Number 40, Spring 2003


The bustling community that is home to UC's new California House once was a lush river valley that humans have inhabited for more than 2,500 years.

Archeological remains tell of early settlers with developed tools, stonework, and arts and crafts. About 80 AD, a volcano wiped out the first urban settlements. New communities moved in, forming an integral part of the development of high civilization in Mesoamerica.

Casa de California, visible behind the tree-lined wall to the right, has been part of this Chimalistac neighborhood for more than 100 years.

By the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the area was known as the White Shields Place, Chimalistac [Chimali - shield and Ixtac - salt, or salt-white]. The inhabitants regarded the valley as a sacred place where warriors armed with ritual shields prayed before battle.

Hernán Cortés stayed among the sumptuous orchards and fertile chinampas (cultivated, floating gardens) of Chimalistac when he arrived in 1519. The Spanish sought to eclipse the many rituals associated with the god of the orchards, fruits and fertility, Xocotl, by settling a Carmelite community there. The monks embarked on a building spree not only erecting a monastery but also a hospital, a church and a school.

Many books from their Colegio de San Angel disappeared after American forces, including those of Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee, invaded the area in 1847. Many survive in the Benson Library, Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Texas.

Replete with remnants of Mexican history, dozens of which are registered historical places, Chimalistac bears the title of Zona de Monumentos Históricos. The end of the 19th century brought urbanization and a community of artists. Diego Rivera kept a workshop nearby. Author, diplomat and politician Federico Gamboa lived in Chimalistac, where he set his novel, Santa. His monument is visible from the upper floors of the Carmen Street house.

Artists continue to flock to the area, which is home to writers Elena Poniatowska, Gabriel García Márquez, and innumerable actors and artists. They share contemporary Chimalistac’s cobble-stoned streets with students and scholars from the many centers of learning in the area.

Casa de California will provide one more draw for the intellectuals, artists and politicians from both Mexico and California. The warriors of the mind will finally replace the warriors of the sword.