The Mennonites of Bolivia
This insular agricultural community just wants to be left alone... in the tropical jungles of South America
The broad savannahs and dry jungles of Bolivia's Eastern Lowlands have been transformed into vast farmlands — thanks to the hard work of generations of Mennonites.
Selling milk and cheese are among the most important sources of income for Mennonites in Bolivia. | (Jordi Ruiz Cirera)
Mennonites are a reclusive and insular sect of Christians who don't participate in politics or much of contemporary society, eschewing modern conveniences like electricity and cars. Their origins stretch back to 16th century Germany and the Netherlands, but Mennonite communities can be found wherever agricultural-rich lands and promises of religious freedom abound — from Canada to South America.
In 2010 and 2011, photographer Jordi Ruiz Cirera traveled to Bolivia to see if this tight-knit community would let an outsider in.
"Photography is forbidden for them," Cicera said in an interview. "So taking pictures was a bit of a slow process." Cicera would gradually integrate himself with the families he stayed with by keeping his camera tucked away for the first couple of days of his stay. Then he'd begin photographing the children and move on to the adults as their trust in him grew.
On Sundays, adults gather at church while kids remain at home. | (Jordi Ruiz Cirera)
The Bolivian Mennonites, known as Los Menonos, migrated to the region about 50 years ago. Today, the once-desolate area is populated by about 70,000 people spread across 75 colonies. Los Menonos are united as outsiders in Bolivia, dedicated to their unique way of life, and largely keeping to themselves. They speak German, have their own schools and shops, and make a lot of their own clothing — traditional garments suited to their agricultural lifestyle — modest dresses, bonnets, wide-brimmed hats, and overalls.
Cirera offers a respectful peek at the quotidian aspects of this simple way of life. "It was a new experience for me to witness how some people choose to live completely off the grid, and how little they need technology, money," Cirera said.
Step back in time — and into the Los Menonos community:
A burial for a young woman and her baby who died in a car crash. Mennonites in this community don't drive, but they are allowed to ride as passengers. | (Jordi Ruiz Cirera)
Cooperative shop at Swift Current Colony. The shop sells everything from tinned food to fabric. | (Jordi Ruiz Cirera)
As driving cars is forbidden for Mennonites, a horse and buggy is the usual transport. | (Jordi Ruiz Cirera)
Dinner at Dyck's house. With no birth control, Mennonite families are big, with an average of 10 kids per family, and sometimes as many as 19 children from the same woman. | (Jordi Ruiz Cirera)
Farm toys at the Belice Colony. | (Jordi Ruiz Cirera)
Although using electricity at home is forbidden, some exceptions for work are made, with fuel engines producing the necessary electricity to run different machines at the workshop. | (Jordi Ruiz Cirera)
A woman drawing patterns to sew family outfits at the Milagrosa Colony. | (Jordi Ruiz Cirera)
With their own education system, Mennonites attend school six months a year, from the age of 6 to 12. | (Jordi Ruiz Cirera)