The power of words
Celebrating the 204th birthday of Igancio Ramirez, “el Nigromante”
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 had been accepted into this circle, and stood before them to present his introductory thesis. He wore humble clothing, and 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.”
His name was Ignacio Ramirez, and his words stunned the gathering that day. In spite of the shock his words produced for 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.
The latter part of the 19th century oversaw cataclysmic changes around the world. New technologies brought about industrialization and moves toward urbanization. But more importantly, intellectual and political movements transformed the world—the advocacy of reason and rejection of religion, reform in labor laws, and a push toward human rights. 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.
Born on June 22, 1818 in our very own city of San Miguel, in a house located on Umaran 38, both of Ignacio Ramirez’s parents were Indigenous. His father had fought alongside the insurgents during Mexico’s War of Independence. Ignacio started school in Queretaro, but at the age of seventeen he enrolled at the Colegio de San Gregorio in Mexico City, then in 1845 obtained a law degree from the Pontifical University of Mexico.
Following his acceptance into the intellectual circles, he began to work in earnest to expound on his progressive ideas. He championed economic reforms, as well as women’s rights, and said that “education as 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.
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 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.
Ramirez had to leave the country in 1864, when the Conservatives brought about the second Mexican empire installing Habsburg Archduke Maximilian as emperor. He returned from exile when Maximilian 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. He 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." The mural was not shown for nine years because Rivera would not remove the inscription. When the artist finally agreed to remove the offending words, he said: "To affirm God does not exist, I do not have to hide behind Don Ignacio Ramírez; I am an atheist and I consider religions to be a form of collective neurosis. I am not an enemy of the Catholics, as I am not an enemy of the tuberculars, the myopic, or the paralytics; you cannot be an enemy of the sick, only their good friend to help them cure themselves.”
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.
Ignacio Ramirez’s legacy as a lifelong champion of atheism, and freethinking was encapsulated in his continued support for education for all—regardless of race or gender. He left numerous books, chronicles of the time, essays, and poetry and is 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, which is named in his honor—El Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramirez, “El Nigromante.”