History Brought to Life

Did you know that 2010 marks the bicentennial of the start of the Mexican War of Independence, which led to the country's split from Spain? Did you know that 2010 marks the centennial of the Mexican Revolution?

Do you know anything about Mexican history?

If not, and if you live in Tucson, then shame on you. Considering that our city was part of Mexico until 1854—and that Mexican culture is an integral part of ours—we should all be at least a little educated about our neighbor to the south.

Fortunately for us, we have the Arizona State Museum—one of the few places in the United States that has sufficient collections, as well as experts, to tell Mexico's story properly. Its newest exhibit, Many Mexicos: Vistas de la Frontera, gives viewers a sweeping look at Mexico's history—or, we should say, histories—from the pre-Colombian period to the present. Viewers walking through the exhibit will travel through time as they learn about the ancient, complex societies of the Maya and Aztecs; the arrival of Spanish conquistadors; nation-state forging in the 1800s; the revolutionary call to arms of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata; and the turbulent Mexican politics of today.

It's a lot of information to absorb, but don't worry—the exhibit is comprised of a whopping 300 objects with rich interpretation that will make your Mexican-history lesson exciting. Checking out a real Mayan corn vessel, you'll learn about the fascinating rituals, beliefs and lifestyles associated with the complex civilization that is credited with creating the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Colombian Americas. Viewing Spanish colonial retablos, or devotional paintings, you'll see the same beautiful, iconic images that Spanish missionaries first brought to New Spain to venerate saints, recount religious stories or give thanks to religious figures.

The exhibit also includes artifacts and accessories once belonging to famous Mexican historical figures, like a sword and uniform belonging to Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna, the cork-legged, charismatic caudillo (military leader) whose turbulent 40-year political career included signing the Plan de Casa Mata to abolish the monarchy in Mexico, acting as president of the country 11 nonconsecutive times over a period of 22 years, and leading forces that killed hundreds of Texans at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836. You can see a ring worn by Emperor Maximilian I, who reigned over the Second Mexican Empire from 1864 to 1867; a brooch that once adorned his wife, Empress Carlota; and a sombrero that might have sat on Pancho Villa's head as he lead Villistas in seizing hacienda land for distribution to peasants and soldiers during the Revolution.

What makes this exhibit all the more relevant for Tucsonans is that it depicts Mexican history from the perspective of the border region. During the pre-Colombian period, the Arizona-Mexico border area made up the upper limit of Mesoamerica; after the conquest of Mexico, it evolved into the northern frontier of Spanish-Indian relations. Interactions among nations, nation-states, groups and individuals—from commercial exchanges to clashes—have helped shape the current political climate ever since the international border was first solidified. Understanding the region's history can be a significant boon in sorting out the controversies and conflicts surrounding it today.

"Local stories reflect a larger Mexican story," said Dr. Michael Brescia, the museum's associate curator of ethnohistory and co-author of two books on the history of Mexico. "With this exhibit, you'll not only see 300 objects that will dazzle you and assault your senses; there's also a lot of good interpretation. ... We want all visitors to fully appreciate the broad sweep of the Mexican experience."

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