In besieged Mormon colony, Mitt Romney’s Mexican roots

July 23, 2011

Three dozen of Mitt Romney’s relatives live here in a narrow river valley at the foot of the western Sierra Madre mountains, 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 in Mexico the freedom they were looking for.


Forthright, horse-smart and stubborn — these are the qualities that helped Miles Park Romney build Colonia Juarez 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 Colonia Juarez and Kent’s home, built more than 100 years ago by their great-grandfather.

From Kent’s porch, one can look up the street to the gleaming white Mormon temple on the hill and across to the red-brick 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 — 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 had one wife.

Today, most of Mitt’s relatives in Colonia Juarez are Anglo Mexican cowboys, farmers and businessmen who speak Spanish and English with equal, unaccented ease. They live in historical Victorian homes and comfortable ranch houses with some of the greenest and tidiest lawns in Mexico, looking as if they have been transplanted from suburban Phoenix. Their children grow up playing football, shopping in El Paso 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, the Romneys 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 for three days.

A few Romneys have fled to the United States in recent years, joining the hundreds of other Romneys who are also descended from Miles Park. But most of the Mexican Romneys are still here in Colonia Juarez.

“We’re not going anywhere,” said Michael Romney, a cousin of Mitt’s, whose son serves in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan — and is a former national high-jump champion in Mexico. “There’s too much history,” he said.

Finding freedom

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 bull-dogged 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 street corner to listen to Mormon preachers who were some of the first missionary “elders” sent abroad by church founder 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 their fellow “Saints” fled Nauvoo the following 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. He was later sent by Young to establish Mormon settlements in St. George, Utah, and St. Johns, Ariz.

But like the other Saints, Miles Park was also 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,” had his property confiscated and once had to evade federal agents by hiding in a wagon, according to the Thomas Romney biography.

“They used to say about Miles Park Romney that he lived polygamy the most perfect anyone had ever seen it lived,” Michael Romney said of his great-grandfather. “You get two or three wives, and it’s not an ideal situation, but he handled it well. His wives lived like sisters.”

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. Romney campaign staffers did not respond to requests for interviews.

“Despite emigrating, my great-grandfather never lost his love of country,” Mitt wrote, adding that he had “an abiding loyalty to America.”

But Mexico was where Miles Park Romney found the freedom he was seeking. 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.

A question of eligibility

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 Juarez and the other settlements were sacked by bandits. Only about a third of the Anglos would return to their homes in Mexico.

Gaskell Romney was not among them.

His son George, Mitt’s father, would grow up poor in the United States, taunted as “Mexican!” by other kids at school. But he went on to become 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 superceded by Nixon’s primary victories, and Romney dropped his campaign before the matter could be settled.

Constitutional law experts say George Romney’s eligibility probably would be upheld today, because his parents retained their U.S. citizenship. “Otherwise, fortuity of birth circumstances might deprive the electorate of the best available candidate,” said Peter Spiro, a citizenship expert at Temple University. “But no doubt some folks would raise the question in the same way it was raised in 1968.”

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 cast absentee ballots 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.

He said Mitt would be wise to eschew the harsh rhetoric against illegal immigrants that is popular among GOP hopefuls, proposing to arrange a meeting for Mitt on the topic with a local Mexican politician and Mormon, Jeffrey Max Jones, who was senator for the state of Chihuahua from 2000 to 2006. Jones lives in the Colonia Dublan home in which Mitt’s father was born.

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.”

As in other circles, there is also some trepidation here about a possible presidential contest dominated by discussions of Mitt’s Mormon beliefs.

“I just hope the American people will see through the rhetoric and vote for someone based on their merits, not their religion,” said Kent Romney, the peach farmer. “Mormonism doesn’t have the same stigma here in Mexico as it does in the U.S.”

Threats and showdowns

Meredith Romney was opening the gate to his sprawling cattle ranch in the Sierra Madre mountains two years ago when he was ambushed by three men in ski masks. They clubbed him with their pistol butts, put a hood over his head and stuffed him in the back of a sport-utility vehicle as his wife and grandson looked on. Then they drove him deep into the mountains.

“They told me, ‘We’ve been watching you for a month,’ ” Meredith said.

He was marched down a canyon and tied up in a cave for three days, until the family paid an undisclosed sum to get him back. “I just figured my time was up,” Meredith said, shaking his head. “I later found out they’d kidnapped 18 people and killed 14 of them.”

The Romneys have faced threats and political showdowns as long as they’ve been in Mexico, from squatters, resentful locals and crusading politicians keen to get their land. But the dangers they face today are far more sinister and unpredictable.

Gunmen from the Sinaloa cartel wage open warfare against gangs linked to the Juarez cartels, with police and politicians alternately battling them and doing their bidding. The family has hired security experts from Colombia for advice.

The violence has brought a thousand small changes, as well. High school football teams from the United States no longer come down to play against the Mormon boys of Colonia Juarez. Local kids and teenagers who once grew up riding horses everywhere are now mostly kept indoors, and many in the youngest generation of Romneys dream of a safer life in the United States, like other middle-class Mexicans in the region.

“We’re sort of like sitting ducks down here, but nobody wants to leave,” said Jeff Romney, whose friend, a local ceramic artist, was kidnapped, tortured and killed recently; he was found with his genitals severed and stuffed in his mouth. This month was the first time in a year that Jeff had driven from El Paso to see his parents.

“We know that we’re watched whenever we leave town,” Jeff said. “But you can’t be held hostage by fear. That’s no way to live. So you do the best you can.”

“After all,” he said, “Mexico is our home.”

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Nick Miroff is a Latin America correspondent for The Post, roaming from the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to South America’s southern cone. He has been a staff writer since 2006.
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