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In Janos, Mexico, Mormon guide John Hatch chats with a youngster at a 17thcentury Catholic church. (Eros Hoagland / Redux Pictures)

The Romneys’ Mexican History

Mitt Romney’s father was born in a small Mormon enclave where family members still live, surrounded by rugged beauty and violent drug cartels

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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.”

Hatch would like to get the word out to his old U.S. clients who have been scared off. The Europeans, however, have kept coming, including a group from the Czech Republic that came to see local landmarks related to the history of Geronimo, the Apache fighter.

Geronimo’s wife, mother and three young children were killed by Mexican troops in a massacre in 1858, just outside the next village on our route, Janos. The enraged Geronimo then launched what would become a 30-year guerrilla campaign against the authorities on both sides of the border.

Finally, we arrived in one of the Mormon colonies, Colonia Dublán. I saw the house where George Romney was born in 1907. The old two-story, American colonial-style brick structure was sold by Romney family members in the early 1960s. Since remodeled, it now has a Mexican colonial-style stone facade.The maple-lined streets surrounding George Romney’s home were a picture of American small-town order circa 1900. There were many homes of brick and stone, some with the occasional Victorian flourish.

“This street is named for my first cousin,” Hatch told me, as we stood beneath a sign announcing “Calle Doctor Lothaire Bluth.” Hatch’s octogenarian uncle and aunt, Gayle and Ora Bluth, live on the same street. Ora was recently granted U.S. citizenship, but not Gayle, though he served on a U.S. Navy submarine (and represented Mexico in basketball at the 1960 Olympics in Rome).

It was a short drive to Colonia Juárez, where the Mormon colonies were founded and which remains the center of church life here. I first glimpsed the town as we descended a curving country road and entered a valley of orchards and swaying grasses. Even from a distance, Colonia Juárez presented an image of pastoral bliss and piety, its gleaming white temple rising from a small hill overlooking the town.

When the first settlers arrived here in the 1870s and ’80s, some were fleeing a U.S. crackdown on polygamy. (The practice ended after a 1904 LDS edict that polygamists would be excommunicated.) They dug canals to channel the flow of the Piedras Verdes River to their crops, though the river’s waters dropped precipitously low afterward. But lore has it that the Lord quickly provided: An earthquake triggered the return of an abundant flow.

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