On a foggy night twelve years ago, Jordi Busqué thought he was hallucinating. He and his brother were waiting for a bus in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia when out of the darkness, tall figures dressed in overalls, cowboy hats, and long frocks passed by without a sound. Inquiring about the strange apparition the next morning, Busqué learned they were Mennonites, a religious group committed to pacifism, social discipline, and community-based agriculture.
Busqué, who is from Barcelona, had never heard about the Mennonites. Fascinated, he sought them out, eventually visiting 20 colonies over the course of the next 10 years.
A Mennonite family poses for a photograph in front of their house. From right to left: Gerhard Klassen, Anna Bren with baby Sarah, Heinrich, Peter, Eva, Catarina, Anna, Gerhard Jr., Elisabet, Elena, and Jacob. Durango Colony, Bolivia. 2006
“Today, cultures from around the world tend to become quite the same, imitating the mores they see in films and on television,” he says. But Mennonites largely reject modern conveniences and eschew cultural assimilation, favoring an insularism that enables them to preserve the traditions and language of their European ancestors.
Indeed, since originating in 16th century Netherlands and Germany, Mennonites have migrated through Europe and eventually the New World in search of arable land where they’d be free to live by their own rules. The roughly 60,000 that now call Bolivia home came by way of Canada, the United States, or Mexico, migrating further and further south as these countries began introducing secular compulsory schooling.
Bolivia, however, welcomed them as skilled farmers, granting them autonomy in terms of education, welfare, municipal governance, dispute resolution, and property ownership.
Busqué visited the colonies on foot, carrying a sleeping bag so he could sleep under the stars. Photography is forbidden in nearly all colonies—Busque compares initial reactions to him taking out his camera out as if he were taking out a gun—so it took patience and dedication to earn their trust. He helped them with their work –a tractor accident almost cost him his hand and his life– and took only a few pictures throughout each stay to avoid disrupting their way of life.
Photographing so deliberately also helped him conserve battery power, which was essential given that their homes are without electricity.
Busqué has seen families grow, young girls becoming adults, births, and funerals. Eventually, he says, “I want to follow a whole generation and see how it changes.”
The Mennonites in Bolivia are among the most conservative, yet Busqué has witnessed communities changing at various paces.
“Some differences that we might deem trivial are crucial to them,” he notes. He gives the example of the types of tractor they use. Some colonies refuse to use those with rubber tires, which can be used to go into the city, preferring older models with iron wheels, which are only meant for the fields.
Despite their ancient working techniques, Mennonites are a boost to the regional economy. Their soybeans and sunflower crops are bought by multinationals while their dairy products are enjoyed by locals. And, in the towns close to their colonies, shops cater to their specific needs. “Stores carry the cowboy hats that they prefer, or the fabric from which the women make their dresses. There are even hotels without modern amenities where they can stay,” observed Busqué.
If the exchanges between the two populations are largely economic, he believes we could all learn a thing or two from Mennonites and vice-versa. “I was very comfortable and at peace inside the colonies. There’s no television, no wi-fi. You can disconnect, wake up to the call of a rooster or birdsongs, and generally feel less stress,” he says. “That said, they’re often unaware of what goes on beyond their fenceline. Somewhere between us and them, there’s a healthy compromise.”