Paraguay Mennonites Find Success a Mixed Blessing

FILADELFIA, Paraguay - On Avenida Hindenburg, the dusty main street running through this farming town founded over 70 years ago by zealous, hard-toiling German Mennonites, the traffic signs are also signs of the times.

Where a few years ago "Vorsicht Sch|ler" would have been enough to warn drivers passing the Benjamin Unruh elementary school to watch out for children, the town needs bilingual signs now. The Spanish "Cruce de Alumnos" has been added.

This town 300 miles north of the sleepy capital, Asuncisn, is deep in the heart of the sparsely populated Chaco - Paraguay's vast, inhospitable scrubland, where the thermometer regularly hits 120 degrees.

But its booming farm economy is attracting economic migrants from across this landlocked South American nation the size of California. That, according to many residents here, means trouble.

On one hand, the Mennonites need the labor to keep their successful farming cooperative growing. On the other, the outsiders inevitably dilute the colonizers' German-language culture and religious traditions that have been unaltered for decades.

The forefathers of Filadelfia's Mennonites fled Russia in two waves. The first went to Canada in the 19th century, when they lost their exemption from military service, and then to Paraguay, while a second wave fled Stalin's collectivization program via Germany and China. The Mennonites now make up less than half the town's population of 8,000.

"We are victims of our own success," said Gundolf Niebuhr, curator of the town's tiny museum, which is filled with Mennonite memorabilia and stuffed wild animals. "The Mennonites' highly successful work ethic and commitment to build a functioning society attracts others and ends up fragmenting our own social structure."

Mr. Niebuhr speaks German with a faint trace of Plattdeutsch, the guttural dialect that the Mennonites have preserved ever since they were hounded out of the Low Countries in the 16th century for following a radical Anabaptist reformer. He reflected that, given the harsh conditions in the Chaco, it was surprising that the settlers had survived here at all.

When the first 350 German families arrived in 1927, they found a drought-plagued wilderness.

In the first years, the settlers' cotton and peanut crops failed repeatedly. It was only with grit and discipline that homesteads took root.

The settlers came both because of anti-German sentiment in Canada after World War I and because Paraguay wanted to populate the Chaco, fearing the territorial ambitions of neighboring Bolivia. The Paraguayan government passed a law in 1921 giving Mennonites the right to organize their own churches and German-language schools and exempting them from military service.

Bolivia did invade in 1932, but at the end of the war in 1935, Paraguay kept the territory and the Mennonites continued their hardscrabble existence.

In 1937, some colonizers broke off to set up a new colony in a more clement region in east Paraguay. In 1944, two factions - one pro-Hitler and hopeful of reoccupying their farms in the Soviet Union, one pacifist and anti-Nazi - clashed violently. The pro-Hitler faction left.

But today the Mennonites' large cooperative farms are successful, providing dairy products consumed across the country. While Paraguayans' income slumped to $950 a year from an average of $1,750 in the decade after the last military ruler, Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, went into exile in 1989, Filadelfians' average yearly income is about $10,000.

On a recent visit, Luiz Augusto de Castro Neves, Brazil's ambassador to Paraguay, told the people at the cooperative, "I'm fascinated by what I have seen - a Paraguay that works!"

The town has spent $300,000 yearly for wages and education and health services for 9,000 Indians settled on 370,000 acres outside town bought by the Mennonites. But many people here consider the indigenous people lazy or drunkards and blame them and other outsiders for rising crime.

The town is also split over whether Mennonites should get involved in politics beyond electing a community leader. Generally, the older generation clings to the centuries-old tradition of steering clear of statecraft.

In general elections in April, however, Orlando Penner, 40, formerly a rally driver and governor of Boquersn, Filadelfia's province, became Paraguay's first Mennonite senator. Elected on the slate of Beloved Homeland, an anticorruption, grass-roots movement that became a political party, Mr. Penner says that Filadelfia's Mennonites should integrate more and that their success could serve as an example to the rest of the country.

"If we want to keep ourselves caged inside orthodoxy, we will be chasing around the world forever looking for new, empty, isolated lands," he said. "I'm sure that if we can't preserve our identity as Mennonites while still opening up to and living alongside others in this country, then it doesn't make any sense to be a Mennonite."