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Reshaping the Chaco: Migrant Foodways, Place-making, and the Chaco War



This article explores the settlement of Russian Mennonites on the Paraguayan Chaco frontier during the Chaco War years. These colonists engaged in a range of seemingly contradictory place-making practices – from the agro-environmental and the political to the spiritual and the cultural – that served to solidify their tenuous claim to an unfamiliar and highly contested landscape. Ideas of food security – seen in terms of both production and consumption – linked these diverse exercises. In the Paraguayan Chaco, these former Russian wheat farmers experimented with new crops and foodways. Although pacifists, they supplied the Paraguayan military efforts even as they also sent their crops to Nazi Germany. Finally, as an ethnic group practising endogamy and seeking isolation from their neighbours, they unexpectedly initiated a campaign to evangelise the Chaco's indigenous population centred, in part, on reforming the latter's ‘deficient’ diet.

Este artículo explora el asentamiento de menonitas rusos en el Chaco paraguayo durante los años de la Guerra del Chaco. Dichos colonos se involucraron en una serie de prácticas aparentemente contradictorias – desde prácticas medioambientales y políticas hasta espirituales y culturales – que sirvieron para solidificar su tenue reclamo sobre un paisaje no familiar y altamente disputado. Las ideas de seguridad alimentaria – vista tanto en términos de producción como de consumo – vincularon estos diversos ejercicios. En el Chaco paraguayo, estos antiguos agricultores rusos de trigo experimentaron con nuevos granos y novedosos patrones de producción y consumo de alimentos. Aunque pacifistas, ellos apoyaron con sus productos a los esfuerzos militares de Paraguay, y también enviaron sus granos a la Alemania Nazi. Finalmente, como grupo étnico practicante de la endogamia y que buscaban el aislamiento de sus vecinos, ellos inesperadamente empezaron una campaña para evangelizar a la población indígena del Chaco centrada, en parte, en mejorar la dieta ‘deficiente’ de estos últimos.

Este artigo explora o assentamento dos Menonitas Russos na fronteira do Chaco paraguaio durante os anos da Guerra do Chaco. Esses colonos praticaram uma série de ações aparentemente contraditórias de construção de lugar – desde práticas agro-ambientais e políticas até espirituais e culturais – que serviram para solidificar sua tênue reivindicação de um ambiente que além de desconhecido, era também altamente disputado. Ideias de segurança alimentar, em termos de produção e consumo, conectaram todos esses exercícios de construção de lugar. No Chaco paraguaio, esses outrora agricultores russos de trigo experimentaram novas plantações e costumes alimentares. Apesar de eles serem pacifistas, eles abasteceram o esforço militar paraguaio mesmo que também enviavam suas colheitas à Alemanha Nazista. Por fim e inesperadamente, já que se tratava de um grupo étnico que praticava a endogamia e buscava o isolamento de seus vizinhos, eles iniciaram uma campanha para evangelizar a população indígena do Chaco, um esforço centrado em parte no intuito de reformar a dieta ‘deficiente’ deste grupo.



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The author would like to acknowledge the support of archivist Gundolf Niebuhr, subject librarian Dr Phil MacLeod and Professors Yanna Yannakakis and Thomas D. Rogers.



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1 At 650,000 km2, the Chaco is approximately the size of France.

2 The Russian Mennonites spoke Plautdietsch, a dialect of low German (Plattdeutsch), but, because low German is not a written language, they studied and wrote in standard high German (Hochdeutsch) with a gothic script. Diaries, sermons, school texts, colony documents and the colony newspaper Mennoblatt were all written in high German, though the Chaco Mennonites’ version of the language had developed a somewhat idiosyncratic structure.

3 ‘Fernheim’ means ‘faraway home’. For a description of this migration by the Mennonite Central Committee's Latin America director see Stoesz, Edgar and Stackley, Muriel Thiessen, Garden in the Wilderness: Mennonite Communities in the Paraguayan Chaco, 1927–1997 (Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1999).

4 Schroeder, William, Mennonite Historical Atlas (Winnipeg: Kindred Productions, 1996), p. 149.

5 See note 2 above for clarification of the forms of German used by the Russian Mennonites. For debates in the Paraguayan press that preceded the Mennonite arrival see Chesterton, Bridget María, The Grandchildren of Solano López: Frontier and Nation in Paraguay, 1904–1936 (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2013), pp. 97101.

