While presidential contender Mitt Romney attempted to sway Latino voters at a Univision Forum in Florida last night, the fallout over his taped quips at a Republican fundraiser also include a joke about his Mexican-born father, George Romney. If he had been "born of Mexican parents," Romney said, as opposed to his Mormon transplanted ones, "I'd have a better shot at winning this."
One year ago, in a piece for Salon.com, I took a closer look at Romney's family history in Mexico, and more particularly, their illegal flight from Arizona.
To be clear, while no one should hold Mitt Romney accountable for his ancestors' transgressions more than a century ago, Romney's continual reference to his family's Mexican history begs the question: Did Mitt Romney intentionally lie about -- or, in the very least, misrepresent or "air brush" -- the history of his ancestors' documented escape from Arizona justice in his 2004 memoir, Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games?
You be the judge: Does a proper reckoning of history matter?
A Washington Post story last year noted that Romney's great-grandfather Miles Park Romney, "came to the Chihuahua desert in 1885 seeking refuge from U.S. anti-polygamy laws."
In Turnaround, Romney wrote this version of his great-grandfather's removal to Mexico:
Miles Junior was asked to move again, this time to build a settlement in St. Johns, Arizona. To every request, Romneys were obedient. And leaving behind all that they had worked to establish, they yet again pitched themselves against the arid terrain, the cactus, the alkali, quicksand, and rattlesnakes. They built schools and libraries. Miles Junior was the founder of a theatrical society on the frontier. He dug irrigation ditches and plowed up the desert soil.
Eventually Miles was called upon to settle in northern Mexico, where his son, my grandfather Gaskell, would wed and my father George would be born.
According to Romney, his great-grandfather, who died in Mexico in 1904, "never lost his love of country."
In truth, Romney's ancestor may have never lost his love of the United States, but he didn't leave Arizona on good terms -- or legal ones.
In the 1880s, Mormons in Arizona didn't just face persecution for their polygamy practices; they also faced resentment over their aggressive land deals and encroaching settlements. Five Mormons, including William Flake -- the great-great-grandfather of Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, who is running for a Senate seat in 2012 -- were convicted of unlawful "cohabitation" in 1884 and sent to prison. In a related land claims dispute involving Miles P. Romney, Mormon leader David Udall--the great-grandfather of U.S. Senators Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, and Colorado Democrat Mark Udall -- was sent to prison in Detroit on perjury charges. (Udall, who had apparently considered fleeing the country, was later pardoned by President
Mitt Romney says his ancestor "was called upon to settle" in Mexico? Really?
Faced with the same perjury charges over his land claim in St. Johns, Arizona -- rivals had accused Romney of failing to reside continuously on a 160-acre ranch -- Romney went on the lam in the spring of 1885 and forfeited more than $2,000 in bond when Udall warned him that federal marshals were en route to his home (according to Udall's diary). A local newspaper wrote that Romney's flight left his community "in the lurch."
Writing in the journal "Arizona and the West" in 1977, Mormon historians JoAnn Blair and Richard Jensen spelled out Romney's break from Mormons who willingly faced the legal system in Arizona, in their article "Prosecution of the Mormons in Arizona Territory in the 1880s":
"Romney had fared well in the earlier legal proceedings for the same alleged offense, partly because, he claimed, he had paid 'several hundred dollars to grease the wheels.' But this time he was less confident of success. . . . Fearing he would be prosecuted for polygamy, as well as for the earlier charge of perjury regarding his land claim, Romney skipped bond and fled to Mexico."
In the end, Romney defiantly embraces his ancestors' values in his memoir: "These were the same values and commitments that animated my grandfather and my father and my mother. They were the same values that were passed along to me."
What values are those?
"Eventually Miles was called upon to settle in northern Mexico?" No. He fled across the border as an outlaw.
"To every request, Romneys were obedient?" Hardly. Romney's revisionist twist of his family history takes denial across the border to a new level of dishonesty.
Author of newly released State Out of the Union: Arizona and the Final Showdown Over the American Dream, follow Jeff Biggers on Twitter @JeffRBiggers