Highlights of the 2023 Mexico Study Trip

June 11, 2023

By Ryan Rogers M.M. 23 and Margaret Winchell D.M.A. 28

On May 23, ISM students, faculty, and staff traveled to Mexico for a two-week biennial study tour. A capstone experience  of ISM student life, these tours provide a rich immersion in the history and culture of the nations visited. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is the first trip since 2019. We were so glad to be back on the move!

The trip began with a voyage to Oaxaca, home to two important archaeological sites, Monte Albán and Mitla. The two sites are in some ways opposite: Monte Albán was more of a political site built on a mountain ridge, and Mitla (right) is nestled in a valley and is more important for religious reasons. Despite the differences of the sites, our visits to them revealed common threads. The archaeology and preserved visual art at these sites proved to be fertile ground for exploring the colonization of indigenous peoples in Oaxaca, primarily the Mixtec and Zapotec peoples. From mural styles to the adornment of baptismal fonts, the art and architecture illustrated the colonial approach to evangelism of integrating several elements of indigenous art and culture into Christian devotional practices. This thread—how indigenous art in some ways seems to have been weaponized by colonizers—kept coming back over the course of the trip. It struck us differently, sometimes as a travesty when you look at the indigenous culture, freedom, and life lost in the name of imperialism; sometimes understandable if you believe, as the colonizers did, that everyone is better off once nestled in the safety of Christianity; sometimes seeming like just a part of history that we can learn from and try to do better with next time.

Typically, ISM study tours are preceded by a series of fall lectures in Colloquium that give us some context about what we will see. This year, we had planned to go to Peru, so our preparation was aimed in that direction. Unfortunately, the details of those lectures weren’t directly relevant to the trip we actually took. There was a moment, however, when our tour guide at Mitla said, “everything has meaning.” That simple, oft-used phrase was enough to make a connection with our lectures about Peru. When traveling, one of the first paths into understanding a new place doesn’t have to be a complete history. We can begin by acknowledging that despite all we don’t know, the places we visit were built one detail at a time by people who cared very much. Every blueprint and color of paint, the recurring presence of a gemstone, even what kinds of tourist traps we find—all of these are clues to how a place came to be what it is. Coming into this trip with less background knowledge than students on study tours in the past forced us to lean on this principle and look more closely at what we didn’t understand. It meant we saw Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo not only through their artwork, but through the objects in their home and studios that convey the joys and pains of their relationship. We learned about Mexico one piece at a time through each rock at an archaeological site, gallery at a museum, or sip of hot chocolate.

We spent the second half of the trip in the vicinity of Mexico City. Naturally, one of our first stops was to see the famous Shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The shrine is housed within the Basilica de Guadalupe, the most visited Marian precinct in the world, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and her invocation of Guadalupe. Here, as with so many other sites, the complicated impact of colonization loomed large. The complex is situated on land that was sacred to the Aztec people; yet, an Aztec convert to Christianity, Juan Diego (born Cuauhtlatoatzin), was largely responsible for the first church built in this area. In 1531, Juan Diego received a vision of the Virgin Mary at the site instructing that a church be built there in her honor. After the friars initially would not believe that the Virgin had appeared to an indigenous person, Juan Diego witnessed several miracles, one of which was the famous imprinting of the image of Mary on his tilma, an indigenous outer garment. Now, the complex contains several churches and attracts millions of visitors every year who want to see the image of the Virgin for themselves.

The next day included stops at the Aztec ruins of Tlatelolco and an exclusive visit to the National Museum of Anthropology. At Tlatelolco, our guides taught us about the Aztecs, including their calendar, gods, daily life, and architectural practices. Then, we learned how these interfaced with Spanish colonial practices through a water cistern mural. While the remnants of the mural seem to depict elements of indigenous art, it was also designed so that those who bent down to take water would, in effect, be reverencing its central cross. Afterward, we proceeded to the Museum of Anthropology where we took a deeper dive into the many different cultures and civilizations that have inhabited what is now Mexico. We viewed countless incredible artifacts and made many connections with the sites we had visited already as well as some coming up on our itinerary. Among our favorite exhibits was a reconstruction of Tomb 104 from Monte Albán, which had been closed to the public during our visit.

Few stops on our trip were as impressive as the Pyramids of Teotihuacan (left). An ancient Mesoamerican urban center that predates the Aztecs, Teotihuacan was likely the largest city in the Americas during its prime (c. 1-500 CE). We began our visit in the south at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, dedicated to the serpent god, Quetzalcoatl. From there, many of us walked the central road known as the “Avenue of the Dead” because it was believed to have been paved with tombs. Our stroll took us past the massive Pyramid of the Sun, the third-largest pyramid in the world, up to the Pyramid of the Moon framed by the mountain known as Cerro Gordo. While walking the avenue, one can’t help but imagine the place as a bustling center of industry, famous for its pottery, jewelry, and obsidian artifacts, in particular. After a long morning outdoors, we were grateful for a bit of shade during our visit to the Basilica de San Agustin, where we had a brief tour, sang as a group, and took a photo in the courtyard among the orange trees.

The centerpiece of our visit to Mexico City was the Mexico City Cathedral. On our first full day in the city, we attended Pentecost Mass there (and sang two anthems in the service!). We returned later in the week to tour the choir, crypts, and cathedral archives. For the choral conductors and organists, this was a special treat! The organists eagerly lined up to play the organs at most of the cathedrals we visited, but the organs at the Mexico City Cathedral are especially notable for the care with which they were restored in 2016 and thus their importance as representations of the Spanish baroque style of organs.

The archives are home to more than 130 choir books and countless manuscripts from the 16th through 19th centuries, carefully maintained and archived by the musicologists who work there. While the music students in our group knew the use and importance of these in the abstract, seeing the music people sang from centuries ago makes the tradition we are part of when we sing together all the more real. This came to fruition at the end of the trip when we saw two early music ensembles in concert, bringing the music of New Spain to life, enlivening the past in today’s vivid color.

View a photo slideshow some of the trip’s highlights.

Photos by Ryan Rogers, Blake Bruchhaus, and Margaret Winchell.