“The press,” writes Franklin Klassen, editor of Chaco-Press, a new monthly newspaper published in the Menno Colony of the Paraguayan Chaco, “is the conscience of a society. When offenses happen, the press must sound the alarm.”
In September 2013, Klassen distributed the first issue of the 12-page periodical that bears the subtitle “a magazine about our interactions with each other in society and community” and promises “to speak openly of the strengths and weaknesses of our life together.”
Chaco-Press makes good on that promise. Set squarely in the context of the political, economic and ecclesial world of Mennonites in Loma Plata, Menno Colony’s administrative center, the 16 issues that have appeared offer German-speaking readers a front row seat into the inner workings and tensions of a Mennonite community in the midst of rapid change.
Early issues focused on relatively safe subjects. As a member of Loma Plata’s city council, Klassen featured news on administrative details of the city, a front-page devotional, historical vignettes, school reports, updates on sports events and some poems and jokes.
But it did not take long for the newspaper to take on a much more critical tone as it set its sights on the two major institutions that have long shaped virtually every aspect of daily life in Menno Colony — the Kooperative Chortitzer, which oversees various astoundingly successful industries, owned collectively by the Mennonite members of the colony; and the Asociación Civil, which runs civic functions such as road repair, car insurance, assisted living facilities and property transactions.
When Menno Colony’s first settlers arrived in Paraguay in the 1920s, these institutions were absolutely essential to their survival in the challenging Chaco environment. Isolated from the larger world, colony lives intersected daily in church community, the economic cooperative and the details associated with running a small town.
Three generations later, however, those intimate relationships have become much more complex. The cooperative has become a half-billion-dollar enterprise, with sophisticated marketing and international exports. A culture of handshake deals, forged among first cousins over coffee after church, is increasingly ill-suited to the size and complexity of Menno Colony today.
Chaco-Press is a living document of a community in transition. The newspaper’s heart, growing from a half-page to nearly three pages per issue, is a feature Klassen calls “Did You Know . . . ?” He offers a host of observations — random facts, critical assertions, probing questions and something close to gossip — calling for greater transparency and accountability from colony leaders.
Klassen’s concerns are wide-ranging: lax oversight of the town dump; poor road conditions; the growing popularity of dance studios; Mennonite widowers who haven’t learned Spanish and become willing targets for their Latina translators. But the real focus of Chaco-Press is a scathing critique of the growing gap between rich and poor in Menno Colony, and a sense that the “insiders” — a clique of families who seem to control all the key colony institutions — are not sufficiently accountable.
As an unofficial newspaper that sometimes exceeds the boundaries of journalistic propriety, Chaco-Press must feel like a thorn in the flesh of Menno Colony’s leadership. But for the outsider, its pages offer a rare glimpse into the tensions, challenges and all-too-human realities of a Mennonite community in the midst of change.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.