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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 4)

Biographers of the Romney family have pointed to the “indomitable will” of the forebears. But this characteristic, it seems to me, is common to many of the Mormons of the colonies. Their shared determination is one of the things that has allowed a relatively small number of English-speaking people to keep their language and way of life essentially unchanged for more than a century, despite being surrounded by an often hostile Spanish-speaking culture.

Leighton Romney, Mitt Romney’s second cousin, told me he hasn’t met the former governor of Massachusetts. (They have the same great-grandfather, Miles P. Romney, one of the 1885 pioneers.) I met Leighton the next day, on a visit to the fruit cooperative, packing house and export business he runs.

A 53-year-old dual citizen, Leighton has lived in Mexico all his life. Four of his uncles and one aunt served with the U.S. military in World War II. He knows the words to both country’s national anthems. Like people of Latin American descent living in the States, he hasn’t lost his sense of “kinship” to the country of his roots. “We’ve got a lot of similarities to Mexican-Americans,” he said. “We’re American-Mexicans.”

Leighton is deeply involved in the 2012 presidential campaign—the one to be held in Mexico in July to succeed outgoing President Felipe Calderon. Leighton is backing Enrique Peña Nieto, the candidate of the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, and is fundraising for him.

“We’re looking to have a little bit of a say in what the government here does,” Leighton said.

So the Mormon colonies will endure, I thought afterward, thanks to the industriousness and the adaptability of its residents. Like their ancestors, the pioneers still channel the waters of a river to their crops, still have big families and still learn the language and customs of the locals.

I spent my final hours in Mexico’s Mormon heartland playing tourist. I visited an old hacienda, abandoned by its owner during the revolution, and the ruins of the pre-Columbian mud city of Paquimé. I had the old walls and corridors of that ancient site all to myself and was soon enveloped by a soothing, natural quiet. In the distance, flocks of birds moved in flowing clouds over a strand of cottonwood trees.

In the town of Mata Ortiz, famous for its pottery, I was the only customer for the town beggar to bother. Here, too, were vast open vistas of cerulean sky and mud-colored mountains. Standing amid the town’s weather-beaten adobe homes and unpaved streets, I felt as if I had stepped back in time, to the lost epoch of the North American frontier: This, I thought, is what Santa Fe might have looked like a century ago.

Finally, John and Sandra Hatch gave me a ride back to the airport in El Paso. After crossing the border, we stopped in Columbus, New Mexico, where I received a final reminder of the violence that marks the history of this part of the globe. At a shop and informal museum inside the town’s old train depot, I saw a list of the people killed in Pancho Villa’s 1916 raid. Villa’s troops, a few hundred in all, were a ragtag bunch in cowhide sandals and rope belts. They killed eight soldiers and ten civilians, leading to Gen. John Pershing’s largely fruitless “Punitive Expedition” into Mexico days later.

I also saw an artifact from the more recent past: a newspaper clipping detailing the arrest, just last year, of the town’s mayor, police chief and others on charges of conspiring to smuggle guns to Mexican drug cartels.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus