What was el Colegio de la Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco?

El Colegio Imperial de la Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco was a center for the education of indigenous nobles in the Valley of Mexico. Its height was from 1536 to about 1578. Franciscan friars built it 15 years after the surrender of Tenochtitlan for two main reasons. First, the Franciscan leadership wanted to form an indigenous clergy. The hope was that the humanist education they would receive in Tlatelolco would prepare native sons to become native priests. Second, the colonial administrators saw the value of advanced education for the native nobility, so that they could serve as intermediaries and hold positions in the native government parallel to the Spanish colonial administration.

The Colegio was, in effect, the first university of the Americas. On par with the instruction of the universities in Salamanca, Bologna, Florence, and Paris, the students there studied under the paradigm of Renaissance Humanism. The Renaissance humanists believed in recuperating the learning of the Greco-Roman world, and followed a medieval university curriculum they called the trivium, which consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Tlatelolco had its own ancestral educational institutions from before the conquest. One of these was the calmecac (cal-MEH-cawk), whose remains lay in the complex of native structures of Tlatelolco, the historical sister city of Tenochtitlan. Indigenous nobles attended the calmecac, where they learned courtly speech, the art of song-poems (in xochitl in cuicatl), and fortified the networks that would allow the young to grow into the next rulers of the native community.

In this same plaza the last emperor of the Mexica, Cuauhtemoc, surrendered to Hernán Cortés in 1521. A detail that usually receives little attention is that Cuauhtemoc had actually attended the calmecac of Tlatelolco as a young man. Thus, out of ambition for land and wealth, Spanish soldiers struck against the indigenous educational system, when they burned Tlatelolco to the ground. In the same space, fifteen years later, Franciscan friars would endeavor to restore native access to higher education.

memorial cuauhtemoc

[Memorial: “El 13 de agosto de 1521 heróicamente defendido por Cuauhtemoc, cayó Tlatelolco en poder de Hernán Cortés. No fue triunfo ni derrota: fue el doloroso nacimiento del pueblo mestizo que es el México de hoy.” August 13, 1521 heroically defended by Cuauhtemoc, Tlatelolco fell into the power of Herán Cortés. It was neither triumph nor defeat: it was the painful birth of the mestizo nation that is the Mexico of today.]

The parallel use of the site for an institution of advanced learning was no accident. The first bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumárraga, recommended using the same site as a way to continue the indigenous heritage of learning, now under the aegis of Christian humanism. The leader of the Franciscan efforts in Tlatelolco, Bernardino de Sahagún, consciously imitated aspects of the previous calmecac of Tlatelolco, including contiguous living quarters for the students, and an organized daily schedule of study, chores, and religious observances. The central concern of the Colegio was Latin grammar. However, the study of the academic and liturgical language opened the door for an innovation: the alphabetization of Nahuatl, which allowed for the preservation of native knowledge. In fact, Latin and Nahuatl were the official languages of the campus, and Spanish was only spoken outside of instructional hours.

Intercultural collaboration and dialogue necessarily carried with it the continuation of native ideas, which drew from ancestral, pre-conquest sources. What’s more, instructors at the Colegio undertook explicit ethnographic documentation of native beliefs and practices. The Latin teacher Andrés de Olmos, before he came to the Colegio, had already spent a decade compiling wisdom sayings and proverbs in Nahuatl, called the huehuetlatolli (words of the elders). In collaboration with Bernardino de Sahagún, the Nahua physician Juan Badiano wrote a compendium of traditional herbal remedies in Nahuatl, which survives in a Latin version. Bernardino de Sahagún also directed a project he called the Historia universal, a twelve-volume survey of the Nahua worldview. The historia covered everything from the cosmos and deities, regional plants and animals, the human body, traditional festivals, agricultural practices, and much more. As the largest compendium of knowledge of beliefs and daily life before the conquest in the Valley of Mexico, this text is also known as the Florentine Codex, and appears as the topic of a future blog. Sahagún also collected traditional song-poems, and even published a collection of traditional rhythms and poetic verse with Christian themes. Thus, alongside Christian symbols and observances, this educational setting in Tlatelolco allowed for some survival of native cultural memory.

