Las Colonias: Once a Haven, Still a Home


When pioneering Latter-day Saints first arrived in Mexico one hundred years ago, the way was so arduous that they often had to double wagon teams to make it up one side of a hill, then “rough-lock” the wheels and tie hewn-down trees to the rear of the wagons to keep them from tumbling end over end down the other side.

Bertha Shupe remembers returning there as a girl of about fifteen, after the danger from the 1910 revolution in Mexico was largely past, in one of her father’s covered wagons. “There were nine wagons, and I drove one, with a pair of government mules.”

Now the colonies are merely a half-day’s drive from El Paso, Texas, over a fine paved road through the Chihuahua desert.

It is not surprising to see fine farms and agricultural processing plants as one approaches Nuevo Casas Grandes. This is, after all, modern Mexico. But some of the houses you see as you come into town are a surprise. They are red brick, in a nineteenth century architectural style seen frequently in rural Utah and several other parts of the western United States. On a street corner in front of one imposing home is a sign advertising “Viveros de Dublan,” a plant nursery one block away, owned by someone with the unlikely name of Ashton Longhurst. One block in the other direction is a white building that is unmistakably an LDS chapel.

This is Colonia Dublan, one of several colonies established by Latter-day Saints who began arriving in the area in 1885.

The paved road goes on through Nuevo Casas Grandes, old Casas Grandes, up and over the hills, then down into another community of distinctive homes. It ends at the gates in front of a large red sandstone building. Chiseled in a stone plaque above the door is “Academia Juarez.”

Many Mexicans know of the LDS-run Juarez Academy, but few are prepared for what they find when they arrive there. Several times a week—perhaps once a day—someone from another part of the country will arrive at that gate, examine the peculiar building, well-kept grounds, and clean-cut students, then look for a nearby resident to ask, “Who are you Mormons? What are you doing here?”

A high percentage of the present-day residents of Colonia Dublan and Colonia Juarez are descended from those pioneers who arrived in the spring of 1885.

It was evident as early as 1874 that Church leaders were looking at Mexico as a possible colonization site. In that year, President Brigham Young asked Daniel W. Jones and Henry Brizzee to prepare for a mission to Mexico. By the spring of 1875, nearly one hundred pages of the Book of Mormon had been translated into Spanish, and President Young dispatched Brother Jones and a group of missionaries to Mexico with the dual purpose of preaching the gospel and looking for possible colonization sites.

In the fall of 1879, Elder Moses Thatcher of the Quorum of the Twelve was sent to Mexico City to establish the Mexico Mission; on 25 January 1880, he dedicated the land to the spread of the gospel among the people and to the establishment of LDS colonies in the republic.

It was not until the mid-1880s, however, that the time was deemed right for colonization. In January 1885 President John Taylor sent word to Saints in Arizona that a gathering place had been designated in the valley of the Casas Grandes River, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The first party of colonizers left Snowflake, Arizona, on 9 February 1885. Within six weeks there were some three hundred fifty colonists camped on the banks of the Casas Grandes River

The Mexican colonies were to be a refuge for many who had practiced plural marriage and would not abandon their families. But the colonies would also serve, President John Taylor said, as something much more enduring—a focal point for spreading the gospel in Mexico.

Shortly after the arrival of the first group of colonists, one sister in the group recorded: “And why did we come? To save ourselves? Yes, and something more. Apostle (George) Teasdale was with us then and told us that if we would be blessed ourselves, we must bless others. For, said he, we should all be missionaries.”

In the beginning, there were difficulties with land acquisition, illness, and discouragement, and conditions were primitive. Yet within a few years more than three thousand Saints had settled in Mexico. Eight major colonies were founded in the states of Chihuahua and Sonora. At first local Church units functioned as part of the Mexico Mission, but in 1895 the Juarez Stake (now the Colonia Juarez Mexico Stake) was organized, with Anthony W. Ivins as president.

Establishing schools for their children had been among the first priorities for the colonists. Soon there were large homes for their families, as well as other evidences of advancement. Within twenty years, the Academia Juarez had been established; today it is the last of the stake academies established by the Church in that period that is still serving its original function.

