Quakers in Central and South America

Seventeen percent of the world’s Quakers live in Latin America, with roughly half of them in Bolivia, with the majority of the rest in Guatemala, Honduras and Peru. Many are indigenous Andean people.

Mexico: Samuel Purdy was sent to Mexico by Indiana Yearly Meeting’s Foreign Missionary Society in 1871 and the first monthly meeting was established in Cuidad Victoria in 1888. Today there are around 800 Quakers in Mexico.

The Casa de los Amigos has operated in Mexico City since 1956, initially taking over work camps organised by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) since 1939.  Young people from all over the world volunteered in these camps on community development projects in rural Mexican villages.  During the 1980s, the Casa provided a refuge and practical help for refugees fleeing wars in Central America. Since 2006, they have renewed their work supporting the rights of migrants and refugees in Mexico.

Cuba: the first Quaker missionaries to Cuba came from Iowa Yearly Meeting in the early 1900s, and the first Yearly Meeting was established in 1927. Friends established a number of schools in Cuba, which were taken over by the government following the communist revolution in 1958.

Today the small Quaker community (around 350 members) is supported by the Friends United Mission (FUM). Work teams from FUM helped to rebuild meeting houses damaged in the 2008 hurricane season. They are also developing a Quaker Institute for Peace in Holguin.

The AFSC supports Pastors for Peace, which opposes the American economic blockade of Cuba, in place since 1960.

Guatemala and Honduras: In 1906, California Yearly Meeting of Friends sent Ruth Esther Smith to Chiquimula in Guatemala. Under her leadership, Friends Meetings were established in both Guatemala and Honduras.

A girls’ school was established in Guatemala in 1908 and a boys’ school in 1912.  The Berea Bible College, where many Quaker leaders of the region were trained, was opened in 1921.

Today there are over twenty thousand Quakers in Guatemala and a further two thousand in Honduras.   Quakers operate two radio stations in Chiquimula.

Bolivia: Quakerism was first brought to Bolivia by a Navajo Quaker, William Abel, who came to preach in La Paz in 1919.  Around the same time, the Holiness Friends Mission from Indiana brought Quakerism to the Aymara people of the northern Andes.

Early missionaries started schools for local children. Until the revolution of 1952, the education of indigenous Bolivians was suppressed and even Quaker schools had to operate clandestinely.

Today there are thirty thousand Quakers in Bolivia, making it the world’s third largest Quaker population after the USA and Kenya.  The majority are indigenous Aymara.

Quaker Bolivia Link supports small community-initiated projects improving water supplies and agriculture among the Aymara. Quaker Bolivia Education Fund supports schools and education projects.

Costa Rica: the small Quaker community in Costa Rica was founded in 1951 by a group of Quaker families from Alabama after four young Friends were jailed for refusing to serve in the Korean War. Costa Rica had just abolished its army and the families were seeking somewhere they could live in peace.

The families established a farming community and set up Monteverde Friends School – today a bilingual school serving the local community from pre-school through to high school. Thirty years ago, they started the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, which is an international model for conservation.

In 1983, Quakers established a Peace Center in San Jose to protest the human rights violations in neighbouring Central American countries. The Peace Center continues to work on Human Rights and other issues.

In the 1990s, Quakers established a community farming project in Monteverde.  Families leasing the small plots of land must farm in a traditional way and pass on the skills to their children.  Quakers also support a small organic paper making business.

Peru: in 1961, Quaker missionaries were sent from Oregon to the Altiplano region of Peru, near the border with the Aymara Quaker communities in Bolivia.

One of the first Quaker converts in Peru was another Aymara, Benito Joaquin, who became a travelling minister and founded many Quaker Meetings in Peru. Today there are around five thousand Quakers in Peru.

The AFSC has had an office in Puno on Lake Titicaca since 1995. When a severe earthquake hit southern Peru, in 2008, the AFSC assembled an emergency response team and raised money for relief work.

El Salvador, Colombia, Nicaragua: there are Quaker meetings in these countries too.

Many countries in the region have recent experience of conflict, and AVP is proving useful. Since 2002 the US Friends Peace Team has worked on this with partners in Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras, on a programme called Peacebuilding en las Américas .