By Herika Martinez Prado, AFP/Sabinal, Mexico
The desert of northern Mexico seemed so perfect when the Mennonites moved here 26 years ago: a place free from electricity, television or cars.
But then the government installed the first power lines.
And now, this deeply traditional, tight-knit community is divided between those who want to stay in Sabinal, their far-flung, dusty village, and those who soon will load their wagons, hitch up their horses and move to a new, even more remote home.
“When the power lines arrived, they decided to go,” says Sabinal resident Enrique Friesen, 37, who for his part plans to stay, with his wife and eight children.
“They don’t want electricity — just horses. They say electricity is a sin.”
The Mennonites of Mexico are the descendants of strictly conservative Protestants whose denominations emerged out of the 16th century Reformation in Europe.
Their ancestors fled persecution in Germany and the Netherlands for Russia, then Canada and finally Mexico.
Today, the people of Sabinal live in the Chihuahuan desert almost like an isolated indigenous tribe — except that their skin is white, their hair typically blond, and their eyes blue.
Men traditionally wear handmade overalls, while the women opt for long, flowing dresses.
Their native language is Low German.
In a sign of their limited contact with the rest of Mexico, they often speak little Spanish.
They generally reject cell phones, television, cars and even rubber tires for their horse-drawn carriages.
Of the estimated 60,000 Mennonites in the state of Chihuahua, Sabinal’s 1,500 residents are among the most cloistered.
But the arrival of electricity is bringing modernity — and controversy — to their door.
Nearly a third of the village plans to move across Mexico to the southeastern state of Campeche, where another Mennonite community has already settled.
“They want to conserve the faith. They don’t want change,” says Isaac Redecop, who runs the local store.
Other Mennonites around the world “have already changed. They use cars, while we’re still using horses,” he told AFP. “But as far as I can tell, we have more peace and quiet than they do.”
For those who want to stay, electricity is a blessing — and one that is not necessarily prohibited by their faith.
Besides the convenience of electric lights and fans, it helps them irrigate their fields — no small task in the desert.
But those who want to leave say the outside world has already encroached far enough on their religion and culture.
Sabinal is four hours from the nearest city, Ciudad Juarez, on the border with the United States — it is located down a series of dirt roads that wind through mountains, hills and pastures.
But outside influence has crept in, mainly through the farmhands the Mennonites hire from a nearby hamlet.
On Sundays, Mennonite teens with a rebellious streak can be found in the fields covertly listening to reggaeton and Enrique Iglesias — music picked up from the workers — through battery-powered speakers.
It is nearly impossible to totally isolate them from the world beyond — especially since the Mennonites are hugely successful farmers.
They make 1.5 tonnes a day of cheese, which has become popular in the surrounding area and draws a stream of customers to Sabinal.
“It’s the only cheese around without chemicals. Customers don’t want chemicals. This cheese is pure milk,” says Redecop.
His store is one of a handful of businesses in town, alongside a doctor’s office, a pharmacy, a feed shop and a hardware store.
Besides making cheese, the Mennonites also farm cotton, sorghum and vegetables, having tamed the desert with a vast system of wells.
When they moved here in 1992, they bought their land for $172 per hectare.
Those who are leaving plan to sell it for $7,000 per hectare.
Sabinal’s sprawling fields are dotted by houses adorned with colorful flowers.
Chickens and cows roam the yards, along with playing children who shout excitedly in Low German when they see a stranger arrive, then run and hide.
In a place where families have up to 17 kids, most of Sabinal’s residents are children.
They go to school six months a year — six years total for girls, seven for boys — studying subjects such as reading, writing, math, Mennonite history and the Bible.
Their parents are apprehensive about the changes that technology could bring to a community that still prefers to fit its horse-drawn tractors and carriages with metal wheels.
“People say (electricity) is bad. They say there are bad things on television. But I don’t think everything on television is bad,” says Jacobo, an unmarried 19-year-old whose family plans to stay.
“They also say if people get rubber tires, they just use them to drive to town and buy liquor. But that’s their own fault. You can’t blame the tires.”
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