This article originally appeared on Vol.65 No. 1 of Pioneer Magazine.
By Susan Easton Black, Emeritus Professor of Church History & Doctrine, Brigham Young University
For the great majority of Mexicans residing in Chihuahua, the last two decades of the nineteenth century were harsh. President Porfirio Diaz,1 a former Mexican general, had consolidated his power and ruled his countrymen with an iron fist. Yet to foreign investors and potential US colonists, Diaz graciously extended a welcome mat. There was no denying that the ruler wanted to industrialize Mexico and, given its shared border with the United States, northern Chihuahua seemed the natural gateway to the economic growth Diaz sought. The Mexican clan of Terrazas-Creel2 agreed with the diplomacy of Diaz and, exercising tight political and social control over Casas Grandes, expressed a willingness to embrace foreign colonists there.
The story of European American Mormons who helped colonize the Casas Grandes area is often told. In pioneering such communities as Colonia Juarez and Colonia Dublin, they demonstrated remarkable economic success and spiritual commitment. Yet retellings of their heroic narrative sometimes overshadow the equally compelling story of their Mexican converts. One such convert was Toribio Ontiveros, a man who is little-known except to his extended posterity.
Toribio was born on April 16, 1882, to Pascual Ontiveros and Leonides Vigueria in a “humble adobe house” in Casas Grandes.3 When Toribio was three years old, Mormon colonists began setting up camp in nearby Colonia Juarez. However, Toribios childhood would differ markedly from those of the young Mormon boys growing up in Colonia Juarez, who had the advantage of schooling and a semblance of economic security.
“My childhood was heartbreaking, as I never had the opportunity to go to school. My father was very poor and at a tender age I dedicated myself to help in the daily chores as much as my capacity and strength allowed me. The casiquismo [political leaders who exercised control over the Casas Grandes region] were very powerful in those days; and, for no reason at all they would take everything the poor farmers produced. I saw my poor father… with tears in his eyes plead with them to leave him a morsel of corn to feed his family [but he] was unable to persuade them.”4
Toribio concluded, “Even though I was very young, this left a deep scar in my heart.”5 Toribio vowed that when he was old enough to make a difference, he would change society to favor the poor and the landless.
But no childhood experience left a deeper, more lasting impression than the youthful dream Toribio had at age fourteen. In the dream, an elderly man and woman appeared to him in his room. The man called Toribio by name and told him of a book that contained the history of the elderly couple’s family. The man asked Toribio to buy the book, and in the dream he gave Toribio a coin about the size of a toston, a half-peso. The couple then bade him good night and were just about to leave his room when they stopped at the doorway and exchanged a few words. Toribio did not hear their exchange. When it ended, the elderly man returned to Toribio’s bedside and asked for the coin he had given him. Toribio returned the coin. The elderly man handed Toribio a larger coin about the size of a peso. The couple then departed and the dream ended.6
Toribio shared the dream with his mother, Leonides, a devout Catholic. She concluded that the elderly couple must have been Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary. As for the book Toribio was to buy, it was a book about the family’s patron saint. Believing his mother’s interpretation of the dream, Toribio bought the book his mother suggested, read it, and was disappointed. But he didn’t forget his dream.
In 1897, at age fifteen, Toribio left Casas Grandes to work in the San Pedro Corralitos mines, about sixty miles from his home. It was difficult for him to leave his family, but equally difficult to leave Eustaquia Acosta, the girl across the street. Although they had been friends since childhood, their relationship had recently become more interesting. Toribio later claimed that Eustaquia was the only girlfriend he ever had.
He returned to Casas Grandes once a month to see her. On these occasions, he and his friends arranged dances. At a dance held at the Juan Molina residence in 1900, Toribio asked his childhood sweetheart to marry him, and she accepted. On September 15, 1902, twenty-year-old Toribio and nineteen-year- old Eustaquia were married in the Casas Grandes Catholic Church by Father Agustin Terrazas.7
Toribio did not return to the San Pedro Corralitos mines after his marriage. He worked for his father in Casas Grandes and settled into family life as children graced his home. However, all was not peaceful for him. Toribio’s discontent and that of hundreds of others in Casas Grandes centered on the unpopular regime of Porfirio Diaz. Labor strikes, peasant deaths, and an uprising led to the fall of economic markets and instability in the Casas Grandes region. Wanting to keep his family safe and hoping for a brighter economic future, Toribio looked to the Mormon colonies where industrious Latter-day Saints had established a grist mill, tannery, canning factory, and a cooperative store. To say that money flowed in the streets of the Mormon colonies was an exaggeration, but the Mormon economic and social influence was enough to entice Toribio and his family to leave Casas Grandes and relocate in the center of Mexican Mormonism.
