"I wanted to collect women’s life stories in order to get a broader picture of the everyday lives of women whose voices are frequently not heard in the public record."
It’s no secret that much of history is written by and about men. This is especially true for the Mennonites of Mexico and Belize. Dr. Doreen Helen Klassen, a professor of social/cultural studies, hopes that her research will give voice to a group of women who are rarely, if ever, represented in scholarly literature.
Dr. Klassen’s mother tongue is Low German, the dialect spoken along the northern coast of Germany and in many anti-modern Mennonite communities. In the mid-1990s she had the opportunity to travel to Mexico to interview Mennonites who had immigrated there from Manitoba and Saskatchewan in the early 1920s. In response to the Manitoba Schools Act, the community had negotiated rights to educate their children in Low German, using their own textbooks and their own teachers. By moving, their culture would be further protected.
Dr. Klassen wanted to learn more about the people she had met, so in 2010 she returned to Mexico conduct more research. She added Belize to her itinerary after some of Grenfell’s international students reminded her that there were also Mennonite communities in that Central American country.
So far, she has conducted 90 interviews on themes including migration experiences, marriage practices, natural health remedies, dealing with substance abuse, and memories of childhood games.
“I wanted to collect women’s life stories in order to get a broader picture of the everyday lives of women whose voices are frequently not heard in the public record,” she said. “As well, since these women are part of a culture that resists contact with ‘the world’ and has no organized social groups beyond the family, I was interested in seeing how they adapted to living in new climactic conditions, often necessitating substantial shifts in agricultural practices and familial food ways.” Dr. Klassen is surprised at how willingly the women she has interviewed have shared their stories.
“At times I really didn’t know if I was a researcher, counselor or priest, so it was tremendously humbling to have total strangers trust me with very personal stories,” she said.
While it wasn’t her original goal when she began her research, she has also started writing short stories in Low German, often incorporating the life stories of the women she has interviewed. Mennonite women living in anti-modern groups in Mexico and Belize generally have only six years of formal education and many of them have expressed a desire to improve their literacy skills. Dr. Klassen believes that access to life stories in their mother tongue can potentially be used in literacy programs for these Mennonite women.
Dr. Klassen’s Low German research is also being incorporated into an English language Mennonite history curriculum that will be used in private Mennonite schools in Canada.