ETHNONYMS: Anabaptists, Mennists, Plain People
Mennonites are a German-speaking people distinguished by their life-style and religious beliefs, which derive from the Anabaptist movement of the 1520s and 1530s. There are about 80,000 Mennonites in Latin America, with the largest numbers in South America in Paraguay (15,000), Bolivia (8,000), and Brazil (6,000) and smaller numbers in Uruguay and Argentina. The largest, most visible, and best-described Mennonite community is that located in the Chaco region of Paraguay. The region was first settled by about 2,000 Mennonites fleeing repression in Canada who founded the Menno colony in 1926. In 1930 and 1947 the Fernheim and Neuland colonies were settled by Mennonites fleeing persecution in the Soviet Union. Mennonites also established the town of Filadelfia, which has become a major agricultural center in the Chaco. The Mennonites were drawn to Paraguay by offers of free or inexpensive land, exemption from military service, and religious and other freedoms.
Whereas the semiarid Chaco has proved unproductive for others, Mennonites since the second generation of their arrival have been notably successful agriculturists and dairy farmers. They are now not only self-sufficient but also provide 50 percent of the milk, butter, cheese, and yogurt for the entire nation. The Mennonites have always existed as a separate community within Paraguay and collect their own taxes, maintain their own schools and hospitals, erect German-village-style housing, dress conservatively, and eschew certain worldly pleasures such as dancing. Relations with neighboring Indian groups have been generally friendly, and the Mennonites have routinely employed Indians as wage laborers on their farms. The Mennonites have also resettled Indians on Mennonite land, converted many to Christianity, and provided other services through the Association of Indian-Mennonite Cooperative Services. Since the 1970s, however, the Mennonites have been criticized by some for taking a paternalistic stand toward the Indians and for attracting a large number of landless people to the region, who come in hope of finding work on Mennonite farms. To remedy the situation, the Mennonites have organized an administrative council composed of Mennonites and Indian representatives.
Improved means of communication, such as the paved Trans-Chaco Highway to Ascunción, have also drawn the Mennonites into Paraguayan society and led them to seek political office in order to protect their interests in the region.
See also Mennonites in Volume 1,
Hack, Hendrik (1977). Indianer und Mennoniten im Paraguayischen Chaco. Filadelfia: Asociación de los Servicios de Cooperación Indígena-Mennonita.