Mennonites trace their roots to the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation and to Menno Simons, a renegade Catholic priest from Holland who converted to Anabaptism. He led a church founded on pacifism, the baptism of believing adults, and the separation of church and state. Its early members were persecuted; German and Dutch Mennonites fled to what is present-day Poland and later to the Ukraine to establish rural communities, but the demand that Russian should be taught in their schools, the threat of military conscription and the nationalization of their farms prompted 7,000 Mennonites to leave the Ukraine in the 1870s and settle in western Canada. At the end of the First World War, anti-German sentiment and the Mennonites’ refusal to send their children to English-speaking provincial schools led to fines and imprisonment. In the 1920s, 7,000 of the most conservative Mennonites loaded their animals and farm implements on to trains and headed for Mexico.
Today, 50,000 Mennonites make up twenty-three colonies throughout Mexico, where they strive for economic independence and ‘separation from the world’. The strictest among their church leaders reject electricity, the automobile, and rubber tyres on their tractors. Those who break with the customs are excommunicated.