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COLONIA JUÁREZ, Mexico -- Little pieces of Utah exist in this northern Mexico town.

There are the turn-of-the-20th-century brick homes that stand out from the conventional Mexican adobe dwellings. There are the street signs and phone directories that bear such common Utah surnames as Snow, Nielsen, Farnsworth and Robinson. There are the town residents, born and raised here, with white skin who speak perfect English with no hint of a Mexican accent.

Stand on a street corner long enough and you might even see a car with Utah license plates. Casey Monsen's blue Toyota has them.

"It's like heaven on Earth down here," Monsen said as he stood in his driveway.

A block away from Monsen's house is Academia Juárez - the century-old brick high school that has the distinction of being one of the oldest schools still controlled by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A Mormon temple was dedicated in Colonia Juárez in 1999, but the academy is still very much the centerpiece of life here and is renowned throughout the state of Chihuahua.

"I've had a couple cousins come down [from the U.S.] and go to school and they love it," said Makenzie Call.

Call exemplifies the Utah that exists here in this sparsely populated valley surrounded by mountains. The 15-year-old was raised here but has curly red hair and a light complexion. Her family's Internet telephone service has an 801 area code. On her satellite television, she watches mostly American stations.

On a warm day in early February, Call wore an Aéropostale sweatshirt. She ate chicken fettuccine for lunch.

"It's just a really good town," Call said. "We can be out in the town and our parents don't have to worry."

Call describes herself as Mexican but also has U.S. citizenship. She speaks English with an accent that sounds more like it's from Fillmore or Richfield than Chihuahua.

When she graduates from Academia Juárez, Call wants to attend Brigham Young University, then return to Colonia Juárez and raise her own family.

Family and the LDS Church's mission work are what Colonia Juárez was built upon. Missionaries bound for Mexico left Salt Lake City in 1875. Off and on for nearly the next decade, missionaries in Mexico and Latin America encouraged church leaders to begin settlements there.

They declined until the church feared losing its fight with the federal government over the practice of polygamy. By 1884, a Mormon delegation traveled to northern Mexico to secure land. Within a few years, men who had been hiding from polygamist hunters in Utah and Arizona gathered their families and moved south.

Polygamy, however, is no longer practiced in Colonia Juárez.

Among the commodities the settlers took were fruit trees. Peach and apple orchards still reside on a ridge, providing income to the town. Once the homes and infrastructure were in place, settlers turned attention elsewhere.

"They saw their mission change from one of sanctuary to one of outreach," said F. Lamond Tullis, a professor emeritus at BYU who has written a history of Mormons in Mexico.

Missionaries from Colonia Juárez and northern Mexico became "the cream of the crop," Tullis said. They started Mormon communities in Latin America.

But the Mormons in Colonia Juárez had another plight to endure. During the Mexican Revolution, federal troops in the northern states drove away the Mormons and native Mexicans alike. Many people fled to El Paso, Texas, to live in grueling conditions until assistance from the church and U.S. government arrived. Some of the Mormons never returned to Mexico, and many of the settlements in states of Sonora and Chihuahua were lost.

But Colonia Juárez survived. So, too, did much of its Utah heritage.

Tullis said the descendants of Mormon settlers have not assimilated more to Mexican culture due to customs on both sides.

"There's always an ethnic barrier that would discourage cross-ethnic marriage, cross-ethnic dating," he said.

Mission work has continued, and ethnic Mexicans near Colonia Juárez regularly convert to Mormonism. The church's spiritual appeal notwithstanding, there's a financial incentive for conversion.

LDS members can send their children to Academia Juárez for a few hundred dollars a year or less. It can cost a few thousand dollars if you're not a church member - a sum beyond the reach of average Mexicans.

American-born Mormons attend the school, too. In February, 18-year-old Cheyenne Washburn, of Nampa, Idaho, arrived at Academia Juárez. Washburn had already graduated from high school, but she wanted to spend a semester immersing in Spanish before enrolling at BYU-Idaho.

Her mother, Sonya Washburn, said the family was more concerned with a good education than a spiritual one. Sonya Washburn said she had reservations about sending her daughter to a remote town in Mexico, but overcame those concerns when she heard from other families about their good experiences in Colonia Juárez.

"If I maybe thought it was rowdy or dangerous, I probably wouldn't have let her go," Sonya Washburn said.

Besides, the Washburns have a family heritage here. Cheyenne Washburn's great-grandmother was born to a Mormon settlement family, then immigrated to the United States.

Along with financial support, the LDS Church helps supply instructors to the school. Monsen is from Bluebell, Utah. He and his wife were hired by the church to teach at Academia Juárez for the school year. They're scheduled to go home when classes end this spring.

"I wish I could have gone to school here," Monsen said.

-- Nate Carlisle can be reached at" Target="_BLANK"> or 801-257-8794. Send comments about this story to" Target="_BLANK">