During the 1950s the Bolivian government invited them to work and populate the east of the country, in the province of Santa Cruz. They came from all along the American continent, mainly from Canada, Mexico and Belize, and started spreading their farms and fields along the vast, dry territory, expecting they would be able to ‘live the life as Mennonites’ in this new country. Today, there are about 50,000 Mennonites living in Bolivia, spread in more than 50 colonies, although the exact number is difficult to determine as many are living unregistered or with foreign passports. They call themselves Menonos, and they intend to maintain their traditional and closed communities at any cost.
However the new socialist government is increasing environmental control that prevents the Mennonites from cutting down the forest. And the growing ‘influence of the locals’, means easier access to alcohol, music and cars – big issues with which the colonies are not sure how to deal. Some will eventually decide to leave the colony for a new and more isolated one, where the forest is yet to be cut, and Bolivian towns are tens of dusty kilometers away. But still Mennonites will always be a considered a source of income for Bolivians, and they know this. Sometimes they have to go to the city, but they don’t drive, they have cattle but no way to sell it. So no matter where they settle again, soon taxi drivers will start driving around, cattle buyers will pass with their trucks, and just a while after a little shop will be placed right at the entrance of the colony. New countries in which to settle are difficult to find, and so is new land in Bolivia, so the feeling of ‘getting to the end’ of a period is felt all around the community.
Jordi Ruiz Cirera