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As far as the original goals of the founders of the Colegio, the results of the project were varied. The first native priest, Antonio del Rincón, ordained in the seventeenth century, did not come as a direct result of the Colegio project. Yet the second of their goals —that of training intermediaries for posts in the colonial administration— did come to fruition. Indigenous nobles trained at Tlatelolco would occupy prominent places in regional politics. These leaders formed a pivotal group. Their names include Antonio Valeriano, Alonso Vegerano, Martín Jacobita, Mateo Severino, and Francisco Plácido to name a few. These men distinguished themselves for their linguistic and academic abilities, and each of them has a coming blog entry. The Franciscans relied on these, their best students to teach them Nahuatl and correct their sermons and other printed material before they used them for catechesis.

From where we sit nowadays, we may see this education as a cloaked form of oppression. The Spanish Franciscans still chose the content, and that content needed to jibe with Christianity. What’s more, these natives came from elite families, and were going to remain elites. The poor majority of commoners —the macehualme (mas-eh-WALL-meh)— gained no access to education and social opportunity. We may cynically conclude that the institution only led to a soft domination, through ideas instead of physical force. (Some scholars, notably Gayatri Spivak, have called this effect in colonial regimes “epistemological violence”).

While the power relationships were far from clean-cut, researchers are concluding that rather than one-sided oppression, the colonial world of native leaders was one of negotiation within domination. On the one hand, it is true that the graduates of the Colegio de la Santa Cruz held positions of gate-keepers in an indigenous government that worked in tandem with the Spanish colonial administration. In that sense, they followed the status quo from before the Spanish conquest. Indigenous commoners never had access to the same opportunities as nobles.

However, the gate swung both ways: these native leaders also negotiated with the Spanish, and in many cases helped set limits on European power, provided recommendations for the public good, and became key intellectual figures whose writings promoted visions of the future distinct from Spanish projects. In many cases, their writings have survived to the present day. As we shall see in coming blogs, these writings show that they established public drinking water supplies for commoners, worked for tribute reductions for the disabled and elderly, and sued to protect indigenous lands from Spanish encroachment.

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The building that housed the Colegio de la Santa Cruz today is the home of the Library and Archives of the Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores (Secretariat of Foreign Relations). That two-story building and its interior patio frame the stories of hundreds of forgotten lives, who together paved the way for what we now recognize as Mexican culture. The building’s orange façade covers the older colonial bricks of volcanic stone and stucco, which date back to the sixteenth century. You can read more about the plaza and what happened there on October 12, 1968, in my previous blog “Reflections on Mexico City, Day 3: Tlatelolco, Basilica & Xochimilco.”

The modern high-rise apartment buildings that surround the colonial church and the former Colegio now have a rhythm all their own. Every morning, there are aerobics classes in the shadow of the colonial buildings, and next to the ancient ruins. People jog through the plaza as part of their morning routines, as thousands shuffle off to the nearby metro station sipping their coffee or atole. Just as it has always been in the city, Mexico has found away to transform all of these elements into tension-filled yet constantly dynamic and generative unity.


Would you like to go on the next trip to see the Colegio de la Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco for yourself? Maybe you should go to Mexico City with ForgottenLivesLA. The trip will be in June of 2019. See “Worlds Collide: Mexico City” under the Trips tab. Also, you can follow this blog by signing up at the bottom of the page or by clicking on the three small dots in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen.

Further Reading

Baudot, Georges. Utopia and History in Mexico: The First Chroniclers of Mexican Civilization (1520-1569). Trans. Bernard and Thelma Ortiz de Montellano. Niwot: UP of Colorado, 1995.

Cortés, Rocío. “The Colegio Imperial de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco and Its Aftermath: Nahua Intellectuals and the Spiritual Conquest of Mexico.” A Companion to Latin American Literature and Culture. Ed. Sara Castro-Klaren. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2008. 86-105.

Cruz, Martín de la, and Juan Badiano. Libellus de medicinalibus Indorum herbis: Manuscrito azteca de 1552. 2nd ed. 2 vols. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1991.

Klor de Alva, José Jorge. “Christianity and the Aztecs.” San Jose Studies 5.3 (1979): 6-22.

Medrano, Ethelia Ruiz and Susan Kellogg, eds. Negotiation Within Domination: New Spain’s Indian Pueblos Confront the Spanish State. Boulder: UP of Colorado, 2010.

Riach, Graham K. An Analysis of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak?, 2017.

Sahagún, Bernardino de. General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex. 3 vols. World Digital Library.

SilverMoon. “The Imperial College of Tlatelolco and the Emergence of a New Nahua Intellectual Elite in New Spain (1500-1760).” Diss. Duke U, 2007.

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