It was the summer of 2008 and I was just six months into my new sales career at a furniture store in the booming West Texas town of Midland Texas.
That’s when I met a tall, lanky pale white guy with blue eyes in a Mexican cowboy hat and pointy ostrich skin boots.
On the surface he was no different from any other West Texas farmer or rancher (except maybe for the pointy boots those were definitely Mexican.) He was cordial, quiet and just looked like he grew up on the farm.
He wasn’t dressed in the Mennonite traditional overall so I didn’t think he was any different. Until I saw his wife who was dressed in the traditional Mennonite flower dress and black head covering.
In broken English and with a Spanish accent, he asked if he could apply for credit without a social security number.
I couldn’t help him with the financing.
But I also couldn’t help but wonder how in the world a Spanish Speaking-Mennonite-Mexican ends up in West Texas.
Being Infinitely Curious, I Began to Make Conversation
I’ve heard of you all, I said. Son Menonitas verdad?
Si somos Menonitas, he said y me llamo Juan.
I asked Juan where they were from and he said somos de Zacatecas.
That’s in Mexico, he said quickly, as he motioned with his hand as if to say don’t worry I don’t expect you to know where that is.
You Must be From La Honda
You must be from La Honda, I replied.
He smiled almost as if a sigh of relief that he finally connected with someone who knew where he was coming from or at the very least knew the location of the weird sounding Zacatecas.
After talking for a while he started opening up about his life.
He said he’d just recently arrived to the U.S. from Mexico.
He talked about La Honda, Zacatecas and how he was born and raised in a campo (since the Mennonite communities are arranged in campos by number) he told me the number but I don’t remember.
He longingly described Mexico as a beautiful place until the insecurity became a problem but didn’t elaborate.
So at his father-in-law’s urging he moved to Seminole, Texas to begin a new life with his wife.
Seminole Texas – Land of Oil, Peanut Farmers & La Sierra Pizzeria
Seminole is about an hour drive North West of Midland, Texas. I later discovered that it has a large Mennonite community who moved there in 1978.
Historically, Seminole has been known for its oilfield but now the Mennonite community actively engages in peanut farming and cultivating the vast semi-arid landscape.
I’ve driven through Seminole many times.
During one of my visits, I discovered La Sierra Pizzeria, a Mennonite owned and operated establishment which is now a staple of the community.
I later discovered that La Sierra Pizzeria had its beginning in the campos of Cuauhtemoc Chihuahua but that a cool story for another day.
The Mennonite Community
The Mennonites are a Christian group named after Anabaptist Menno Simons. The first Mennonite Germans settled in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1683 and later settled farther west into Kansas, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Illinois.
The Mexican Mennonites, however, most come from the Dutch and German ancestry and speak Plautdietsch.
They are also commonly known as Russian Mennonites who immigrated to Canada. Immigration began around 1873 to Manitoba and Saskatchewan Canada.
It’s estimated that around mid-1920’s over 4000 Mennonites left Canada and settled northern Mexico near Cuautemoc, Chihihuha and Nuevo Ideal, Durango.
In 1964, over 150 families from Nuevo Ideal moved to Zacatecas to begin the cultivation and colonization of La Honda, Miguel Auza Zacatecas.
K. Guenther and David Wall spearheaded the settlement of what is now over 25 campos and a growing infrastructure in the North Zacatecas landscape.
This is where Juan was born and raised.
Although, La Honda is now a booming community it is still a small town. That’s why most Mennonites go to market in the nearby city of Rio Grande.
La Ciudad de las Tres Mentiras
Ciudad Rio Grande is the town of the three lies as the old saying goes.
Why three lies?
Porque no es ciudad, no hay rio, no es grande. Got to love regional humor.
Anyway, Rio Grande is where people from the little ranchos or nearby towns come to eat, shop and get their “big” city fix.
And when we’re in town, we all go eat at the same place – La Rinconada!
My favorite thing to eat there is the Sincronizada.
The Sincronizada, from La Rinconada, is a crispy flour tortilla filled with cheese and choice of meat, cut into halves and served with guacamole, salsa or topping of choice.
La Rinconanda seems like it is always busy, at least the couple times I’ve been here but especially on Sundays.
Also, Sunday is most likely when you’ll run in to Mennonite families since according to their religion, they neither work nor cook on Sundays.
Ok, maybe they do cook on Sundays but they are not allowed to work.
It sure is nice to see them out and about with the family enjoying the fruits of their labor since almost all their time revolves around work.
Speaking of Work
The Mennonites try to live according to the literal interpretation of the Bible as much as possible and you’ll find that farming and working the land is their labor of choice because of Genesis 3:17-19
“The ground is cursed because of you. You will eat from it by means of painful labor all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you and you will eat the plants of the field. You will eat bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground, since you were taken from it.”
This is why hard work is accepted and even welcomed as a way of life.
But the interpretation and the degree to which one should perform this labor, according to my research, is a huge inflection point for the different factions of Mennonites.
You see, the more conservative factions desire to keep old traditions such as steel wheel tractors, diesel powered electric plants, horse and buggy, etc…
The more progressive Mennonites, however feel like they must change and adapt with the times in order to remain relevant and competitive in this ever changing society.
By change and adapt, I mean embrace modern day amenities like electricity, television, motorized vehicles and cell phones.
And this seemingly inconsequential interpretation causes the splintering or splitting off of factions.
This has led many Mennonites to move their families and begin other colonies where they can live their life according to their own conservative or progressive beliefs.
The more I researched this isolated community, the more I realized we are far more alike than we are different.
Because, like most of us, they just want to live life according to their beliefs, traditions and to provide a better life for their families.
This Is Why Juan Is Here Today
Although he longed to be in Mexico and misses his home he believes the U.S. will provide a better future for his family which is exactly the same reason my parents immigrated here over 35 years ago.
After a final, muchas gracias y hay nos vemos paisano.
I glanced over as he and his wife stepped out of the air conditioned store and disappeared into the squelching West Texas summer heat and I couldn’t help but wonder what will become of Juan in this new land where physically he looks the part but culturally he’s a hybrid of old world Germany, Mennonite and Mexican.
Only time will tell what will become of Juan the Spanish Speaking Mennonite Mexican but I wish him well.