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The mess in Texas, Pancho Villa and “usos y costumbres”

31 May 2008

The April 3 raid on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) by Texas authorities — ostensibly because of complaints about child and spousal abuse — have raised some uncomfortable questions about religious and person freedoms in the United States that echo issues Mexico has been trying to deal with for years… if not the last century and a half.

Outside of a few brave souls like Scott Henson at “Grits for Breakfast” there isn’t much sympathy for the FLDS. Henson’s defense is grounded in the right of even weird, backwards people to religious freedom:

Most Americans today, whether religious or not, take it as gospel that a young women should have a range of options and the ability to choose among them. At the same time, everyone think some options are better than others.

Although the state didn’t find many young pregnant teens at the YFZ Ranch, the outcry over FLDS practices has been widespread. The revulsion of 21st century sensibilities to what are essentially 19th century values, attitudes, and practices was painstakingly expressed recently in three posts on Orcinus: Secret Lives of Saints, Are FLDS Women Brainwashed?, and What We’re Not Talking About, Part I: Other Issues With the FLDS.

That baseline, essentially “feminist” position, though, errs when it fails to understand that liberation may come in many different forms, and that a life of service to family and faith may be as liberating, for some, as breaking glass ceilings and workplace barriers are for others. None of us possess any sure-fire recipe for happiness in this short life, and in the absence of such a formula, many still turn to God for advice on topic, as they understand Him, or whatever texts they believe represent God’s views.

Also, as Henson and others have pointed out, the claims of abuse were over-blown, and that the State of Texas has not been particularly interested in pursuing child or spousal abuse cases that involve more “mainstream” sectarians — Roman Catholic priests, or the scandals at church-run youth homes, to name two recent examples.

The biggest argument FOR the State’s intervention has been that expressed by David Niewart at “Orcinus”... basically that the FLDS — as a subculture — is unacceptable:

… the church’s young women have been systemically sexually abused by the men of the group; and that this abuse is not just rare, but rather an inherent and accepted feature of the group’s social order.

Probably true, but the same thing is said about other minority groups. Especially when you are talking about unpopular minorities.

Modernity seems to be the real issue. What’s interesting is that polygamy is not the issue… age is. The child-abuse charges in Texas turned out to be largely bogus, but the Chihuahua sect apparently wants to avoid any suggestion that they tolerate under-age marriages. It’s odd, that many in the “Progressive” community defend sexism and under-age marriage when practiced by other Mexican minorities

OR, so I started to write back in late April. The legal situation has changed. The Texas polygamists have “half-won” their rights to their “usos y costumbres”, but at this point are enjoined from leaving the jurisdiction of the court.

The case has only drawn minor attention here. There are polygamous Mormonsin Mexico , following their own “usos y costumbres” peacefully for over a century. Of course, Mexico has laws against polygamy too, but as long as the legal norms are followed (the Mormon polygamists simply don’t officially register their second, third… sixth… marriages) no one is going to assume that an irregular household is de facto a threat to children or women.

And, when you come down to it, polygamy is fairly normal in this society — or at least tolerated — “thanks” in part to the United States Border Patrol. You certainly can’t expect men to live apart from their families for years, and remain celibate. Some probably do, but talk to any group of Mexican expats, and you’ll hear them mention “mi esposa” (their legal wife in Mexico) and “my common law wife” (the women they live with as man and wife in the United States). The wife and family in Mexico may or may not accept this, but it’s fairly common. If the people in the U.S. were really bothered by polygamy, then they should let Mexican workers get home and back to work more easily. They’re lucky to get home once a year if that.

Those Mexican men who do want their families to join them are somehow seen as creating a “illegal alien crisis”. But, if polygamy is a moral issue, and needs to be stopped in the U.S., then the answer is making it easier for Mexican workers to commute home regularly.

After I started writing this, I ran across a review of a new book by the grand-daughter of Mexico’s best known polygamist, Pancho Villa. Rosa Helia Villa’s Itinerario de una pasión. Los amores de mi General Villa. Helia confirms what I wrote in my own book about Villa’s family life:

He loved women…all too much. The stories of him raping rich men’s daughters and wives are exaggerated, but he was sexually hyperactive. He married again and again and again. He went to the trouble to obtain marriage certificates for at least twenty-three wives, making him one of the champion bigamists of all times. None of his wives ever spoke of him as anything but loving and gentle. His many children, both by his wives, by several girlfriends and by the one-night stands, all remember a particularly fond and doting father.

