This summer, I sampled some of the best Mexican food I’ve ever had. I wasn’t in Mexico, not even close. I enjoyed my scoff of turkey tamales and salsa under the shade of a tree, with one of my dearest high school friends, in Aylmer, Ontario. Alisa Murphy is my friend’s name and I’ll tell you about her Mexican connection soon, but first, a little background.
Alisa took off from Newfoundland in her late teens. A born adventurer, she longed to find out what was beyond our coastline. She globe trotted all over. I received post cards from Australia, letters from Europe and admired her photos when she would touch down in Newfoundland for visits every now and again. It's not surprising then, that Alisa would end up as so many Newfoundlanders do, teaching English in Asia. She taught in Korea for 11 years and had both her children in Daejeon. She started out teaching kindergarteners and ended up at a University. “In Korea, there’s God, then there’s teachers and then there are parents. Teachers are revered,” explains Alisa. She worked 14 hours a week and had 5 months paid vacation. Alisa says that gave her a lot of time to explore. “I loved getting to know the culture in Korea.”
Alisa also knew she loved teaching and when she returned to Canada in 2009, she enrolled in teachers college in London, Ontario. After graduation, Alisa took a job with a private Islamic school teaching grade 6. “I wore a hijab and learned an incredible amount about Muslims. The people were super friendly and very welcoming.” It must have been a learning experience for the staff and students at the school too. Alisa was the first non Muslim they had ever hired. I figure it was her Newfoundland charm and bright smile that won them over.
Eventually, Alisa began teaching English as a second language at schools in the Thames Valley District School Board system. She met children who’d been refugees with heartbreaking stories. "I taught 2 Syrian kids who saw their father shot to death in their own home. Their mother was shot in the hand and their older sister is deaf in one ear because of the sounds of the bullets so close to her. These are really, really sad stories from kids who are refugees. We have no idea how lucky we are in Canada.”
In 2011, Alisa took a permanent position at Summers Corners Public School in Aylmer. She continued to teach English as a second language to children who had wide ranging backgrounds but there was one community of children at this school she had never encountered before. 35 percent of the students at Summers Corners are Low German speaking Mexican Mennonites. I’ll type that out again in case you found it hard to absorb right away. Alisa teaches children who are Low German speaking, Mexican Mennonites.
They are a group of people with a fascinating history and Alisa was immediately curious. “It is hard to get to know them, though. They tend to want to stick with their own and outsiders aren’t usually welcomed at gatherings,” says Alisa. That appears to be how the Low German community has survived in the Western world. They are a conservative religious group that originated in Eastern Europe. They interpret the Bible literally. Their language is mostly spoken and not usually written. They are ardent farmers and during the mid 1800s, the Low Germans migrated to parts of Canada in search of arable land. Their communities did well in Alberta and Manitoba but in the 1920s, the Low Germans felt the strain of the secular education system. They felt their way of life would be threatened and so they moved again to Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Honduras, Belize and Mexico.
Low German speaking Mexican Mennonites have been returning to Canada because of economic hardships in those countries. The population in Canada is believed to be about 80,000. Many of them have settled in farming communities in and around Aylmer, Ontario near where Alisa lives and works. “It's a very hierarchical society but most of the Low Germans reject modern ways. Education is not a priority for them, working is a priority and the church.” Not having come in contact with Mennonites or Amish people before, Alisa remembers how shocked she was the first time she saw road signs warning drivers to watch for horses and carriages. “It was a little bit like going back in time when I would see them in the community.”
Alisa says the children in her class are all fans of “Little House On The Prairie” books. “The girls are dressed very modestly in ankle-length floral dresses. They all have vey long hair and it's always tied back. The little boys wear plaid shirts and blue jeans and sometimes suspenders.” Low German students gather in the school’s office in the morning to pray and mealtimes to say a blessing before they eat. If there are movies shown, many of the children are excused from the classroom.
Alisa says she does find it difficult, at times, to understand their beliefs but she has developed a certain respect for the Low German speaking community. “Family is so important to them. They work together and the family dynamic is so strong. I appreciate that because I think that's something we have lost in modern society.” There is another aspect of their culture that Alisa appreciates, their love of good and authentic Mexican food.
After decades living and working in Mexico, the Low German Mennonites have developed a very keen taste for spicy meals and they’ve brought back the cuisine with them to Canada. There are quite a few stores in Aylmer specializing in tortillas and salsa. You can even find alcohol free sangria in the coolers. But there’s one store that Alisa brought me to that crystallized this seemingly strange mix of countries, customs, languages and food.
We pulled into a parking lot and faced a colourful building with Mennonites chatting outside. We had arrived at “MennoMex”, a place where you can buy a beautiful German Bible, material for a floral dress and every kind of hot sauce you can imagine. Colouful pinatas and sombreros adorn the walls and ceiling of the produce department. Bright Mexican blankets hang over a railing leading to the Mennonite section of the store.
There are bolts and bolts of pastel cotton materials and a tidy display of German storybooks and Low German dictionaries. I saw tortilla makers and beautifully painted ceramic Mexican water jugs. I roamed every aisle while Alisa and her daughter, Kaili, stood in line for burritos. Tamales were the special of the day but they had run out. The clerk assured me there was a new batch on the way and I assured her I was in no hurry to leave. This little Mexican-Mennonite microcosm had definitely captured my attention. There were shelves and shelves of enchilada sauces, jalepenos, corn chips and refried beans. Alisa says it has an excellent reputation among Latinos and Mexicans in Ontario. “Many families drive hours to come here for the variety and to stock up on the goods.”
We paid for our tamales and made our way to the car. I don’t know if it was some kind of jalapeno high but I was giddy. “MennoMex” was a cool and quirky experience and I had worked up an appetite from all the excitement and education. We drove to Alisa’s school and chose a shady spot under a tree for our lunch. It was next to a small, neat vegetable garden her Low German speaking students had planted. We chatted about how different our lives must be from theirs. We also talked about Alisa’s life in Ontario and some of our memories together in Newfoundland. After all her travel and colourful adventures, Alisa still does miss home. “I was so young when I left. I didn’t really appreciate our culture or the beauty of our province,” says Alisa. I assured her she has a bed to sleep in anytime she wants to visit. Please pack a bottle of salsa in your suitcase, Alisa. There’ll be friends and a fine ol’ fiesta waiting when you arrive!
To take a quick trip to Aylmer and inside MennoMex, please see the photo gallery.
If you are a Newfoundlander or Labradorian living in a far away place or working in an interesting job, I'd love to tell your story. Please get in touch. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time, keep on rovin'!