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Words Without Borders

Emigration: A Home for the Homeless

Hotel Florida in Filadelfia, Paraguay, promotes itself with the slogan, "An oasis in the suffocating heat of the Chaco."
To my taste, this is a dubious slogan. Who would travel to an oasis in the suffocating heat, when there are plenty enough places where the heat is everything but suffocating? The answer: a few older Germans, a couple of families from Canada and a certain author from the Netherlands who had the brilliant idea of writing an article about the Mennonites in Paraguay for a newspaper.
So he traveled by car from Buenos Aires to Filadelfia, to approach the settlement at the same slow pace of the first Mennonite emigres in 1927.
The idea remained brilliant until he discovered why the Chaco is called “The Green Hell.” The Mennonites don’t differ much from Lutherans, except that Lutherans are baptized as adults, and they tend to have strong pacifist beliefs. They refuse to be drafted, and that is one of the reasons why a group of Mennonites traveled from Canada to Paraguay, where the government promised them exemption from the draft.
The more traditional Mennonites abandon everything that is considered worldly, politics, tobacco, booze and even cars. If you travel too fast and too far, sin is going to conquer you.
There are more groups like this. But the Mennonites in the Chaco are more realistic. They have cars, they drink beer, they still try to baptize the indigenous people, but for many women among the indigenous people, the baptism is also a ticket to prostitution. Which is also flourishing over here.
When I asked one of the Mennonites how prostitution is flourishing among people who are as religious as the Mennonites, he answered, “Where there are people, there is prostitution.” A wise answer, I would say.
Another Mennonite told me, “People used to compare us with the Jews. We are stingy as hell and we like to do business all day long.” I smiled in a friendly way. Others might call that cowardly.
Tonight, I’m obliged to see the movie A Home for the Homeless. It's about the Mennonite emigration to Paraguay.
It took me twenty minutes before I realized that the title reminded me of Theodor Herzl and the early Zionists.


(Words Without Borders, January 10, 2007)