Nowhere is it written that polygamists have to be bad parents, or endanger their children.

What I never thought about was Villa’s “Mormon connection”. I should have. Smokey Kolsch — who has been researching the religious connections of some of the northern revolutionaries, found

… an oral history interview of an elderly woman named Nellie S. Hatch, who was born in 1877 in Mesa, Arizona and who had been a Mormon colonist living in Colonia Juarez in Mexico during the Revolution. She was 100 years old when she was interviewed for the Institute of Oral History, U. of Texas/El Paso by Richard Estrada. A transcript of the interview is held in the Special Collections at the UTEP library as Interview No. 422. Here I will quote an excerpt from that interview, which was held on November 7 and 9, 1977: [p.25]

H…it should go down in history that Pancho Villa never harmed a Mormon…He was friends to them. And he proved it once, by taking Bishop Bently and Burt Whitten, George Sloan into captivity when he was feeding his men on parched corn in a town from which the people had fled. And he had a wagonload of food he was taking to the missionaries in that section of the country. He never allowed a man to touch a bit of that food.

E: Why do you think Villa was so friendly to the Mormons?

H: Well as soon as Felipe Angeles and Burt Whitten got together, they were very sociable and began talking. And Burt was quite a missionary, and he began telling him about the gospel, our gospel. And he became so interested that he couldn’t stop, because so many questions he had to ask.

E: Who was asking questions?

H: Felipe Angeles was asking the questions and Burt was explaning everything. It all seemed so wonderful to him that he said, “Pancho, come in here and listen to this, what this man is saying.” Saya, “He’s trying to do with words what you’re trying to do with guns.” And he says, “I know all about the Mormons. But,” he said, “I don’t think they should be doing missionary work now. They ought to be home, taking care of their property.” And he let them go. And they got into the town where the people had fled to from Pancho Villa…because they were afraid, everybody in Mexico was afraid of Pancho Villa. [When they got into the town], they said Pancho Villa had given them a pass, and they showed the pass that he had given them. [They were] to be protected, you know, and allowed to return to their home. And thay said, “Well that’s a lie.” Says, “He never let Americans through his hands alive.” And they kept those men there for nine days. And they didn’t dare touch anything, either, because he had offered protection. At the end of the nine days, they said, “I guess he is friendly to you.” So he let them go home. Now that proved to us that one place where he favored us, where he protected us, in a way.

E: Did he ever do anything harmful to the Mormons?

H: Not a thing, not a thing. He came into our section of the country, but all he did was run every red flagger out of the country. He chased that Orozco, he just got behind him and he never stopped until he was across the line in the United States.

Ms. Hatch wrote essentially the same story in her Colonia Juarez: an intimate account of a Mormon village. (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 1954) and — with all due respect — I wonder how much of Pancho’s protection for the Mormons was due to a genuine interest in the belief system, and how much due to a recognition that the Mormon colonists were not so much gringos (or gringos only in the sense that they had some common traits, but spoke a foreign language) as anti-gringos. And, while the Mormon’s own radical beliefs on polygamy would have resonated with Villa on a personal level, on a revolutionary one he may have seen the Mormons as people forced to flee the United States for their beliefs, and had been able — in Mexico — to pursue their “usos y costumbres.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 June 2008 2:26 pm

    Thanks for the nice story. I lived in El Paso and Ernestine Hatch took me to Colonia Juarez and Galeana in 1958 to visit her mother and bring vaccines for the children in the colonies. The people had a feeling of Utopia about that area. The Juarez Academy was a fine prep school that sent the children into the world and to BYU. This was where Mitt Romney’s father, George was born and raised.I know some of the Romney family who settled in El Paso and found them to be wonderful people with a rich heritage.

  2. Janice Tenney Sipherd permalink
    12 February 2011 1:06 pm

    My father M.A. Tenney, trainer of race horses (Swaps and Candy Spots) came out of Mexico
    when Pancho Villa was active. He remembers kindnesses done by him to his older brothers
    on occaisions. He remembers the Federales being brutal and “saw them rape women in the ditch.”
    I want to know more about Pancho Villa.

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