The Colegio de la Santa Cruz de Santiago Tlatelolco was the first institution of higher education in the Americas intended specifically for indigenous people. It was the most important New Spanish center of science and the arts during the first half of the 16th century. In fact, it only operated for about 50 years. Today, the original building is in the shadow of the Church of Santiago Tlatelolco, and it’s seldom recognized for its place on today’s Plaza de Las Tres Culturas. Without the Colegio, we’d know far less of what we do know of both the ancient past, and the early colonial period.
The Colegio de Tlatelolco was the scientific establishment of its age. Nahua medicine was treated here as a serious subject. The records produced here are pored over to this day by historians, botanists, herbalists and others. But the Colegio also ingrained a sense of political identity to the nobility of the indigenous people in the hopes of preparing them to run the government of indigenous peoples.
The school began in 1533 when the Franciscans began teaching Latin grammar to the indigenous people. The formal Colegio was then dedicated in 1536, just eight months after the arrival of New Spain’s first Viceroy. By 1540, the decision as to whether or not train indigenous people for the priesthood was already causing rancor among the broader part of Spanish religious society. The school ceased to pursue the matter.
In 1546, the school passed from Franciscan control to become completely indigenous in its administration. Remarkably, though the age was beset by multiple multi-year plagues, two researchers completed the Codex de la Cruz-Badiano. It’s a remarkable text in both the history of medicine and in the history of botany. Beset by financial and economic problems, the school foundered, and finally ceased functioning as an institution by the mid-1570s.
The earliest parts of the building include a modest stone construction used for evangelization. This dates from 1526. The rest of the building was built in stages during the rest of the 16th and 17th centuries. It later became known as the Cloister of San Buenaventura and San Juan Capistrano, named for one of its Catholic sponsors. The cloister was begun in about 1660 with 30 cells for monks, a library, refectory, offices, and a jail.
Francisco Abadiano, an esteemed Mexico City book dealer acquired many of them. His son sold an enormous part of the collection to Adolph Sutro, the Prussian mining magnate. He brought the books to San Francisco, California with the intent of building the largest private library in the world. His heirs sought support from the California government to complete the project. But in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and enormous fire consumed almost everything on Montgomery Street. One building, housing some 70,000 volumes of the Sutro collection, was spared. The Sutro Library finally opened to the public in 1917. It’s often considered the most important part of the California State Library.
Declared a monument on August 3, 1946, in 1964, the façade of the former Tecpan de Santiago, today a museum, was reassembled on the back of the old cloisters building. Besides the Tecpan museum, tours of the larger site are available to the following:
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