In the dusty desert regions of Mexico, 100,000 Mennonites live in secluded stretches of land to maintain their religious autonomy and economic liberty through rural farming, and keep a devout lifestyle. Spanish photographer Seila Montes Gonzalez has documented the Mexican colony in the state of Campeche. Her photographs feature the farmers at home with their families as well as integrating into town life.
"Arriving in Dzigualchen, Campeche was like stepping foot into a land of contrasts. This place was a mix of old Europe, ancient Pre-Hispanic and modern Mexico. Spanish was not the only language heard in this land, there was also Maya and low German," she tells Creators. "Tall blonde Mennonites can be seen greeting indigenous locals from their huge green tractors."
The Mennonite colonies, established with a wave of migration from Canada in 1912, have flourished for nearly 95 years untouched and coexist with local Mexican culture surrounding them. As of late, the Mexican Drug War and severe drought threatens the existing communities way of life. They may have to abandon Mexico for another country all together. Montes Gonzalez traveled throughout Mexico to establish contact with some of the communities and to document their daily life. She says she was inspired by photographer Jordi Ruiz Cirera's ongoing documentation of Mennonites in Bolivia and was determined to capture the communities in Mexico with the same rigor.
"I found their lives so fascinating because they have maintained their way of life in a country where the customs and traditions are very different to theirs," she explains. Using a Canon 5D, Montes Gonzalez images are unposed shots of a community that is "extremely polite and respectful, but also extremely private." She says it was not easy to earn their trust but was able to gain it little by little through friendly connections in town.
In her photo series, we see a settlement that could possibly exist in the Russian countryside or even on the Canadian prairies. The homes of the Mennonites have a timelessness to them as if the images could have existed 50 years ago, perhaps driven by their pious and simple living. But Montes Gonzalez photographs also hint at a gradual intermixing of Mexican culture and modern habits.
"They do consider themselves Mexican. Some of them are third or fourth generation Mexican. They are well known for being a very close community and somewhat closed-off. These communities have integrated with the larger Mexican culture. I was surprised to see the youngsters listening to banda, eating tacos, and even drinking alcohol, things that were unthinkable for older generations, but this was in more open communities."
We don't know what will become of these religious settlements as their way of life becomes more and more encroached upon, but photographers like Montes Gonzalez provide outsiders a visual journal of their personal lives. We get a sliver of their joy and their resilience, from farming and commerce to family interactions.
"I had the chance to see their daily lives," says Montes Gonzalez, explaining how her time with the Mexican Mennonites would eventually come to an end. "Interestingly, they were very curious about how I live. Then one day, all of a sudden, all the doors were closed for our daily meeting. I think, perhaps, one of the community chiefs wasn't that happy about us being there."
To learn more about Seila Montes Gonzalez, click here.