6 Siemens, Nikolai, ‘Weihnacht im Chaco’, Mennoblatt, Jan. 1932, in 75 Jahre Mennoblatt, CD-ROM compiled by Gundolf Niebuhr (Filadelfia: Kolonie Fernheim, 2005). Unless otherwise indicated, subsequent Mennoblatt references are drawn from this digitised version.

7 Siemens, ‘Weihnachtsstimmung in der Kriegszone’, Mennoblatt, Jan. 1933.

8 Ibid.

9 Paul Janzen, ‘Weihnacht – Hochbetrieb’, Mennoblatt, Jan. 1935.

10 Siemens, ‘Weihnachten bei den Lenguas’, Mennoblatt, Jan. 1936. The Enlhet were previously referred to as Lengua.

11 Hobsbawm, Eric and Ranger, Terence (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

12 Especially those that study the ‘völkisch’ movement. See Thiesen, John D., Schlabach, Theron F. and Friesen, John J., Mennonite and Nazi? Attitudes among Mennonite Colonists in Latin America, 1933–1945 (Kitchener: Pandora Press, 1999).

13 Harold S. Bender, ‘Siemens, Nikolai (1895–1958)’, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, available at,_Nikolai_(1895-1958)&oldid=110914, last access 27 Sept. 2017.

14 Ibid.

15 See Kaethler, Frieda Siemens and Neufeld, Alfred (eds.), Nikolai Siemens: der Chacooptimist: das Mennoblatt und die Anfänge der Kolonie Fernheim, 1930–1955 (Weisenheim am Berg: Agape-Verlag, 2007).

16 The Gran Chaco long sat at the margins of Latin American historiography. For new work see Christine Mathias, ‘South America's Final Frontier: Indigenous Leadership and the Long Conquest of the Gran Chaco, 1870–1955’ (PhD Dissertation, Yale University, 2015).

17 Tannin, an acidic chemical compound, is used in the tanning of hides.

18 Dalla-Corte, Gabriela, Empresas y tierras de Carlos Casado en el Chaco Paraguayo. Historias, negocios y guerras (1860–1940) (Asunción: Intercontinental, 2012).

19 See Chesterton, The Grandchildren of Solano López, pp. 60–78.

20 Siemens, Mennoblatt, Aug. 1934.

21 Chesterton, Bridget María and Isaenko, Anatoly V., ‘A White Russian in the Green Hell: Military Science, Ethnography, and Nation Building’, Hispanic American Historical Review, 94: 4 (2014), pp. 615–48.

22 Chesterton, Bridget Maria (ed.), The Chaco War: Environment, Ethnicity, and Nationalism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016). Capdevila, Luc, Combès, Isabelle, Richard, Nicolás and Barbosa, Pablo, Los hombres transparentes: indígenas y militares en la Guerra del Chaco (1932–1935) (La Paz: Instituto Latinoamericano de Misionología, 2010). Richard, Nicolás (ed.), Mala guerra: los indígenas en la guerra del Chaco, 1932–35 (Asunción: CoLibris, 2008).

23 Capdevila et al., Los hombres transparentes; Richard (ed.), Mala guerra.

24 Conversation with Kennert Giesbrecht, editor of the newspaper Mennonitische Post (Steinbach, Manitoba), 13 Oct. 2017.

25 Foote, Nicola and Goebel, Michael (eds.), Immigration and National Identities in Latin America (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2014).

26 Siemens, ‘Muss es im Chaco immer so heiss sein?’, Mennoblatt, July 1931.

27 ‘Ein Arbeitstag der Chacobäuerin’, Mennoblatt, July 1933.

28 Siemens, ‘Im Chacowinter’, Mennoblatt, July 1933.

29 Peard, Julyan, Race, Place, and Medicine: The Idea of the Tropics in Nineteenth-Century Brazil (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).

30 N. Wiebe, ‘Tod in Brunnen’, Mennoblatt, June 1931. Siemens, ‘Tod durch Blitzschlag’, Mennoblatt, March 1931.

31 Siemens, ‘Malaria und seine Folgen’, Mennoblatt, June 1933.

32 Wilhelm Klassen, ‘Tiefe Weg’, Mennoblatt, Dec. 1930.

33 Salmon-Plett, Emma, An Enduring Faith – Mennonite Stories: Their History, their Persecution (Victoria: Friesen Press, 2013), p. 78.

34 Siemens, ‘Muss es im Chaco immer so heiss sein?’

35 Siemens, ‘Verirrt’, Mennoblatt, Oct. 1933.

36 ‘Ein Arbeitstag der Chacobäuerin’.

