Grandpa Kewl

Book Review – Death, Dismemberment and Memory, Lyman Johnson

This was a book recommended to me by my book dealer friend in Santa Fe.

From the Publisher

The memories of heroes are preserved the world over in place names, patriotic holidays, printed images on money and stamps, folk songs, roadside shrines, and on web sites. Understanding the origin and meaning of these forms of symbolic political speech is a way to understand cultures and histories. The essays collected here address symbolic political speech associated with the bodies (and body parts) of martyred heroes in Latin America. The authors examine the processes through which these bodies are selected as political vessels, the forms in which they are venerated and memorialized, and the ways they are invested with meaning. 

Since colonial times governments and their political enemies in Latin America have struggled to control or appropriate the powerful symbolic powers associated with the bodies of the revered dead. Early examples discussed in this book include Cuauhtemoc, the Aztec ruler executed by Spanish conquistador Hernen Cortes in 1524, and Tepac Amaru, the rebel Inca ruler executed by a Spanish viceroy in Peru in 1572. In both cases the bodies were denied to followers by authorities but were reclaimed symbolically by later generations who found enduring meaning in the sufferings of these martyrs. More recently, the bodies of Evita Peron and Che Guevara were recovered and appropriately reburied by admirers and loyalists. The authors explore the region’s mixture of cultures, the legacy of Catholicism, and the persistence of underdevelopment, as they illuminate why the heroic dead in Latin America are likely to speak the language of social protest and resistance to foreign exploiters.


This is a rather unusual book and contains some quite vivid details of what happened to a variety of persons in Latin and South America. My Bride saw the cover and asked me about the book. I responded by saying that for a variety of reasons, folks in this area have attached large emotions to the remains of their leaders from Pancho Villa to Che Guevara. I knew about Pancho, I knew nothing about Che’s ending…pretty ugly and pathetic. One of the interesting aspects of the Mexican experience is how so many of the heroes and villains have ended up in Mexico City “Monument to the Revolution”, including men who hated each other, fought each other and even killed each other. In time, reconciliation has seen them all collected together. I rather like that. It recognizes that, for better or worse (and mostly for worse) they all strive for a better Mexico. The fact that Villa was the last to be reclaimed is a good indication of the fear he still strikes in the hearts of the elitists.

A few remarks from the book:


“The people endure through the sacrifices of their heroes.”

“Disputes over bodies are disputes about power,power over the past and power in the present.”

“One of the great problems for Mexico, he insisted, was that a free press had been perverted by factions to the degree that instead of enlightening the nation, it had become “the most powerful instrument of deception and deceit.”

Mexico! – That description fits America right now.

I found the following especially touching and meaningful to me personally: It was said by Dr. Carlos Saul Menem, who took office in July 1989 on the occasion of his inauguration:

“I would like to inaugurate this transcendental moment in which we live with a petition, a plea, with a call. I want my first words as President of the Argentines to be an oration to heaven, to our best efforts, to our most vital hopes. Before the Eye of God, and before the testimony of history, I proclaim: Argentina, rise up and walk.”

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