The Newberry Library Presents the Aztecs and Colonial Mexico

Newberry Library

Walking into the beautiful, open foyer of the Newberry Library from a snowstorm outdoors, it was a delight to explore the 'warmth of Mexico' in two exhibits. I joined Minna Novick who has been a docent there for twenty years and Riva Feshbach, exhibits manager, to explore descriptions of Cortes' entry into Mexico City. 'The Aztecs and the Making of Colonial Mexico' with 'The Re-Construction of Mexico-Tenochtitlan' tell the story differently but are like two sides of a coin. The exhibits go together so well, it is hard to believe they are independent.

Map of Tenochtitlan from 1524

To the right of the foyer, one enters the world of the Aztecs depicted in pictures, books and maps. We learn that today in Mexico, there are 1.5 million native speakers of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. In, 'The Aztecs and the Making of Colonial Mexico', we try to understand how this indigenous population preserved language, culture, identity and history. Well before the Spanish arrived screenfold books and calendars showing daily activities and rituals were part of Aztec life. It is fascinating to see the native works contrasted with an original report that Cortes sent to Spain describing the city he saw in an original hand painted map. Franciscan Friar Bernardin de Sahagun spent his life trying to understand the Aztec culture so he could be more effective in teaching his flock. His trilingual historical and religious books in Latin, Spanish and Nahuatl are truly fascinating. There are sixty items on display that allow visitors insight into the complex culture of the Nahua people.

Top from 1519, bottom by Enrique Chagoya, Mexican-American artist

Ellen Baird, co-curator and professor of art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wants the exhibit to 'vividly reveal the Colonial Aztecs (the Nahua) as people of great intelligence, creativity, and perseverance whose contributions to the making of Colonial Mexico were essential'. Included in the exhibit are the 1524 Map of Tenochtitlan, a four generation pictorial genealogy and the pictorial wills of a 16th century indigenous family, early colonial accounts of Mexican history, culture and language and the screenfold manuscripts of contemporary Mexican-American artist Enrique Chagoya.

Sequential pictures tell a story

'The Aztecs and the Making of Colonial Mexico' offers a fresh perspective of the Aztecs in Colonial Mexico and their impact on the heritage and culture of Mexico, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. It was curated by two University of Illinois at Chicago professors, Ellen Baird and Cristian A. Roa-de-la-Carrera The Newberry Library is one of the largest independent research libraries in the United States and is open to the public for research and reference in the humanities. It holds an extraordinary collection that includes more than 1.5 million manuscript pages and 300 thousand historic maps. The collection of Mexican colonial sources is among the top in the United States. From this collection the current exhibit,

The Newberry Library 1906-postcard

The Library was founded in 1887 as the result of a bequest by Chicago banker and civic leader Walter L. Newberry, who provided for the formation of a library that would be free of charge and open to the public. It was designed by William Frederick Poole, its first librarian, and Henry Ives Cobb and opened in 1892. It was carefully designed to allow open space and light so that researchers could work comfortably for long periods of time. The non-circulating research and rare books collections was conceptualized by Poole. It faces Washington Square Park, the oldest in Chicago, also know as 'bughouse square'.

Cortes enters Tenochtitlan-Minna Novick and Riva Feshbach behind

Back in the foyer, we crossed to the other side where there was another display. This model gave the feeling of entering the city itself, with the life and culture of that time displayed before us. In this project, created at McKinley Park School, students, faculty and parents used plywood, clay and tempera, to construct this huge model of the city that Cortes entered.

Boats docked in model

Established in 2003 as a new Chicago Public school, McKinley Park had an opportunity to distinguish itself as a place of teaching and learning in by involving the school community in a culturally powerful project. The school is housed in a space rented from a church and serves 370 families who are primarily of Mexican descent. Principal, Frances Garcia, and culture teacher, Alejandro Ferrer, told me they have visited Mexico many times and wanted to share their love and respect of the Mexican culture with the school community. The result was 'The Re-Construction of Mexico-Tenochtitlan'.

A lone boat on a painted sea

During a five- month period in 2004-5, students from grades four through eight along with parents, teachers and administrators completed a scale model that reconstructs the magnificent imperial city Mexico-Tenochtitlan as it was in 1519 when Hernan Cortes arrived with his Spanish forces. Those who worked on this project believe that 'The reconstruction of Mexico-Tenochtitlaln proved to be an unforgettable learning experience for all those who participated in the project. McKinley Park aims to transmit the consciousness that the value of culture and tradition play in the development of the individual'.

The center of activity with Heather Malec behind

This model more than fills a large display room. Part of it is being stored at the school. Before coming to the Newberry Library, this model was at the James R. Thompson Center for a week and it will go to the Field Museum in March. The creators of the exhibit are hoping that a permanent home can be found so that Chicagoans can continue to enjoy it.

Advanced plumbing

The warmth, vibrancy and energy of the exhibits buoyed me as I walked out into the snow once again. I kept thinking what a wonderful place this is for families to visit during the holidays. It is a place where one can enjoy architectural beauty, have an opportunity to see and learn new things, and on a cold winter day, feel the 'warmth of Mexico'.

Animals in a pen-the zoo

McKinley Park School Principal, Frances Garcia would love to hear from anyone who has an idea for a permanent home for the exhibit. Call McKinley Park School at 773-535-4180 or email: [email protected].

The Newberry Library is located at 60 W. Walton St. Galleries are open Monday, Friday and Saturday from 8:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday from 8:15 to 7:30 p.m. Closed Sundays and December 23, 25, 31 2006 and January 1, 2007.

The Newberry Library is free. Information is available at 312-255-3691 or

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