Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua

Issue 2023, vol. 77

[Editor’s note: This piece samples some of the work of Abigail Carl-Klassen, presented at the international conference Mennonite/s Writing IX, “Thirty Years of Mennonite/s Writing: Responding to the Past, Creating the Future,” held at Goshen (Ind.) College Sept. 29-Oct. 2, 2022. Carl-Klassen’s recent oral history project (see below) resulted in, among other things, a series of prose poems. The poems here are from interviews with two Indigenous Mexicans who spent many years in the Campos Menonitas of northern Mexico. You can see more presentations from Mennonite/s Writing IX at the Center for Mennonite Writing,, including more of the prose poems, from Carl-Klassen’s interviews with Mexican Mennonites.]


The following vignettes/docupoems are taken from the transcript of an interview between Abigail Carl-Klassen and Bruno Ramos Rivas and Alicia Bustillos Gonzalez for the “Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua” oral history project conducted in the spring of 2018 with funding from the D.F. Plett Historical Research Foundation. Recordings, transcripts and translations from this project are in the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Selected excerpts from interviews can be found on the Darp Stories YouTube channel, including the interview with Bruno Ramos Rivas and Alicia Bustillos Gonzalez.

Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua

Interview #39/ Entrevista #39

Interviewer/Entrevistadora: Abigail Carl-Klassen

Interviewee/Entrevistada/o: Bruno Ramos Rivas (B) and Alicia Bustillos González (L)

Audio language/Idioma del audio: Spanish/español

Transcription language/Idioma de la transcripción: Spanish/español

Transcriber/Transcriptora: Abigail Carl-Klassen

Transcription translation language/Idioma de la traducción de la transcripción: English/inglés

Translator/Traductora: Abigail Carl-Klassen

Place/Sede: Kilometer 9, Corredor Comercial, Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, México

Date/Fecha: March 31, 2018/ 31 de marzo 2018

Description of interviewees and relevancy to this project: Bruno Ramos Rivas and Alicia Bustillos González describe their experiences as Tarahumara people living in the Campos Menonitas, giving particular attention to their childhood experiences in the Sierra Tarahumara and their economic motivations for migrating from the Sierra to the Campos. They reflect on the difficulties of transitioning from life in the Sierra and how colonization impacts how Tarahumaras have historically interacted with non-Indigenous people. They discuss their conversion to evangelical Christianity and how that has impacted their worldview and dynamics with family members still living in the Sierra. Alicia briefly discusses her time working as a Tarahumara-Spanish interpreter in the penal system, primarily in the juvenile justice system, and describes her motivation to leave her government job and begin working as a teacher in the Tarahumara school in Kilometer 14 of the Campos Menonitas that had recently been founded by a Kleingemeinde congregation. Bruno talks at length about how he became involved in the Tarahumara school and church, first as a teacher, then as a school director, and about the importance of having Tarahumara teachers who have the cultural and linguistic knowledge needed to best serve Tarahumara children and their families. He reflects on the importance of cultural preservation and pride and the importance of education in countering discrimination against the Tarahumara community.


Growing Up in the Sierra Tarahumara: 1970s and ’80s (B)

The Sierra Tarahumara is divided into the High Sierra and the Low Sierra. My mom was from the other side of the Low Sierra. My dad was from the High Sierra. So, I don’t know how  they found one another. The important thing is they found each other, right? Yes, well, we grew up there in the village. None of my siblings left the family to go to the other side. We did it now that we’re grown up because of work. But, we grew up there, there in the village of Guachochi. We were born there and we were raised there. My parents, they were always there working, not very far away, but, they came every two weeks to see us. So it was there that we were made into a family, that was, you could say, under the care of our older siblings. I studied, in a school, well, in four schools, to finish my primary schooling because my dad moved for work and my mom too, so we had to move. I finished my primary school in a school that here we call “for nuns” which is to say a Catholic school. A Catholic school. And in that way, we grew up with the Catholic religion. In this way, the years passed by in the school and well, I played, like everyone, like any person, right? In that school I was living alongside Tarahumaras and with Mestizos. In that school, in all schools, they spoke Spanish. They gave classes in Spanish even though it was the Sierra Tarahumara. The government required it, the Spanish language. The Tarahumara language comes too, but it’s not very easy to give classes in Tarahumara. This is because of the variants that in one place something is said one way and said another way in another place not very far away. So, it starts to confuse you a little. For teachers it’s easier to teach classes in Spanish. Yes. This is how we grew up. And what more to say about the Sierras? It’s my land. It’s beautiful. There are bad things that people say about the Sierra, but, you have talk about positive things because there are bad things wherever you go, right?