The schools, particularly the academy, would come to serve as a community focal point for many of the colonists. Like a number of other parents, Bertha Shupe’s father moved his family from one of the other colonies to Colonia Juarez so his children could receive education above the primary school level. (Later, Sister Shupe would serve as a teacher for forty years in the colonies; she still refers affectionately to the elementary school at Colonia Juarez as “my school.”)

The outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 forever changed the lives of the colonists. Although Church officials declared their intention to remain neutral, Saints were threatened and robbed, and some were even killed. In 1912, the colonists were evacuated from Mexico. Housed in rude lumber sheds and temporary tent cities in El Paso and in Douglas, Arizona, they waited and hoped for a speedy return to their homes.

A few families returned within a short time. Under the leadership of Bishop Joseph C. Bentley, they weathered the next seven years of war-torn uncertainty. Because of their stalwartness, there was a nucleus of Saints in Mexico whom others could rejoin when the revolutionary violence had subsided.

But fewer than half of the original settlers ever returned to Mexico. Those who did were successful in reestablishing five of the original colonies. In time, however, isolation, transportation difficulties, and the lack of schools beyond the primary level caused all but two of them—Colonia Juarez and Colonia Dublan—to be permanently abandoned.

The parents and grandparents of today’s Academia Juarez students remember, not entirely with regret, when there were no telephones or paved roads into the area. Colonists made their own entertainment when they had it, and their own homemade candy and refreshments for parties. Now they are no strangers to satellite dish antennas for television, home computers, and the latest children’s toys from the United States.

Today there are approximately five hundred descendants of those original colonists who live “down home,” as children and grandchildren who have moved away from the colonies call them. Where once the Anglo-American colonists were in the majority (indeed, they were almost the only people in that little part of Mexico), their English-speaking descendants now populate just two of the stake’s fourteen units—the Colonia Juarez First and Dublan First Wards.

Through the years the colonies have produced many leaders. Some of their surnames are known throughout the Church: Romney and Eyring (President Marion G. Romney of the First Presidency and Sister Camilla Eyring Kimball, wife of President Spencer W. Kimball, were both born there), Taylor, Turley, Bowman, Brown, Hatch, and many others. The gospel also spread from the original colonists to native Mexicans, and to their children.

Descendants of both the colonists who came from the United States and the Mexicans they helped convert have gone on to distinguish themselves in Church service. A. Kenyon Wagner, a native of the colonies who served as a regional representative in Mexico for seven years and later as president of the Ecuador Quito Mission, is writing a historical sketch of the colonies. At last count, he says the colonies have produced four General Authorities, eight regional representatives, and more than fifty mission presidents. There are currently seven stake presidents in the Church who came from the colonies. “There have been many more, of course,” Brother Wagner says.

Nefi (Nephi) and Delfina Ontiveros are among those of Mexican descent who enjoy the blessings of the gospel brought by the colonists. Brother Ontiveros’ father, like many of the Mexicans in the area, worked for one of the colonists, Anson Porter, who had invited him to read the Book of Mormon. Brother Ontiveros’ father accepted the book because he was instructed to do so by two personages he saw in a dream; after reading it, he was converted. Nefi Ontiveros, now seventy-seven, was born into the Church. His wife, Delfina, moved to the Dublan area with her family after they were converted in Toluca, far to the south, near Mexico City.

Both have been active in the Church all their lives, serving in a variety of leadership positions and serving a mission in their later years. Their eight children have followed their example. Six sons and daughters have served missions, and all are active in Church leadership positions. Two are stake presidents in Mexico, and one has been a mission president. All but one daughter live outside the colonies. The Ontiveros share a problem faced by both English- and Spanish-speaking member families in the colonies, as well as by the local Church organization: the colonies tend to export their youth.

“I came out to college,” recalls Reed Martineau, now an attorney in Salt Lake City. “For two or three years, or maybe five, the tie (to the colonies) was very strong.” But then he realized that if he returned there, his children would likely be forced to leave later, to pursue education or careers, so he chose to remain in the United States.

Clifford Whetten is a professor of educational administration and community education at Texas A&M University. His parents still live in Colonia Juarez. His wife was born there too, and, because of the intermingled family ties in the colonies, both have many relatives there. But, like Brother Martineau, they found it necessary to leave the colonies behind.

