Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Mexico City College (aka "Gringo College") begins operations; later becomes Universidad de las Americas-Puebla

The original College Campus (1940-1954), on Calle Luis Potosi 154, Col. Roma, Mexico, D.F Photo (ca.1942) courtesy UDLAP  

On July 1st, 1940, Mexico City College opened its doors as a junior college in the dining room of a "Casa de Huéspedes" at Avenida Tacubaya 40, with five students, five teachers, five liberal arts courses and Henry L. Cain as President, Paul V. Murray as Dean, and Elizabeth Thomas de Lopez as part-time Registrar.

Mexico City College (MCC) was a truly unique institution where Mexico became part of the school’s classroom. Located in and later on the outskirts of Mexico City, it offered a broad liberal arts curriculum accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Students and faculty from across the United States and over thirty countries, along with a local student body, provided an educational environment of extraordinary cultural diversity that could not be matched anywhere else at the time. Twenty years after its founding, it stood on the brink of foundering when “it would be re-named as the University of the Américas, then the Universidad de las Américas followed by its move to Puebla. To appreciate fully the evolution of MCC into UDLAP, the history and the politics, requires going back to the opening days of the Second World War.                               

The 1940s

In 1940, Germany was on the march and U.S. involvement in War World II was just a question of time.  The large U.S. (and English speaking) colony in Mexico City wanted the means to keep their high school grads at home, instead of them heading north for college (out of parental control), if not impulsive “patriotic enlistment.”

Mexico City College (MCC) grew out of one of the great private educational ventures in Latin America — the American School Foundation — and of the aspirations of its superintendent, Dr. Henry L. Cain, and the principal of the High School Department, Dr. Paul V. Murray. Thus MCC was founded in 1940 as an extension of the American School Foundation (K-12).

Five years later, the College moved from the basement of the American High School to various nearby office buildings and apartment houses. In January of 1946, a group of nine students arrived from Ohio State University for the first Winter Quarter in Mexico (WQIM) program. Soon thereafter,  this program with the MCC was endorsed by other universities. Among them were the Michigan State University, Notre Dame, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, University of Arizona, and the Vanderbilt and Peabody Teachers College in Nashville. Also in 1946, the Veterans Administration placed MCC on the list of schools approved for study under the G.I. Bill of Rights. Three American veterans of World War II enrolled. Student enrollment was now 75 and rising.

Like the growing student body, the early faculty during the late 1940s and '50s represented many nationalities, personifying and symbolizing the democratic values of cultural diversity and tolerance.  Many of the faculty migrated to Mexico from Europe following the Spanish Civil War and, later, pre and post World War II.  Many were western Europeans – among them José Gaos, co-chairman of graduate studies, who was formerly the rector of the University of Madrid and professor of History and Anthropology, and Pedro Bosch Gimpera, former rector of the University of Barcelona and former Catalonian Minister of the Interior.  The former Czechoslovakian Minister to Mexico, Vaclav Laska, taught history and government.  Baron Alexander von Wuthenau, from Germany, who is a cousin of the British royal family, taught art history and assisted the Mexican government in the restoration of its colonial art treasures.

Some of these later émigrés, many artists, writers and intelligentsia, were forced expatriates from the cold-war era and the United States Congress’ investigation of the U.S. film industry for alleged ‘un-American’ activities. Because of the international composition of the student body and teachers, there were also a “small group of ‘cold-war agents’ (CIA, FBI, KGB) pretending to be students,” checking out the social and political lives of students and faculty, and the cold-war repatriates and international refugees.

MCC Professor Dr. Miguel Barrios taught spoken and written Nahuatl and, working with a group of graduate anthropology students, compiled the only grammar-dictionary of the Nahuatl language, which is still spoken by two million Indians in many areas of Mexico. MCC was the only institution in the world offering classes in spoken Maya and Nahuatl (the language of the ancient Aztecs and the Otomí Indians of Central Mexico). 

Robert Weitlaner, Mexico’s foremost ethnologist, served as Associate Professor of Anthropology.  He had made the reconstruction of Indian dialects and cultures his life’s work.  Flora Botton taught Philosophy; she was the only surviving member of her family of ten from the Nazi death camps.  Her philosophy classes were punctuated with European history and first hand accounts of the camps.  During the late 1940s and early ‘50s there were a handful of students and instructors at MCC who related their personal stories of keeping one step ahead of the Nazis as they made their way across Western Europe to Spain and safety.  Dr. Paul G. Fried, the Chief Translator for the Nuremburg War Crime Trials, taught history.  Dr. Richard E. Greenleaf, Professor of History and International Relations, was a recognized international expert in reading sixteen-century Spanish paleography.  Dr. Silvio Zavala, Director of the Nacional Museo de Historia, taught history at MCC.

Dr. Pablo Martínez del Río was one of the more colorful professors on campus.  Director of the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia de la Universidad Nacional, he had represented Mexico in many educational and scholarly congresses both at home and abroad.  But the students of MCC best remember him for his crisp Oxford accent, immaculate dress with homburg, spats, and umbrella-cane, accented by a brisk stride.  His classes in History and Anthropology were always packed.  This was a man who lived the history he taught, having once rode as a young man with Pancho Villa. 

