The Mennonites of Bolivia

The Mennonites are one of the many ethnic groups in Bolivia. They are religious community of European descent, committed to community-based agriculture, social discipline and pacifism.

Mennonite in Bolivia

Mennonites largely reject modern conveniences and eschew cultural assimilation, favoring an insularism that enables them to preserve the traditions and language of their European ancestors. The origins of the Mennonites goes back to 16th century Germany and the Netherlands. The word Mennonite originates from Menno Simons. Menno Simons (1496 –1561) was a Roman Catholic priest from Friesland (region of the Netherlands) who became an influential Anabaptist religious leader. Nowadays Mennonite communities can be found wherever rich agricultural lands and promises of religious freedom abound, from Canada to all of South America.

The Mennonites in Bolivia are mostly Russian Mennonites descended from Friesian, Flemish and North German people who came to South America from 1927 onwards. In the 1930’s the Bolivian government welcomed the skilled farmers and granted a privilege to future Mennonite immigrants including freedom of religion, private schools and exemption from military service, but that was not deployed until the 1950’s. In 2012, there were about 70.000 Mennonites living in Bolivia. Their colonies can be found in the department of Santa Cruz, in the lowlands of Eastern Bolivia. Currently there are more than 60 colonies in the Santa Cruz area and as each family has approx 8 children their numbers are expanding rapidly.

The Mennonites come to the city of Santa Cruz in order to sell their products (mostly eggs, butter and cheese which are well-known and consumed as “homemade quality” products) and to run household errands in the stores in and around the local market of “Los Pozos”. They are called “Menonos” by the locals. If interested, it is also possible to visit one of the Mennonites colonies during our trip to the Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitania.

Mennonites of Bolivia speak Plautdietsch, an East Low German dialect with some Dutch and Friesian elements. Listen to a young Mennonite woman living in Mexico speaking in Plautdietsch.

Since coming to Bolivia, a number of other people from other ethnic backgrounds have converted to Mennonite Christianity, mostly through missionaries of more liberal forms of Mennonitism. The Russian in Bolivia are among the most traditional and conservative of all the Mennonites denominations in South America.

See here beautiful pictures taken by photographer Jordi Busqué during his stay in 2018 at several Mennonite colonies in Bolivia.

Mennonites try to preserve their austere old style of life. Mennonites that refuse to live the ‘old-fashioned’ lifestyle without vehicles and electricity can be isolated or even expelled from their colony. Colonia Villa Nueva in Bolivia is a new colony inhabited by exiled or more modern mennonites.

Sara Peters, Mennonite who became a fashion model in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

Sara Peters Mennonite fashion model