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.
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.
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.
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