reservoirs and irrigation systems to harness the summer storms and now provide water to huge wheat fields. They also planted great apple orchards, the fruit protected from hail by long rolls of netting. In short, the agrarian skills of the Mennonites have transformed the region’s economy.
Unfortunately, economic success can also bring its own unwelcome problems. With a level of affluence higher than that of many of their neighboring farmers, the Mennonites now have come to the attention of the local “narcos” who target them for kidnapping. Further, with increased levels of affluence, a small number of the bored children of solid, plain-living wheat farmers have found themselves drawn to the bright lights of urban Cuahtemoc and even have been caught up in the drug trade.
Nevertheless, when we consider the ideal of a mostly harmoniously integrated multicultural society, characterized by quiet mutual respect for people trying to peacefully live out their own different traditions, it is well to reflect upon the remarkable model of the self-possessed and successful Mennonite farmers of Cuahtemoc.