This fall, Amherst history professor Rick López is teaching in the study room at the Mead Art Museum, where students in his class on “Mexican Material and Visual Culture” examine art and other objects from the museum’s rich Mexican collection. Here, López, who’s also dean of new students, tells us why it’s important to get close to art—and what it would be like to spend a day with him in Mexico City. (Hint: Pack comfortable walking shoes.)
“Mexican Material and Visual Culture” — is this a history course or an art history course? It’s officially a history research seminar, but it is both a history course and an art history course. My hope is that by using objects and visual material in innovative ways, the course can bridge the two disciplines while enriching each of them.
How do your students feel about being surrounded by objects from Mexico’s past, some of which are truly ancient? So far the students have really enjoyed encountering these objects directly. A photo of an object cannot begin to capture its physicality: its weight, materials, signs of its creation by hand, and marks from use acquired over time.
How does this kind of class work? Do you lecture about the objects while the students take notes? When we look at objects, the students begin by drawing them from multiple angles, zeroing in on particular details. Museum staff turn the objects over to allow the students to view them from every angle. This connects them to the people and experiences of Mexico’s past in a way that images never can.
Is there something about Mexican history that never fails to surprise your students? The proximity of the United States and Mexico creates the illusion of familiarity. Whenever I teach a course on Mexico, students are amazed at how much they did not know about our southern neighbor, and how much of what they thought they knew turns out to be different from the reality. They are also surprised by how deeply aware Mexicans tend to be of their own history, and how much the past is alive in the lives of people today.
You’re an Amherst College graduate. Was there a course like this when you were a student here? There was not, but there were some courses that helped me realize the remarkable gap between an object and the image of it we see in a slide. Courses by Profs. Carol Clark, Kevin Sweeney, and Nicola Courtright took us into the museum to look at American and European painting.
My commitment to seeing art in person was deepened by my work on my senior honors thesis on San Francisco’s Chicano murals, which I wrote under the direction of Prof. Natasha Staller in Art History.
I traveled to San Francisco to walk the streets, see the Chicano murals in person, and interview the artists.
If you could take your class on a field trip to Mexico for one day, where would you take them? I fantasize about such an opportunity. If I had just one day, I think I would take them through the streets of downtown Mexico City where they could see the intermingling of six centuries of art and urban design.
They could visit the Metropolitan Cathedral and a preconquest archaeological excavation site, which sit side by side on the main plaza.
Students could also touch the walls and floors of ostentatious colonial palaces built from the stone of the Aztec temples that the Spaniards dismantled, and which, in turn, were later subdivided into claustrophobic tiny apartments for the urban poor after their facades were cracked by earthquakes and their floors rendered uneven due to the fact that Mexico City is slowly sinking into the earth. They’d see the parts of the city where nineteenth-century urban planners demolished the colonial past, replacing it with wide avenues and buildings in the style of the Parisian Belles Époque, and which later gave way to high-modernist skyscrapers.
The sprawling Museum of Anthropology houses a stunning collection of preconquest art. In the Museum of Fine Art students could see masterworks of Mexican painting and sculpture from the colonial era to the present. Just a few blocks away is the Franz Mayer Museum, with the finest examples of colonial-era craftsmanship, set within an old monastery. After a short subway ride from downtown, students would retrace the route of Juan Diego up Tepeyac Hill where he is said to have met the Virgin de Guadalupe in 1531. Then they could examine the Virgin’s shroud for themselves within the Basilica. With enough time, we might even rent a van to see the great pyramids of Teotihuacán.
Perhaps the most exciting thing for the students might be to simply experience the flow of life and ebullient energy of the city street, and to walk through a fruit and craft market to take in the smells, tastes, sounds, and creativity of everyday Mexican people.
We’re in the middle of national Hispanic Heritage Month now (Sept 15–Oct 15), established by the federal government under President Ronald Reagan in 1988. Everyone from PBS to the NFL has events celebrating it. What’s your feeling about the month? I value that fact that this official designation provides a moment for us, as a nation, to collectively pause to honor our Hispanic heritage and to learn about the diverse Latino population, which now makes up almost 20 percent of the United States, more than 60 percent of whom trace their heritage to Mexico.
I heard you worked at the Mead as a student in the early 1990s. What did you do exactly? Back then things were more informal around campus and the Mead did not yet have a professional security staff. Instead, student workers guarded the artwork, answered visitors’ questions, offered tours, and gave talks. My junior year, I was put in charge of these student employees, recruiting and training them, as well as creating the work schedule. It was a great opportunity to see art up close for long periods of time, and to become friends with fellow students who shared a passion for the arts.
What’s one material object from your own life that you think would be worth studying in a US history class 300 years from now? I have a Keuffel & Esser survey transit that belonged to my grandfather. The tool, used for surveying and measuring the landscape, is beautiful, but it is neither rare nor remarkable in itself. Its importance comes from its story.
My grandfather Felipe Alderete López bought it when he worked as a surveyor on government projects in southern New Mexico during the early twentieth century. Anti-Mexican attitudes of the era made it unusual for a Mexican-American to be hired as a land surveyor, and caused him to be passed over for promotion time and again in favor of Anglo newcomers whom my grandfather trained. Frustrated, Felipe quit and found work using his transit to survey land for the large landowners in the valley around his home who were supplying the booming demand for cotton. This was a bittersweet alternative, because the land my grandfather was surveying had been dispossessed from Mexicanos such as him, whose families had lived on and farmed it for two centuries. Felipe taught himself bricklaying and then modern home construction, and started a business building custom homes for the cotton farmers who were enjoying newfound wealth.
When I put my eye to the lens of my grandfather’s survey transit, I think of him looking through the same telescope at a landscape where shifting borders, political battles, and changes in property laws intersected with racism and growing economic exploitation to forever alter the destinies of the people of the US-Mexican borderland.
Interview by Sheila Flaherty-Jones