The Heady History of Mexico

“The Grateful Dead have the ability to transform. We’re playing music, but that’s not all we’re doing. We’re doing something besides entertaining. People come to be changed, and we change them” – Mickey Hart
As our psychedelic cowboys gear up to head down to Mexico for “Playing in the Sand”, hundreds of Deadheads will also strap on their shoes and head down to the “Land of Enchantment”. Without question, Deadheads are no strangers to ventures to lands far and wide. The Dead’s trip to Egypt and Europe comes to mind immediately. Sociologist Shan C. Sutton went as far to describe Dead tour as an opportunity for Deadheads to engage in “ritualistic pilgrimages” similar to religious pilgrimages in the Middle East. The difference? Dead tour never stops.

Another individual who is no stranger to adventure is Gordon Wasson or one of the first “westerners” to indulge psilocybin mushrooms in Mexico in the 1950’s. An established ethnomycologist, Gordon Wasson, and NYC photographer Allan Richardson arrived in the Mexican Mazatec village of Huatla in 1956. There they were greeted by a local shaman and holy-woman named Maria Sabina. Sabina introduced them to the psilocybin mushrooms and the holy Mazatec velada ritual where participants eat what the Aztec’s called, teonanacatl, or in English, “God’s flesh”. This “flesh” was the psilocybin mushroom.
What Wasson experienced was transformational. Indeed, he had seen nothing like the cosmic visions induced by psilocybin before in his life. Wasson proclaimed, “for the first time the word ecstasy took on real meaning”.
Consider this: Wasson was an American in a time where America was relatively black and white. The Leave It To Beaver lifestyle was alive and well in the 1950’s. McCarthyism and fear of communism, or the “Red Scare”, led to the passing of the Internal Security Act. Essentially, one could be jailed for expressing pacifist or “anti-American” views. This overt paranoia went as far as banning, Robin Hood across public universities.

With no doubt, the late Jerry Garcia would not have sat well with 1950’s American values. Garcia, who was never eager to indoctrinate others with his political views, occasionally voiced his opinion on politics from time to time saying once in an interview to Dennis McNally, 

“ New York doesn’t run, doesn’t exist because it’s governable, you know what I mean? It runs because those people are willing to believe, each one of them, that they’re going to hold it together for one more day, you know? It’s a working chaos, you know what I mean? It’s a functioning chaos. It isn’t controlled.”

According to Garcia, the human individual was omnipotent, and not the nation-state. As a public celebrity, if Garcia would have muttered such a phrase in the 1950’s, he could have been potentially labeled a communist and blacklisted from music venues.
Garcia saw through the picket fence past and into the tie-dyed future of individuality.
In a like manner in his time in Mexico, Wasson looked towards the future from his profound experience with the psilocybin mushroom. Wasson returned home and eagerly wrote, “Seeking the Mushroom” in Life magazine. Americans and westerns were immediately intrigued by the technicolor inducing discovery. The gates of Mexico flooded with eager psychedelic explorers. Sabina, the shaman who introduced psilocybin to Wasson, accepted all of these travelers with open hands and introduced them to her culture’s rituals. However, on the other hand, there were fellow Mazatec villagers who became disheartened with Sabina’s invitation to westerners. To some of the Mazatec’s, the influx of attention to their ritual was an intrusion of their sacred spirituality. For better or worse, the attention was going to stay. Timothy Leary, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, and beatniks from far and wide would eventually flock to Mexico for a shamanistic experience.
After the publication of, “Seeking the Mushroom”, Wasson returned to Mexico in the 1960s with Albert Hoffman, the Swiss man responsible for synthesizing LSD. Wasson and Hoffman came prepared with synthetic psilocybin for Sabina to try. Hoffman hoped to get Sabina’s assurance that the synthetic psilocybin he manufactured was indeed “legit”. Since the psychedelic carrying capacity of a single mushroom is not easily measurable in a medical setting, Hoffman synthesized psilocybin in capsules to be used in the scientific and medical communities. Sabina gave Hoffman the, “Ok!” and another successful trip to Mexico was completed by Wasson. The stride into the psychedelic future had begun.
By the end of the 1960’s psychedelics would be made schedule one illegal in the United States. That didn’t stop the powerhouse of the counterculture, though. The Grateful Dead and subsequent Dead reincarnations have carried the adventurous spirit that Sabina emulated well into 2018, for better or worse. 

So, as you Deadheads prepare your sandals and sunblock for your pilgrimage to Mexico perhaps take a moment to think of Sabina and the Mazatecs. We as Deadheads have a unique privilege to move into the future with a strong conviction for both freedom and our ritualistic experiences. As we engage in our dances of waking bliss and ethnogenic ritual let us remember those cultures who have turned on, “Lame America”, as Garcia calls it, to the possibility of everything.
Want to know more about Mexico? Follow Playing in the Sand coverage at

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