by Arlene M. Sánchez-Walsh
Somewhat overshadowed by the Romney campaign's gathering head of steam are reports this week of the GOP frontrunner's Mexican back-story. The relatively sober headline at MSNBC ran, “Mitt Romney's Family in Mexico Reveals Candidate's Heritage South of Border,” while a political blogger at Foreign Policy mused “¿El Presidente?” and Geraldo Rivera at Fox News exclaimed, “¡El padre de Romney es de Mexico! Who Knew?”
Here's the scoop: In 1875, Mormon pioneer Orson Pratt wrote to his followers that Mexico might be a suitable destination should the inevitable persecution in the U.S. become a reality. Pratt wrote that he was looking for a place “where our brethren could go and be safe from harm in the event that persecution should make it necessary for them to get out of the way for a season.” Within ten years, that season came for Mitt Romney's great grandfather, Miles Park Romney, who moved to Mexico in 1885 to escape persecution for practicing polygamy.
Mitt Romney's father, George, was born in the Mormon colony in the state of Chihuahua, thereby making Mitt eligible for Mexican citizenship–an “anchor-baby” if you will. Thus it's ironic that Romney, whose first Spanish-language ad was released recently in Florida, has touted his support for anti-immigration laws, vowed to resist any federal Dream Act that would come his way as President and echoed the conservative rhetorical bombast against “illegal” immigrants. But when faced with hardship and persecution–and seeking a haven from the harsh 19th century anti-Mormon sentiment in the U.S.–the Romneys themselves were immigrants in Mexico.
Mitt Romney has not made much of his Mexican roots, no doubt because it highlights the particularly difficult issue of his Mormon faith–something he will likely avoid talking about for the foreseeable future. Trying to promote himself as the acceptable conservative candidate while having to finesse his family's deep ties to the polygamist sectors of Mormonism would complicate his project to convince evangelicals that he is one of them, at least in spirit.
Journalists should keep a close eye on how the Romney campaign conducts this delicate dance. If he wants to capitalize on his Mexican roots to capture a larger portion of the Latino vote, he will have to figure out a way to do so without reminding voters in his fragile conservative evangelical base that it was their ancestors who drove his ancestors out of the country.
It's a difficult dilemma. Dozens of Romney relatives still live in Mexico today, and the Latino population in the LDS Church is growing steadily. The presumptive GOP nominee will have to figure out a way to honor his family's faith and his Mexican-born father without turning off a Republican electorate that often has little sympathy for immigrants or adherents to religious traditions that in any way challenge their own faith. And his opponent–with his own immigrant back-story and unconventional religious history–will have to mind his steps carefully as well.
Arlene M. Sánchez-Walsh is associate professor of Latino church studies at Azusa Pacific University. As a Lilly Fellow in 2006, she began a project examining the influence of the prosperity gospel among Latino evangelicals. In addition, Sánchez-Walsh is completing a book on multicultural evangelical youth culture and commencing work on a textbook titled Pentecostalism in America for Columbia University Press's “Religion in America” series. In 2005, Sánchez-Walsh received the Hispanic Theological Initiative's Book Award for her first book, Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Self and Society, also published by Columbia.