More than a century after Mennonite farmers left Russia for North America in search of new lands and religious freedom, hundreds of their descendants in Mexico are thinking about completing the circle.</i>
Shortage of farmland, drought and conflict with rivals have made some Mennonites in northern Mexico wonder if the best way of providing for their families is to go back to the plains of eastern Europe their ancestors left in the 19th century.
This summer, a delegation of 11 Mexican Mennonites went to Tatarstan, on the southern fringe of European Russia, to look at land that could help them protect their Spartan way of life from the impact of population growth and climate change.
“We’re looking for a future for our children and grandchildren,” said Peter Friesen, 59, one of the farmers who traveled to the town of Aznakayevo in August, himself the great-grandson of Mennonites born in the Russian Empire.
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Dressed in plain cotton trousers, a dark shirt and cap, Friesen uses short, simple sentences in Spanish, his face tanned from years spent harvesting crops under the cloudless skies of Chihuahua, which covers an area bigger than Britain.
Only when Friesen’s mobile phone rings and he switches to Plautdietsch does the tempo change. Words trip off his tongue in a much softer cadence than High German and are all but unintelligible to speakers of the modern language.
“You know, we Mennonites always want to grow. And that’s what we can’t do here. Everything’s already taken up,” said the father of 13 and grandfather of 25.
Enrique Voth, who also went to Tatarstan, said farmland can be purchased there for one-tenth the price in Mexico. “We need 10 times more than what we have,” said the father of 11.
The “100 or so” families interested in Russia are still undecided about whether to go, partly because they did not find a single bloc of land big enough for them, Friesen said.
But his blue eyes glitter when he talks of the dark soil, mild climate and rich water supplies the Mennonites found in Tatarstan. Once part of the Mongol Golden Horde, an empire spanning Central Asia and Eastern Europe, the republic harbors flat, fertile terrain fed by the Volga and Kama rivers.
Originally about 7,000 strong in Mexico, the Mennonites today farm about three-quarters of the irrigated corn fields in Chihuahua. But much of the land is leased, and their holdings have increased far slower than their population.