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Saturday, May 9, 2020

[SPECIAL] The Long Journey by Tina Siemens

 In 1922, my ancestors left Canada. Some 5,000 Mennonites left for Mexico in six long trains, bringing with them animals, furniture, tools, and grain. The journey ended at a massive piece of land in the Bustillos Valley near Cuauht√©moc. Like the countries before, the President of Mexico signed a document guaranteeing Mennonites religious freedom and our own monetary system. For us, being left alone in our sealed society was as close to heaven on Earth as we could get.

Or was it?

It took many years to turn the rocky desert into a land that could sustain us. Starvation and death were ever-present. Eventually, we turned a corner. But this was a hard place. Success meant not going hungry. There was little money for extravagances, which was perfect because the church leaders said that suffering brings us closer to God.

Over the years, the population exploded. Forbidden the use of birth control, many women had twelve to eighteen children.

With more living children came more adult marriages. This brought more children. Soon, we needed more land. Unfortunately, the local citizens weren’t selling any. And the government wasn’t willing to sell more land either. This led to friction between the Mexicans and Mennonites. For us, our entire life was in this land. We had little savings. Something had to give.

One man saw a different way out of all this: escape. His name was Jacob Rempel—my great-grandfather. He silently questioned everything, including the thin educational system we attended.
Jacob knew he lacked knowledge. The Mennonites had no way of understanding the outside world or negotiating complex contracts. Instead, we shook hands and hoped for the best. Yet Jacob was determined.

When his first grandson was born, Jacob secretly lifted David, the newborn, to his lips and whispered, “You will leave this place. I will help you find a way.”

Yet leaving a Mennonite colony is not easy.

First, family ties are strong. Pressure from relatives intensifies as soon as they catch wind of any discontent. If a family ever returns, they face a rough life of isolation and disdain. Excommunication is always a possibility.

Next, raising the money to leave is almost impossible. Every penny goes into food, clothing, or shelter. The only way to raise a large sum is to sell everything. Yet this move tips off the relatives and colony. And that triggers the pressure.

Finally, where can isolated Low German-speaking Mennonites go? To another Mennonite colony? Or brave the big wide world and try an Englander city?

So many hurdles, yet Jacob pushed his grandson hard. Finally, in 1974, David Rempel decided he and his family had to leave.

They tried Paraguay, but were rejected by the Mennonites living there. Then they went to Canada, but their guide threw away the citizenship application papers at the airport. They had to leave the country after six months.

Back in Mexico, David tried to rebuild his savings. He next targeted another place—Seminole, Texas. Mennonites bought tractors and parts from dealers there. A few Mennonites had even traveled to the town. David decided to check it out himself.

When he returned to Mexico, he was full of incredible stories. The clothes washed and dried themselves in magical machines. And the country was so wealthy, the citizens built small houses for their dogs. David couldn’t stop gushing about this land of milk and honey. He just had to find a way to escape to Seminole.

In 1976, David learned that U.S. citizenship was guaranteed to anyone who owned at least one acre of land. It wasn’t long before he and several men put together a large group to buy a tract of land in Seminole. They raised a staggering $295,000. This was enough to make a down payment on 1,200 acres. Suddenly, hundreds of Mennonites were leaving Mexico, each one owning at least one acre of land. After all these years of failure, David finally saw a way out.

In early 1977, a large mass of people reached the U.S. border excited about their new home. Yet they soon discovered that the lawyer with their papers wasn’t there to meet them. For five long days, the Mennonite men stood vigil in and around the immigration center while their families stayed at a cheap motel in Juarez.

On the last day, near closing time, one of the border agents found a way to communicate. David explained the situation. He had several chances to lie. But he decided that the truth was more important. If he told the truth and couldn’t get into the country, then he could still live with a conscience.

The agent miraculously decided to grant a six-month visitor’s visa. They would have 180 days to sort out their problems.

As they crossed the border, David was both excited and scared. When he crested a rise and showed his family the lights of Seminole, he told them in a voice dripping with emotion, “We’re home. Now, we’re home!”

But could they stay?

The Mennonites who came with David pooled their funds to hire the best legal talent. Yet the lawyer they hired needed money all the time.

And there was the land. Because they lacked an understanding of the ways of the world, they had not obtained water rights. Planting crops in a desert without water was a foolish proposition. The real estate agent who handled the transaction assured everyone that the Mennonites had understood they weren’t getting the water rights when they signed the complicated papers in English. And the same agent promised that he never told them owning one acre granted automatic citizenship, which turned out to be false. Acreage has nothing to do with citizenship.

Seeing his money drain from his pockets, David needed a job. Speaking Low German was not an asset when seeking employment in West Texas. But somehow, God smiled on David, granting him both a day and night job.

He made money by wading into a small lake of raw sewage and setting pipes. The idea was to capture the dirty water and use it for irrigating cotton fields. He also found work hoeing weeds in the hot Texas sun—not for himself, but his three young children. Even though they should’ve been in school, the family needed the money. Each dawn, young Tina Rempel, along with her older brother David and sister Elizabeth, trudged out to the fields for ten solid hours of hoeing endless rows of cotton.

When it was time to get paid, their father collected the wages. They understood.

As the seasons changed, Border Patrol buses arrived to collect the Mennonites and send them back to Mexico. This would mean forfeiture of their land. And there was a second group of Mennonites. They had come from Canada and plunked down $445,000 for 6,400 acres just outside Seminole. Once again, water rights were not provided. All these religious people would be deported, kissing their hard-earned money goodbye.

One man saw this up close: Mayor Bob Clark. Each day, he watched the Mennonites gather around the real estate agent’s office. He decided to investigate.

After learning all he could about the situation, he contacted a very important person in our nation’s capital named George H. Mahon. As the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, he was the point man for spending any of the government’s money. And his district just happened to include Seminole, Texas.

Eventually, the press got wind of this story. Seemingly overnight, reporters and cameramen combed the streets, interviewing witnesses and probing every detail.

One fact they uncovered was the Mennonites’ refusal to accept charity. Even the tiny church they set up, which by law could avoid paying property taxes, didn’t take advantage of this welcoming land. Instead, the Mennonites prayed to God for help. And it came in the form of one photo.

There they were—eight-year-old girls sitting on benches, leaning forward over a slab of wood, praying to God for help. With their blonde hair braided over their shoulders and blue eyes peering over tented hands, this image exploded off the front pages of the country’s major newspapers. When Americans read how the Mennonites simply wanted to worship God, work hard, and be left alone, and how they had been ripped off in the land deals, their outrage spread to senators and congressmen. It was overwhelming.

Both Senators from Texas—Tower and Bentsen—sprung into action. With Mayor Clark holding a local vigil, guiding the press as they snapped more photos for the continuing string of news articles, the Mennonites’ prospects looked good. But then their visas ran out. They would have to leave.
Once again, God would provide a miracle. They received an extension on the deportation date.
On October 19, 1980, after many long years of this uncertain existence, both houses passed a private law, 96-63, granting a pathway to citizenship to more than 500 Mennonites. Each person’s name was meticulously spelled out in the bill. When President Jimmy Carter signed it, the Mennonites were granted green cards.

Five years after this monumental event, I stood next to David Rempel, my father, as we were sworn in as U.S. citizens. Never would there be a group of more grateful immigrants.

Since that time, the ranks of the Texas Mennonites have expanded. God blessed them and their desert land. The land has produced an abundance. So much that Gaines County has been continually labeled number one or close to it as the most productive county in the U.S. And not a day goes by that I don’t find a way to thank this great country for taking me in.

John Siemens, my husband, and I have built a thriving construction business out of nothing. It’s another blessing from God.

Once I was able to catch my breath, I sat down and wrote a book about this story. Like the barren land we cultivated, God has blessed the book too. Even President Jimmy Carter, a former farmer himself, recently found time between hospital stays to pose with me and my book. On November 3, 2019, I was invited to be the guest at President Jimmy Carter’s home church services.From his passage of the bill granting us citizenship to making time for me at his church, for some reason, he loves the Mennonites. As of this writing, it was the last time he taught the Sunday School lesson himself.

Decades later, Jacob’s great-granddaughter, Tina Siemens, records the story of her family’s journey from country to country in a sweeping tale of determination and faith. The book is Seminole: Some People Never Give Up. This debut novel is available on Amazon for purchase.

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