Smile Politely

Hugh Meets Obama — “La Muerte es un Sueño”

November 2, 2008 Cholula, Puebla — Mexico.

About three years ago, Hugh Phillips packed up the office he had established for migrant workers and bade Champaign-Urbana farewell. He made his home in the old, old town of Cholula, Mexico, which he claims dates back 3,000 years.

I joined him here last week, fleeing election anxiety. It’s almost working.

The site of sacrifice and saints, Cholula hits you like a blast furnace of history. But because of the elevation of 7000 feet, the town remains a comfortable 70 something degrees year-round.

Naturally, the first thing I did in Cholula was get a haircut. At the corner barber shop, the men were talking, drinking, and spending a typical afternoon of camaraderie. One man making short work of a Sol cerveza 40-ounce answered his cell phone when his wife called.

For a few seconds, he said nothing, then answered “working,” to the laughter of everyone around him.

Looking west from the roof of Hugh’s apartment, one can see the mammoth volcano, Popocatépetl, issuing billows of ancient smoke year-round. To the east lies the Great Pyramid of Tepanapa, the largest structure in the Americas, which is now capped by a golden domed cathedral for the Virgin de los Remedios, one of dozens upon dozens of cathedrals and chapels in Cholula. They are everywhere.

Burros may still parade down the streets while roosters greet the dawn, but there is no escaping the modern world. The 19-year-old housekeeper, Rey, watches my YouTube videos on his iPod and says he knows how to unlock the iPhone for free service. Or maybe it was the soon-to-be-released Google phone.

Hugh checks the election data almost hourly and maintains a mailing list for news and information about political, religious, and immigration issues.

“All I want them to put on my grave is the word ‘Liberal,’” he tells me.

What surprised me most — although it should not have, having glimpsed Hugh’s incredible life story — was that Hugh knows Barack Obama.

Before he was in the Illinois legislature, Obama came to help Hugh get legal depositions for the migrant workers he was helping in Champaign. Hugh knew Michelle and their daughters. He was even invited to attend a church service with them, and he reports that Rev. Wright gave a powerful sermon, of which he approved wholeheartedly.

Bit by bit, stories from Hugh’s life emerge. He has had audiences with the pope. Several different popes. As a young man, he taught Latin at Scottsdale High School in Arizona. One of his pupils had been former Vice President Dan Quayle, something Hugh didn’t realize until he attended a reunion two years ago sponsored by his former students.

“I just thought of him as little Danny Quayle,” he says.

He was in the Ambassador Hotel the night Robert Kennedy was shot, a story he cannot tell without choking up.

And he spent ten years of his life — from age 14 to 24 — as a Franciscan monk, never leaving a California monastery, wearing brown robes and a shaved head.

“I don’t know what it means to be a teenager,” he says with no visible regret.

At age 75, Hugh lives with Carmen, his Springer Spaniel, and Figaro, an old tabby cat. He is known throughout Cholula and nearby Puebla and it did not take long for his activist gene to kick in. He established a program to find homes for immigrant children who have become separated from their families and shipped to Mexico by U.S. immigration authorities. Some of the children arrive in Puebla lost and without contacts. Some are actually U.S. citizens, having been born across the border. The project has a website,

On Sunday morning, we pick up two neighbors who need a ride to a dairy, to pick up supplies of cheese and yogurt. Hugh drives them every week. The landscape is filled with corner lots of cornfields and marigolds. All the cathedrals have shrines this week, because of the celebration of Día de los Muertos, and the people are streaming toward the cemeteries to bring fruit, flowers, tequila, toys, all manner of remembrances and offerings.

A national holiday, Dia de los Muertos celebrations continue for days. In the city square of Puebla, there are throngs of people, rock performances, skateboarders doing jumps inside the gates of the famed, golden Chapel of the Rosary, people in Halloween attire, spontaneous dance events. This year’s theme is “La Muerte es un Sueño” — death is a dream.

The Halloween attire throws me off for a minute, because of its seeming incongruity with the supposed solemnity of the occasion. And yet it makes perfect sense. The multifaceted religion of Mexico is one of inclusion, not exclusion. All elements are incorporated, welcomed into one, embraced.

When Hugh and I enter the cemetery on Day of the Dead, I worried about seeming to be a tourist, taking pictures of people who were working hard to decorate the gravesites of their loved ones. I need not have worried.

Mariachis played as families stood attentively. At other gravesites there was laughter and picnics. The cemetery was a tight maze of mounds and tombstones, all covered in flower petals, enormous crosses and carefully laid out gifts, stalks of sugar cane, bananas, vegetables, tortillas, cups of pulque, men and women and children watering and cleaning the sites, barely any space to walk between the musicians, the patriarchs, and the running children.

We stood by one family, a woman with her several small children, seated by the gravesite. A boy of six explained, “Es mí papá.”

The mariachis sang and played with particular emotion at one site, and I watched the family members. An outsider, I did not want to intrude, but I was drawn in with a smile.

Suddenly, I found myself unexpectedly overcome, tears welling up in me from the music, the solemnity, the celebration and the warmth of being included in this shared moment.

“People speak of family values in the United States,” Hugh said later. “Here, people live family values.”

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