In 1907 Toribio was employed in the Mormon- owned Juarez Tanning and Manufacturing Company where he became acquainted with Anson Porter. On a lunch break Porter asked Toribio if he would be interested in reading the Book of Mormon. Toribio asked the price of the book and was told that until recently the Book of Mormon had sold for fifty centavos, but now the price was a peso. Anson’s words startled Toribio, for they were reminiscent of his youthful dream. Toribio paid the peso, accepted the book, and went home to read.
In the introduction to the First Book of Nephi, Toribio read, “An account of Lehi and his wife Sariah, and their four sons.” At that moment and for the remainder of his life, Toribio was certain it was Lehi and Sariah who had appeared to him years before in his dream.
On May 12, 1907, Toribio and Eustaquia were baptized members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Within four months, Toribio was ordained a teacher and then a priest by Elder Ammon M. Tenney. Soon he was serving a five-week mission in the neighboring towns of Galeana, Valle de San Buenaventura, Las Cruces, Namiquipa, La Providencia, Las Mansanas, Tejalocachic, Santo Tomas, and Guerrero. During his absence, Anson Porter provided financially for Eustaquia and her children.
Toribio felt like a new man. His happiness would have been unbridled if not for his concerns over the Porfirio Diaz regime. Toribio joined a growing anti-Diaz political movement. He aligned himself with the socialist party,08
On the night of June 24, 1908, Toribio was apprehended by order of the Casas Grandes Jefe Politico [political boss] and charged with being an associate and supporter of Guerrero. He was imprisoned in the penitentiary at Chihuahua City for six months before being transported to the San Juan de Ulua prison at Veracruz.9
Toribio wrote, “On the 14th of January 1909 at 11 PM I was remitted to ‘San Juan de Ulua’ where I was imprisoned for another 18 months.”10 During those months, he slept on a stone slab, had a daily fare of a cup of beans and a cup of coffee, and contracted malaria. In mid-1910 he was released from prison.
Toribio returned to his family weak and exhausted, a mere shadow of the man he had been. Nevertheless, he immediately resumed supporting his family and was hired as a night watchman at the Union Mercantile. Because he lacked sufficient capital to buy a house or land, lodgings were provided by his employer Melchor Bowman. Although Toribio appreciated Bowman’s generosity, he saw in Bowman’s gesture an undercurrent of racism that did not suit him.
He believed the reason he could not purchase a house or land had more to do with the prejudicial sentiment of others than with his own lack of capital. Perhaps Toribio was correct in his assessment, given the contrasting perceptions of contemporary whites and Mexicans as recorded by colonist Thomas Cottam Romney:
“Genetically, the two peoples differed. The Mexicans were predominantly Latin, and by nature temperamental and given to intense emotionalism, inclined to be more theoretical than practical.
“The great rank and file of natives had lived a life of serfdom and even now were subject in the main to the dictates of the overlords. Under these conditions they were to experience little else in life than grinding toil and hard-earned penury. The colonists … were not strangers to the better things of life. Their methods of farming, of business, and of travel were on a higher plain than those of their neighbors.
“Socially, the colonists were exclusive and seclusive [sic], having few if any contacts with their neighbors. Such was an avowed policy of the Church in the establishment of colonies in Mexico from the beginning and this policy was ever kept in mind.”11
Toribio didn’t have long to consider the racism of fellow Mormons, for the Mexican Revolution was at his doorstep. It was the wealth in the Mormon colonies that attracted the revolutionaries, and more than one colonist was the target of harassment, thievery, and extortion. Toribio was caught between his commitment to social justice and his religious convictions. In an open letter to stake members dated July 28,1912, President Junius Romney of the Colonia Juarez Stake advised all Mormon colonists to flee from northern Mexico to the United States.
Toribio watched as colonists quickly packed a few belongings and fled to the US border.
