The Mennonites of Paraguay (with Photos)

This is the full version of the original article. The third in a series on Paraguay’s Chaco region features the local Mennonite communities. The first focused on Filadelfia, the area’s largest town, and the second on the rural Chaco. The final post highlighted the local indigenous community. Enjoy photos and stories from one of Paraguay’s most intriguing places.

Paraguay’s remote western region, the Chaco, boasts a diverse mix of Mennonite, Spanish, Brazilian, and indigenous Guarani influences. The approximately 60,000 to 80,000 Mennonites in Paraguay who live in large communities, or “colonies,” dominate the local culture. Its distinctly German flavor was introduced to the country by Russian Mennonites of Germanic descent who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s to avoid persecution under Stalinism. Other Mennonite communities migrated to Paraguay between 1929 and 1932 from Canada, Germany, and the United States. The Fernheim, Menno, and Neuland colonies settled near present-day Filadelfia in 1930, and have since grown to more than 10,000 members. Most are farmers with large ranches (estancias) that produce a variety of agricultural products, including beef, dairy products, and other foodstuffs.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (3)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (8)

The Mennonites’ arrival in the Chaco coincided with the rise in tensions between Paraguay and its neighbor, Bolivia. Eager to solidify the country’s hold on the sparsely populated region, the Paraguayan government granted in the 1930s large parcels of Chaco land to the Mennonites on the condition that they establish a permanent presence there. The Bolivians, who coveted the Chaco for oil-producing potential that never materialized, invaded it in 1932 and fought the three-year Chaco War with Paraguay. More than 80,000 Bolivians and 50,000 Paraguayans died in the conflict that ended with Bolivia’s defeat. Although the pacifist Mennonites did not fight, the food they cultivated kept the Paraguayan troops fed.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (15)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (16)

The Mennonites struggled to survive in the 1930s and 1940s. An inhospitable, semiarid environment with little rainfall and poor soil made life difficult for the early settlers as they domesticated the land. Travel overland to Paraguay’s capital, Asunción, before the construction of the Trans-Chaco Highway in the late 1950s, was an odyssey that left the remote colonies isolated from the outside world. Indigenous groups such as the Guarani resisted encroachment by their new neighbors and fought occasional skirmishes with the settlers. The Mennonites and the indigenous learned to co-exist peacefully, and many indigenous now work for the colonies. After years of toil, the Mennonites transformed the area into one of the country’s most productive agricultural regions.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (1)

The Mennonite’s cooperatives (cooperativas) are among Paraguay’s largest enterprises. Closely affiliated with the local Mennonite Church, they manage the colonies’ commercial interests. Their operations and logistics networks are brilliantly efficient. They provide farmers with enriched animal feed, transport raw milk from farms to dairy plants, transform milk into dairy products, process foodstuffs, and ship finished goods to market on gravel roads that they maintain. The cooperatives also operate service businesses, including hotels, restaurants, gas stations, hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, and shopping centers that cater to the Mennonite communities. Fernheim Colony’s cooperative, the country’s best known, also runs an experimental farm that incubates and crossbreeds cash crops capable of the surviving in the Chaco. The power and influence of the cooperatives is astounding, although one would not know it at first glance. The low-profile associations are opaque operations whose sole purpose is to serve the Mennonites.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (4)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (6)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (7)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (5)

The Mennonite culture emphasizes hard work, a simple life, and strict adherence to its religious beliefs. Unlike their Amish cousins, Mennonites embrace the use of technology when it improves their productivity, and they dress in plain, functional clothing. Most men wear short-sleeve cotton shirts and khaki pants or jeans; women usually wear dresses to church and pants on the farm. Most marry within the community, while those who marry non-Mennonites tend to leave the colony. As a result, offspring tend to look Germanic than Hispanic, indigenous, or mixed. It is common to see someone with blond hair and blue eyes walking around Filadelfia. Mennonites also prefer to speak Plattdeutsch, an old variant of Low German, to Spanish or Guaraní, Paraguay’s official languages. It’s easy for those who visit the Chaco to see the cultural divide between the Mennonites and non-Mennonites. While many indigenous and Brasiguayos, or Brazilian migrants living in Paraguay, work with the Mennonites on the estancias, they tend to live separately. Mennonites and other groups seem to frequent restaurants, stores, and services that caters to one or the other. Mennonite activities tend to focus on the church, while non-Mennonites enjoy pastimes such as soccer (fútbol) and public gatherings such as barbeques (asados). This tendency is reinforced more by tradition and preference than overt discrimination.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (2)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites

A visit to the Chaco is worth the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the Mennonite culture set against a backdrop of the “Wild West” of South America. It’s a remarkable journey back in time to a simpler age.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (9)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (10)

Special thanks to Juliette Wade for hosting the original post on her blog, TalkToYoUniverse as part of the Writers’ International Cultural Share. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in this great forum where writers can share their cultural experiences and insights from around the world.

