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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There was no museum to which Hatch could direct me to learn this history, most of which I picked up from books written by the colonists’ descendants. Colonia Juárez isn’t really set up for large-scale tourism (in keeping with the Mormon ban on alcohol, it remains a dry town). Still, a stroll through the town is a pleasant experience.

I walked to the Academia Juárez, a stately brick edifice that wouldn’t look out of place on an Ivy League campus. On a gorgeous day of early spring, quiet filled the neighborhoods, and I could hear water flowing alongside most of the streets, inside three-foot-wide channels that irrigate peach and apple orchards and vegetable gardens amid small, well-kept brick homes.

Down in the center of town is the “swinging bridge,” a cable-and-plank span still used by pedestrians to cross the shallow Piedras Verdes. Hatch remembered bouncing on it as a boy.

“The old-timers said that if you had not been kissed on the swinging bridge, you’d never really been kissed,” he said.

This must be a great place to raise kids, I thought, a feeling that was confirmed later that evening when a local family invited me to a community potluck in the home of Lester Johnson. It was a Monday night, a time set aside, according to Mormon tradition, for family gatherings.

Before diving into assorted casseroles and enchilada dishes, we all bowed our heads in prayer. “We are grateful for the blessings we have,” Johnson said to the group, “and for the safety we enjoy.”

There was a toddler, and a woman of 90, and many teens, all of whom assembled in the living room later for the kind of relaxed, multigenerational neighborhood gathering that is all too rare on the other side of the border. They talked about family, school and other mundane or scary aspects of life in this part of Mexico, such as a local restaurant one of the moms stopped frequenting when she saw people with guns at another table.

But the bigger problem facing the English-speaking residents of the Mormon colonies is one common to rural life: keeping sons and daughters home when there isn’t enough work locally. Johnson, 57, has five children, all adopted, all Mexican. And all now live in the United States.

“We need to get some of our young people back here,” Johnson said. Like other members of the community, he said he resented the media coverage that draws ironic comparisons to the Republican Party’s hard-line position on immigration and the ambivalent feelings of Mitt’s bicultural Mexican cousins. “I don’t think anyone down here knows him personally,” Johnson said. Mitt Romney has reportedly not visited the area.

In Colonia Juárez, they might not know Mitt, but they do know the Romneys. Some see similarities between Mitt Romney, the public figure, and his Mexican relatives, some three dozen of whom are said to live in town.


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