Most who fled viewed their escape as a temporary absence. Colonist Daniel Skousen saw himself returning to Dublan as soon as the political crisis ended. Knowing that Toribio was staying in Mexico, Skousen entrusted him with the care of his horses, cows, and buildings until his return.
What Skousen did not know was that Toribio was intent on joining “the reserve corps that [he] might fight against the latifundista”’2 landed estate owners who kept their laborers in a state of virtual servitude. Toribio would later record,
“In spite of the danger that I was in, I prevailed, and nothing happened to me.”13
In 1916 Francisco “Pancho” Villa,14 a revolutionary general and one of the most prominent figures of the Mexican Revolution, raided Columbus, New Mexico, to obtain weapons. The partially successful raid was costly for Villa’s army and proved a precursor to his declining military and political influence. But for Toribio there was an upside, for he wrote,
“The Revolution was victorious in conquering the latifundio resulting in the [return] of land we so vehemently desired falling in our hands.”15
Toribio had encounters with the Villistas and Federates while caretaker of the Skousen Ranch, and he was whipped on at least one occasion when he refused to give revolutionaries the food they demanded, but Toribio and his family were never forced to leave the ranch or to join their Mormon contemporaries in the United States.
When the United States entered the Great War in Europe in 1917, Toribio realized that labor was needed in the US to replace the men who had left to fight. Toribio applied for and received a passport to travel and work in the United States. Voluntarily traveling by train to El Paso, Texas, he and his family were met by kindly border guards—and were relieved to not be shaved or bathed like other Mexican families were before entering the US.
Over the next several months, the family traveled northwest through southern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona, then north through Utah. They stayed several days in Salt Lake City and were sealed together in the Salt Lake Temple on April 4, 1918. They then continued their journey north to Idaho where they found work in the sugar beet fields.
Toribio soon recognized that no matter how hard he and his family worked, their economic circumstances were worse than they had been in the Mormon colonies. Toribio was initially determined to make a success of the family’s difficult move and to remain in his adopted country.
Then he learned of a flirtatious incident between his fifteen-year-old son Jose and a young American woman who made a suggestive comment to him.16 Toribio found such conversation indecorous, and he was committed to preserving the faith and goodness of each of his children. Within days he had packed up his family and belongings and was on his way back to his own home in the Mormon colonies.
After his return from Idaho, Toribio continued his efforts to obtain the Casas Grandes ejido, or common land, for the campesinos, or local people. The constitution enacted after the Revolution required that land from the latifundistas be sold to local citizens who requested a parcel of land for their own, but gaining clear title to the land proved difficult.
The Corralitos Land and Cattle Company claimed title to the same land Toribio was requesting. With the provisional deed placed under his shirt, Toribio journeyed to Mexico City to present his claim to the authorities. He received the legal title, but the land company continued to pressure him to relinquish it. Toribio persistently refused, even though his actions placed him in some danger.
His religion was always his first priority. In 1928 he left his farm to serve a proselyting mission in El Paso. He viewed the mission as an opportunity to fulfill a patriarchal blessing promise:
“For He requires a great work from your hands in helping preach the gospel.”17
Toribio’s later years continued to be filled with poverty and hardship. But Toribio found great joy in his family, in hard work, and in serving the Lord humbly and willingly. He never varied in his convictions regarding social justice or, more crucially, the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When Toribio passed away on June 25, 1964, the town of Dublan paused to remember and express gratitude for the life of a man they regarded as heroic. Today generations of his posterity revere him as a pioneering Mormon convert and honor his exemplary endurance and faith.
- Jose de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz Mori served seven terms as President of Mexico, a total of three and a half decades from 1876 to 1880 and from 1884 to 1911.
- Don Luis Terrazas (1829-1923) was the founder of the Terrazas-Creel clan. He served various terms as Governor of Chihuahua between 1860 and 1904. At one time, his ranches totaled more than seven million acres (MarkWassermann, Persistent Oligarchs Elites and Politics in Chihuahua, Mexico ).
- Letter of Toribio Ontiveros to his daughter Virginia, 30 May 1960, Colonia Dublan. In author’s possession.
- Norberto Flores,”Toribio Ontiveros”(n.d.);Toribio Ontiveros, “Brief Life History written by Toribio Ontiveros”; Richard Estrada and Oscar J. Martinez,”Interview with Moroni Flores,”