We made small talk as the bus bumped along Avenida Talismán through northeastern Mexico City, their black ties flapping against their pressed white shirts. I asked what they found hardest about being Mormon missionaries. One of them, called Elder Johnson, though he looked about 16, smiled sheepishly. “The language,” he said, his ears reddening. His companion, Elder Samuels, was more forward. “Imagine you had a candy bar that was really, really good. You’d want to share it with your friends. And then they tell you they don’t want to eat your candy bar. You’d feel pretty bad, right? I’d say that’s the hardest thing.”
We were traveling through the middle-class neighborhood of San Juan de Aragón. Laundry hung from the windows of boxy apartment buildings, their distinct colors faded by the common tint of smog. We passed torta stands, lavanderías, pharmacies blasting Mexican rock.
As we approached the Temple, I saw several passengers craning their necks to take a look. It wasn’t hard to imagine why. Neatly trimmed hedges and pristine green lawns encircled the vast white building, carved with ornate motifs and bearing a gold statue at its peak. In the late morning sun it glowed like the Taj Mahal.
Mexico City forms a liberal bubble in an otherwise conservative nation, with laws permitting same-sex marriage and abortion through twelve weeks of pregnancy. Many Mormon principles — among them the prohibition of tobacco and alcohol — go against Mexican norms. And of course, D.F. is traditionally Catholic. Another missionary cited this as the greatest obstacle to his work here. “It’s not that people are mean about it or anything,” he told me, shaking his head. “But they just say, ‘Soy Católico,’ and they really believe in that.”
Even more striking is the fact that central teachings of the LDS Church associate the darker skin of indigenous Americans — “Lamanites,” as Mormons call them — with moral impurity, a direct sign of a curse from God.
These factors make chilangos seem like the religion’s least likely converts, yet the Church is growing fast in Mexico City, with a following more than 180,000 strong. Deeply puzzled by this development, I decided to travel to the Temple to learn more.
I called to arrange a visit and spoke with an older American missionary, his voice stern on the phone. I wouldn’t be allowed to enter the Temple without a “temple recommend,” a document vouching for my worthiness. He suggested I check out the adjacent visitor center instead. I copied down the address and took the metro across the city, from Sevilla to Candelaria, Candelaria to Talismán.
Entering the center, I was greeted by one of the immaculately groomed sister missionaries, Hermana Vargas from Peru. We shared a dainty handshake, and she led me to the reception area, smiling serenely. I sat on a bench before a massive marble Jesus, his arms outstretched, the walls around him painted with stormy sky.
Four young men walked in, also missionaries, and Hermana Vargas received them. After many handshakes and polite smiles, she asked them their reason for coming. Their reason, it turned out, was the bathroom. There was blushing all around as she pointed them to it.
A man beside me scooted closer. “Serafín,” he introduced himself, extending his hand with a broad, goofy grin. He was skinny, roughly 40, with a thin moustache, his thick glasses slightly smudged. Already a member of the Church, he liked to come to the visitor center to reconnect, he told me, and talk to the missionaries. “They have some pretty good movies in here,” he said.
Soon we were joined by another missionary, Hermana López, a Mexican American from LA. The sister missionaries were dressed modestly but with surprising style, wearing neat cardigans and matching jewelry. Knowing they open the center no later than 9:00 each day, I was impressed by their effort. I looked at Hermana López. Did she curl her hair this morning, I wondered? Was that glitter eye shadow?
I grew up celebrating Chrismukkah in my mixed and loosely religious family, and my past experience with Mormons had been limited to a ski trip in Utah and scattered episodes of Big Love. Visiting by choice, I found myself in unfamiliar territory, having always resisted missionaries on the street. I tried to match their serene smiles, but the effort felt awkward. There was a wholesome, camp counselor perkiness to their manner, and I couldn’t quite manage to get on board.
The sister missionaries offered me a tour and Serafín decided to join us. We walked along a curved wall of the circular building, past murals of calm lakes and gently sloping mountains. Oil paintings of Biblical scenes hung from gilded frames, and flatscreen TVs blinked with information on Mormon history. Something about the slick technology made the experience hard to swallow. A Mexican friend who had taken the tour previously warned me it felt like a Disney manipulation.
We stopped before a plaque entitled Prophets Reveal God’s Plan.
“Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses,” Hermana López began. “What did these men have in common?”
Jews? I thought unhelpfully. She pointed to me.
“Prophets?” I ventured, and she smiled.
“And what do you think,” she asked. “Do you believe there are prophets alive today?”
