RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Mitt Romney now looks ahead to the Florida primary at the end of this month, and he's started to reach out to the Hispanic voters, with appeals like this:
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MARTIN: What he doesn't mention in this ad is that he, himself, is the son of a Mexican immigrant. His father, George, was born in a colony of polygamist Mormons in the state of Chihuahua. Mitt Romney rarely speaks about the Mexican branch of his family tree, and he's never visited his numerous cousins south of the border. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints banned polygamy in 1890, but Mormon leaders quietly sent selected members to Canada and Mexico to continue practicing plural marriage. One of them was Miles Park Romney, the great-grandfather of Willard "Mitt" Romney - who wants to be president of the United States. Miles Park, a Utah builder with a massive head and a square jaw, had four wives and 30 children. Today, some of their descendants still live in the Mormon colonies in Northern Chihuahua, about a four-hour drive from El Paso. Mainstream Mormons no longer practice polygamy.
KENT ROMNEY: We have Meredith and Karen Romney. Meredith has a brother, named Kelly Romney.
BURNETT: Kent Romney is a talkative, 67-year-old peach grower and fishing lure manufacturer. He proudly gives us a tour of colonial Juarez. It's an orderly, prosperous town located at the foot of the ruggedly beautiful Western Sierra Madres. About a thousand people live here - most of them are Mormons, and about 40 are Romneys.
KENT ROMNEY: And then Kelly has a son, Caid Romney. So I don't know how many Romneys that is, but I think I covered them.
BURNETT: In 1912, the Mormons fled their colonies in Mexico to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution. Miles Park Romney begat Gaskell Romney, who begat George Romney. George, who was never a Mexican citizen, was 5 years old when they left Mexico. He went on to become an auto executive, governor of Michigan, and a presidential candidate. George begat Mitt, who was born in Detroit. Most of the Mormons never went back to Mexico, but one of Miles Parks' sons, Miles Archibald, did return, and it is his progeny who remain here today, making them all Mitt's second cousins.
KENT ROMNEY: This is our chapel. This is where we hold our Sunday meetings.
BURNETT: Today, Mitt's Mexican relatives live in large, suburban, American-style homes. They speak perfect English and hold dual citizenship. They shop in El Paso, and their children attend college in the States.
KENT ROMNEY: So some people ask the question, you know, why hasn't Mitt come down and met his family in Mexico? Well, we're kind of distant cousins. We're not part of the Gaskell Romney family line.
BURNETT: Your sign on the wall there says: Romney: Families are Forever. So you still feel a blood kinship to Mitt?
KENT ROMNEY: Oh definitely. I mean, I've never met a Romney I'm not related to.
BURNETT: Kent sits on a plaid sofa under a picture of Jesus, in his house down the hill from the white Mormon temple, with the trumpeting angel on its spire. He opens a book - "The Life and Story of Miles Park Romney," written by Thomas C. Romney - and reads a passage about the family DNA.
KENT ROMNEY: He says mental and emotional characteristics peculiarly noticeable in the family are an indomitable will and a bulldog determination, which is reinforced by a courage and an honesty of purpose.
BURNETT: The Romneys of Mexico have avidly followed Mitt's pursuit of the Republican nomination. Kent's wife, Virginia, checks her email several times a day for campaign news.
VIRGINIA ROMNEY: This is today's news. It says Rasmussen reports Mitt Romney is leading Florida 41, Gingrich 19.
BURNETT: She's careful around a reporter's microphone not to say anything that might harm Mitt's chances.
VIRGINIA ROMNEY: We don't want him to be portrayed as coming from a weird or strange background - with roots in Mexico, you know, polygamy and - we're just as normal as anybody else.
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BURNETT: Rather than dwell on their origins as a haven for polygamists, Kent Romney would rather talk about the reported miracle that made their valley fertile.
KENT ROMNEY: When the pioneers first came to this valley to settle, they soon discovered there wasn't enough water running in the river - particularly in the summer - that would sustain agriculture. And so they gathered together and through fasting and prayer, prayed that the water in the river would increase.
BURNETT: An earthquake in 1887 cracked open a fissure, and uncorked an aquifer that has been irrigating their peach and apple orchards ever since. They consider it an act of God. As devout Mormons, the Romneys avoid coffee and tobacco, fast once a month,and wear the sacred undergarments. They believe in family, probity and hard word.
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MILES ROMNEY: If you don't prune, your peach is going to be too small and overloaded for the tree. You don't get a good-quality peach.
BURNETT: Kent's brother, Miles, oversees workers who are thinning his dormant fruit trees. He believes his cousin's candidacy is nothing less than prophetic.
MILES ROMNEY: I think that if Mitt wins this - president of the United States - because God wants him there. I think the United States is going to fall to pieces. I don't think the Lord's work is done yet, here on this earth. And if he makes it in there, it's because God wants him in there.
BURNETT: Mormons believe, as millennialists, that in the last days before the second coming of Christ, the world will degenerate into turmoil. Given that focus, Mexico appears to be well on its way, plagued as it is by rampant crime and drug-related murders. Two years ago, thugs kidnapped Meredith Romney, the former temple president, at his ranch and held him for three days in a cave before his family was able to win his release. His brother, Kelly, is a rancher and a chili pepper farmer.
KELLY ROMNEY: We were pretty shook up about it. My younger brother was doing the negotiations, and I was there with him.
BURNETT: The spiraling lawlessness has prompted a few Mormons to abandon Mexico, as their forbearers did a century ago during the revolution. But the majority have stayed here. They've installed a guardhouse at the high school, and gotten advice from a counterkidnapping expert.
KELLY ROMNEY: We're a little more cautious. My ranch is in a pretty dangerous area. Try to take someone with me more often; I go into the ranch, different roads - just simple, little things like that.
BURNETT: Kelly Romney is conservative, like most Mormons. A copy of Ann Coulter's "How to Talk to A Liberal" sits on the table. He thinks Mitt, the tested businessman and trusted church leader, would make a fine president. But he differs sharply with his cousin's hard line on illegal immigration.
KELLY ROMNEY: You can't just split families up, round them up, and ship them all back to Mexico. We need to work out a solution that benefits both countries.
BURNETT: Kelly Romney, in fact, would love it if Mitt would visit colonial Juarez and learn about the complexities of immigration from a Mexican perspective. So far, the candidate has not sought out his cousins in Mexico for advice.
John Burnett, NPR News.
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MARTIN: And you are listening to NPR News.
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