Many folks are religious but unaffiliated with any denomination.
As it turns out, I’m in the midst of a story about many Oaxacan Indians, from a Catholicism in their native towns that resembles something from 16th Century Spain, who have converted to various Protestant denominations here in the United States.
This is something I also found in the parts of Baja California where many Oaxacans also migrated. The Valley of San Quintin, where thousands of Oaxacans have come for farmwork, is studded with storefront churches: Pentecostal, Baptist, Jehovah’s Witness and others.
Always seemed to me that converting to Protestant denominations was part of the voyage out of the mountains of Oaxaca, Chiapas and other similarly distant places — a lifting of the blinders, in a sense. Not everyone goes through this, and a lot find other ways to come out of the Old World. But a good many bring clarity to their New World through a Protestant lens.
After all, they come from villages where the priest would visit and everyone would have to take off their hats and cast their eyes to the ground. Where people were prohibited from reading the Bible, but virtually required to participate in mass and annual religious festivals, which often involved heavy drinking.
Many Indian communities suffer because they are so isolated from the world.
Anthropologists and tourists often like their Indians very traditional. But tradition has had a way of impoverishing Indian communities.
I’ve been to Indian towns where most people don’t know how to type, use a fax, or drive. Those are formulas for poverty in the global economy. I once met a guy who was learning to type who said he was the first in his village to learn that skill.
To breaking from those impoverishing traditions is one reason why so many Indians are converting to Protestantism in Latin America.
It’s an ironic thing, but the only way to maintain a strong Indian culture is not to embrace isolation, but, as this mayor has, embrace the world. That way a village can develop economically so that its people don’t have to migrate defenseless into a world where education is the currency of value.
There was a time in the 1990s when it was fashionable on the left in Latin America to talk about the pernicious effect of globalization on the poor. But really what Indian communities need above all is more globalization, which is to say, more connectivity — that is, more roads, more Internet connections, more people who know how to type, more people who speak Spanish or English, etc.
One village in Chiapas I went to (pictured here) was part of a coffee cooperative. The only thing they wanted, coop members told me, was a connection to the Internet, which would connect them, in turn, with coffee buyers in Mexico City, or Seattle, and they wouldn’t have sell their beans to the local intermediaries who gave them rock-bottom prices.
Mennonite one-room school house near Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua
Time Magazine has published a set of photos of an Old Colony Mennonite community in Durango, Mexico, titling it The Flower Girls. Check them out. Tell me what you think. I find the photos are sweet, delicate, beautiful, and only hint at the disaster that has befallen most of these Mennonite communities, which have tried mightily to separate themselves from the world.
The Mennonite communities in Chihuahua are replete with severe problems of inbreeding, domestic violence, benighted education, alcoholism, and, in the last 20 years, drug trafficking, particularly in the colonies near Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua, four hours south of Ciudad Juarez.
Mennonites came to Mexico from Canada in the 1920s, invited by the government that wanted to colonize the north to avoid further US depredations. Those who came to escape the world were masterful farmers and cheesemakers. But in time they suffered from the same problems as other Mexican farmers: drought, lack of credit, etc. Many in the Chihuahua colonies turned to drug smuggling — some full time and some to pay an urgent debt. I ran into these folks in 2003 and included a chapter on the harrowing result — the scariest moment of my reporting life — in my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream.
I like the Time photos immensely, but from them you’d not guess much of the reality of Old Colony Mennonite life in Mexico.
For many of these world-rejecting Mennonites, it always seemed to me that their very attempt to isolate themselves made them vulnerable to the worst the modern world has to offer. Many I spoke with described their people as lambs, unprepared for what they would encounter outside their community. Some likened it to Indians’ lack of exposure to small pox before the Europeans came.
I’ve included a photo above of a one-room schoolhouse, taught by a man with barely a bad sixth-grade education, which is how Mennonite kids are still schooled in the colonies near Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua. Would love your comments on the Time photos.