The Wedge of the San Rafael

The Wedge of the San Rafael
Someone has to live here, in the middle of desert beauty. Might as well be the Kellys.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Writer's Life for Me, or, Muchas gracias, Tamara and Dave Brown!

Ah yes, I am the worst blogger ever. I wait too long between blogs because I'm busy writing, or living, or doing something so fabulous that it has taken me this long to put it into words.

I got lucky in early March, but the story begins last fall, when Tamara Brown posted a comment on Random Natterings and invited me to come to Colonia Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, to present a bookclub talk. "Are you serious?" I responded in an email. She was. Tamara and Dave Brown ranch south of the southwesterly part of New Mexico, in Chihuahua. The ranch has been in the Brown family for many moons, and now I need to explain something about Colonia Juarez and the Browns and the other  people I met a month ago.

In 1885, the Mormons in Utah Territory were in terrible turmoil. The federal government had effectively shut down the territory over the issue of polygamy. Many church leaders were in prison or hiding. To avoid some of this terrible strain, groups of Mormons went north to southern Alberta and settled. Others went south to Chihuahua, Mexico, with the blessings of Porfirio Diaz, Mexico's long-lived president/dictator. Browns were among those who went south, along with Whettons, Cardons, Bentleys and most well-known, Romneys. Through some trying years, they dug in, starved, hung on, and created a lovely society in Colonia Juarez (located some 100 miles into Chihuahua's interior, not the Juarez next to El Paso); nearby Colonia Dublan; Colonia Diaz, quite close to the SW New Mexico border; and three or four mountain colonies west of Juarez and Dublan.

With stately brick homes, and beautiful apple orchards, and ranches, the hardworking Mormons turned that bit of Chihuahua into Victorian Utah. It was lovely and prosperous, and came to a crashing halt, starting in 1910, with Mexico's ejido revolution. Diaz had been in power too long and landowners owned huge ranches, with little for the commoners. The old man was exiled, and Madero installed as president. Madero was weak, and other guerillas rose to denounce him, including most famously, Pancho Villa. The Mormons in the colonies were told by church leaders in Salt Lake to remain strictly neutral, with the result that they were preyed on by all factions and all sides.

It finally became too dangerous, and in early August, 1912, the women and children were evacuated. The men followed a week or so later with whatever colony horses and cattle they could take. A small percentage returned, and only the colonies of Juarez and Dublan remain today.

I wrote a novel ironically titled Safe Passage, about those dangerous times in 1912. Tamara thought I ought to take a look at the colonies today, and I did. Tamara and Dave met me in Deming, NM, and I went across the border with them. Tamara's from Arizona, and Dave was raised in the colonies. Like many colonists, he has dual citizenship, and he's completely bilingual. Mexico is home, even though the last ten years have been frightening, with drug lords battling it out for control of Chihuahua. Some of the colonists have endured kidnapping and there have been some tragic deaths of members caught in the crossfire. But they're brave folks and they endure. The Browns and others bailed out for a time until things quieted down a bit, and now they're back. The future remains uncertain.

I won't deny that I was a bit uneasy to make this visit, but I reasoned that the Browns would take good care of me, and they did. So did Dave's sister Vonnie Whetton, directora (principal) of the elementary school in Colonia Juarez,which is run by the colonists for their own children and other children as well. There is also the well-known Academia Juarez for kids 7-12 grades, with its excellent reputation for education probably unrivaled in Mexico.  The deal in Chihuahua these days is to travel during the day, and stay indoors, or in the colony, at night. People go about their business, and trust in the Lord, a combination that has worked well in the colonies since 1885.

The Browns and Vonnie Whetton took me through Colonia Dublan, and then a lovely hacienda, built in 1902, that has been restored by one of the Whettons. The colony itself is in a lovely valley, which was pink with peach trees in bloom. The next day, Vonnie invited Tamara and me to her elementary school, where the 90 students, K-6, presented their weekly assembly, complete with a 6th grade color guard bringing in the Mexican flag to a drum accompaniment. The children sang a verse of the "himno nacional," and then a pledge of allegiance, and then their school song. I was touched and delighted and honored. We visited the classrooms briefly, and then paid a quick visit to the nearby Academia, built in 1904.

Vonnie became my guide. She drove me around town, then took me to nearby Hacienda San Diego, where an important part of Safe Passage takes place. I had written the book using a lot of Google Earth, and pictures of Chihuahua, including San Diego ranch.  And there it was, sadly crumbling now, but still impressive. The area is the cradle of the Mexican Revolution. Madero himself gathered troops there at San Diego. I was delighted to actually see what I had written about. I'll never forget Hacienda San Diego, with its imposing house, stone corrals, and stone outbuildings. I never thought I would ever be there, but thanks to Tamara, I was.

We went next to Mata Ortiz, a small town renowned today in Chihuahua for its pottery. In 1912, when my story takes place, it was called Pearson, named by "Lord" Pearson, a British entrepreneur who ran a lumbering business and a sawmill. It was from Pearson that the Mormon women and children gathered to take a precarious train ride to the border and safety in 1912. The depot is still there.

That night, I spoke in the old elementary school to a wonderful group of 38 ladies. I talked about Safe Passage, and other of my books,which many of them had read. I don't think Colonia Juarez gets a lot of visitors. It's not a tourist area, and people don't really go there unless they have colony connections. What I really wanted to do was have the ladies tell me about their lives in that unique place. It was calm and dark and quiet at night, and I could have stayed much longer. I felt like I came to the colony knowing no one, and left with many friends. It's that kind of place.

So this is one perk of being a writer: sometimes you get really, really lucky, and meet wonderful people. I'll never forget my visit. I'm smiling as I write this, because it was an honor to accept Tamara's kind invitation, an honor to rub shoulders with brave people living good lives. I told Tamara in an email later something like this: "I think I left a piece of my heart in Colonia Juarez. No need to send it to me. Just leave it there, please."


  1. What a writerly experience! So glad you got to visit the place you've come to love because you've written about it. In many ways, having read Safe Passage made me feel that I'd visited there, too.

  2. What an experience, and how wonderfully you related it! Thanks to both you ad the Browns. Like Pam, I feel as though I've been there now.

    1. Pam and Liz, it was truly the experience of a lifetime. My love of Mexico is not new, but I have more people there now to relate to.

  3. I loved _Safe Passages_ and wondered whether the colonies still existed. This update answers those questions. What a wonderful experience!

    Do you know Marge Piercy's poem "To Be Of Use" - I've been rereading your Regencies about the Napoleonic Wars and the navy hospitals, and thought of this poem, that ends, "The pitcher cries for water to carry, and a person for work that is real."

  4. Hello, Carla. This post is not about your most recent book, although I did just read The Wedding Ring Quest and enjoyed it just as much as I have earlier books. When you first moved to Utah you posted a "before" photo of your new home. I am in real estate, and I would so love to see an"after" photo, now that you mentioned you were just about finished with your remodeling. Thank for so many hours of reading pleasure.

  5. Carla: I am an avid reader of your books. I have read Borrowed Light & Enduring Light several times. Are you planning a third book? I would enjoy reading the continuing story of the Otto, McKeel & Malloy families.

  6. Ms Kelly, I am a very new reader of your books.

    After reading Willaful's wonderful review of it, I devoured The Lady's Companion this past weekend. Thank you for writing such a wonderful, lovely, heartfelt story, with so likeable characters as David and Susan.

    But, if I may be so bold, have you truly considered writing Joel Steinman's story? Please be assured that many readers would snap it up, were you to write it.

    Best of luck always.