“We get back as often as we can, at least once a year,” he says. His children enjoy the outdoor activities and “freedom” they don’t find in the city. He says the entire family is looking forward to the week-long celebration of the colonies’ centennial August 5 to 11. “I wouldn’t miss it.” (Six months of scheduled events building up to that week began with a talent show in January).

Ties to the colonies are very strong for those who live there. Hannah Call, now 82, was born there and married Charles Helaman Call, a great-grandson of Parley P. Pratt. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” she says. Several of her thirteen children live close by, but others are scattered in the United States, from Florida to California. Sister Call is one of a number of widows who choose to remain at home in the colonies despite the separation from children and grandchildren across the border.

Many other Latter-day Saints who now live in the colonies are transplants, married to natives whom they met “outside” (or “out there,” as colony residents frequently refer to areas north of the border). A few of these find life in the colonies very confining. The language may be difficult for some. The international border is intimidating, yet they must travel to El Paso frequently for medical and dental care for the children or for items that cannot be obtained in Nuevo Casas Grandes.

Still, many of them so value their new life-style that they would not trade it for the convenience of well-stocked supermarkets and medical specialists in the United States.

“I feel that my children are safer both spiritually and physically in the colonies. I don’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about where they are or what they’re doing,” says Kelly Robinson. “Here it’s the popular thing to be good. For instance, nearly all of our young men (95 percent of the graduates from the Juarez Academy for the past five years) go on missions.”

Manuel Bizcaino, now in his mid-70s, is representative of many local members who did not grow up in the Church, but feel blessed to have been introduced to it in the colonies. “My wife was my first missionary,” he recalls. He joined the Church more than thirty years ago and has since served in a variety of leadership positions. He expresses deep gratitude for the gospel blessings that have come to their eight children (four still live in the colonies). “I am not rich in money, but in joy, yes,” Brother Bizcaino says.

Youth who have seen the life-style in the United States tend to prefer the colonies. “Out there, it’s just city,” says Kristi Call, Hannah’s grandniece and student at the Academia Juarez. “Down here there’s so much to do.” She doesn’t envy the life of her cousins in the United States, even though she has to leave her Colonia Dublan home at seven in the morning for the bus ride to band class at the academy in Colonia Juarez and doesn’t return home until about five. Other students who engage in sports or other extra-curricular activities may have an even longer day.

The schools still seem to be the heart of the colonies for Latter-day Saints there. Several LDS families have moved from other parts of Mexico in recent years to put their children in the schools at Colonia Dublan or Colonia Juarez. When the Church announced plans a few years ago to close its grade schools in the area, colonists took on the heavy financial burden of buying and operating those schools themselves through a private corporation they set up. That way, they feel they can ensure that curriculum and activities in their children’s grade schools are up to the same standards maintained in the Church-run academy.

“My personal feeling is that the Lord has prepared us” to be able to manage the elementary schools, says Jerald Taylor, president of the stake. Only a few years ago, the colonists would not have been able to handle such a project. But in recent years, most have prospered enough, despite difficulties in the Mexican economy, that it is now possible. There was an increase in tuition when the colonists took over the two elementary schools, and there are also special assessments to parents and others interested in maintaining them. These fees subsidize schooling for some LDS pupils whose parents cannot afford the full cost.

Students at the elementary schools in Colonia Dublan and Colonia Juarez, where the school is adjacent to the academy, are largely Church members, though non-LDS pupils may attend if they abide by LDS standards and their parents can pay the tuition. At the elementary school in Colonia Juarez, pupils begin their week singing the Mexican national anthem, then pledging allegiance to the flag of Mexico. In the elementary schools, as well as in the Church-operated academy, some subjects are taught in Spanish and others in English, so that the students get the advantages of two cultures and two languages.

But the schools aren’t the only center of LDS influence in the colonies. The Empacadora Paquime, a fruit-producing cooperative which Church members provided the original motivation to organize, is a good example. Although it is open to any grower, its standards of integrity and industry are based on gospel ideals. Those who join the co-op must deal in business and contribute in service as co-op members are expected to.

