This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Book review: Liminal Sovereignty

This study of two minority religious communities in northern Mexico — Old Colony Mennonites and Mormon colonists — focuses on the accommodation of these groups by Mexican governmental officials and their depiction in popular culture.

Liminal Sovereignty
Liminal Sovereignty

Although the volume builds on historical, geographical and sociological works produced by Mennonite scholars and others, it is neither a broad historical survey nor an inquiry into the religious impulses of Anabaptist and Mormon groups.

Rather, Liminal Sovereignty seeks, in the author’s words, to open “windows” to Mennonite and Mormon experiences in Latin American culture, ranging in analysis from immigrant documentation procedures, to land reform, to recent television series.

Rebecca Janzen, a U.S.-based scholar of Spanish and comparative literature, conducted her research during visits to Mexico, simultaneously becoming acquainted with her Mennonite relatives settled in the states of Chihuahua and Durango.

These distant cousins are the descendants of the author’s great-grandmother and other family members who emigrated from Canada in the 1920s through the 1940s, seeking religious freedom and alternatives to mandates in Manitoba and Saskatchewan that children receive English-language public education.

As a scholar of cross-cultural contact, she was intrigued to learn that small groups of Mormons (with ancestry dating to 19th-century immigration from Utah) live in close proximity to several Mennonite colonies. Her access to Old Colony Mennonite communities through her own kinship networks, as well as the opportunity to meet neighboring Mexican Mormons, inform her perspectives on minority groups within their broader cultural milieu. The book’s five chapters dip selectively into historical and contemporary moments in which Mennonites, Mormons and other Mexicans have encountered one another. Janzen pushes us to consider evidence from both likely and unlikely places.

Liminal Sovereignty seeks to upend notions that minority re­ligious communities in northern Mexico have been historically insular. This work also downplays the colonizing legacies of privileged Mennonites and Mormons in their Latin American contexts.

Janzen argues that from their arrival as immigrants in Mexico and continuing into the 21st century, they have been perceived, accommodated and largely accepted as a part of the broader ideological notions at play in Mexican identity. At the beginning of the 20th century, this included post-Revolutionary notions and aspirations of mestizaje (racial mixing). Although the mestizo idea was never realized, the Mexican government was committed to integrate native-born residents and foreigners within the nation’s borders to a new national ideology in which people of differing backgrounds would “blend in.”

Although the Mexican government, over time, abandoned earlier efforts to build a mestizo race — and the Mennonites in Mexico “were able to continue as fairly separate peoples” — Janzen suggests that Mennonite/Mormon/ Mexican contacts, over time, provide evidence of cultural flexibility and generosity.

During the past half-century, Old Colony Mennonites have changed in ways that have yielded more points of contact with Mexican neighbors, notably through the incorporation of the Spanish language into vernacular usage, the replacement of horse-drawn buggies by cars and trucks, and widespread acceptance of electricity and cell phones.

“[C]hanges in both the Mennonite way of life and in Mexican culture,” Janzen notes, have “led both to become slightly more open toward the other . . . reflected in more commonalities, connections and boundary crossing.” Quite recently, Mexican experiences of the violence associated with drug cartels have aligned with images of Mennonites and other minorities, an argument she develops in a chapter on portrayals of Mennonites and Mormons in Mexico’s drug wars.

Some readers will be particularly interested in the book’s extensive discussion of the critically acclaimed film Silent Light (2007), in which the Canadian writer Miriam Toews played the lead role of an aggrieved Mennonite woman in an Old Colony Mennonite family.

Throughout the volume, Jan­zen insists that examining “contact zones” where controversies between groups erupted — or where cooperation occurred — helps to dispel stereotypes.

Pitched for a scholarly audience more than for general readers, Liminal Sovereignty places sociopolitical history and popular culture side by side as a means to cross-cultural understanding.

Rachel Waltner Goossen teaches history at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan.

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