37 Siemens, ‘Zum Pilcomayo’, Mennoblatt, 1935.

38 McWilliams, James, A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 165.

39 Earle, Rebecca, The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 54.

40 Peter Rahn, ‘Aus unserer Kolonie’, Mennoblatt, Jan. 1931.

41 Wolf, Eric, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1982), p. 313.

42 Worster, Donald, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 175.

43 Voth, Norma Jost, Mennonite Food and Folkways from South Russia, vol. 1 (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2013), p. 58.

44 Ibid., p. 33.

45 Ibid., pp. 37, 39.

46 Epp, Marlene, ‘The Semiotics of Zwieback: Feast and Famine in the Narratives of Mennonite Refugee Women’, in Epp, Marlene, Iacovetta, Franca and Korinek, Valerie (eds.), Sisters or Strangers? Immigrant, Ethnic, and Racialized Women in Canadian History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), p. 422.

47 Ibid., p. 425.

48 Gerchunoff, Alberto, The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas, trans. de Pereda, Prudencio (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), p. 43.

49 ‘Die Mennonitenfrau im Chaco Paraguay’, Mennoblatt, Dec. 1933.

50 Siemens, ‘Die ersten erfolgreichen Weizenproben im paraguayischen Chaco’, Mennoblatt, Dec. 1931.

51 Kempski, Carlos, La agricultura en el Chaco Paraguayo (Buenos Aires, Librería del Plata, 1948), p. 38. Earlier published as Kempski, Carlos, Die Landwirtschaft im paraguayischen Chaco (Buenos Aires: Mercur, 1931).

52 Redekop, Calvin, Strangers Become Neighbors: Mennonite and Indigenous Relations in the Paraguayan Chaco (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980), p. 136.

53 Siemens, ‘Weißes Geld’, Mennoblatt, April 1934.

54 ‘Ein Arbeitstag der Chacobäuerin’.

55 ‘Ein Bauer’, ‘Unser Absatz (1)’, Mennoblatt, April 1933.

56 ‘Ein Bauernsohn’, ‘Unser Absatz (2)’, Mennoblatt, May 1933.

57 ‘Ein Fernheimer’, ‘Unsere Existenzfrage’, Mennoblatt, June 1933.

58 Hans Neufeldt, ‘Quo vadis Fernheim? Viehzucht’, Mennoblatt, July 1937.

59 Epp, ‘Semiotics’, p. 417.

60 Voth, ‘Mennonite Food’, p. 77.

61 Stoesz and Stackley, Garden in the Wilderness, p. 1.

62 Seed, Patricia, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe's Conquest of the New World, 1492–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

63 Frederik Schulze, ‘Nation and Migration: German-Speaking and Japanese Immigrants in Brazil, 1850–1945’, in Foote and Goebel (eds.), Immigration and National Identities, p. 125.

64 Fretz, J.W., Pilgrims in Paraguay: The Story of Mennonite Colonization in South America (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1953), p. 136.

65 Stoesz and Stackley, Garden in the Wilderness, p. 89.

66 Siemens, ‘Gewitterwolken am politischen Horizont’, Mennoblatt, Aug. 1932.

67 Roland Abercrombie, ‘Peaceful Pawns in the Chaco Conflict’, Mennonite Weekly Review (Newton, KS), 25 Oct. 1933, reprinted from The Christian Century.

68 Kliewer, Mennoblatt, Nov. 1931.

69 Martens, Jakob, ‘La Guerra del Chaco vivida en la cárcel soviética’, in Klassen, Peter P. (ed.), Kaputi Mennonita: arados y fusiles en la Guerra del Chaco (Asunción: Impr. Modelo, 1976), p. 103.

70 ‘Los delegados civiles de la Liga visitaron las colonias Menonitas del Chaco Boreal’, La Razón (La Paz, Bolivia), 7 Dec. 1933.

71 ‘Mennonites Talk of Leaving’, New York Times, 14 Feb. 1933.

72 Siemens, ‘Noch weiter Gewitterwolken’, Mennoblatt, Sept. 1932; emphasis added.

73 Siemens, ‘Krieg und Kriegsopfer’, Mennoblatt, Oct. 1932.

74 Carlos Gómez Florentín, ‘Energy and Environment in the Chaco War’, in Chesterton (ed.), The Chaco War, p. 136.

75 Martín T. Dueck, ‘Entre matones’, in Klassen (ed.), Kaputi Mennonita, p. 150.

76 Abram J. Löwen, ‘Die Fernheimer Kooperative’, Mennoblatt, May 1934.

77 ‘Ein Bauer’, ‘Unser Absatz (1)’, Mennoblatt, April 1933.

