COLONIA JUAREZ, 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 Romney, the Mexican Romneys are descendants of Miles Park Romney, who came to the Chihuahua desert in 1885 seeking refuge from US antipolygamy 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 US federal marshals. He was Mitt Romney’s great-grandfather.
Gaskell Romney, Mitt Romney’s grandfather, settled in Mexico as well, and Mitt Romney’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 Romney with his wife, Ann, and their five 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 Juarez, and that Mitt Romney 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.
Like the older generation of Romneys here, Kent is Mitt Romney’s second cousin, and although he has donated to Mitt Romney’s campaigns, he has never met the candidate. Nor has Mitt Romney been to visit Colonia Juarez 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 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 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 Romney’s grandfather, had one wife.
Today, most of Romney’s relatives in Colonia Juarez 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, 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 now 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 Romney’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 another cousin of Mitt Romney, Michael Romney, whose son is serving in the US Army in Afghanistan. “There’s too much history.’’
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.
Miles Park Romney was a skilled carpenter and architect and was later sent by Brigham Young to establish Mormon settlements in St. George, Utah, and St. Johns, Ariz.
But Miles Park was hounded by US 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 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.’’