The co-op’s success is like nothing else in Mexico. “This co-op is what the government would like to see more of throughout the country,” says Kent Romney, general manager. Recently he spent an afternoon with one of the regional managers of the federal reserve bank of Mexico, who was learning how the co-op is organized in order to help set up similar entities elsewhere in the country.

Bishop Daniel Paredes of the Colonia Juarez Second Ward is an accountant and assistant manager for Paquime. He was drawn to the area by his job. Sometimes when he tells people he is a Latter-day Saint, and from a family whose members have been Latter-day Saints for generations, they don’t want to believe him, Bishop Paredes says. Everyone, after all, knows that the “mormones” are North Americans. In point of fact, descendants of the original colonists are now far outnumbered in the stake by those of Mexican heritage. Twelve of the stake’s fourteen units are Spanish-speaking, with bishops or branch presidents from among their own number. The second counselor in the stake presidency, Francisco Javier Saenz, and a number of the stake high council members are of Mexican heritage.

Church members are deeply involved in the economic and political life of their communities. Bishop Paredes counts among the members of his ward a lawyer, a doctor, a bank manager, and teachers at the academy.

As successful and respected as Latter-day Saints in the colonies may be, life there still isn’t easy. Persistent inflation has made life under the Mexican economy difficult financially. While interest paid on savings is as high as 46 percent per year, inflation has been running at 60 percent. One older colonist who had invested his savings in Mexico against his retirement now finds himself forced to continue working. Agribusinessmen must deal with continually rising costs.

Furthermore, new communication technologies and a growing, more mobile population mean the colonists are no longer as sheltered from outside influences as they once were. The possibilities for agricultural and industrial development that bring these changes may mean more opportunities at home for the children. But they are a mixed blessing. Church members are very strong, President Taylor says, but the economic gains may bring new kinds of trials to the colonies. “It’s a great place to live, a great place to raise your children. You wonder how long it will continue to be that kind of place.”

Those who have chosen to rear their families there seem determined to stay. Kent Romney reflects that he and his wife talk about leaving, but we say, “Let’s stay here.

“It’s home. We have a saying: You can take the boys out of the colonies, but you can never take the colonies out of the boys.”

The Saints of Colonia Juarez and Colonia Dublan cannot know the future, but most feel the colonies still have an important mission to fulfill—and that the realization of it rests heavily upon them. As one put it, “We must never become complacent. Our well-being—spiritually and otherwise—lies in keeping the commandments.”

[photos] Photography by Don L. Searle

[photos] (Above) Mountains of the Chihuahua desert as seen from the highway connecting Nuevo Casa Grandes and Colonia Juarez. Inset photos: (top, left) a student in the community-run elementary school in Colonia Juarez costumed for a Mexican dance performed in an assembly, and Dr. Ernest LeRoy Hatch, a long-time doctor and Church leader in the colonies; (bottom, left) a “Utah-style” pioneer home on the highway entering Colonia Dublan set behind a Spanish sign advertising a plant nursery; (center) orchards and pioneer houses in Colonia Juarez; a view over Colonia Juarez.

[photos] (Below) Some of the older buildings of Academia Juarez, from the rear. Inset photos: (left) the Academy’s wrought iron gate was donated by the class of 1910; (center) students at the elementary school gather for a weekly Monday assembly; (right) the carved Mexican national symbol above the entrance of the Academy’s main building.

[photos] (Above) Bishop Carl Call of the Colonia Dublan First Ward uses a radio to check on operations at the fruit packing plant of Empacadora Paquime, a fruit co-op, where he is employed. Inset photos: (top, left) Bishop Daniel Paredes, Colonia Juarez Second Ward, is accountant and assistant general manager for Empacadora Paquime; (bottom left) Bishop Call instructs one of his hired farm workers; (bottom, right) Bishop Call oversees operations of a computer-controlled fruit packing line.

[photo] Eighty-three-year old Bertha Shupe on the porch of her home in Colonía Juarez. She remembers her family returning to the colonies in a covered wagon after danger from the 1910 revolution was largely past.

LaVon B. Whetten, mother of five, serves as Blazer leader in the Colonia Juarez First Ward.

Don L. Searle is an assistant editor of the Ensign.