Learning Spanish: Sierra Tarahumara, 1970s and ’80s (L)

My culture has always been Indigenous, very attached to our own natures. You could say it’s something very ethical. We’re very devoted to our language. I remember that I didn’t speak Spanish. I started to speak Spanish when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. I still don’t speak it very well, but, I continue. It’s always difficult to understand in a school to study in a school because the schools always give classes in Spanish. And it’s difficult when you don’t understand Spanish that you have always spoken in your mother tongue and it’s difficult to know what word the teacher said. And you understand very little. For that reason, many times the Tarahumara culture doesn’t advance very much in academic knowledge because it’s always taught in Spanish. From my childhood until now classes were taught in Spanish. And it’s true, it’s very slow. Only now, is the Indigenous culture advancing in learning Spanish beginning in childhood. There are some who learn more, but others continue with their mother tongue from birth to adulthood. Yes, they struggle some. I speak from experience that it is a little more difficult for people who don’t speak Spanish, for children who don’t speak Spanish, than for those who do speak a little. So when I find myself with a child like that, I remember my childhood and I say, “I believe this is happening like it did to me.”

Leaving the Sierra for the Campos: Manitoba Colony, 2008 (B)

We are living here in the Campos with the family and I’ve been here for around ten years. At first, I came alone. I came and my family stayed there because of issues surrounding school and the children and because it’s not easy to move to another place with the entire family. So, I came for the purpose of finding work. To search for another life condition. For employment reasons. I came to search for work and I started working here with a builder. Materials construction. With Mr. Fehr. I was there for six years. Gracias a Dios, I met Pastor Jacobo Enns. He told me that they had a school for Tarahumara children. We were there looking after the construction of the church, for a church that’s on that same road as the school. While we were there chatting, he invited us to work at the school. There were around thirty students, all of Tarahumara ethnicity, from the municipalities of Bocoyna, from Guachochi, from Carachi. These students were and still are children of people who work for Mennonite businesses. There had been concern that these children would be served in their education that was the intention and the purpose of the school. And well, now we’ve been working in the school for three years, very happily, for certain because it gives me the opportunity to help my people. The Tarahumara people. I am Tarahumara. I feel very happy to help my people.


An Interpreter and a Teacher: Cuauhtémoc, 2012 (L)

When we arrived here from the Sierra, the court spoke with me to see if I want to be a translator in the CERESOs, the prisons, for Indigenous inmates and I said yes. I worked there for two or three years, and at that time, Pastor Jacobo Enns asked me if I wanted to teach classes at the Tarahumara school. I did, but, I didn’t answer him because I had already signed a paper with the CERESO. He assured me that the children were “a joy for all.” I was thinking there for a while, and I said to my husband, “Where do you think is better?” and he said, “Well, where God guides you.” And I said, “Yes, where God leads me, true.” And he said, “You just have to finish with what you are doing, right? At your job.” So, I finished that year in the CERESO with the signatures I made. Then, I came here. It was a little difficult because I was thinking both, “I believe that I could better help at the school with children who are still growing” and “I also help here in the prison.” I thought, “I believe in the prison they have to be corrected and the children, well, it is better to teach them the good path from the time they are small. What better than in a church?” So, I decided, well, it doesn’t matter if I earn a lot or a little, but I wanted to be at the school and I went. The children are very lively. They are very beautiful. Where I was before, in the CERESO, it’s pure violence that you hear. Yes, the jobs are very different. In the Sierra I had experience as a teacher, before working with the inmates. I started working in the schools at eighteen and have been always helping my Indigenous people. They have always sought me out to help them.


Preserving the Tarahumara Language and Culture in the Campos: Manitoba Colony, 2018 (B)

Probably this year we will get books in Tarahumara. This is very important because these families, well some of them were born in the Campos, but they go seasonally to the Sierra, but they are here in this place more. So the culture is being left behind and we are interested that it remains and doesn’t disappear. Especially the language. To not practice the Tarahumara language at home, it goes away, it disappears little by little. I ask our students, “How do you say this?” to see if they know and if they don’t know, I say, “Go and investigate with your parents.” The parents, some, those who are older, they answer, they bring me the answer, but those who are younger, they are already losing that language. So, a way to incorporate Tarahumara, well, is to speak it with them. To impress upon them that we are people, equal. There we apply the Bible verse that says that “God doesn’t show favoritism among people. God sees us all the same.” So, we all matter the same to God. Yes, he created us with a color, with a race, and with a language that is different from the others. This is how God wants us. So we try to get them to accept themselves as Tarahumaras, as brown people. We try to stress to them that they must speak Tarahumara among themselves and with their parents in their homes. We put exercises up there in class in Tarahumara and do things that have to do with Tarahumara culture. We talk with them about festivals that they have there in their community, because even though they are all Tarahumaras, one rancho doesn’t celebrate the same as another ranchito, every town is a little different. The objective is the same, but they do it a little differently. We want for them be enriched more, that they would get to know one another. That we would accept ourselves how we are and that we accept others. They already bring the language with them, it’s just a matter of stressing it so they don’t forget. That they feel well and safe, and valuable. That they value their language, their culture, their customs.


To Be How We Would Like: Manitoba Colony, 2018 (B)

What I’m looking for foremost with my culture is to approach the Mestizo culture and different cultures with the conviction that we aren’t less. That we can interact with people from different cultures without losing anything. Taking care of what is ours, while respecting others. We have always been downtrodden. We didn’t get to be how we would like. I would like the Tarahumara to have freedoms, to feel the freedom to speak with a Mestizo, with an American, with a foreigner. To think freely without being ashamed that he is Tarahumara, that he is brown, that he doesn’t have any money. That he can give thanks to God because he has hands and can work.