There was a time when virtually every rural town in North America had a newspaper. The papers often appeared weekly and provided a rich mixture of local news, agricultural updates, human interest stories, editorial opinions and details on personal lives that outsiders might confuse with gossip.
Those newspapers are largely gone, victims of geographic mobility, changing information technologies and the homogenized culture of modernity. But just outside the Mexican city of Cuauhtémoc in Chihuahua province, the publishers of Kurze Nachrichten aus Mexico (Brief News from Mexico) are keeping alive the tradition of a community newspaper.
Eschewing the colorful layouts of modern periodicals, Kurze Nachrichten consists entirely of dense text in a small typeface that squeezes as much information as possible on two sides of a legal-sized sheet of paper. The weekly paper’s primary focus is on Low German Mennonite life in Mexico, especially the nearby Manitoba colony. But editor Gorge Reimer has a broad perspective that also links his readers with news from the far-flung Low German Mennonite world in Canada, Paraguay, Bolivia and Belize.
Each issue begins with a few brief quotes — the sort that you might hear at an auction barn or in a parking lot conversation after church — that give readers a sense of current opinion or concerns. Then follows a weather update, a report on the Mexican peso’s value and several brief national and international news stories — often supplemented with editorial commentary. The rest of the paper is devoted to colony news and concludes with a section, often in even smaller typeface, called “Get Well Soon,” followed by brief obituaries.
Much of the news in recent months has focused on issues related to land acquisition and water. For more than a year, Mennonites in Chihuahua have been entangled in a complex debate over water rights pitting the economic security of Mennonite farmers against a well-intended, if likely corrupt, Mexican regulatory agency that oversees pumping permits and an activist populist movement (the so-called Barzonistas) who are convinced Mennonite wealth comes at the expense of a disappearing water table. The tensions have led to several confrontations and have provoked a host of larger questions about physical security, economic power, cultural understanding and religious identity.
Uncertainty over the dispute’s outcome — along with population growth pressures — have prompted a search for land, especially in Bolivia, Argentina and even regions in the former Soviet Union. In the past few months, Kurze Nachrichten has reported on the findings of land scouts, with updates not only on land prices but also on local taxes, political security and market access.
Now in its 17th volume year, the Kurze Nachrichten editors seem to have found a balance between straightforward reporting on community news and forthright, sometimes self-critical, commentary on sensitive internal issues like drug trafficking, the impact of outside revival preachers, frustrations with local Mexican government officials or the behavior of Mennonite teenagers whose alcohol consumption or recklessness resulted in car accidents. In its combination of news and gently critical commentary, Kurze Nachrichten holds a mirror to Low German Mennonites that strengthens the bonds of community in the face of rapid political, economic and cultural change.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.