The Romneys’ Mexican History
…”I’m fourth generation in the colonies,” Hatch informed me. He can trace his roots to Mormon pioneers who traveled from Utah and Arizona to Mexico in 1890. He and Sandra have six children, all raised in the Mexican colonies and all now U.S. citizens, including one deployed with the Utah National Guard in Afghanistan. Hatch himself, however, has only Mexican citizenship.
His kids, he said, would rather live in Mexico but have been forced to live in the States for work. “No one wants to claim us,” he told me. “We feel enough of a tie to either country that we feel the right to criticize either one—and to get our dander up if we hear someone criticize either one.”
This state of feeling in between, I would soon learn, defines nearly every aspect of Mormon life in the old colonies. The settlers’ descendants, numbering several hundred in all, keep alive a culture that’s always been caught between Mexico and the United States, between the past and the present, between stability and crisis.
Hatch retired ten years ago after a long career as a teacher in Colonia Juárez at a private LDS academy where generations of Mexican Mormons in the colonies have learned in English. Among other subjects, he taught U.S. history. And as we left Ciudad Juárez behind, with a final, few scattered junkyards in our wake, he began to tell me about all the history embedded in the landscape surrounding us.
“See those mountains in the distance?” he asked as we sped past a sandy plain of dunes and mesquite shrubs. “That’s the Sierra Madre.” During the Mexican Revolution, Pancho Villa’s troops followed those hills, Hatch said, on their way to raid Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916.
Villa once rode and hid in those same mountains as a notorious local bandit. He became one of the revolution’s boldest generals, and attacked the United States as an act of vengeance for Woodrow Wilson’s support of his rival, Venustiano Carranza.
The Mexican Revolution played a critical role in the history of the Mormon colonies. Were it not for that 1910 uprising and the years of war that followed, Mitt Romney might have been born in Mexico, and might be living there today raising apples and peaches, as many of his cousins do.
An especially vicious faction of revolutionaries arrived in the colonies in 1912, appropriating the settlers’ cattle and looting their stores. The revolutionaries took one of the community’s leaders to a cottonwood tree outside Colonia Juárez and threatened to execute him if he didn’t deliver cash.
Many English-speaking families fled, never to return, including that of George Romney, then a boy of 5. In the States, George grew up primarily in the Salt Lake City area, attended college nearby, worked for Alcoa and became chairman of American Motors. He was elected governor of Michigan and served in President Richard Nixon’s cabinet. Mitt Romney’s mother, Utah-born Lenore LaFount Romney, was a former actress who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in Michigan in 1970.
As Hatch and I drove through Ascensión, one of the towns on the route to Colonia Juárez, he recounted the story of a hotel owner who was murdered there a few years back, and of a lynch mob that tracked down a band of three alleged kidnappers and killed them.
I’ll admit to being a bit freaked out hearing these stories: What am I doing here, in this modern-day Wild West? I wondered. But Hatch disabused me of my fears. Most of the worst violence in the region ended three years back, he told me. “We feel very blessed we have escaped the worst of it.”…