Photos capture Mennonite communities who fled to Belize in the 1950s from Canada and Mexico thumbnail

Photos capture Mennonite communities who fled to Belize in the 1950s from Canada and Mexico

A Los Angeles-based photographer spent time in three communities in northern Belize for a new book, capturing the jobs, family lives and anachronisms of some of the world’s most conservative Mennonites.

Jake Michaels visited Indian Creek, Shipyard and Little Belize where he captured photos of winding dirt roads, horse-drawn carriages and young men working the land in overalls in ‘c.1950,’ published by Setanta Books. 

‘People were far more hospitable than I expected, and everyone was very understanding, even though my Spanish is not that great,’ Michaels told CNN.

Though the group’s mother tongue is Plautdietsch (or Mennonite Low German), many also speak Belizean Spanish. 

There are about 12,000 Mennonites spread across the Orange Walk, Cayo and Corozal districts of Belize today

Belize is a Central American nation below Mexico. It’s just 8,867 square miles, smaller in area than the state of New Hampshire

The religious group first arrived in the country in the 1950s from Canada and Chihuahua, Mexico

Younger Mennonites speak Spanish, though Canadian Mennonites speak English and their mother tongue is Low German

Los Angeles-based photographer Jake Michaels spent time in three of Belize’s most conservative Mennonite communities

In his book ‘c.1950,’ he documents the work, family lives and anachronisms of modern life in Belize for the traditional sect

In Michaels’ favorite image from the set, a young woman in conservative dress points a small digital camera at him

The Mennonites in Belize are scattered throughout the country, having arrived from Canada and Mexico in the 1950s

The book’s title references the time when the religious sect arrived in the Central American nation, which is smaller than the sate of New Hampshire.

About 3,500 landed in Belize from Manitoba, Canada and Chihuahua, Mexico in the late 1950s, according to Anabaptist World and the Belize National Library. 

The Mexican government was no longer able to promise the pacifist sect that their children would be exempt from the military draft, according to Belize.com. 

‘Under an agreement with the government of Belize, they bore all expenses of removal and settling, bringing with them capital amounting to one million dollars,’ the library states. 

They are exempt from military service and do not partake in any form of compulsory or social welfare schemes, though they do pay all other taxes not associated with war.

Technology and fashion has gradually crept in, as Mennonites don’t have any explicit rules against modern dress or devices

The Mennonites derive their name from Menno Simons, a Dutch priest who embraced Anabaptist theology in the 1520s

Anabaptists arose from the Radical Reformation, a movement in Europe that followed the Protest Reformation

Mennonites are pacifists who believe in the core value of community, and as such they are exempt from military service

Upon their arrival in Belize, they were granted tracts of wooded land, which they have developed into an agricultural industry

Mennonites in Shipyard and Little Belize refrain from using modern farm equipment and drive horse-drawn buggies

Today, there are about 12,000 spread across the Orange Walk, Cayo and Corozal districts of Belize, making up less than 4 percent of the population.  

Despite their small size, they dominate Belize’s domestic poultry and dairy markets thanks to their arrangement with Belize, which granted them large tracts of wooded land.

Mennonites are Anabaptists, a stream of Christianity that grew out of the Radical Reformation in the 1500s, following the Protestant Reformation where some Christians broke from the Catholic Church.

They’re named for Menno Simons, a Dutch priest who lived from 1496 to 1561 and embraced Anabaptist theology. 

They believe in re-baptizing adults and refusing to baptize infants until they can make an adult decision to follow Christ, according to the US Mennonite Church.

Mennonites also emphasize community, and though they are known for their plain style, only the most conservative dress this way, according to the church.

There are also no formal rules on the use of technology, though many communities avoid its overuse as a way to emphasize community. 

‘Their world intersects far more now with the modern world than it did before,’ Michaels said. 

Though Mennonites are only four percent of Belize’s population, they dominate Belize’s domestic poultry market

‘There are several Mennonites who work in tandem with Belizean people, so they’re aware of the outside world and what’s going on,’ Michaels said

The Mennonites Michaels visited are the most conservative. Mennonites in places like Blue Creek use phones and cars

Mennonites are known for their plain style, but only the most conservative dress this way, according to the church

‘There are several Mennonites who work in tandem with Belizean people, so they’re aware of the outside world and what’s going on.’

In Belize, the conservative Mennonites that Michaels visited have a stronger attachment to traditional ways of living than other groups in the country.

‘The Mennonites in Blue Creek own vehicles, use telephones, listen to radio, and have built and maintain a hydroelectric dam,’ according to Minority Rights Group International.

‘In contrast the Mennonite communities at Shipyard and Little Belize refrain from using modern farm equipment and drive horse-drawn buggies.’

In one of his favorite photos from the trip, a woman points a small digital camera at Michaels.

‘Everything about it seems as if it’s a photo from like the 1950s, but then there’s a modern camera in her hand,’ he said, adding that the gradual creep of technology was not necessarily seen as a threat. 

‘They’re far away in the rolling hills of Belize, so it’s not like there are (competing lifestyles nearby).’ 

Though the Amish and Mennonites are both Anabaptists, the former eschew electricity and are far more conservative

‘Everyone was very understanding, even though my Spanish is not that great,’ Michaels told CNN about his visit

The population of Mennonites has swelled from the original 3,500 to 12,000, though they’re still only four percent of Belize

Communities apply their own rules about technology and dress, which can vary from settlement to settlement