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

In Janos, Mexico, Mormon guide John Hatch chats with a youngster at a 17thcentury Catholic church. (Eros Hoagland / Redux Pictures)
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My journey to the Mormon heartland of Mexico began in a gloomy bar in Ciudad Juárez, just a short walk from the bridge over the Rio Grande and the U.S. border.

I ordered a margarita, a decidedly un-Mormon thing to do. But otherwise I was faithfully following in the footsteps of the pioneers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many of whom once passed through Ciudad Juárez on their way to build settlements in the remote mountains and foothills of northern Chihuahua.

Back in the late 19th century, the pioneers traveled by wagon or train. Neither conveyance is used much in northern Mexico these days. I arrived in El Paso from Los Angeles via airplane, and would travel by car from the border on a mission to see the Mormon colonies where Mitt Romney’s father, George, was born.

Mitt Romney, who is vying to be the next president of the United States, has family roots in Mexico. And not in just any part of Mexico, but in a place famous for producing true hombres, a rural frontier where thousands of Mormons still live, and where settling differences at the point of a gun has been a tragically resilient tradition.

These days northern Chihuahua is being ravaged by the so-called cartel drug wars, making Ciudad Juárez the most notoriously dangerous city in the Western Hemisphere. “Murder City,” the writer Charles Bowden called it in his most recent book.

I entered Ciudad Juárez just as a gorgeous canopy of lemon and tangerine twilight was settling over the border.

It isn’t advisable to travel through northern Chihuahua after dark, so I was going to have to spend a night in Ciudad Juárez before heading to the Mormon settlements, 170 miles to the south. Thus my visit to the Kentucky Club, where Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and assorted other stars downed cocktails.

“They say this is where the margarita was invented,” I told the bartender in Spanish.

Así es,” he answered. I consider myself something of a margarita connoisseur, and this one was unremarkable. So was the bar’s wood décor. Honestly, there are two dozen Mexican-themed bars in Greater Los Angeles with better atmosphere.

Still, one has to give the watering hole credit just for staying open given the general sense of abandonment that has overtaken the old tourist haunts of Ciudad Juárez. Devout Mormons have always avoided the debauchery on offer there. Now everyone else does too.


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