South of border, Romney's Mexican roots run deep
COLONIA JUÁREZ, Mexico — Three dozen of Mitt Romney's relatives live here in a narrow river valley at the foot of the western...
The Washington Post
COLONIA JUÁREZ, Mexico —
Three dozen of Mitt Romney's relatives live here in a narrow river valley at the foot of the western Sierra Madre, surrounded by peach groves, apple orchards and some of the baddest, most fearsome drug gangsters and kidnappers in all of northern Mexico.
Like Mitt, the Mexican Romneys are descendants of Miles Park Romney, who came to the Chihuahua desert in 1885 seeking refuge from U.S. anti-polygamy laws. He had four wives and 30 children, and on the rocky banks of the Piedras Verdes River, he and his fellow Mormon pioneers carved out a prosperous settlement beyond the reach of U.S. federal marshals. He was Mitt's great-grandfather.
Gaskell Romney, Mitt's grandfather, settled in Mexico as well, and Mitt's father, George Romney, was born in nearby Colonia Dublan — raising the possibility of a 2012 presidential race between two contenders whose fathers were born outside the United States.
The story of Mitt Romney's family in Mexico is not well-known or frequently mentioned by the candidate, who is widely viewed as the front-runner for the Republican nomination.
But the extraordinary lives of Romney's ancestors, and the current struggles of his relatives against Mexico's brutal criminal gangs, present a significantly more complex family portrait than the all-American image of Mitt with his wife, Ann, and their five clean-cut sons.
Like President Obama, Romney has a family tree that crosses borders and cultures, and a genealogy that does not unfold neatly from a Mayflower landing or a dogged immigrant's tale. His forebears came to the United States for spiritual reasons but had to flee a generation later, finding the freedom they were looking for in Mexico.
Forthright, horse-smart and stubborn — these are the qualities that helped Miles Park Romney build Colonia Juárez, and that Mitt would bring to the White House, said his cousin Kent Romney, a peach farmer who makes fishing lures and is possibly the only person in Mexico with a Chihuahua license plate and a "Mitt Romney for President" sticker on his pickup.
"We have a saying: When a Romney drowns, you look for the body upstream," Kent said. "They don't just flow with the current."
Like the older generation of Romneys here, Kent is Mitt's second cousin, and although he has donated to Mitt's campaigns, he has never met the candidate. Nor has Mitt been to visit Colonia Juárez and Kent's home, built more than 100 years ago by their great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney.
From Kent's porch, one can look up the street to the gleaming white Mormon temple on the hill, and across to the redbrick buildings of the town's private English-language Mormon academy. About a third of the town's 500 or so residents are of Anglo descent.
Polygamy phased out
Polygamy — or plural marriage, as it's known in the Mormon tradition — continued in the Mexican colonies after church elders officially banned it in 1890. But it was phased out long ago, and with the exception of a breakaway community farther south, Mormons in northern Mexico no longer practice polygamy.
Gaskell Romney, Mitt's grandfather, had only one wife.
Today, most of Mitt's relatives in Colonia Juárez are Anglo-Mexican cowboys, farmers and businessmen who speak Spanish and English with equal, unaccented ease. They live in historic Victorian homes and comfortable ranch houses with some of the greenest and tidiest lawns in Mexico, looking as if they've been transplanted from suburban Phoenix.
Their children grow up playing football, shopping in El Paso, Texas, and studying for coveted slots at Utah's Brigham Young University.
For most of the Romneys here, especially the older generations, Mexico is home. And like almost any prosperous family in this increasingly lawless region, they are besieged by criminals' extortion demands and the constant threat of kidnapping. Some of their orchard managers have been abducted and killed, and one of Mitt's cousins, a tough 70-year-old rancher named Meredith Romney, was kidnapped two years ago, then tied up and held in a cave three days.
A few Romneys have fled to the United States in recent years, joining the hundreds of other Romneys who also are descended from Miles Park. But most of the Mexican Romneys are still here in Colonia Juárez.
"We're not going anywhere. There is too much history," said Michael Romney, another cousin of Mitt's, whose son serves in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan — and is a former national high-jump champion in Mexico.
The Romney family traces its ancestry to 17th-century England. William Romney was Lord Mayor of London in the 1600s, and another ancestor, George Romney, was a famous 18th-century portrait artist, according to the family's genealogical records.
"Important and distinctive characteristics of the male members of the family are a large square head with a massive under-jaw, with blue eyes and light hair predominating," wrote Thomas C. Romney in his 1948 biography "Life Story of Miles Park Romney."
