COLONIA JUAREZ, Mexico — White House hopeful Mitt Romney rarely mentions a key fact as he works to woo Hispanics ahead of Tuesday's Republican presidential nominating contest in Florida — his own Mexican heritage.
"I would love to be able to convince people of that, particularly in a Florida primary," he said Wednesday in an interview with Univision, a Spanish-language television network. "But I think that might be disingenuous on my part."
His father, George, was born in Mexico, and his extended relatives still live in that same community, the border state of Chihuahua. The younger Romney's second cousins, tall men with light hair who speak American-accented English, share the family's last name and Mormon faith. They support his White House candidacy, but not his tough stance on immigration.
They've also never met him, though Romney's siblings have been to the house where their father was born on July 8, 1907, among a colony of Mormon pioneers in a stunning agricultural valley at the foot of the Sierra Madre. George Romney's family left Mexico when he was 5, returning to the U.S. to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution.
"A lot of people ask why hasn't Mitt come back to see where his roots are. His father left here at such a young age and I don't think that he has that culture embedded like we do," said Leighton Romney, 52, who was born in the United States and is registered to vote in Arizona. "I live here because I love my country," he added. "That's Mexico."
He manages the fruit growers cooperative Grupo Paquime in nearby Nuevo Casas Grandes, and readily showed off his elaborately researched family tree to an Associated Press reporter who visited the office where he sells fruit to Walmart de Mexico and other large chains.
A two-term Michigan governor, George Romney faced questions about his eligibility to run for president in 1968 because he wasn't born in the United States. Yet, George was born a U.S. citizen, not Mexican, because his parents were U.S. citizens. And in those days, Mexico didn't grant dual citizenship so the parents had to choose one country or the other. Mitt Romney has said neither his father nor his grandparents spoke Spanish.
Like all U.S. politicians today, Romney walks a fine line between courting voter rage against illegal immigration, mostly from Mexico, and seeking the support of Hispanics, the fastest-growing voting group in America. In the rare cases where Romney has noted that his father was born in Mexico, he has done so to illustrate how the now-wealthy family came from humble beginnings rather than using the fact as a way to discuss immigration.
The Romneys can trace the family history to 1555, where they have records of a Mr. Romney, no first name, born in 1555 in the town of Tonbridge, England. The Mexican roots are intertwined with their Mormon faith.
The candidate's great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney, was born in 1843 in Nauvoo, Ill., where Joseph Smith founded the Mormon church. Miles Park Romney had five wives and 30 children, and fled to Mexico after passage of the 1882 Edmunson Act that barred polygamy. Among the first Mormons to settle in to the rolling Mexican valley bordering Texas, Miles Park Romney married his fifth wife after the church banned the practice in 1890.
Among the 11 children borne by Miles Park Romney's first wife were brothers Gaskell and Miles Archibold Romney.
The family fled back to the U.S. in 1912, when the Mexican Revolution struck Chihuahua and revolutionary forces invaded the English-speaking communities.
Gaskell Romney stayed in the U.S., with his five children, including Mitt's father, George.
But Gaskell's brother, Miles Archibold Romney, returned to Mexico.
The Mexican Romneys, who number about 40, live in solid brick homes with gingerbread accents and green lawns. They count themselves among the most prosperous ranchers and farmers in an area just 190 miles from the border city of El Paso, Texas. They ranch cattle and grow peaches, apples and chili peppers. They also run businesses, a prestigious school with an American football team and basketball program where the students emerge speaking flawless English.
"It is a very open community, where we have been progressive, and we have shaped a life for ourselves, our children, that we think is a healthy life," said Leighton Romney. "We have been here for generations."
Colonia Juarez and its surroundings have not escaped the drug violence that first terrorized the Mexican border and has now migrated to other parts. Meredith Romney, Leighton's brother, was kidnapped in 2009 and held hostage for two days in a cave until his family paid an undisclosed ransom.
The family says the area has gotten safer in the last year and that kidnappings have decreased. They credit Chihuahua's new governor, Cesar Duarte, who took office in 2010.
The town of 1,035 people has another emblematic symbol of the community's success: a white marble temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with a golden statue of Moroni, the angel said to have visited Joseph Smith. Next to it is the LDS-affiliated Academia Juarez, with three-story brick buildings and large lawns more reminiscent of Utah than Mexico.
Leighton's nephew, Brandon Romney, 33, grows chili peppers and helps with the school's sports teams. During a recent basketball game, he ran around giving instructions in both English and Spanish to teenagers playing on the court and stopped to talk about his famous relative.
"He's just another guy to me," Brandon Romney said. "Some people get kind of a sense of pride about it. I've never known him, never talked to him."1 comment on this story
Brandon Romney and his other relatives who are eligible to vote in America plan to support their distant cousin. Some say they will donate to him if he wins the nomination.
The family generally sees him as a smart businessman who can lead America out of its economic turmoil. They only part ways on immigration, sharing the Mexican view that migrants seeking work in the U.S. should be given a legal means to do so.
The candidate has taken a hardline against illegal immigration. He favors a U.S.-Mexico border fence and opposes education benefits for illegal immigrants. He would support legislation that seeks to award legal status to some young illegal immigrants who serve in the armed forces, but not for those who attend college.
This week, Romney said he favors policies that encourage "self-deportation," where illegal immigrants decide on their own to leave the U.S., over those that would require the government to return the immigrants to their home countries.