78 Juan Boettner, Mennoblatt, July 1934. In February of 1935, K. Neufeld wrote of another delivery of humanitarian aid and the Mennonites’ ‘special relationship’ with the Paraguayan command: ‘Nach Camacho’, Mennoblatt, Feb. 1935.

79 Siemens, ‘Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz!’, Mennoblatt, July 1935.

80 Gerhard Ratzlaff, ‘An Historical-Political Study of the Mennonites in Paraguay’ (M.A. thesis, California State University at Fresno, 1974), p. 128.

81 Siemens, ‘Fernheim in den Friedenstagen’, Mennoblatt, June 1935.

82 Siemens, ‘Eine Reise von Fernheim bis Endstation’, Mennoblatt, Oct. 1931.

83 Ratzlaff, ‘An Historical-Political Study’, p. 143.

84 Gerhard Isaak and Kornelius Langemann, ‘Unsere Reise durch Paraguay’, Mennoblatt, March 1931.

85 Ibid.

86 Heinrich Friesen, ‘Trébol se convierte en un fortín militar’, in Klassen (ed.), Kaputi Mennonita, p. 80.

87 Siemens, ‘Fortín Toledo’, Mennoblatt, March 1933, in Klassen (ed.), Kaputi Mennonita, p. 109.

88 Newton, Ronald, The ‘Nazi Menace’ in Argentina, 1931–1947 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 19.

89 Lema, Julio, Las industrias del Gran Chaco y la empresa colonizadora Staudt y compañía (Tarija [Bolivia]: Velocidad, 1912).

90 Newton, The ‘Nazi Menace’ in Argentina, p. 80; O'Donnell, Krista, Bridenthal, Renate and Reagin, Nancy (eds.), The Heimat Abroad: The Boundaries of Germanness (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005).

91 Fielitz, Wilhelm, Das Stereotyp des wolhyniendeutschen Umsiedlers: Popularisierungen zwischen Sprachinselforschung und nationalsozialistischer Propaganda (Marburg: Elwert, 2000), p. 179.

92 Ratzlaff, ‘An Historical-Political Study’, p. 144.

93 D. Löwen and N. Wiebe, ‘Die Mennonitensiedlungen des paraguayischen Chaco und die nationale Erhebung in Deutschland’, Mennoblatt, June 1933.

94 Ratzlaff, ‘An Historical-Political Study’, p. 148.

95 Siemens, ‘Chacra experimental’, Mennoblatt, Aug. 1934.

96 ‘Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz’, Mennoblatt, Oct. 1936.

97 Ratzlaff, ‘An Historical-Political Study’, p. 140.

98 For the internal conflict, see Thiesen et al., Mennonite and Nazi? For Paraguay's post-war Guaraní nationalism see Chesterton, The Grandchildren of Solano López, pp. 138–46.

99 Loewen, Royden, Horse-and-Buggy Genius: Listening to Mennonites Contest the Modern World (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016), p. 167. Loewen's Mennonite interviewees described Stroessner's active support for their colonies. Chesterton links Stroessner's support to Mennonites’ ‘Germanness’: The Grandchildren of Solano López, p. 146.

100 Jeffrey Lesser and Raanan Rein, ‘Motherlands of Choice: Ethnicity, Belonging, and Identities among Jewish Latin Americans’, in Foote and Goebel (eds.), Immigration and National Identities, p. 141.

101 Siemens, ‘Zum Pilcomayo’.

102 See Capdevila et al., Los hombres transparentes.

103 Siemens, ‘Zum Pilcomayo’.

104 Goossen, Ben, ‘Mennonites in Latin America: A Review of the Literature’, Conrad Grebel Review, 34: 3 (2016), p. 258. For the triumphalist reading see Fretz, Pilgrims in Paraguay. Colony historian Peter Klassen offers a mild critique of early sedentarisation attempts but, as a member of the colony, defends Mennonite–indigenous labour relations against criticism by Paraguayan anthropologist Miguel Chase Sardi and others. Klassen, Peter P., Die Mennoniten in Paraguay: Begegnung mit Indianern und Paraguayern, vol. 2 (Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 1991); English translation by Schmitt, Gunther H.: Mennonites in Paraguay, vol. 2, Encounter with Indians and Paraguayans (Kitchener: Pandora, 2002).

105 Erick Langer, ‘Indigenous Peoples and the Chaco War: Power and Acquiescence in Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina’, in Chesterton (ed.), The Chaco War, p. 133.

