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Sunday 10 March 2019


Isolated from the world

Portraits of the Mennonites of Bolivia

By Jordi Ruiz Cirera

Mennonites are Christian Anabaptists, rooted in radical Protestantism, who arrived in Bolivia in the 1950s from Canada, Mexico and Belize. The government in Bolivia promised them land and religious freedom, and they came with the hope of preserving their traditional, simple way of life, free from all the trappings of modernity.

This series of portraits explores the relations and familial roles within the Mennonite community and their deep isolation from contemporary society.

There are now more than 50,000 Mennonites living in the country in some 60 colonies. As with other religious communities that struggle with the impact of modern life and its impact on their tightly knit groups, Bolivia’s Mennonites face a number of challenges in their new homeland. Descended from Friesian, Flemish and North German people, they live in the same way their ancestors did, without cars, telephones or electricity. They farm the land, which puts food on the table but is also central to the meaning of their religious life and observance.

Opening image: Abraham Banman, a Mennonite from the Belice colony


A burial for a young woman and her baby who died in a car crash. Mennonites in this community don’t drive, but they are allowed to ride as passengers

Margarita Teichroeb,  who lives in the Swift Current colony


Three children on their way home from school. With their own education system, Mennonites attend school for six months a year from the age of six to 12. They learn  the basics of writing and reading, and a little maths

Mennonite women gardening in Milagrosa colony

Children playing on a Sunday morning. Sunday is the day off for the community, when adults gather at the church while children stay at home

A young man with his pet dog

Maria Klassen, a 14-year-old girl from the Milagrosa colony

The Penner family, from the Milagrosa colony, eat dinner at their home. With no birth control, Mennonite families are big, with an average of ten children

The simple bathroom in a Mennonite home

Graveside scene for the young woman and her baby who died in a car crash

Clothes drying at the sun in the Milagrosa colony

A horse and cart hitched to a post near a house in the Milagrosa colony


A strong sense of community

Their colonies are remote and difficult to access. This isolation is not accidental; living far from towns and cities increases the strong sense of community. There is a desire among Mennonites to be close together and detached from society in order to live quietly. It is vital, however, to be within reasonable distance of locals to be able to trade, though there is a fear that living in close proximity may have an impact on their communities.


Travelling by horse and cart to a wedding in the Milagrosa colony

Young men resting after work. Although using electricity at home is forbidden, occasional exceptions for work are made, with some petrol generators used  to power machines in the workshops

A woman at home in the Milagrosa colony cuts out fabric for clothes

A cooperative shop at the Swift Current colony. The shop sells almost everything needed, from tinned food to fabric for clothes

Milking a cow at the Milagrosa colony

A youth from the Neufeld family in the Nueva Esperanza colony

Children playing with a kite at the Nueva Esperanza colony

A child’s plastic farm animal toys


Isolated communities

Mennonite communities across the world face the same dilemma. They prefer to live in isolated places, keeping themselves to themselves and avoiding too much contact with the outside world. Yet with modern technology becoming ever more ubiquitous, and basic trade with neighbouring communities being unavoidable, the temptation is to move to ever more remote regions in an attempt to sever the link to the modern world.


Youths feed straw into a baling machine. Some machinery is permitted

Children rest at home on the cool floor tiles during a hot afternoon

David Penner writing a letter to his mother, who lives in Belice colony. With no telephone or internet, and difficulties in travelling, family ties tend to weaken once a member moves to a new colony

Children from the Bergen family in the Nueva Esperanza colony

The lure of the modern world

The Mennonite story is one of perpetual migration “from continent to continent, country to country” in order to live as they always have or, more accurately, as they always wanted. As long as there are new lands to migrate to, Mennonite communities have a chance of survival. For young members of the community, however, the draw of alcohol, music and other youthful pastimes can be difficult to ignore, once encountered. The draw and influence of the modern world, with its threats and temptations, is never far away.


All photographs by Jordi Ruiz Cirera/Panos Pictures