The Mennonites of Paraguay: Far Removed From Society
Have you heard about the community of Mennonites in Paraguay?
I too was surprised when I first learned about this, but taking into consideration the history of this ethnic and religious Anabaptist group, it is no surprise they are in Latin America, and all around the world!
According to the Mennonite World Conference statistics of 2018, there are 37,678 baptized members of the Mennonite Church, and 260 congregations in Paraguay, making the country one of the largest hosts of this denomination in Latin America.
Today let’s explore who the Mennonites are, what makes them so interesting, and uncover some surprising facts about their characteristics, their population, and their reason for living in Paraguay.
Who Are the Mennonites?
The Mennonites get their name from Menno Simons, a Roman Catholic priest turned Anabaptist from Friesland—a province of the Netherlands. He was an influential religious leader, contemporary to the Protestant Reformers, who helped to formalize the teaching of the early Anabaptist movements, which the Mennonites use as the base of their religion.
Mennonites believe in both the mission and the ministry of Jesus and they identify as an Anabaptist group. Anabaptists are not Catholic or Protestant, but there is some theology that these three groups have in common.
One of the most important characteristics of the Anabaptists and, therefore, the Mennonites, is that they refuse to baptize infants until they can make the adult and conscious decision of following Christ and his teachings.
The three core values Mennonites believe in dictate that:
- Jesus is the center of their faith.
- Community is the center of their lives.
- Reconciliation is the center of their work.
And while there are several Mennonites groups with their own perception of the Bible, and their own unique traditions, they do share some common threads.
Commonality Among All Mennonites
Sense of Community
One of the most important is the perception of the Mennnonite community as a family of sorts, and even an ethnic group, especially in the Mennonite communities of Germany, Russia, and Dutchland in the past.
Nowadays, the Mennonites around the world understand the community as the local congregations and contexts, and try to welcome everyone with disregard to the new members’ racial or ethnic groups.
Food is also an important part of Mennonite communities. They take pride and familiarity in sharing meals that can be a combination of different cultures and countries, or family recipes with roots in European flavors.
Also, Mennonites are known worldwide because of their four-part acapella singing groups, and they like to partake in leisure activities as other people of different religions. However, some of them may abstain from smoking, drinking, dancing, and gambling.
Differences Among Mennonites Groups
One of the differences among Mennonites groups is the clothing. Some communities prefer to wear plain and conservative clothes, with no make-up or jewelry. The women use head coverings or prayer veils, and men tend to wear plain coats and collarless shirts. Other communities prefer to dress according to the cities or communities where they reside.
If you are interested in learning more about the Mennonite community in North America, please check their website.
Mennonites Around the World
Here is a map of Mennonites colonies you can check out to get an idea of how far they have settled while searching for a place to live in peace and with religious freedom:
During the 1600s, the Catholic and the Protestant churches persecuted the Mennonites and denominations because of some differences in theology.
These actions drove them to escape to places where others would tolerate their beliefs and where they could live with relative peace and religious freedom. Some moved to other parts of Europe, while others traveled several weeks, if not months, to other continents in search of a better life for them and their descendants.
To this day, and according to the Mennonite World Conference, there are at least 2,131,099 baptized members of the Mennonite denomination around the world including Latin America.
How the Mennonites Arrived in Paraguay
During the 1760s, Empress Catherine the Great of Russia invited the Prussian Mennonites to settle in the Black Sea—a recently conquered area by the Russians—to repopulate the land in exchange for religious freedom and exemption from military service. For several years, the Mennonites business, farms, and families were highly successful in this area.
But after Catherine the Great died, the Russian authorities persecuted Mennonites, and while there were times of peace between those persecutions, it was during the Russian Civil War when most Russian Mennonites fled the country to the United States and Canada.
In Canada, the Menno Colony—one of several branches of the Mennonites around the world—settled until 1917, when a law that required the use of the English language for education endangered their religious freedom to study teachings in their native language.