106 Juan Boettner, Mennoblatt, July 1934.

107 Klassen, Mennonites in Paraguay, vol. 2, p. 68.

108 Krieg, Hans, Chaco-Indianer: ein Bilderatlas (Stuttgart: Strecker und Schröder, 1934). Métraux, Alfred, ‘Ethnography of the Chaco’, in Steward, Julian H. (ed.), Handbook of South American Indians, Vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, 1946), pp. 197370.

109 Grubb, Barbrooke, An Unknown People in an Unknown Land (London: Seeley and Co., 1911).

110 Siemens, ‘Gewitterwolken am politischen Horizont’.

111 Klassen (ed.), Kaputi Mennonita, p. 76.

112 Ibid., p. 85.

113 For example, Else Klassen, ‘Los soldados’, in ibid., p. 121.

114 Klassen (ed.), Kaputi Mennonita, p. 76. For the war's effects on distinct indigenous communities see Richard (ed.), Mala guerra.

115 Ernesto Unruh and Hannes Kalisch, ‘Salvación – ¿rendición? Los Enlhet y la guerra del Chaco’, in Richard (ed.), Mala guerra, p. 112.

116 Siemens, ‘Fernheimer Proletariat’, Mennoblatt, Nov. 1934.

117 Langer, Erick D., Expecting Pears from an Elm Tree: Franciscan Missions on the Chiriguano Frontier in the Heart of South America, 1830–1949 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 251.

118 Walter Quiring, ‘Herren und Knechte’, Mennoblatt, March 1935.

119 K. Neufeld, ‘Unsere Indianer’, Mennoblatt, Jul. 1935, in Klassen (ed.), Kaputi Mennonita, p. 110. Emphasis added.

120 ‘Ein Zentralschüler’, ‘Ein besuch bei unsern Nachbarn’, Mennoblatt, May 1935.

121 ‘Zur Indianer-Mission im Chaco’, Mennoblatt, Feb. 1935.

122 Gerhard Giesbrecht, ‘Missionsfest in Gnadenheim’, Mennoblatt, Sept. 1935.

123 Siemens, ‘Licht den Indianern!’, Mennoblatt, Nov. 1935.

124 Harold S. Bender, A.E. Janzen and Ewald Goetz, ‘Licht den Indianern (Light to the Indians)’, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, available at, last access 2 Oct. 2017.

125 A. Ratzlaff, ‘Die Lenguas kommen’, Mennoblatt, Jan. 1936.

126 Renshaw, John, The Indians of the Paraguayan Chaco: Identity and Economy (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), p. 171.

127 Redekop, Strangers Become Neighbors, p. 163.

128 Siemens, ‘Licht den Indianern!’, Mennoblatt, Nov. 1935.

129 Siemens, ‘Zum Pilcomayo’.

130 Siemens, ‘Licht den Indianern!’ Mennoblatt, Nov. 1935.

131 Anon., ‘Zur Indianermission im Chaco’, Mennoblatt, Dec. 1935.

132 A. and A. Ratzlaff, ‘Indianerkost’, Mennoblatt, March 1936.

133 Anon., ‘Zur Indianermission’.

134 Ibid.

135 Siemens, ‘Weihnachten bei den Lenguas’.

136 Kleinpenning, J.M.G., Rural Paraguay 1870–1963: A Geography of Progress, Plunder and Poverty, vol. 1 (Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2009), p. 464.

137 Peter Rahn, ‘Was fehlt uns? – und wie kann uns geholfen werden [sic]’, Mennoblatt, May 1931, proposed this idea to fellow colonists at an early stage. It was repeated on the fifth anniversary of Russian Mennonite settlement in the Chaco in Johann Löwen, ‘Fünf Jahre Chaco’, Mennoblatt, May 1935.

138 Frederik Schulze, ‘Nation and Migration: German and Japanese-Speaking Immigrants in Brazil, 1850–1945’, in Foote and Goebel (eds.), Immigration and National Identities, p. 125. Lim, Julian, ‘Chinos and Paisanos: Chinese–Mexican Relations in the Borderlands’, Pacific Historical Review, 79: 1 (2010), pp. 5085.

139 Brazil provides a particular rich example both in farming regions as well as in the mass marketing of immigrant dishes – from Syrian-Lebanese kibe and Japanese yakisoba to German spaetzle – as regional cuisine.

* The author would like to acknowledge the support of archivist Gundolf Niebuhr, subject librarian Dr Phil MacLeod and Professors Yanna Yannakakis and Thomas D. Rogers.



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