MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Earlier this week, a tragedy unfolded in northern Mexico in the state of Sonora, close to the U.S. border. Nine members of one Mormon family were murdered when gunmen ambushed the vehicles they were travelling in. Mexican authorities say they are still investigating why this happened. The victims were all dual U.S.-Mexican citizens, women and children who were members of a single Mormon family. That family is part of a Mormon community that first settled in northern Mexico more than a century ago.
To find out more, we've called Patrick Mason. He is an historian and professor of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University. Professor Mason, thank you so much for talking with us.
PATRICK MASON: My pleasure.
MARTIN: What drove Mormon families to settle in northern Mexico a century ago?
MASON: Well, it began first in the late 19th century. So the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had began practicing polygamy beginning in the 1850s, or at least began that the public practice of plural marriage. And the federal government began to pass a series of laws that were increasingly punitive. And church leaders sent a number of families to settle in northern Mexico, also in Canada, with the hope of escaping some of this federal prosecution. So that was the first wave of settlers, actually led by church leaders.
But then shortly after that, the church itself gave up polygamy. But a number of families thought that the Church was wrong to do so. And so then we saw another wave of immigration to northern Mexico and the establishment of new colonies in the early 20th century. And this time, it was families - not at the direction of the church but precisely because they wanted to continue to practice polygamy even though the church no longer countenanced it.
MARTIN: What about this particular family? Do - what do we know about them? Were they part of that that first wave or that second wave?
MASON: So this family was part of the movement in the early 20th century in which their ancestors went in order to continue to practice polygamy. And there are a number of different groups who did so. They're actually independent. So they're not associated with any particular church or sect or a group. These are independent people, some of whom practiced polygamy, many of whom do not. But they're not part of a larger group.
MARTIN: It's been my understanding that people in - who've been living in this particular area have faced danger for some time. I mean, they faced kidnapping. They faced a lot of challenges because, you know, parts of northern Mexico are understood to be dangerous because the drug cartels have been operating there - and also just because these are remote areas where people are, you know, separated, and it's not easy to get the authorities to intervene. So I just wondered if it has been understood that these areas were dangerous. And how have the families that lived there coped with that in recent years?
MASON: Yeah, it's really gone up and down over the decades. I mean, the whole reason why these families went down there was so they could live in peace. That became pretty tenuous early in the 20th century, largely because of the Mexican Revolution. And a number of families and others left. But for most of the 20th century, these families have lived in peace. And they've done pretty well. They've prospered within these rural areas. These are really distant from major population centers. In recent years, you're exactly right. With the rise of the cartel violence, there aren't very many places in Mexico that are escaping this kind of violence.
MARTIN: How do they support themselves, by the way? You said earlier that they have done well. What do they do?
MASON: So these are primarily agricultural communities. They're ranchers. They grow fruit. And these are family operations, but they also employ a number of local Mexican workers. And so the community itself is relatively small, only a few hundred people with maybe a few hundred other workers. But these are large families. One of the victims whose funeral was this week, she was the oldest of more than 40 children. And so these are big, close, tight-knit families that work these lands.
MARTIN: Do they have ongoing relationships? Like, is there a relationship between these communities and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the United States as presently constituted?
MASON: So no, these communities are independent of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is headquartered in Salt Lake. But they do have a number of relationships with people in Utah. These are big families, so their extended families, many of them live in Utah or other places in the United States. Many of them will go to work in the United States. Many of them, their business takes them to and from across the border.
You know, these borders are relatively porous for these folks. They've lived on these lands for generations, and they've raised their children there. And so it'll be interesting to see if a tragedy like this actually works to provide some kind of reconciliation between communities that over the years really haven't had that much to do with one another.
MARTIN: That is Patrick Mason. He's professor of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University. He joined us from Logan, Utah. Professor Mason, thank you so much for talking with us, although - again, I deeply regret why we're talking. But thank you for speaking with us.
MASON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.