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Palace of Autonomy: UNAM

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El_Palacio_de_la_Autonomía_o_Antigua_Escuela_de_Odontología
Photo: Patricia Alzuarte Díaz on Wikimedia Commons

The Palace of Autonomy (Palacio de la Autonomía) celebrates the notion of that big, political word that so confounds international visitors. In fact, freedom from government control, academic freedom, had to be fought for and won, by students, professors, academics and researchers.

The reverberations are still felt today. The word Autonomous still needs to be spoken every time one names one of these government-supported, public universities.

Today, still a part of UNAM, the palace is the site of a number of museums.

The Building

The Palace building went up in the decades after the Reformation had closed the Santa Teresa Monastery. Built of white stone quarried near Pachuca in Hidalgo, the style is eclectic, combining elements from a number of other styles. Some of the foundations rest on a perimeter wall which surrounded the Templo Mayor site.

After the fall of ancient Tenochtitlan, the space had been reserved for the Casa de Monedas mint. But soon after became part of the Santa Teresa la Antigua monastery complex. When that complex was closed by the Reformation, this part was converted to residential units. The Porfirio Díaz government soon took over this section and had the present building constructed early in the 20th century. By 1910, it was housing the Normal School of Teachers. This was soon folded into the National University of Mexico which came to be UNAM.

The building served as the UNAM dean’s offices, and the papers founding the University were signed here in  1929. When most of UNAM moved to University City (CU) in 1953, it began serving as the National School of Dentistry. The dentists then moved to CU, too, in 1958. The building then became the School of Nursing and Obstetrics, and then part of the National Preparatory School until 1978.

Today it serves as the Museum of University Autonomy, which also hosts a Salon of Mexican Dentistry, a temporary exhibition hall, and an archaeological exhibition. The university radio station UNAM-FM also have studios and archives in the building.

The Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico lasted from 1551 until it was renamed the University of Mexico after Mexican independence was achieved. It was still not a bastion of free liberal thinking.  The original university was officially abolished by Maximilian in 1865. But several professional schools acted as successors in more secularized versions appropriate to the era. These were eventually united again as the University of Mexico in 1910. Already by 1914, at the height of the Mexican Revolution, students and faculty were in constant conflict with the government, which was also, always, very close at hand. By the 1920s José Vasconcelos would become rector, but waves of student strikes would wrack the university, often over government mandates or what was perceived as government interference. Strikes involved classroom walkouts and often drew police responses. Students increasingly drew support from faculty and administration. In 1929, intense negotiations with the government eventually cut the ties that bound the University to the Ministry of Public Education and the university rector could act without fear of repercussion from the government. Faculty, researchers, and students could too.

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