Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Elbowed out of the rest of the World by cars and motorcycles, the horse-drawn kart, the mythic chariot, has found among the Mennonites a sanctuary where its thread of evolution. One of the aims of my trip was to hitch a ride in on of these fancy vehicles, called buggies by themselves. No need to stretch my thumb, I am offered a ride by one of the guys, whose family sells spiced cheese. I say I would like to buy some, and he takes me to his house in his buggy. The name of my new friend is Pedro.

To my surprise, the buggy advances smoothly over the unpaved road. The car I had arrived in had, in the contrary, let me feel every ditch of the road with more fidelity. Jacobo tells me that buggies are produced in the colony by a couple of families, who charge around 6000 and 8000 pesos for them (1,800 USD). The deluxe version has adjustable seats, glass windshield and Volkswagen suspension system.

Along the dusty avenue we find scattered groups of boys and girls. Since it is Sunday, it is the only the day they can abstract from their work routine. Then, boys and girls meet up to chat –and drink beer- in the road itself. Jacobo says if they meet a girl and start going out with her, thay can visit each other in her house Mondays and Wednesday afternoon for two hours. A remember a novel by Bioy Casares in which a Danish family who had settle in Patagonia attempts to stop time –and then death- by repeating every day the same sequence of prearranged acts, barring entry to their farm of every news. Likewise, this tendency to schedules makes the Mennonites a community sedentary not only in space but also in time.


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We arrive to Pedro’s house, and after a tour of their carpentry, we are shown the traditional cheeses. We enter a small room where also two large pieces of jam are being stationed, and choose a couple of oregano and pepper cheeses we buy from them. Pedro invites us to drink mate with his family. It is our first chance to enter a Mennonite house. The excuse for socializing is quite Argentinean; the bizarre social situation we are about to live is rather unclassifiable.
The first impression on passing the simple wooden door is that we were not expected by Pedro’s family, who immediately order two of their daughters to sweep the wooden floor. A compact legion of blonde kids is chewing and spitting sunflower seeds, almost in consonance. When I remark how much they seem to like the seeds Pedro’s explanation is: “Well, it is Sunday”. So in Sunday everything that’s otherwise banned during the week seems to be tolerated. And sunflower seeds are the closest to a forbidden snack children can crave for.

The two teenage girls prepare the mate while their mother swings quietly in a rocking chair by the window. The woman is huge like a Russian matrioska. You would bet there are several layers of women inside… None of the women take part of the conversation, which rather have Raul (my friend), Pedro, Pedro’s father, and me as participants. Even if the girls would like to talk, they are not taught Spanish. The father is a lightly built man with square glasses and a broad forehead. He makes me several questions about Germany, a country that I have visited several times, and which is where the Mennonite’s gene pool comes from… The man is kind and low paced in all his way of being and talking. I talk to him in German and we understand each other despite speaking different dialects. They all have a lot of fun when I take their Bible and start reading –without understanding everything- a short bit…

I ask the man for the names of his children, and he names only the boys. The girls, both the tiny ones chewing seeds and the teenage ones coming and going with the mate, remain anonymous. In this context, I can imagine the girls have no further life prospects than becoming children factories and seating by the window as their mother. There is no chance of getting to the “outside world” to work or study.

A dilemma emerges. Must the estate interfere in order to guarantee certain contents in education? Can family and community exclude the instruction of the language needed to be a free person in Argentina? I mean, is it fine that girls here speak medieval German and couldn’t even take a bus if they dared to, while men are bilingual? Schools have always been factories of mentalities, from the times of Sarmiento to nowadays. They have been widely used to displace the native tongues prior to the Conquista and homogenize population. Bilingual education has normally arrived too late. It happened with Irish, and also with quechua. Will it come the day when prohibition of prohibition becomes a part of universal ethics? Tht day Iranian girls will have the chance to walk unveiled, and Mennonite ones will be taught Spanish. The systems that now try to protect themselves by coercing individuals to act this or that way will only be legitimized when they become optional. We leave Pedro’s house and 30 kms later we are having a beer in one of Guatrache’s bars, wondering if everything was real or if we have just dreamt it.


We continue towards a more distant second church. On the way we see children playing around the school yard. At the sight of the car, they promptly hide beneath a tree, and only gradually go out to look at us when they discover we are carrying two of their men in the car. There is a skateboard near them which must be the most boring toy to have in an unpaved road. Jacobo explains us that bicycles are also banned. And soccer?
Forbidden as well. –says Jacobo while pretending not be regretting it- Last year we attempted to start playing it, but the bishop ordered us to stop it.
In a world where soccer seems to globalize in spite of any social, political and ethnic context the fact that a nostalgic agricultural colony can still bar it through an edict of its bishop vindicates the unpredictable of our species.

I remember to have seen a guy with a small pin of River Plata clinged to the zip of his jacket. How does he do to know the weekly scores without TV? Jacobo once more rescues me from ignorance and explains that the guys who installs the silos, masterly produce and sell nationwide by the Mennonites , are the only ones with chances to get to the outside world. They bring –smuggle- the weekly scores. Just imagine one of them whispering in church the results of a River-Boca match in Low German.


If protestant churches are themselves scarcely decorated, Mennonite ones go a step further and lack any ornamentation at all. An abstract spirituality didn’t put Muslim calligraphists and architects to come up with Esfahan mosques. Its intricate designs avoid human figures but resourcefully extract all possibilities of flowers and purely geometric figures. Mennonites don’t just avoid representation; they avoid any sort of decoration. This iconoclast spirit also means they don’t have tombs for their dead. Only the land he so eagerly worked and oblivion wait for each man after his material cycle is over. Both religiously and economically, Mennonites are nothing but pragmatic. In the same way they do without the aesthetic additives of their temples they equally discard the symbolic background of the land they plough. Most of them couldn’t point the areas of Germany and the Netherlands their community is originally from. Most of the adults in the Colony at Nueva Esperanza were born in other Mennonite colonies in Mexico and Bolivia, out of a Nordic gene pool, displaced again towards Argentina, so I can understand they identify with their community rather than with any of the countries they have paraded through. The contrast is generated by their being so uprooted from the symbolic dimension of the grounds they work, while so inserted glued to it at a literal and concrete level.


