The term "Mexican colonies" conjures family lore for many Valley Mormons.
Some can pull family histories from their bookshelves with rich stories of persevering ancestors who lived in thriving northern Mexican enclaves where polygamy was practiced and the large families made a living in the isolation of the mountainous desert.
These were places like Colonia Dublán Colonia Garcia or one of the "mountain colonies," like Cave Valley or Colonia Pacheco. A dozen colonies were established after 1885 in the states of Chihuahua and Sonora by families of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while the U.S. government was pressing Mormons in Utah to halt polygamy if they wanted statehood.
Some polygamists believed they were keeping Mormon plural marriage alive in that outpost so that one day it might be judged culturally and politically acceptable in the U.S.
Two Valley women, one a lifelong Mormon who lived 17 years in Colonia Dublán and gave birth to her four children there, are about to release a film documentary, "The Land of Refuge," about the Mormon pioneers who escaped persecution in the American Southwest almost 125 years ago. The film will be for sale on DVD, and they hope to market it to cable channels and PBS. (www.mormoncoloniesinmexico.com).
Pamela Jo Bowman, of Mesa, and Cyndi Greening, of Gilbert, collaborating as GREENing Productions (using Bowman's maiden name of Green and Greening's surname), found descendants, journals and histories to capture the stories of life in the colonies. Residents met upheaval in the Mexican Revolution of 1910, which ended the 35-year rule of President Porfirio Diaz and sent many Mormon families back to the U.S.
"There was a mass exodus because of the revolution" in the summer of 1912 when some 4,000 Mormons crossed into Arizona and temporarily settled in places like Douglas, Greening said. "Some of the colonies emptied out completely."
Today, only Colonia Dublán and Colonia Juarez remain viable, and the late church president, Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated a temple in Juarez in February 2000. Polygamy is no longer practiced there, although breakaway fundamentalists live in what is called Colonia LeBaron near Galeana. Bowman once visited with some of that sect while providing car breakdown help and transportation in the foothills of Sierra Tarahumara.
"What is clear to me is that the people who lived in the Mexican colonies were really devoted Mormons," said Greening, 51, who has been involved in filmmaking since 1983. "They really believed in their hearts and souls that they were doing what they thought was right for the church. So they married those extra women, and they had families and that is why they went to Mexico."
As a condition for Utah to be admitted as a state, the Mormon Church had to repudiate the practice of polygamy, which it did in 1890. It was made the 45th state in 1896. Ultimately, when the church formally ended polygamy, those in the Mexican Mormon colonies were "really crushed," said Greening, who is not Mormon. "A lot of people down there were shocked. They felt they were leading God's law."
Because many Mormons continued to practice polygamy, Joseph Fielding Smith, church president/prophet, issued the Second Manifesto in 1904 declaring excommunication would come to those who entered into plural marriage, triggering formation of the fundamentalist Mormon movement.
Bowman, 50, was a journalism student in 1980 at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, when she met another student, Christopher Bowman. As they dated, she applied her interviewing skills to get the shy man to tell her of his past. She learned he had grown up in a Mexican colony. Months later, they went to Colonia Dublán for his family reunion. "That was my first exposure to the colonies," she said. As a joke, Christopher showed her an adobe hut and said that was where he had grown up. "He just wanted to see my reaction," she said.
The couple married in 1983 and moved to the colonies where Christopher took over family property with orchards and cropland.
"My experience with moving down there was totally different than the experience for the women who went there in 1885," Bowman said. In the beginning, some lived in cavernlike holes along a river or in their wagons. It was a rigorous life of a new culture, isolation and building communities from scratch.
When Christopher became bishop of their ward, he asked Pamela to write a pageant play, in 1996, highlighting history of the Mormon colonies. It would include the challenges of getting land, the dangers of Pancho Villa and marauders in northern Mexico and efforts of Mormons to stay politically neutral. Although she never completed the play, her efforts provided grist for the eventual "Land of Refuge" documentary. She began taking filmmaking classes from Greening at Mesa Community College, then, together, they traveled to Zambia and produced a feature, "Bad Timing," and a documentary, "Voice of an African Nation."
With that experience, they formed their own production company and launched into the Mexican project, with Greening as producer and co-writer with Bowman. As they read through hundreds of journals and personal histories, they decided to select quotes, then find descendants in Mexico and the U.S. to voice those quotes on film. They also have vintage photos and film of the colonies.
"I want to show the strength of character of these people," with emphasis on the women, Bowman said. "They had nothing and they did whatever they had to do to raise their children in the way they wanted to raise them."
"Some of the women said they loved their sister wives and became best friends," Greening said. Certainly, there were some women who had jealousies," such as a woman who was so stressed that her husband was with another wife, she would stay up all night cleaning house.
"If you talk to anyone from the colonies, 95 percent of them will tell you they are so proud and happy to have had that experience," she said. "They feel such a tie and bond with the colonies."
Besides the 70-minute documentary, they have set up a Web site where Mormons with historical ties to the colonies can post information, stories and photos at http://mormoncoloniesinmexico.wetpaint.com.
Bowman and Greening are exploring doing a documentary on two American colonial women, midwife and religious activist Anne Hutchinson and Quaker martyr Mary Dyer. Hutchinson was put on trial in 1637 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony for arguing people could communicate directly with God without the help of ministers (all men) and the Bible. She was convicted and banished from the colony. At the height of anti-Quaker fervor in Boston, Dyer was imprisoned for her activism, then banished. But when she defiantly returned, Dyer was hanged in 1660. Their persecution, Greening said, helped feed Thomas Jefferson's historical writings on the principles of freedom of religion.