“Ehhh….” I hesitated. “I’m not sure.”
Hermana López didn’t miss a beat. “I like your answer because it’s honest,” she said. Her voice turned reassuring. “Don’t worry, I know there are prophets alive in our time. God didn’t love people in the age of Moses any more than he loves us today.”
Serafín spoke up, telling us it was a vision of God that ultimately prompted him to join the Church. Hermana López appeared slightly uncomfortable, perhaps sensing my skepticism. “There’s nothing in the Book of Mormon that mentions visions explicitly,” she informed us. “Some people have them and others don’t. I never have, for example.”
As we made our way to the next room, I considered what it was that made people convert, to the LDS Church or any religion. Serafín walked beside me, eager to chat. He alluded to a troubled past. “I had a lot of problems,” he said. He didn’t go into specifics. “I mean, I was really in a jam.” At the suggestion of a cousin, he began reading the Book of Mormon. Serafín was interested, but not yet convinced.
“The devil was still tugging at me,” he revealed, his tone whispery and conspiratorial. He wiggled his hips and mimicked a tugging motion. “He was saying, ‘Let’s go! Let’s have fun!’” He gave me a knowing look, as if, non-Mormon that I am, I might be on close terms with the devil myself. He told me he prayed for God to make known to him whether the Book of Mormon was true. Then one night he had a vision, parted ways with the devil once and for all, and was baptized as a member of the Church.
“Did you convert from Catholicism?” I asked.
“Sure,” he replied, “but I wasn’t a very practicing Catholic.”
Serafín’s answer is not surprising. While Mexico City is still more Catholic than anything else — 81% by a recent estimate — there is no doubt that the Catholic Church is losing power here and throughout Latin America. One Mormon elder drew a line between the two faiths by stressing the LDS belief in the eternal union of family — the idea that families remain together after death — stating pragmatically: “That’s one thing we can offer that nobody else can offer.”
We entered an area of the visitor center designed to look like a cozy kitchen and living room: softly lit, with plush, inviting couches and a table set for six. On the wall hung a doily embroidered with the words “Las familias son para siempre,” families are forever.
But when I asked Serafín why he left his Catholic faith, he didn’t mention family. “‘To be poor is to be dignified,’” he said. “That’s what the Catholics always tell you.”
“What do Mormons say?” I asked.
“Well…” he replied, “they don’t say that.”
Indeed, Mormon leaders take a very different approach to wealth than Catholics do. “We look to not only the spiritual but also the temporal, and we believe that a person who is impoverished temporally cannot blossom spiritually,” Keith McMullin, a former LDS leader and CEO of a Church-owned holding company, told Businessweek last year.
This thin line between the spiritual and the temporal is one of the most unique features of the LDS Church. As historian D. Michael Quinn explained to Businessweek, “In the Mormon worldview, it’s as spiritual to give alms to the poor, as the old phrase goes in the Biblical sense, as it is to make a million dollars.” With little distinction between the spiritual and worldly, the Church seems to assign a moral value to making money. Later I spoke with a mission leader who told me, “We see nothing necessarily noble about poverty. We tend to encourage self-reliance.”
Due to controversial policies in the early days of their Church — polygamy being the most notable — throughout the 1830s, Mormons were chased across the US from New York to Ohio, Missouri to Illinois. They set their sights on Utah, at that time “Alta California,” part of Mexico. Utah gained statehood only once the practice of plural marriage had been renounced. This history has made Mormons particularly keen to downplay their otherness. “We are not a weird people,” former Church president Gordon Hinckley told 60 Minutes in a 1996 interview.
In less than 200 years, they’ve gone from pariahs to a powerful group with their own presidential candidate. The Church’s annual gross income of an estimated $7 billion makes it the wealthiest per capita church in the US. Many contend that in a land where the mighty dollar overshadows all manner of differences, it is their affluence that has allowed Mormons to finally bridge the gap with mainstream America.
The American Dream has a powerful hold on many residents of Mexico City, and there are tangible benefits that come with joining the Church. Mexican missionaries who apply to Brigham Young University receive recommendations from their American mission leaders. Once accepted, they take out low-interest loans from the Church’s Perpetual Education Fund. And members in D.F. can attend vocational training and free English classes. As one mission leader told me, “English is the language of the Church. I always tell our members it’s just like being a pilot. English is the language of flying, right? You’re not going to land your plane in China speaking Spanish!”
These options present real opportunities to those who might not otherwise have them. “That’s fine,” a Mexican friend told me, “but I wish they’d call it what it is. To me it’s no different than Catholic missionaries teaching farming techniques to Indians five hundred years ago. Some things shouldn’t be a tradeoff.”
The sister missionaries left us before a touchscreen with short videos of chapters from the Book of Mormon. “You choose,” Serafín offered graciously. “I’ve seen them all.” I selected a chapter called “A New Home in the Promised Land.”
The video opened with a series of illustrated stills depicting the arrival of the Mormons’ ancestors in America. Internal competition soon caused the group to split in two.
Once members of the same family, the divided groups no longer looked alike. While the Nephites remained fair and Caucasian, the Lamanites became indigenous Americans. The voiceover explained, “They became a dark-skinned people. God cursed them because of their wickedness. The Lamanites became lazy and would not work. The Lamanites hated the Nephites and wanted to kill them.”
I turned to Serafín. “Some people would call these ideas…” I searched for the word. “Racist. What do you think?”
“Oh, no,” he told me. “Para nada. You have to keep watching: the Lamanites become the good ones later on.”
It’s no secret, though, that in the short history of the LDS Church, members have on countless occasions made reference to the Lamanites in explicitly derogatory terms. Influential leader Brigham Young called them “miserable,” “ungovernable,” “bloodthirsty,” and “ignorant.” Yet Young was confident that the Lamanites would in time embrace the Gospel and once again become “white and delightsome.”
I asked Serafín what he made of this quote. “Simple misunderstanding,” he assured me. “Young was talking about spiritual purity, not race.”
His explanation seems dismissive. As recently as 1960, then president Spencer Kimball expressed pleasure with the progress of Native American converts to the Church: their skin, he claimed, was literally turning lighter.
Referring to a photo of 20 “Lamanite” missionaries, Kimball praised 15, calling them “light as Anglos,” and recalled a Native American child “several shades lighter than her parents.” Kimball continued, “One white elder jokingly said that he and his companion were donating blood regularly to the hospital in the hope that the process might be accelerated.”
But Serafín is not alone in his manner of thinking. In Mexico, many converts have decided to read the Book their own way. Margarito Bautista, who joined the Church in 1901, put forth a particularly strong reinterpretation which glorified pre-Hispanic cultures, even conflating the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl — the plumed serpent, the white god who had promised to return — with Jesus Christ.
Bautista believed that the Lamanites, once converted, would regain their status as the chosen people, ensuring promotion to high leadership in the Church. “Mexico,” he wrote, “will be the principal place and Mexicans the principal people playing the most important role in these the last days.” He compiled his theories into a book, which the Church refused to publish. Crestfallen, Bautista published in Mexico, where his work was received enthusiastically by local Mormons campaigning for Mexican Church leaders — “de pura raza y sangre,” of pure race and blood. Reprimanded for their assertiveness by leaders in Utah, Bautista and his followers soon split from the Church.
The Book of Mormon dictates that once the Lamanites accept the Gospel, the Nephites too should change their way of life, including the Lamanites in their economic system, doing away with difference of race and class once and for all. Daniel Jones, the first American missionary to come to Mexico in 1875, noted that while many Mexicans were prepared to accept the Gospel, American Mormons were not ready to sacrifice their own privilege in honor of this ideal. To this day, nearly all Church leaders are white American businessmen.
Hermana Vargas led us to a large theater in the back of the visitor center. The sister missionaries drew back the curtains, red velvet with gold tassels, and began another film. On screen, early converts trudged through the bright snow of a Massachusetts winter. I glanced at Serafín and saw that he was leaning forward, eyes wide.
I kept waiting for the awkward moment when the missionaries would try to impress their beliefs upon me — to my pleasant surprise, it never came.
“Can we have your contact information?” asked Hermana Vargas after the film. “Maybe you’d like to have some missionaries visit your home.”
“No thanks,” I replied simply, and she nodded. Her calm response felt almost anticlimactic. Serafín offered a hearty farewell handshake, and I made my way out of the visitor center, through the palatial Temple grounds, and to the street.
A few weeks later, while walking through the Zócalo, I bumped into four missionaries, three Mexican and one Peruvian. We chatted for a few minutes and I mentioned the Lamanite question, which still troubled me.
One of the missionaries held his arm next to mine. “God gave us darker skin because our ancestors were sinners,” he told me. “But really, we feel lucky because we are the chosen people, even more so than our American brothers.” In the next breath, he told me how much he wanted to go to Utah, to study at BYU.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop in-depth narratives for Matador.]