Hum 110 Turns Its Lens On Mexico City

First-year students examine the metropolis from its foundation to the Zapatista protests of the 1990s.

By Katie Pelletier ’03 | March 12, 2019

Spring is in the air, and first-year students at Reed have been packing Vollum for the new Hum 110 unit on Mexico City.

Prof. Nathalia King [English 1987–] began the first lecture of the semester by noting that, “As of today, for the first time in the history of Reed College, Humanities 110 will turn to the study of cultures in the Americas,” drawing a hearty cheer from students in the crowded lecture hall.

In the fall, Hum 110 concentrated on Athens and the ancient Mediterranean. In the spring, the focus has shifted to two of the largest metropolitan centers in history: Mexico City and New York City. The current unit begins with the founding of Tenochtitlan and continues through the Spanish Conquest, Mexican Independence, and the Zapatista protests of the 1990s and 2000s.

Prof. King’s lecture examined two Aztec codices: The Boturini Codex, also known as the Tira de la Peregrinación (the pilgrimage strip) and the Mendoza Codex. Both are foundation stories. The Tira was composed ca. 1530 on a long strip of bark paper and tells of the two-hundred-year migration of the Mexica people. At the instigation of their god Huitzilopochtli, they left their homeland in Aztlán, searching for the prophesied location on which to settle, which they would know by the sight of an eagle eating a snake on top of a cactus. This location turned out to be a marshy island in the middle of Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. Here they built the great city of Tenochtitlán.

When the Spanish encountered Tenochtitlán in the 16th century, it was one of the largest cities in the world, remarkable for its feats of engineering, such as dikes that kept the brackish water of the Lake Texcoco from mixing with the fresh water near the island. Wide causeways connected the island to the land around the lake. To feed the island’s population, the Mexica used a method often described as floating gardens, turning marshlands into farmlands.

Few pre-colonial Aztec documents survived destruction by the Spanish conquistadors. As Prof. David Garrett [history 1998–] noted in his lecture on Mexica cosmology, our understanding of Mexica culture and beliefs is compromised because most of our source material consists of colonial documents, meaning they are organized and structured by Spanish ontology. Many of the documents that students study in Hum 110, even those written in Nahuatl, had a colonial audience in mind.

One of them is the Florentine Codex, compiled in the 1560s by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish monk in the Franciscan order, and indigenous Mexica. Stretching to jaw-dropping 2,400 pages, it includes a description of ceremonies for Atl Cavalo, the first month of the Aztec year. To underscore how the colonial lens might distort understanding, Prof. Garrett invited students to compare two accounts of child sacrifice that appeared in the Florentine codex: the first, a short and terse summary Spanish summary of the second, longer and more reverent Nahuatl description. Still, he said, even though Sahagún and the Spanish understood the concept of a glorious death—such as the death of a religious martyr—neither he nor the Spanish could treat the deaths of children as glorious, the way the Mexica understood them. He noted the ethical challenge that this presents as we try to understand the culture of the Mexica.

Although the new material poses challenges, there are many rewards. Reporting on the new syllabus in the Quest, Katherine Draves ’22 noted that she was enjoying Hum 110 and was especially interested in the Mexica belief that nothing was in a fixed state of being, but rather eternally in a process of becoming. “Learning about the Mexica understanding of the world has shifted my world view,” she wrote.

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