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Provo • For some people, the history of Mormons in Mexico began in the late 19th century, when polygamists established colonies south of the border to avoid U.S. marshals.
But Fernando Gomez hopes to show Utahns that LDS history in Mexico dates back further, just as he has done for the people of his native Mexico for the past 20 years.
Gomez, executive director of the Museum of the History of Mormonism in Mexico, has opened a branch of the Mexico City museum in Provo, across the street from LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University.
The privately owned museum features artifacts ranging from old newspapers featuring visits by Mexicans with Mormon leaders in the mid-19th century to missionary journals and photos of church activities in Mexico. The facility, which opened two weeks ago, soon will have a reading room for those who want to do more research on the Utah-based faith's early days in Mexico.
Gomez cites several reasons for establishing the museum in an office building on Provo's Canyon Road. But the raging immigration debate isn't among them.
"We don't get into the politics of life," says Gomez, who immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1949.
Instead, he notes Utah County's growing Latino populace that may yearn for more information about their religious heritage. Plus, many descendants of early Mormon missionaries to Mexico live in the area and some have shared artifacts with the museum.
Finally, he says, coming to Provo should help ensure the dual museum's survival, with support from BYU and Utah historians.
"We would like to form a board of directors up here to help maintain the one in Mexico in the future," Gomez says. "It's a lot harder over there with the government and the people to really establish something that is self-sustained and durable."
Gomez didn't set out to become a museum curator. He graduated from BYU in electrical engineering and worked in the electronics industry.
While working in the Philippines, he returned to Mexico to visit with family and started going through his aunt's collection of books and pictures of missionaries and church life in Mexico. The aunt, Consuelo Gomez Gonzales, taught school in Mexico and spoke English and French, as well as Spanish. That allowed her to help translate church literature.
Gomez realized his aunt's collection was a historical treasure trove that needed to be shared with Mexicans.
"We decided not to send it to [the LDS Church history department in] Salt Lake City because it would not be seen again," Gomez says. "So we decided to start a museum."
Through the years, the museum's collection expanded, thanks to donations and items Gomez found in his travels.
Mark Grover, a Latin America specialist at BYU's Harold B. Lee Library, says Gomez is filling a vacuum of knowledge on LDS history in Mexico. While people know of Mormonism's growth in Mexico, they are unaware of the rich history behind the statistics.
Grover says Gomez has been able to collect records and artifacts that would have otherwise been lost to historians.
"He really is a phenomenal part of that history," Grover says.
The Provo museum also should help people see Mexican culture in a more positive light, Grover says, as well as illustrate another chapter of LDS history.
The collection shows that contact between Mexico and the LDS Church predates the 1850s, when church records say Brigham Young sent the first missionaries south of the border and considered establishing an LDS colony there.
A newspaper article on display from 1832 tells of a Mexican man's visit to Cincinnati, where he learned of a new religious group headquartered in Kirtland, Ohio, whom he described as "Mormonites." The man's account depicts the church as a significant religious movement in the area.
Gomez says he has found accounts of a Mexican president meeting with Mormons in 1855 in New Orleans, and a shipboard encounter between Benito Juarez and Samuel Brannan, who led a group of Latter-day Saints to San Francisco. Gomez believes that encounter led Juarez to pursue legal reforms related to property and religion in Mexico.
Another article details a meeting between visiting Mexicans and LDS Church President John Taylor in the 1880s. The writer concluded that Mormons were hardworking "gentlemen" who were true to their wives and valued education.
The museum also boasts a display of wooden sacrament trays used in LDS worship services in Mexico, as well as photographs, including one of LDS Church leader George Albert Smith's trip there to preside over a conference.
But Gomez sees the museum's collection and the reading room with records on CDs not as an end point for learning about LDS history in Mexico, but as a starting place for new research, new chapters in a continuing story.
About the museum
The Museum of the History of Mormonism in Mexico, 1501 N. Canyon Road, Provo, is open from 2 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free.