An obvious of conversation was prohibitions. The guys say adults don’t want them to drink, but beer has somehow become tolerated, unlike whiskey or wine. So far the list of sins is predictable: adultery, alcohol, etc. However, Mennonites can surprise with a unique universe of condemnable items and activities.
Nobody would think tractors tyres are harmful, but all tractors here are deprived of their rear tyres. Maybe it is a precaution to make it harder for a teenager to leave the colony. Almost all items derived from technological advances of the twentieth century are banned, such as cars, mobile phones and computers. So is music. Despite this, we have seen a couple of guys with MP3s. Jacob, one of the guys, admits he secretly listens to music. When I enquire what genre of music he likes most, he is surprised at the whole idea of genres, and says he only listens once and again to the only CD he was able to get, some sort of Mexican music.


As a sample of how predictable human nature is beyond the cultural format, not far from the boys I find a group of girls. Like among the Kalasha in Pakistan, or the Otavaleños in Ecuador, here are also women who conserve the typical way of dressing. As elsewhere, men end up by adopting a pair of jeans or similar variations of contemporary clothes.
Mennonite girls seem straight out of Goethe’s novels, elegant blue eyed dolls wearing violet and blue neck-to-toe dresses and stunning hats. It’s in these unknown settlements were Romantic aesthetics have residually survived. What are those dresses, designed some centuries ago in Eastern Prussia, getting dirty with the Pampas soil? Curious collage plotted by history’s turns, migrations and religious persecutions. The girls smile and tell each other secrets in the ear. Saying I feel sad for them unveils my ethnocentrism.

I don’t know why, I feel more sorry for them than for the boys, and I perfectly know I shouldn’t be sorry for anyone but myself. I have travelled 45 countries and learnt to find beauty in each kind of society. Maybe I believe that male soul is the ony capable of building and applying castrating philosophical systems. Obsessions in general, either to build skyscrapers, cities or cults, seem to me a male affair. Women are smarter, and they are the ones showing us the apples. They go always in front, throwing banana skins just ahead of any kind of theological arithmetic planned by ayatollahs, bishops or popes. Parties can be organized by either men or women. Boring scenario, instead, can only have a man behind the master plan. Women’s boycott consists of returning man to reality. And they can achieve this very simply, by the only mean of existing. Some religions have chosen to call this temptation. Behind the grind of resignation, nevertheless, I can guess a winged spirit…
The only girl of the group to look at me in the eye did so because her boyfriend had told her to behave normally in front of foreigners. Of course, here the ones speaking medieval German are the locals, while we are the exotic!


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The Mennonites are an Anabaptist religious community that originated in the 16th Century in Europe. In the times of the Reform the Anabaptists took distance from both the Vatican and the Lutheran church, since they didn’t support the baptism of babies but that of adult voluntary believers. By 1530 Rome and the Protestant communities agreed to persecute the Anabaptists, who organized a frustrated revolt in Munster, Germany. Hundreds of them died in the attempt. But many others, later called the Mennonites preferred to start an exodus that four centuries later resulted in more than a million and a half Mennonites settling in more than 109 countries. Where they go, the nestle in farming communities where they practice a frugal lifestyle characterized by work in the fields, strong sense of community and family, the conservation of plat-deutsch, and regulation of the contacts with the outside world. They don’t use cars, radios, computers, etc. Today, only 37% of them live in Europe (they are original from Northern Germany and the Netherlands), the rest have settled across the Atlantic in North and Latin America (particularly in Paraguay, Mexico and Bolivia). The largest numbers of them are found, however, in Africa.

We finally catch a glimpse of a Group of them. When we go out of the car, it seems we are in front of several clones of the same individual. They all resemble each other! I allow myself to think that, after several centuries of crossing of the same genetic lots nature must tend to the generation of beings with less and less inter-individual differences. They are all blonde, tall, with an unmistakable Nordic look. They also wear the same kind of clothes: they use baseball caps –cowboy hats for the adults- quadrille shirts and blue trousers. Two little kids observe us from afield, but don’t get close.

At their feet I see an empty wine bottle. Alcohol is forbidden, but I haven’t yet generated the sufficient confidence to ask them details about that and other transgressions. My mind is an index of questions which remain unsaid out of strategy. The tallest of them has clearly a set of white headphones climbing from within his jacket to his ears. Music is also theoretically banned, as anything else that takes man away from the three pillars of the Mennonites: family, work and spirituality. The Taliban had also banned music in Afghanistan. While a parallel with them would be an exaggeration, reminiscence in some regards in unavoidable.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


When something exotic flourishes in distant latitudes, it surprises gently. The adrenaline of the truly exotic comes when the unseen arises around the corner. That’s what I felt last week when visiting the Mennonite colony of Nueva Esperanza, in the Argentinean province of La Pampa.

We exited Bahía Blanca towards Guatraché, the closest town. In the ay, we can see the typically rural landscape configuration of the Pampas: broad horizons, uninterrupted plains, perpendicular windmills with metallic spikes, and cows and cows, symbols of the richness of a few landowners. From time to time a tiny town, with its weathered red brick houses of tall roofs… The wind arouses dry bushes to roll over the plain, and dust filters through our car ventilation system. Focused in the meteorological adversity we forget we are crossing invisible cultural boundaries.