It wasn’t until 1927 that they were able to move to Paraguay, turning the arid area of the Chaco region into a fertile and prosperous farmland over time. That was the first colony of the Mennonites in Paraguay. Through the years, other colonies—displaced by wars or religious and political conflicts—joined them.
The first Mennonite colony in Paraguay was Menno, founded in 1927. While the first Mennonites struggled with the barren and bone-dry conditions in the area of el Chaco when they first settled there, they learned from the Indigenous people how to prepare the land for crops and farming.
Since then, they have been prosperous in those areas they inhabit.
The Mennonite Colonies in Paraguay
There are 27 Mennonite colonies in Paraguay, which are divided into two major areas. The first one is in the area of Gran Chaco Region, at the West of Paraguay. The other one is located in the Eastern region of Paraguay.
Most of the Mennonites in Paraguay are of Dutch ancestry and come from the Russian Mennonites I previously mentioned, which means they can trace their history for several centuries.
The three major groups of Mennonites who reside in Paraguay are:
- Those who arrived directly from Russia,
- Those who came from Russia but were in Canada for a while, and
- Those who came from Russia but were in Mexico or Brazil for a while.
All of them share a common ancestry known as the Plautdietsch language and a number of traditions that date from hundreds of years ago, which are all important elements to keep alive the Mennonite traditions of centuries ago.
The Mennonites in Chaco, Paraguay, are one of the highest populations of Mennonites in Latin America, who make up at least 32% of the total population of Chaco, being surpassed only by the Paraguayan Indians, who represent 52% of the total population.
But Chaco isn’t the only area where Mennonites reside in Paraguay. There are also colonies of conservative Mennonites in Asunción, Catupiry, Colonia Florida, the Canindeyú department, the Itapua department and Hohenau.
The colonies in Chaco are structured in two levels of organization. The first level is in charge of providing attention to the primary needs of the community, especially in the fields of religion and education. The second level are the cooperative societies, who are in charge of the communitary needs such as commercialization, health, and economic activities.
The Mennonite communities of Paraguay are an important part of the Paraguayan economic activities. They are responsible for more than 75% of the milk production in the country, thanks to the combination of technology and cooperation between the Paraguayan and the Mennonites since the 1980s.
In terms of education, the Mennonites in Paraguay have different stances.
Since the Mennonites settled in Paraguay in 1927, they took charge of their kids’ education, developing their own educational system. This later became protected thanks to several laws, which not only let them create their own educational programs but also cooperatives and school councils. In spite of this, several colonies have adapted their school curriculums to the Paraguayan one as of the 1970s.
They taught only German at their schools for several decades, later adding Spanish to their curriculum. They also teach different subjects such as agriculture, horticulture, cooking, sewing, carpentry and other subjects that help the development of the settlements.
During the last few decades, especially during the 2010s, there has been an increment of Mennonnite immigration in and outside of Paraguay because of the violence and dangers the guerilla organization Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo (Paraguayan People’s Army) has caused the Mennonite colonies.
They have been victims of vandalism, violence, and kidnappings, spurring the colonies to relocate near Chaco or Boqueron in search of safety. Other Mennonites have decided to move outside the country to Bolivia or other South American countries where other Mennonite colonies exist.
Let’s Learn About Other Cultures in Spanish!
The Mennonite culture and way of living may be surprising to some people, especially that of Mennonnite groups who are extremely conservative. If you are going to visit Paraguay anytime soon, you have to be prepared to talk about this topic with your friends, families, and even with Paraguayans!
One of the best ways to truly enjoy the culture of the country you are visiting is through the language. There is something freeing about being able to fluently communicate with the natives by yourself without the need of applications or pocket dictionaries.
Sign up today for a free one-on-one class with one of our native Spanish teachers and start preparing yourself for your trip to Paraguay, Uruguay or any other Latin American country you want to visit. You won’t regret it!
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