Saturday, January 17, 2009


I was in such a rush to get out of the house the other day that I forgot my wallet. I left home with only the change in my pocket, which was probably about 50 pesos ($4). As it turned out, my pocket change was enough to buy me the four bus trips needed to get to and from our school and the field trip, lunch with a cup of juice, half a cup of ice cream, and a full undergraduate and graduate tuition at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

That's right, Hispanic America's finest institution costs just 20 centavos a year (about one and a half cents). Our trip there was fascinating.

La UNAM, as the university is called, is built in the southern end of Mexico City. While a fairly modern affair--the present campus was built in the early 1950s in its own "University City"--it was first founded in 1910 and granted its autonomy sometime in the 1920s. And as much as it looks forward into the future, it is also deeply grounded in the region's history. 

In 1500, when Paris was a maze of winding streets and London was a small affair of 50,000 people, Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital at the center of Lake Texcoco, was a well organized, wealthy metropolis of 250,000. It's market in Tlatelolco was the economic capital of Mesoamerica, offering everything from fruits and gold to dental services. The wide plazas and huge boulevards eased commerce and transportation throughout the lake's artificial island system. The political center was the throne of power for the entire region, sharing in a triple alliance with the Alcohuos of Texcoco, who lived on the eastern shore, and the Tepanecs of Tlacopan, who lived on the western shore. It was the king of Texcoco, a poet and architect, who built the complicated system of damns that kept separate the salt waters of Lake Texcoco from the freshwater of the surrounding lakes. A great system of damns and causeways crisscrossed the entire valley.

The project of University City is one that captures this history. The buildings of the campus are clustered around a large square, similar to the way temples surrounded large plazas in Tenochtitlan's meeting places. Each of the colleges of the university, which lie off of the plaza, cluster around their own courtyards, forming communities within communities on the campus. Cars do not pass through the campus in a busy highway but rather float above the ground on elegantly-crafted bridges, reminding me of the broad causeways of the Aztec city. Even the handball courts remind me of Aztec ruins, constructed from thick walls of stone. The famous main library is a large collage of rocks, natural in color, collected from all the regions of Mexico.

In addition to their history, the buildings are wonderful in function, each designed by a different Mexican architect. The chemistry building only has windows that open to the north, shading the laboratories from the hot sun that could ruin experiments. The swimming pool, enormous in size, fits lanes for laps and diving boards, stretching out of site under a bridge. Many of the buildings are built right from the volcanic rock from which they grow, while mounds of dirt support trees that could not otherwise take root in the tough ground.

UNAM It has a student population of 286,484 on a main campus of 1,803.86 acres. It has it's own bus system and metro stop. It also has a free bicycle system, where you can take a bike from anywhere on campus and leave it for others anywhere else. As for classes, I have decided on Agricultural Economy, The Economic History of Mexico, Social Theory of Latin America, and Mexico: Multicultural Nation, which start the first week of February.

As a bonus, here's a pic of our cute guide who showed us around campus:

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