Chihuahua – The 40,000-member Mennonite community in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua is the engine of agriculture and ranching in a desert region battered by drug-related violence.
The Mennonites, whose lives revolve around farming, have transformed the arid landscape of Chihuahua into productive fields of corn, beans, oats and wheat, turning the border state into one of Mexico's top milk producers.
The conservative Christian church, whose members arrived in Mexico from Canada in 1922 after a long journey through Russia, the Netherlands and Germany, has drilled deep wells in the arid land, using the water to produce corn harvests exceeding 300,000 tons.
The Mennonites, who are the largest producers of oats in Mexico and also have extensive fields planted with beans, have now started to produce apples in large quantities.
The community's star product, a food with which people all over Mexico are familiar, is Mennonite, or "Chihuahua," cheese, of which they produce 70,000 kilos (nearly 155,000 pounds) a day, selling this delicacy across the republic.
Cheese production expanded rapidly to take advantage of the community's vast milk production, which now hovers around 400,000 liters (105,675 gallons) per day, Mennonite community member Abram Siemens said.
The Mennonites, moreover, have constructed enormous facilities, known as "macro cheese plants," where they have improved the production of dairy products by developing special genetic strains of cattle, incorporating breeds from Canada, the United States and New Zealand.
The businesses run by the Mennonites employ about 20,000 people in Chihuahua, with the majority of them working in agriculture and dairy production, Lisa Wolf, who runs the Mennonite Cultural Center and Museum in Ciudad Cuauhtemoc, told Efe.
The community has started building a strong metal-working industry, as well as agricultural machinery and furniture businesses, Wolf said.
The Mennonites operate businesses along a 50-kilometer (31-mile) corridor that links the cities of Cuauhtemoc and Alvaro Obregon, providing the economic foundation for this area in a state where more than 4,000 people died in drug-related violence last year.
The Christian church, which has about 70,000 members across Mexico, has followed the same way of life for hundreds of years, obtaining an exemption from military service for its pacifist members from the government and the right to practice their religion and educate their children.
Many Mennonite homes do not have electricity, television or radios, but more liberal members of the church drive automobiles and educate their children at universities.
"They have a culture that is very deeply rooted in the land," chef Patricia Quintana said.
Quintana, the promoter of the "Flavors and Aromas of Mexico" tour, visited Chihuahua's Mennonite towns during a visit to the state this year.
Mexico's Mennonites came from the United States and Canada in search of cheap land and greater respect for their way of life, a wish that was granted by Gen. Alvaro Obregon, who was Mexico's president from 1920 to 1924.
Mennonites speak the Low German dialect among themselves, but their schools teach German, as well as some English and Spanish.
Children usually finish school at the age of 12 and go to work, helping their fathers on farms or in other businesses, Wolf said.
Chihuahua's Mennonite community has sent about 30 students to universities in the state, Germany and Canada to train as doctors, dentists and business managers, Wolf said.