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Mitt Romney's family in Mexico reveals candidate's heritage south of border

By Mike Taibbi, Michelle Balani, and Mario Garcia
Rock Center

Heading into the New Hampshire primary, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has a strong lead in the polls as he continues his effort to become the Republican nominee challenging President Obama in the fall. That would mean, of course, that the 64-year-old Romney would be closer to The White House than any Mormon ever has been.

If Romney secures the nomination, he would also be the first presidential nominee whose father was born in Mexico.

It's a little-known fact that there's a whole branch of Mitt Romney’s family living south of the border, including his second cousin Leighton Romney, and about 40 other relatives descended from religious pioneers who first traveled to Mexico 125 years ago. These days, the Romneys of Mexico enjoy pleasant and productive lives in two remaining settlements: Colonia Juarez and Colonia Dublan, just 175 miles south of the border.

“He's got a great pioneer heritage starting with people that crossed the plains going from Illinois to Utah, and then on from Utah down to Mexico," Leighton Romney told NBC’s Mike Taibbi in an interview to air Monday night on 'Rock Center with Brian Williams.' “So there's a great heritage there of people that had to fight for what they believed in and for people that had to travel to different places and learn different things. I think there's a vast amount of experience that he could draw from there.”

Jonathan Ernst / Getty Images

From governor's son to presidential contender, a look at the life of Republican Mitt Romney.

In his public life Mitt Romney has said and written little about his ancestors' history in Mexico.  In one oft-repeated quote he said his family left the U.S. for Mexico to escape persecution for their religious beliefs.

In fact, Romney's great grandfather, Miles Park Romney, led that first expedition to escape not persecution but prosecution for polygamy, or what Mormons called ‘plural marriage.’ After polygamy ended, the family remained in Mexico.  Mitt Romney's father, George, was born in Colonia Dublan, one of the colonies in northern Mexico that the Romneys settled in after their arrival.  His mother, Lenore LaFount Romney, was born in Utah.

When Romney’s father was five years old, the Mexican Revolution broke out and his parents moved back to the United States to avoid the violence. Mitt Romney was eventually born in Michigan. But the other branch of the family – leading down to Romney's cousins Leighton, Mike and Meredith – stayed behind in Mexico, their numbers growing. The Romneys chose to remain in Mexico because they established good lives for themselves and their families there.  Most of them are now dual-citizens. 

“We certainly have a love for both countries,” adds Leighton. “I can sing both national anthems and tear up at both of them.  I think that having two countries that you love and two countries that you can serve or be a beneficiary of their service is a great thing.”

The Romneys living in Mexico are well aware of their wealthy and famous relative’s popularity in the Republican primary race. They support their cousin's candidacy and they hope that Mitt will be more open about the issue of his religion and Mexican heritage during the campaign.  It’s a family history they’re proud of, despite the fact that Mitt Romney has never come to visit. 

Watch Romney and the other GOP candidates take part in the Facebook / NBC News debate on Meet the Press on Sunday

If Romney does get the Republican nod, and the media spotlight of a presidential campaign points south toward Mexico, it will probably land on many of these unknown Romney family nuggets, and on Mormonism itself, the religion shared by Mitt Romney and the cousins he doesn't know.  That part is okay with Romney's cousins.

“We're Christians, complete in every sense of the word. I don't think that any candidate for any office would shy away from their religion.  I think it's something to stand up and be proud of,” Leighton said.   

Editor's note: Mike Taibbi's full report, 'Romney's Roots,' airs Monday, January 9, at 10pm/9c on NBC's 'Rock Center with Brian Williams.'