Just about everyone is aware of celebrations held in this country on Independence Day, or similar fetes in France on Bastille Day, and in Mexico for Cinco de Mayo. In fact, 2010 was a big year for celebrating south-of-the-border happenings with the bicentennial of Mexican Independence from Spain (1810) and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution (1910).
So it seemed natural that the Consulate of Mexico office in Tucson would partner with Arizona State Museum to present the latest Year of Mexico exhibition called "Many Mexicos, Vistas de la Frontera." While it took a year to pull the display artifacts together to fill a 1,300-square-foot section of the museum, the viewing public has a full two years to enjoy this broad sweep of Mexican history.
Presented from a borderlands perspective, the display also tells the history of Arizona as it reflects off the mirror of Mexico’s past and impacts made by peoples of many backgrounds—indigenous and European, Asian and African, new arrivals and those who have been here for a long time. All are integral pieces of the puzzle picture shown when they combine to form the part of the cultural fabric that constitutes Mexico—and, by extension—Arizona.
“What this exhibit does is take a long thread of the indigenous experience and weave it through each of the major time periods from pre-Columbian to modern-day Mexico,” says exhibition curator Michael Brescia. Describing himself as a lone historian surrounded by archaeologists, Brescia, a specialist in Mexican history, said he wanted this exhibit to emphasize two themes: "change and continuity."
Acknowledging that the more things change, the more they stay the same, he explains: “We wanted this to be a broad umbrella display, looking at each time period, how they’re connected (or not) and how things change (or don’t) in Mexico. Doing so leads to the second theme, that change and continuity are both inter-related by an indigenous thread and there’s no way you can understand Mexican history without a firm grasp on indigenous culture and history over time. The indigenous voice didn’t end with the buildings of pyramids—it’s still around today and very diverse.”
The exhibit is self-guided and self-paced with large wall text panels that start with the pre-Columbian period, move into the toppling of the Aztec empire and the start of colonialism, evolve into the 19th century with shouts for independence from Spain with revolutionaries like Zapata and Pancho Villa and finally into modern Mexico and its relationship with the United States.
While the indigenous theme prevails in each period, of particular interest to students of Native Americana is the starting block, the pre-Columbian display that shows different cultural, political, and economic features from the Olmecs (the “mother culture of Mexico”), through the Maya, Aztecs, Toltecs, and into the Hohokam and Casas Grandes of the northern frontier—a meso-American trip through time.
“They all left an impact in their own way and contributed to the evolution of experiences,” says Dr. Brescia. The text panel for the pre-Columbian section reads: “Mexico’s past is a dynamic story of cross-cultural contact and exchange shown in human migration, settlement, and culture—from the earliest times and continuing into today. One of the original birthplaces of large scale human society in the western hemisphere is found in Mexico where some 4,000 years ago hunters and gatherers traveled through diverse landscapes establishing sedentary communities that flourished until the early 1500s when the Spanish colonial enterprise began.”
“Cortez may have toppled the Aztec empire and built colonialism on top of what Aztecs had started, but while the empire may have disappeared, indigenous peoples didn’t; they endured, adapted, and transformed, as shown in later-dated displays,” Brescia explains.
History would have been written differently if an indigenous population had not already been here when Europeans arrived. “If they’d come to an empty continent, there would have been a totally different evolution in the patterns that did develop,” says Brescia. “While religion is generally emphasized as a motive for overseas expansion, so, too, is economics. When Spaniards arrived in North America, they discovered the indigenous population really was the treasure of Mexico, along with the silver they were coerced into mining that went to markets in Europe and Asia.
What resulted was a cultural and biological blending of peoples into a dynamic, multi-cultural, hybrid that encompassed elements of all the indigenous peoples—Mexicans, Africans, and Europeans—and threw them together in a melding you can still see today along the 1,900 mile border between Mexico and the U.S.”
"Many Mexicos: Vistas de la Frontera" runs through November, 2012. To learn more, log on to statemuseum.arizona.edu or call (520) 621 4895.