Skip to main content

The Low German Mennonite migration from Latin America to Canada is the most recent leg of a migratory history that began in the 1500s in Europe.

Sixteenth-Century Move from the Low Countries to Danzig

The Anabaptist ancestors of the Low German-speaking Mennonites in Latin America migrated primarily from the Low Countries in Europe to the free city of Danzig (in what is now Poland) to avoid persecution. It was here that the distinct religious and cultural identity of this Mennonite group was formed.

Eighteenth-Century Move to Ukraine

In the eighteenth century, Prussia began imposing restrictions on Mennonites living in the Danzig area because of their unwillingness to participate in military life. In order to maintain their distinctive religious identity in the face of this threat, many Mennonites migrated to Russia. The Russian empress, Catherine the Great, wished to populate Russia’s newly-acquired territory, Ukraine, and sought settlers to this end. Mennonites were one group among many from across Western Europe to take up her offer. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, approximately 8,000 Mennonites moved to Ukraine. Determined to ensure their distinctive life, Mennonites negotiated military exemption, the right to continue their settlement patterns and the right to educate their children in keeping with their culture and religion.

1874 Migration to Manitoba

In the mid-nineteenth century, Russia embarked on an assimilation program of its various immigrant populations. For Mennonites, the most immediate threat lay in Russia’s implementation of a universal conscription law in 1870. Once again intent on preserving their distinctive identity, 18,000 Mennonites left Russia beginning in 1874, with 10,000 immigrating to the American prairies and 8,000 immigrating to Manitoba. Those immigrating to Manitoba negotiated an agreement with the Dominion Government which granted them military exemption, allowed them the right to maintain control over their children’s education, and allowed them to settle in their familiar patterns of village and colony.

From Manitoba and Saskatchewan to Mexico

The move to Mexico meant adapting to a new climate and new agricultural techniques.

The Government of Mexico welcomed the Low German-speaking Mennonite community as it sought to create productive farmland out of the desert. In Mexico and in some South American countries, Low German-speaking Mennonites created communities that would support their desire to live their faith without interference from the outside world. These communities, known as ‘colonies,’ were created in an effort to create a space that was separate from the world and the interference of the state. The focus in the colony was to sustain an agrarian lifestyle while maintaining a commitment to tradition and separateness. At the heart of religious life for colony Mennonites is a commitment to be separate from the society around them and to live distinct lives. The colony ideal is for each family to be largely self-sufficient with a dairy herd and land on which to grow cash crops. This lifestyle that a colony sustains is the expression of colony Mennonites’ commitment to live separate and distinct lives (Old Colony Mennonite Support, 2011). 

The move to Mexico meant adapting to a new climate and new agricultural techniques.

From 1922-27, approximately 7,000 Mennonites moved from Manitoba and Saskatchewan to Northern Mexico. (Another 1,800 moved to Paraguay.) In Mexico, Mennonites established four colonies in order to maintain their separate and distinct lifestyle. Manitoba Plan, Swift Plan and Santa Rita are clustered around the Mexican city of Cuauhtémoc in Chihuahua, and Hague (now commonly called Durango) is located farther south in the state of Durango.

In spite of the difficulties Mennonites encountered when they first settled in Mexico, such as having to learn new agricultural techniques better suited to Northern Mexico’s desert climate, they eventually established themselves. The Mennonites’ commitment to an agrarian lifestyle ensured that land shortages had become a serious issue by the 1950s.

How to remain separate from the world is an ongoing question for many Mennonite groups, not just those in Latin America.

How to remain separate from the world is an ongoing question for many Mennonite groups, not just those in Latin America.

Migrations to Belize and Bolivia

In 1958, intent on retaining their anti-modern lifestyle, some of these Mennonites established colonies in British Honduras (now Belize). Another three colonies were established in Bolivia in 1967/8 for much the same reason. Daughter colonies were also established in various parts of Mexico under less fractious circumstances in an effort to address the land shortage.

Colonies have continued to multiply in Latin America. Some are established to address the never-ending issue of land shortage. Others begin, like they did in Belize and Bolivia, because the tension of accommodating or not accommodating modernity is always an issue for Mennonites who wish to remain separate from the world.

Mennonite Population in Latin America

Since first migrating to Latin America in the 1920s, migration has been an ongoing reality for many of the Low German Mennonites. Additional colonies have been established throughout Mexico, Belize, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina. By 2010, the adult population of Mennonite descendants of the original 1920s immigrants to Mexico and Paraguay was approximately 52,000.

Connections to Canada Remain Strong

For some Mennonites who migrated from the prairies to Mexico in the early twentieth century, the connection to Canada remained strong. Following the initial migration to Mexico in the 1920s, there was a steady trickle of Mennonites who returned to Manitoba and Saskatchewan. However, following a drought in Mexico in the early 1950s, the ready cash available in seasonal agricultural work attracted Mennonites to Ontario. The first Mennonite family to arrive in Ontario from Mexico came in 1952 and stayed near Kitchener. After a summer spent working in the agricultural sector, they returned to Mexico.

In recent years, because of economic hardships, the impact of globalization and NAFTA, there has been a significant back-migration to Canada. Due to their time spent in Western Canada, many families continued to have the legal right to Canadian citizenship. Because Low German-speaking Mennonites often seek the comfort and familiarity of their community, they tended to migrate into areas where other Mennonites or family members were already living.

Coming to Southwestern Ontario

View Map: Main communities where Low German families have settled in Southwestern Ontario

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how Mennonites in Mexico first heard about the possibilities of work in Southern Ontario. Perhaps they heard through their relatives in Manitoba who were also taking advantage of the opportunities of seasonal work in Ontario. In Mexico, word quickly spread that working in Ontario was lucrative, and families began arriving. Most worked on tobacco, tomato and cucumber fields. Early Mennonite immigrants to Ontario worked mainly in Haldimand-Norfolk County, Essex County and Chatham-Kent. Initially, Low German-speaking Mennonites came to Ontario as migrant workers, but there were enough who settled permanently or semi-permanently so that by the early 1960s Mennonites from Mexico had organized several churches in Ontario, including an Old Colony Church.

“The first thing we remember noticing when we arrived was how beautiful the scenery was in Southern Ontario. Everything was so green and full, so different from what we were used to.”

Immigration Patterns

The first generation of Mennonites to come to Ontario from Mexico had little difficulty entering Canada. Though immigration requirements have tightened considerably since then, the flow of Mennonites from Latin America has not stopped. They continue to come to Ontario primarily for economic reasons, most often finding work in the agricultural sector. Some settle here permanently; others continue the pattern of an earlier generation and return to their homes in Mexico every winter.

How many Mennonites from Latin America are in Ontario?

There are currently approximately 60,000 Mennonites from Mexico and Latin America in Southern Ontario. There are other sizeable communities of Mennonites from Latin America in Texas, Kansas, Manitoba and Alberta. They come primarily from the Mennonite colonies in Northern Mexico, and they are also come from colonies in Durango and Zacatecas. Others come from Bolivia, Paraguay and Belize.

What’s the difference between Amish, Old Order and other conservative Mennonite groups?

Old Order Mennonites, Amish and Old Colony Mennonites share a common origin in the sixteenth century Anabaptist movement in Europe. While Old Colony Mennonites have a history which includes migration to Russia in the eighteenth century, Old Order Mennonites and Amish began migrating to Pennsylvania already in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, respectively. Eventually, many came to Ontario. All three groups take seriously the ideal of remaining separate from the world.