A rich collection of items representing more than 100 years of history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mexico has been donated to Claremont Graduate University.
The extensive collection, which contains some items almost 150 years old and could stretch 90 linear feet across a basketball court, was amassed by Fernando and Enriqueta Gomez over the last three decades.
“My guess is this is the largest collection of Latter-day Saint history — there are some items from fundamentalist groups in there — but the largest collection of such material outside of Salt Lake City,” said Matthew Bowman, an associate professor of religion and history and Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at CGU.
What is the Gomez Collection?
The Gomez Collection stretches from the very beginnings of Mormonism in Mexico, starting with the first missionaries in 1875, to the present day. It features thousands of documents, including minutes of early Latter-day Saint church meetings, documents, diaries of church members, membership directories, newspapers, photographs, mission records, early church publications, scriptures and other items dating back to the late 19th century.
Geographically, the collection includes items from the church’s beginnings in central Mexico, to the Mormon colonies in the north desert and the church’s growth in the Yucatan. It’s also transnational because it has information on the first Spanish-speaking branch in Utah. It also contains items from Latter-day Saints in Latin America and other nations.
The collection is bilingual, taking in journals and histories of early missionaries as well as native Mexican missionaries and leaders.
“It’s really a remarkable story,” Bowman said. “It’s a lot of material that I think otherwise might have just been lost or forgotten. It illuminates what it was like to be a Latter-day Saint in Mexico for the past 120 to 130 years.”
The collection will allow historians to better study and better understand the lives and experiences of church members in Mexico.
“So much of Latter-day Saint history has been about presidents of the church, apostles and major figures. I think the Church History Department has increasingly wanted to tell the stories of regular members of the church — what it was like to join this new religion, what it was like to live this religion, and particularly in places outside the United States. This collection I think is one of the best avenues we have to learning about it. ... There are hundreds of stories in this collection that have not been told.”
The collection is currently being processed, archived and digitized by students at Claremont Graduate University. The school’s goal is to have the collection completely available to researchers both online and physically this summer.
Who are Fernando and Enriqueta Gomez?
Enriqueta Gomez was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and joined the church as a teenager after she moved to Nogales, Arizona.
Also born in Monterrey, Fernando Gomez and his Latter-day Saint family moved from Mexico to San Antonio, Texas, when he was a child. He met Enriqueta while serving a mission. They dated after his mission and were married.
Fernando earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Brigham Young University and later served as president of the church’s Merida Mexico Temple, mission president of the Missionary Training Center in Santiago, Chile, and in other leadership positions.
Fernando said the collection was started by his grandmother in 1923. Her daughter, Consuelo Gomez, continued the humble project and eventually passed it on to Fernando and Enriqueta.
They weren’t historians, but as they pondered and prayed on the matter, they realized the significance that such a legacy could have on future generations and felt challenged to preserve what history they could gather. The couple began searching for more material in different parts of Mexico and the collection slowly increased.
“We didn’t know anything about museums or collections or historical things like that, but we found that it was something that we needed to do,” Gomez told the Deseret News. “That’s how we spent the last 30 years.”
Bowman praised the couple for their dedication to preserving history.
“They took the initiative here, themselves, to travel around the country and interview people, to look for collections like this,” the professor said. “That’s the real amazing story here, that the two of them spent years gathering this material. It’s really impressive and a credit to them.”
As part of their efforts over the years, the couple founded museums in Mexico City and in Utah. The museum in Mexico City has since closed. The Museum of Mormon Mexican History opened in Provo in 2011 and is still in operation.
The donation to Claremont Graduate University
With Fernando and Enriqueta Gomez now in their 80s, the couple is ready to find a new home for the collection.
A few years ago they became acquainted with Elisa Pulido, a graduate student at Claremont who was researching an early Latter-day Saint convert and leader named Margarito Bautista. They gave Pulido access to documents in the collection, including Bautista’s diaries.
“I learned so much because I had to contextualize his life with the history of Mexico and the history of the church, in geographies and political movements,” Pulido said. “It was the education of a lifetime.”
Pulido was impressed with the collection and helped facilitate an introduction between Fernando Gomez and Bowman, which led to the donation. The Claremont-Gomez relationship has also allowed Claremont students to accept internships at the museum.
“The breadth of the collection historically is amazing,” said Pulido, now a historian and visiting scholar in Religious Studies at Claremont. “You could document the history of Mormonism in Mexico simply from these photos.”
The donation is significant for a couple of reasons, said Patrick Mason, the Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University.
“Most importantly, it will broaden the source base available to students and scholars who are interested in the history of Mormonism in Mexico. This is an essential part of the modern history of the church that has barely been scratched by scholars,” Mason said.
“Second, it helps solidify Claremont’s position as one of the key centers of the academic study of Mormonism, especially in relation to the global history of the church. Given the major Hispanic population in southern California, Claremont is the perfect place to house this collection. ... It’s a win-win for everyone.”
Upcoming events related to the Gomez Collection
Claremont Graduate University will host a free formal reception to recognize the donation of the Gomez Collection on Saturday, May 21. Fernando Gomez, Lori Anne Ferrell, dean of Claremont’s School of Arts and Humanities, and Bowman will speak.
Claremont has also received a $180,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to host a summer seminar called “Mormonism and Mexico.”
The summer seminar will feature 18 scholars from around the country who will spend two weeks on the school’s campus. Fernando and Enriqueta Gomez will also be in attendance.
“We’re going to do a massive research project based on this collection,” Bowman said. “We are excited about that.”