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World Adventurers,Paraguay,Paraguay



“An island surrounded on all sides by land” is how Paraguayan author Augusto Roa Bastos described his homeland. A small, landlocked country in the heart of South America, Paraguay has had a rich and tumultuous history since its independence in 1811. The country lost half its territory during the 1865-70 War of the Triple Alliance against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. However, it won back part of its dry, western half, the Chaco, when U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes mediated a dispute over the territory and ruled against Argentina in 1878. Paraguay also held on to a large swath of the Gran Chaco by turning back Bolivia in the 1932-35 Chaco War. Known for long periods of isolation under presidents Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco (1814-40) and Alfredo Stroessner (1954-89), Paraguay earned a reclusive reputation. In recent decades, however, the country has emerged from a half century of dictatorial rule and become more open to visitors. Hindered by a nascent tourist industry and dearth of obvious must-see attractions, Paraguay is easy to overlook. A visit can be rewarding to those who venture off the beaten path to enjoy its beauty, rich mixed indigenous Guaraní and Hispanic heritage, and warm reception from some of the most wonderful people you’ll meet in South America.

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National Palace in Asunción

2008_07 Paraguay National Palace

Caacupe, Home of the Virgin of Caacupe

2008_11_28 Paraguay Caacupe

A Lapacho Tree Blooming in the Chaco

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco

A Visit to Itaipú Dam, the Largest in South America

2008_01 Paraguay Itaipu Dam

Map picture

Filadelfia, Paraguay

This is the first post in a series on Paraguay’s Chaco region about its largest town, Filadelfia. The others will feature articles about the region and its Mennonite and indigenous communities. Enjoy photos and stories from one of Paraguay’s most intriguing places.

A visit to the Chaco, the remote western half of Paraguay located in the heart of South America, is like a trip back in time. It truly is the “Wild West” of South America. From the timeworn, semiarid terrain to the eclectic mix of Germanic, Spanish, and indigenous influences, the Chaco is out of this world.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (1)

The heartbeat of the Chaco is in Filadelfia, the capital of Boquerón Province, about five hours northwest of Paraguay’s capital, Asunción. It lies just off the Trans-Chaco Highway headed toward Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The town of 10,000 was founded in the 1930s by Russian Mennonites of Germanic descent who emigrated from the former Soviet Union to avoid persecution under Stalinism. Mennonite influence dominates the town with the prevalence of Plattdeutsch, a Low German dialect, blond-hair and blue-eyed residents, and delicious German cuisine and pastries.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (2)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (3)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (4)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (5)

In 2008, we visited Filadelfia and stayed in one of just two hotels in town at the time, a decent place with a so-so German-style buffet. Along the main street, Avenida Hindenburg, we stopped to see the monuments that commemorated the city’s 25th, 50th and 75th anniversaries and the Mennonite pioneers.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (7)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (8)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (9)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (6)

We stopped to explore the town square, one of the nicer ones I’ve seen in Paraguay. The manicured lawn and gardens were a beautiful escape from the gritty, industrial atmosphere of the rest of the town. The aptly-named bottle trees (ceiba insignis; in Spanish, borrachos) stood like giant guardians. The untrained ear might have mistaken the Mennonite school next door for one in Germany were it not for the dry, windswept Chaco landscape on campus.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (10)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (11)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (12)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (13)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (14)

We toured the Jakob Unger Museum adjacent to the town square. Named after a local specimen collector, the museum was filled with virtually every kind of animal found in the Paraguayan Chaco. It also housed a mish-mash of Mennonite and indigenous artifacts from Filadelfia’s past. Our young son enjoyed learning about armadillos, rheas, and cheetahs — up close and personal. We played a game of “which animal can hurt you” to help him learn respect for wildlife.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (15)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (16)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (17)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (18)

Filadelfia was a beehive of activity when we visited. The town’s epicenter was a small strip mall that catered to the Mennonite community with a large German-style supermarket and boutique stores selling everything from wood furniture to ceramics. Smaller commercial enterprises on the outskirts of town served the local indigenous population and migrant workers, primarily “Brasiguayos,” or Brazilians who emigrated to Paraguay. Around town were numerous plants and factories, predominantly Mennonite owned and operated, that processed agriculture products from milk to honey. The ice cream was some of the most delicious I’d ever tasted.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (19)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (20)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (21)

The region is Paraguay’s dairy heartland, but all this productivity has come at a cost. The Chaco is very dry, with frequent droughts and water management issues exacerbated by large farms that need irrigation. Although Filadelfia and surrounding communities such as Loma Plata and Kolonia Neuland use power from the Itaipu Dam, one of the world’s largest dams located in eastern Paraguay, coal and wood were still widely used as fuel when we visited. As a result, clear cutting to increase pasture lands for cattle and for fuel has contributed to deforestation in the area.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (22)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (23)

Those who live in the harsh climate of the Chaco work hard to make the desert bloom, but they also find time to relax, have fun, and enjoy life. Filadelfia has several Mennonite churches, and many indigenous and Brasiguayos are Catholic. Soccer (fútbol) is a passion for many locals, as it is throughout Paraguay, and each year at the end of September, the Trans-Chaco Rally passes through town. Visiting Filadelfia during the rally is arguably the best time to go, but be sure to book your hotel room early! There aren’t many.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (25)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (24)

Stay tuned for more exciting posts about Paraguay and the Chaco!

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia

This is an update with photos of an earlier post about the Paraguayan Chaco. Click here to read the original post.

Map picture


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