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  • Natalie Taylor

STORIES OF SAN MIGUEL: A native son and his home

One afternoon in 1837, a nineteen year old student appeared in the halls of the prestigious Academy of Juan de Letran in Mexico City, composed of the most respected intellectuals of the day. The young man wore humble clothing, and stood before them to present his introductory thesis. From his pocket he took out several pieces of paper, in different sizes and colors. Then, with a sure, and clear voice he announced the title of his presentation: “There is no God. Natural beings sustain themselves.”

The young man’s name was Ignacio Ramirez, and his words stunned the gathering that day. In spite of the shock his words produced in many staunch believers, he found others who shared his views, and his brilliant words gained the respect of all. He was accepted as a member of the Academy.

Ignacio was born on June 22, 1818 in San Miguel el Grande, in a house on Umaran 38. His parents, Lino and Cinforoza Ramirez were both from Queretaro and his father was particularly instrumental in shaping Ignacio’s future. Lino Ramirez had fought alongside the insurgents during Mexico’s War of Independence, and held strong liberal and anti-clerical beliefs. He became vice-governor of the state of Queretaro and continued his support for a democratic government in all of Mexico. Growing up in this environment, surrounded by progressive ideas, and with his own brilliant intellect and thirst for knowledge, it is no wonder that Ignacio excelled in school, and at the age of 17 was accepted at Colegio de San Gregorio in Mexico City.

Following his acceptance into the intellectual circles, he began to work in earnest to expound on his progressive ideas. In 1845 he obtained a law degree from the Pontifical University of Mexico. Ramirez championed economic reforms, as well as women’s rights, and said that “education is the only possible way to achieve well-being.” He acquired the strange, incongruous nickname—El Nigromante—the Necromancer; someone who engages in black magic, and communication with the dead.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the world experienced cataclysmic changes. New technologies brought about industrialization and urbanization. More importantly, intellectual and political movements transformed the world—the advocacy of reason, rejection of religion, reform in labor laws, and a push toward human rights flourished. These ideas were engendered mostly in Europe, but they were also taken up and fomented in the American continent. In Mexico, one of the most prominent progressive thinkers of that period, was Ignacio Ramirez.

Ignacio Ramirez shown above, on the left, in his evocative pose as poet, and writer. The photo on the right shows the members of congress at the time of the signing of the 1857 Constitution. Ramirez appears standing, in the back row, third from the left. This was one of the most important roles he played in Mexico.

He was then a member of congress, and the new constitution encapsulated most of his liberal ideals. Ignacio Ramirez remained loyal to the liberal cause, and in 1861 participated in a daring act of deception on behalf of the Republicans. A large amount of money needed to be transported from one part of the country to another, crossing conservative territories. Ramirez, and two others, dressed as priests, took a mule-drawn cart in which they stashed the gold under bales of hay. On top of this, they placed a 500 kilo bell claiming they were bringing to a church. In this guise, they were able to bring the money to the liberal forces. This daring-do caught the attention of Benito Juarez and he made sure to keep Ignacio Ramirez near.

The times during which he lived were tumultuous. Mexico had gained independence from Spain in 1821, but with national sovereignty came the deep divide between the Conservatives, who wished to return to monarchy, and the forward-looking Republicans who wanted to establish a democratic government. The Conservatives prevailed first, with the creation of the first Mexican empire. Agustin de Iturbide was declared emperor in 1823, but lasted less than a year on the throne; he was executed in 1824.

For the next 45 years the country was plunged into Civil War with the Conservatives and Republicans vying for power. Between 1846 and 1848, Mexico lost almost half of its territory in a land grab by the USA. Ignacio enlisted in the army, and fought against the invaders; his major contribution was his written chronicle about Mexico’s tragic loss of the war.

He had to leave the country in 1864, when the Conservatives installed a puppet French empire, placing Habsburg Archduke Maximilian as emperor of Mexico.

Ramirez returned from exile when Maximilian I was executed in 1867 on the orders of President Benito Juarez, who would not give in to pleas for mercy. Juarez stated, “I am not killing a man, I am killing an idea.”

Ramirez was given several major posts in the new liberal government. He was appointed to the Supreme Court, and during his time as minister of justice and education, he expanded education and established secondary education, especially for women and indigenous people.

After Benito Juarez’s term in office, Porfirio Diaz became president in 1876, and Ignacio Ramirez was tasked with implementing policies to expand public education. He served as Minister of Justice and Education in Diaz’s administration, and remained in the Supreme Court, until his death on June 15, 1879.

Seventy two years after his death, in 1948 his atheism was the subject of a scandal. Diego Rivera painted the mural Sueño de Una tarde dominical—(Dream of a Sunday afternoon), with Ramirez holding a sign reading, "God does not exist."

Portion of the mural in the Alameda Central. Benito Juarez holding a newspaper, and Ignacio Ramirez, with white hair and beard. To the right of Juarez is the face of Maximilian I, with his blue eyes and red beard. The mural was not shown for nine years until Rivera agreed to change the offending words.

His legacy as a lifelong champion of atheism, and freethinking was encapsulated in his continued support for education for all—regardless of race or gender, captured in numerous books, essays, and poetry. Considered one of the great Mexican intellects, the native son of San Miguel de Allende, is remembered in one of the most beautiful repositories of art in our city, named in his honor—El Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramirez, “El Nigromante.”

And now Ignacio Ramirez’s home has been reopened. Though the man who was born there has been dead for 145 years, the house has been brought to life in a new guise, and a place that would make him proud. Casa Nigromante, now owned by the University of Guanajuato, has been named Univerciudad. The portmanteau is composed of two Spanish words—universidad and ciudad—university and city, and is a place for the arts, culture, and learning. A perfect fit for a man who promoted all of those disciplines, and was himself possessed of a great intellect. A hero for San Miguel, and a hero for freethinkers everywhere.

On Tuesday, June 18, I will be giving a presentation about his life and works in Spanish at Casa Nigromante, Umaran 38, at 12 noon. On Thursday, June 20, I will be giving the same talk in English at 5pm. You are all cordially invited.

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2 comentarios

Heather Hanley
Heather Hanley
15 jun

Hi Natalie,

What a fascinating piece you wrote. I never knew these facts about Ignacio Ramirez, and am hoping I will be able to attend your talk in English at 5 PM next Thursday, at Umaran 38. Viva Mexico!


Heather Hanley

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Natalie Taylor
15 jun
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Hope to see you there, San Miguel "cane" lady! What a great service you provide....

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