On a Sunday night, the once vibrant commercial strips by the international bridges presented a forlorn sight. I saw sidewalks empty of pedestrian traffic leading to shuttered nightclubs and crumbling adobe buildings, all patrolled by the occasional squad of body-armored soldiers in pickup trucks toting charcoal-colored automatic weapons.
Beyond the border crossings, in the Ciudad Juárez of big malls and wide avenues, the city did not feel especially menacing to me—until I read the local newspapers, including El Diario: “Juárez Residents Reported Nearly 10 Carjackings a Day in January.” I spent the night in the Camino Real, a sleek example of modernist Mexican architecture, an echo of the Camino Real hotel in Mexico City designed by the late Ricardo Legorreta. I dined in eerily empty spaces, attended by teams of waiters with no one else to serve.
John Hatch, my guide to the Mormon colonies, arrived the next morning to pick me up. It was Hatch who had returned my phone call to the Mormon Temple in Colonia Juárez: He volunteers at the temple and also runs an outfit called Gavilán Tours. We were to drive three hours from Ciudad Juárez to Colonia Juárez, where Hatch and his wife, Sandra, run an informal bed-and-breakfast in their home, catering to a dwindling stream of tourists drawn to Chihuahua for its history and natural enchantments.
“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.