Yerba Mate, “a Mennonite thing”
Many people have the impression that Mennonites, like our theological cousins the Amish, live quaint agrarian lives. Some still do. However, if you stroll through Steinbach, Altona, or any of the other Mennonite enclaves on the Canadian Prairies, you’re bound to be a little surprised. The Mennonites around here speak fluent English, drive cars rather than buggies, and buy the same horrible clothes from suburban malls as anyone else. We’re more or less indistinguishable from the rest of Canadian society except for one thing: we drink a hell of a lot of yerba mate. Until recently yerba tea was difficult to find in most Canadian cities. However, in small Mennonite towns it was everywhere. Growing up in Steinbach, I knew many people with a gourd and bombilla.
In fact, I used to think that sipping on yerba was ‘a Mennonite thing.’ I assumed we invented it, because I didn’t know anyone else in Canada who drank it. I would often see Plautdietsch-speaking old men in suspenders sitting on lawn chairs in their front lawns sipping some yerba and gawking at the neighbours. It was as entrenched in our Mennonite culture as adult baptism and chicken farming.
An introduction to Mennonites
Where did this come from? First of all, there is some debate in Mennonite circles as to whether we constitute a distinct ethnic group or just a religious sect. I won’t discuss that here, other than to say that if Mennonites are an ethnic group, we’re, at best, a potpourri of many cultural traditions rather than anything uniquely our own. Originally there were two main branches of Mennonites, the Swiss German and the Dutch. The Dutch branch, of which I am a part, originated in the Netherlands in the 16th century, but are more commonly referred to by the misnomer “Russian Mennonites,” even though we are not ethnic Russians, though we did live there immediately before immigrating to North America in the 1870s. Since the beginning, we had unconventional beliefs (pacifism, for example), and thus were persecuted by state authorities. We fled from country to country and eventually many of us ended up in Canada and the United States. Because of this history, Mennonites were often isolated and developed certain attributes of ethnicity. Russian Mennonites developed a unique dialect known as Plautdietsch and we also have certain customs of dress and culinary traditions. All of these aspects, however, were absorbed from our various host countries. For example, many of our surnames date back to our origins in the Netherlands, but in the 1700s we took the German language from Prussia and in the 1800s we took perogy-eating from Ukraine. These traditions, together with our religious beliefs, came to be seen as Mennonite, even though their origin was elsewhere. However, this appropriation didn’t end in the 1800s and this is where yerba mate enters the story.
The history of Mennonites and Yerba Mate
In the 1920s the Canadian government shut down private Mennonites schools and forced Mennonites to learn the English language. As a result, many of the more conservative Mennonites felt this was as intolerable intrusion on their freedoms and moved in large numbers to Central and South America. After a few decades some moved back, but while they were in Mexico and Paraguay they picked up the customs of the locals and incorporated these customs in the “Mennonite culture.” Thus, the Russian Mennonite culture (which was a misleading name to begin with) became even more complex and confusing. Today, one Mennonite food store in Steinbach, Canada, for example, sells both empanadas and perogies, and both of these foods are considered by locals to be “Mennonite cuisine.”
The same has happened with yerba mate. Mennonites from Manitoba moved to the Chaco area of Paraguay in 1927. Many of them were successful farmers, but because they retained their Canadian citizenship, many Paraguayan Mennonites have moved back to Canada, bringing yerba drinking with them, thus further complicating this thing known as “Mennonite culture.” In the meantime, the Russian Mennonites who never left Canada became assimilated. Few of us speak Plautdietsch anymore, and as I said, most of us are not distinct in any way. Thus, around here, anything unique, like yerba drinking became a symbol of being Mennonite, especially since we knew of no other ethnic group around here that partook in it.
However, there has been internal prejudice within Mennonite circles as well, with various groups considering themselves superior either because they were more modern and, therefore, “hipper,” than the others, or because they were more traditional and, thus, “holier.” Mennonites arrived in Canada in various waves of immigration and with each wave, the Mennonites who had been in Canada longer tended to look down on those who had arrived more recently. The same could be said of the Mennonites who returned to Canada from Paraguay. Those of us who had stayed in Canada and never lived in Latin America didn’t consider yerba drinking to be trendy or hip because it was strongly associated with our more conservative brethren. It was never “cool” to drink yerba. So, it’s interesting that just as yerba is gaining popularity in the general Canadian culture, it seems to be declining in Mennonite communities. These days, the more assimilated a Mennonite you are, the less likely you are to drink yerba.
A new perspective
A number of years ago I visited South America for the first time and it gave me a new perspective on the beverage. I remember being shocked at how common yerba was in Buenos Aires. Business people drank it on the way to work. Sophisticated ladies sat and drank it in park benches. Young people, old people; it seemed yerba was as common in Argentina as coffee is in most of Canada. Of course, I already knew that yerba wasn’t really a “Mennonite thing.” We didn’t invent it, we didn’t grow it, and we didn’t popularize it. Perhaps the best you could say was that we enjoyed it before most Canadians. Like everything else in Mennonite culture, yerba tea is not really ours, but we’re sure glad the South Americans were willing to share.