"Mental and emotional characteristics peculiarly noticeable in the family are an indomitable will and a bulldogged determination, which is reinforced by a courage and honesty of purpose, admired even by those who disagree with them in matters of judgment," he wrote.
According to family lore, Mitt's great-great-grandfather Miles Romney was walking to the market with his wife in 1837 when he stopped at a corner to listen to Mormon preachers who were some of the first missionary "elders" sent abroad by church founder and prophet Joseph Smith.
Four years later, Miles Romney and his family arrived in New Orleans, then traveled up the Mississippi River to join Smith's fast-growing Mormon colony at Nauvoo, Ill.
Miles Park Romney, Mitt's great-grandfather, was born there in 1843, but the Romneys and other Mormons fled Nauvoo the next year after Smith was killed by a raging mob. They followed Brigham Young across the Great Plains and crossed the Rockies to help settle the Salt Lake Valley, then part of Mexico.
Like his immigrant father, Miles Park Romney was a skilled carpenter and architect, and was later sent by Young to establish Mormon settlements in St. George, Utah, and St. Johns, Ariz.
But like the others, Miles Park was hounded by U.S. marshals, whose pursuit intensified after the 1882 Edmunds Act, which stripped thousands of polygamists of their ability to vote and other basic citizenship rights.
Mitt's great-grandfather was jailed for "unlawful cohabitation," his property was onfiscated, and he once evaded federal agents by hiding in a wagon, according to the Thomas Romney biography.
Mitt Romney briefly mentions his great-grandfather in his 2004 book, "Turnaround," about his management of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, but does not mention Miles Park's multiple wives.
"Despite emigrating, my great-grandfather never lost his love of country," Mitt wrote, adding that he had "an abiding loyalty to America."
Place of freedom
But Mexico was where Miles Park Romney found the freedom he was looking for. He and a small group of settlers sent by Brigham Young bought a dusty plot along the Piedras Verdes River in 1885 with the consent of Mexico's then-dictator, Gen. Porfirio Diaz.
Miles Park Romney and his family, including Mitt's grandfather Gaskell, lived out of wagon boxes and helped chisel irrigation canals along the sides of the valley to plant apple orchards, which soon become the most productive in Chihuahua.
When the river ran dry, the colonists prayed for water, according to family lore, and the 1887 Sonora earthquake struck soon after, rupturing an aquifer upriver, as if by providence. Water has flowed reliably through the valley ever since.
As the number of Mormon colonies in northern Mexico grew, so did confrontations with locals. The settlers fought off Apache raiders, then battled politicians' attempts to confiscate their land and orchards.
By the time Mitt Romney's father, George, was born in 1907, northern Mexico was headed for chaos and violent calamity.
With the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the Mormons of northern Mexico were forced to flee, as they had done in previous generations. The Romneys boarded a train for El Paso two years later, and Colonia Juárez and the other settlements were sacked by bandits. Only about a third of the Anglos would return to their homes in Mexico.
Mitt's grandfather Gaskell was not among them.
Father faced taunts
His son George Romney, Mitt's father, would grow up poor in the United States, taunted as "Mexican!" by other kids at school. But he went on to be a legendary auto executive, two-term Michigan governor (Willard Mitt Romney was born in Detroit in 1947), and one-time presidential candidate, losing the 1968 Republican nomination to Richard M. Nixon.
At the time, George Romney's eligibility for president was more of an issue than his Mormonism, news archives show. But the potential legal dispute over his Mexican birth was superseded by Nixon's primary victories, and Romney dropped his campaign before the matter could be settled.
With Mitt in presidential contention once again, the Romneys of Mexico have a cautious enthusiasm about their cousin's candidacy, even though few have had any contact with him. Many are eligible to vote absentee in U.S. elections, having acquired U.S. citizenship through their parents.
Mitt's conservative values are widely shared here — with the possible exception of his views on immigration.
"The Hispanic vote is becoming powerful in the U.S., and I don't think Mitt understands the causes of illegal immigration," said Kelly Romney, another Mexican-born cousin who lives beside the Mormon temple, and whose family raises cattle and chili peppers.
The family has at least one Democrat, Jeff Romney, who voted for Obama in 2008 and said he "horrified" the town when he showed up a few years ago with a Hillary Rodham Clinton sticker on his car.
"Not all Mormons are Republicans," said Jeff, the fundraising director of the El Paso Museum of Art, cracking a smile. "But I might vote for Mitt."
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