In its first ten years, a total of 2,800 students entered the graduate program, with 72 being admitted to major institutions in the U.S., England, France, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, and Mexico to continue doctoral studies.  By June, 1957, the College had awarded 1,113 Bachelor of Arts degrees and 273 Master’s degrees.

 The 1950s

Mexico City in the 1950s has been compared to the Paris of the 20s; life along the Paseo de la Reforma has been compared with the Champs Elysees. Both Mexico City and Mexico the nation became part of the school’s classroom.  Between quarters or on weekends, students traveled throughout Mexico, south to Guatemala before there was a road connecting the two countries, into the Yucatán Peninsula, accessible in the ‘50s by rail only. Indeed, education for the MCC student in Mexico extended far beyond the campus for those whose minds were receptive.      

The Mexico City Writing Center, the first of its kind in Latin America and a branch of MCC, was founded in the summer of 1950 by Margaret Shedd, a California novelist.

In March, 1954, the college moved from downtown Mexico City to 20 acres of land at Km. 16, Carretera Mexico-Toluca to what had been the Turf Country Club.  Spring classes started in 1954.

Financially, MCC survived into the mid-late 50s without worthy endowment, without government subsidy, and with little foundation support. It was almost wholly dependent upon tuition payments.  At one point, Dean Murray even mortgaged his home to support the school.

It was the large veteran enrollment after WW II and the Korean War, and the progressive exodus of veterans and students from U.S. college campuses to one or more semesters of serious study at MCC that gave the college the financial stability and growth it needed.   Within weeks of a double-page spread on MCC in a 1952 issue of the Pacific Stars and Stripes, a deluge of letters and applications for admission swamped the Registrar’s office. 

By 1956, of all Americans enrolled in schools of higher education outside the US, “more attended MCC than any other institution in the world.  Besides Mexican and United States nationals, 69 students representing 37 countries were in residence during the summer of 1957.”    The international student body of MCC, with its heterogeneous intellectual composition, did not resemble the student body of any small American college. William B. Richardson, Sr., was the first Chairman of the Board of Trustees.  His son, William B. Richardson, presently the Governor of New Mexico, briefly attended MCC.

The 1960s

In 1961, The MCC Collegian was honored for the fourteenth consecutive year with the “All American Honor” rating by the Associated Collegiate Press, the highest obtainable by a college newspaper. However, despite those outstanding external recognitions, the sixties opened with tempestuous winds that endangered the college.  In 1960 much of the College financial reserves were embezzled; in 1961 William B. Richardson, Chair of the MCC Board of Trustees was forcibly deposed. In 1962, President Dr. Paul V. Murray was forced into retirement.   

Dr. Ray Lindley, a “tall, iron haired” 7 clergyman, took office as the third president of MCC on July 16, 1962     With a broom in one hand, administrative academic credentials in the other, and a “revivalist” attitude, Dr. Lindley set out to (1) rid “the institution of the stigma of being a college of beatniks;” (2) to raise the student proportion of non-Americans to 50 percent; and (3) the Board of Trustees to be reconstituted with no more than half the trustees Americans and the remainder Mexicans, and “with the staff also divided 50-50 between US and other countries.”  [Author’s note: Was this the premature birth of Affirmative Action?]     

The consequences of Dr. Lindley’s reforms eventually resulted in transforming what was until now an American college for Americans in Mexico, into a Mexican college in Mexico for Mexicans.  By then, most all of the VA students were gone and a new source of student population was appearing.  

Early in the 1960s, it was decided to seek a new campus for the University.  Sixty-Six hectares (163 acres) of land five miles from the state capital, Puebla) was purchased.  Dr. Lindley changed the name of the College to the University of the Americas.  The extraordinary era of the Mexico City College had ended.       

The 1970s and beyond

On June 19, 1970, registration on the new campus in Cholula was held.  In the fall semester of that year, for the first time since 1942, beginning Mexican students outnumbered North American students. 

Once the move to Puebla was completed, the university added Puebla to its name: UDLA-Puebla.  The primary reason was to distinguish it from another institution located in Mexico City, the Universidad de las Americas, A.C.  The two institutions have no relationship.

By 2004, the UDLA-Puebla total students exceeded 8,000, with 1,647 new students admitted (students from the U.S. comprising a “small minority”). UDLAP offers a Study Abroad Program at 182 universities in 29 countries, including an unusual internship with the U.S. Congress.

In closing, the historical contribution of the Mexico City College has been nicely summarized by Dr. Richard.W. Wilkie (MCC, class of ’59), who noted that:

 “Mexico City College provided its students with a dynamic setting for intellectual and personal growth, and it was a place that offered unimaginable opportunities for exploration, discovery, adventure and creativity. The Mexican experience exposed its students, representing over 20 countries, to new ways to view their own countries. Life in Mexico helped all of us to develop a feeling for diversity and a belief that because of it life can be richer and more meaningful.   Throughout the US, there are at least 25 to 30 professors, or more, most with doctorates, who have been students at MCC during the high-water years of that institution between 1954-1962.  For a small college, that is an impressive record.”   


The Mexico City College Story, by Joseph Mc Quinn 

Prepared by Joseph M. Quinn (Oregon, USA) with DS, 2006


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