Escape from the United States - 1888

Women make film about LDS colonies in Mexico

by Emily Gersema

Sept. 24, 2008
The Arizona Republic

More than 120 years ago, several Mormon families practicing polygamy in Arizona fled to Mexico to find land where they could continue their lifestyle and religious practices in peace.

Fearing persecution because of increasing condemnations against polygamy in the United States and within their church, the families piled into wagons, rounded up their cattle and other livestock and journeyed to northern Mexico , where they could safely practice their beliefs without persecution.

Their lives and hardships are the focus of a new documentary, The Land of Refuge, The Mormon Colonies of Mexico, by two filmmakers and writers, Cynthia Greening of Gilbert and Pamela Bowman of Mesa.

The women, with help from a crew of about seven people, have just released DVD copies of the documentary as the first major production by their new joint limited-liability corporation, Reminesse.

The film is a culmination of several years of research that began in the 1980s, when Bowman and her husband moved to one of the remaining settlements, Colonia Dublán in Mexico's Chihuahua state south of El Paso, Texas, where he was a bishop for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Bowman said the town was very isolated, a test for her since she had grown up in Arizona. At her husband's urging, Bowman began writing a play about the colonies told through Mormon scripture and stories that could be staged for pageants or other celebrations.

But the deeper she dug into the story, Bowman said, the more intrigued she was with the idea of producing a journalistic piece on the colonies - one that would examine the role polygamy played in insuring the communities' survival, as well as the deep divisions between women and men.

The idea stuck with her even when she and her family returned to Arizona in 1999. It was worth a documentary, she realized as she began working with Greening, who has taught film and media courses at Mesa Community College.

"This is not scripture," Bowman said. "This is based on what really happened."

For most of the colonists in the late 1800s, the move to Northern Mexico was temporary. About 4,000 of them left Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. Families sought temporary shelter in Hachita, N.M.; Douglas, Ariz.; and El Paso, Texas - changes documented by writings and photographs. Ultimately, only 1,000 returned to the colonies where some of their descendants live to this day .

One of the colonies' survivors interviewed for the film now lives in Gilbert. Nina Morene Brown, in her 90s, summed up life in the colonies: "My papa would say: Life in the colonies is heaven for a man - and hell for a woman."

Women raised the children, cooked, cleaned and helped cultivate and process crops for foods such as bread. They were key to the colonies' prosperity - and admirably hard-working women, Greening said.

The colonists were self-sufficient, developing any equipment necessary to make their own homes, machines, candies, cheese and egg products.

"If they wanted a tool, they had to make it," Greening said.

With help from Greening over the past few years, Bowman tracked down descendants of the colonies' original settlers for interviews and to record them reading passages from poems or journal entries written by their ancestors.

The filmmakers also interviewed researchers who've followed the history of polygamy in the United States to offer a historical perspective on the colonies, most of which have died out. Two remain.

Greening and Bowman already are working on new films focused on other tales of religious persecution and significant historical female figures, including one about Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson, Puritan colonists in Massachusetts who were persecuted for their outspoken religious views in the 1600s. Hutchinson was excommunicated; Dyer was hung.