The Borders of Identity: Donald Trump, Nationalism and Mennonites on the U.S-Mexico Border

In the last year leading up to the presidential election in the United States, Donald Trump’s incendiary statements naming Mexican immigrants as drug dealers, rapists and murderers together with his non-stop rants about building a border wall that Mexico will pay for, have created significant backlash in Latino communities in the United States and Mexico.

Just to name a few, Donald Trump piñatas (as seen in this adorable short) have been flying off the shelves on both sides of the border, community activists have organized voter registrations at taco trucks, the hashtags #imnotacriminal and #thatmexicanthing, documenting immigrant struggle and success, have gone viral, and Tacos Tío Beto, a restaurant in Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, has created the Trump Taco, which contains, poco seso, mucha lengua, y trompita de marrano (few brains, lots of tongue, and pig snout).

A popular Mexican television channel, TV Azteca, recently reported how these anti-Trump reactions are even present in the Mennonite colonies, located near Cuauhtémoc (yes, the same of Tío Beto fame.) They interviewed a business owner on the Corredor Comercial Manitoba (a corridor of predominantly Mennonite businesses along the highway between the Mennonite colonies and Cuauhtémoc) who is prominently flying dozens of Mexican flags along his fence line. He is also displaying American flags that read NO TRUMP with a slash through Trump’s face that hang at the entrance and at the sides of his industrial lot. He tells the reporter that America cannot survive without Mexican immigrants. “Who is going to do the jobs that the Mexicans do? Los Gringos?” He laughs and says that he prefers Mexico and would not live in the United States. Another Mennonite man in the video cites a popular Mexican phrase, “Como México no hay dos.” (“Like Mexico there is no other”) to explain his devotion to Mexico and his pride as a Mexican citizen. The end of the broadcast features a waving Mexican flag and the reporter claiming proudly, “En los campos menonitas dicen vive México y no a Trump” (“In the Mennonite Colonies they say “long live Mexico and no to Trump.”)

While I was glad to see some Mennonites in Mexico taking a stand for immigrants and speaking out publically against Trump (I’m sure the political landscape of the campos menonitas is a bit more varied than what was shown on TV Azteca), the newscast, forwarded to me by a friend in Mexico, turned my thoughts again to the complex issues of nationalism, assimilation, and identity facing Old Colony origin Mennonite colonies on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border that cannot be ignored in an age of rising neo-fascism, xenophobia, global migration crises.

After a lifetime among immigrants and years of academic study, I still don’t know if nationalist identity always usurps transnational identity in immigrant communities or if immigrants feel undo pressure to adopt the nationalistic sentiments of their new country. I read think pieces about how nationalism is breathing a death rattle, especially among millennials, but when I look out my window, it seems like it is making a resurgence. As I scroll down my Facebook and sit in muted disbelief during family conversations, I can’t help but feel exasperated that so many Mennonites in the United States are voting (some enthusiastically and some begrudgingly) for Trump.

In my west Texas community, Mennonites, who originated from the same colonies as those featured in the TV Azteca broadcast, but migrated to the United States beginning in 1977, have a multi-faceted relationship with national identity. The most conservative among them still practice political non-participation remaining separate from any public institution or national affiliation; however, it is not uncommon to see others wearing patriotic t-shirts with phrases like “These Colors Don’t Run” or selling church fundraiser raffle tickets where the prize is a gun. Most disturbing; however, is when I see Mennonite youth wearing confederate flag t-shirts as celebrations of their “Southern Pride” and “rebel spirit”—taking on a history and heritage rooted in violence and white supremacy in the name of assimilation to the local culture.

I’m not surprised though, studies have repeatedly shown that immigrants are more patriotic than native born citizens and patriotism oddly in my part of the United States often includes the confederacy. I am, however, often given pause because for Mennonites (and any other Christian denomination for that matter) purportedly Christian identity is supposed to take precedence over national identity. In much of evangelicalism in the United States; however, Christian identity is often conflated with a strong nationalist identity. Therefore, being a good Christian also means being a good American—more specifically, an American with conservative (i.e. moral) political leanings. So for many Old Colony origin Mennonites who have moved to the United States from Mexico, the assimilation process has included theological shifts toward an American evangelicalism that, if not outright nationalistic, has strong nationalistic tones. It seems most often that immigrant identity and the desire/need to assimilate is ultimately stronger than a transnational faith-based ethnic identity, but I still wonder, is that process really unavoidable or irreversible?

These questions lead me to ponder the contexts that initiated Mennonite migration to Mexico in the first place. When a contingent Old Colony Mennonites left Canada in 1922 to settle in northern Chihuahua, one of the primary reasons cited was the nationalistic content of the Canadian government’s federally mandated curriculum—the singing of the national anthem and English-only education.

The first school accredited by the Mexican government in the Chihuahuan Mennonite colonies was met with local resistance because the federal curriculum also mandated learning and being tested on the national anthem.

All students who attend public schools in Texas are required by law to say (or at least listen to—this is still pending in the courts) the national Pledge of Allegiance, the Texas Pledge (yes, really), and observe a moment of silence.

It appears that the decision of whether or not to participate in public life, it seems, inevitably comes with doses of nationalism in varying degrees and the responses of the Mennonite communities in Mexico and the United States have been similarly varied and often fraught with conflict.

A separatist, yet transnational Mennonite identity, often takes precedence in the most conservative communities, while a transnational “world citizen” identity often takes shape among liberal social justice minded Mennonites. Varying degrees of nationalistic identity appear in the spectrum in between. With these complex relationships come other intersecting relationships that affect identity like class, gender, education, sexual orientation. National politics traversing international borders, while immediately pressing and important, is only one type of boundary pressing against the shifting identity of what it means to be Mennonite today on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Working through these questions concerning nationalism and intersecting identities can be overwhelming (not to mention the thought of a Trump presidency) because the results are not merely of academic interest but affect me in my everyday life in interactions with friends, family, and colleagues. I’m glad to be working through these questions with fellow scholars, artists, and community workers and I’m particularly excited about Eastern Mennonite University’s upcoming conference “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” where we can discuss these issues and more.

Until then, I’ll be sending in my international ballot (I’m in Honduras teaching until the end of the year) and I hope I can “encounter borders and boundaries” with some of you in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in June 2017!