San José’s most unlikely sight is the bizarre spectacle of tall white people with flaxen hair and ruddy cheeks – the men dressed in denim dungarees and straw hats, the women in full-length dresses and headscarves – walking around town or driving horse-drawn buggies. These are the Mennonites, members of a radical Protestant sect founded in the Netherlands by Menno Simmons in the sixteenth century. For the next four centuries the Mennonites found themselves driven from country to country as they attempted to escape religious persecution and conscription, and to find land on which to pursue their dreams of an agrarian utopia. After migrating to Germany, they moved in succession to Russia, the US and Canada, Mexico and Belize, until finally arriving in Bolivia and Paraguay in the twentieth century, attracted by the availability of cheap land and guarantees of religious freedom. Perhaps twenty thousand Mennonites now live in communities across the Eastern Lowlands, farming and raising cattle in self-contained agricultural communities.
The central tenets of the Mennonites are the refusal to take oaths or bear arms (they are exempt from military service in Bolivia); the baptism only of believers (ie only of people who willingly adopt the faith, which excludes infants); simplicity of dress and personal habits; and an unwillingness to marry outside the faith. They also to varying degrees reject most modern technology, including cars and computers, though faced with the difficult agricultural conditions of Chiquitos, many Bolivian Mennonites allow the use of tractors – though not, bizarrely, of rubber tyres, so their wheels are covered with steel spikes. Though some speak Spanish, and a few of the older ones who grew up in North America also have some English, among themselves they speak Plattdeutsch, an archaic German dialect. If you can bridge the language barrier, many Mennonite men are happy to talk about their lives.
However, there seems to be some level of distrust between the Mennonites and the locals, possibly based on the Mennonite buying up of land in the area. The irony is that, two and a half centuries after the Jesuits were expelled, religiously inspired utopian dreams are still being pursued in the plains of Chiquitos, albeit by white Protestants instead of indigenous Catholics. This isn’t, however, an irony that would have been appreciated by the Jesuits themselves – their order was set up precisely to combat Protestant sects like the Mennonites.