Hear Carlos Tortolero, director and founder of the National Museum of Mexican Art, speak on the preservation of Mexican culture

Hear Carlos Tortolero, director and founder of the National Museum of Mexican Art, speak on the preservation of Mexican culture
Hear Carlos Tortolero, director and founder of the National Museum of Mexican Art, speak on the preservation of Mexican culture
A discussion concerning the preservation of culture at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, from the documentary Riches, Rivals & Radicals: 100 Years of Museums in America.
Great Museums Television (A Britannica Publishing Partner)


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NARRATOR: In 1982 a high-school teacher in South Side Chicago had a vision. Five years later Carlos Tortolero was living his dream.

CARLOS TORTOLERO (Director): We don't want to rewrite history in this museum; we're trying to tell history correctly for the first time. So we're not changing anything. For a lot of Mexicans, we didn't cross the border; the border crossed us. So we were already here, for God's sake, and we influenced this country already in so many ways.

ELAINE HEUMANN GURIAN: Mexican Fine Arts Center in Chicago is a museum founded by a man with a singular passion and vision. It sits in the middle of the community that it represents. It is free, and they do more than museumy things. They have a radio center. They have performances. Kids come.

CARLOS TORTOLERO: We've always felt that it's important to be a part of the community. Most museums are apart from the community; they're away from the community. We want to be a part of the community.

NARRATOR: The sight of centuries of Mexican art from both sides of the border is an eye-popping adventure.

CARLOS TORTOLERO: The roots of our culture come from the ancient past. So, to understand Mexican culture, you have to start at the roots, and that's what indigenous culture is.

NARRATOR: This fantastic mosaic has more than a million beads set in beeswax. The museum commissioned it in 2003 from the Huichol people, mountain villagers who are descendants of the Aztecs.

CARLOS TORTOLERO: Huicholes are one of the 57 indigenous groups of Mexico that speak their own language. So Mexico is a multicultural country in itself. People forget about that.

NARRATOR: The mosaic became a Huichol community project. The whole village worked together for a year to complete it.

CARLOS TORTOLERO: We would pay 'em, like, every month or so. And they would use that money to buy beans, rice, corn for the community. Not only were we buying art, we were helping to feed the town. I think that's a magnificent idea. But the magic of that piece is it was done by the whole town.

NARRATOR: In the colonial gallery the story of Mexico when it was a Spanish colony plays out on a giant gold altar.

CARLOS TORTOLERO: It's a piece that shows the history of Mexico, and it starts with the ancient times of indigenous people going this way, the Spanish coming this way. The piece is made up of papier-mâché; it's all shopping bag and newspaper.

NARRATOR: This ratty old farmer's truck is a different symbol of devotion, a moving tribute to the modern Mexican American hero, activist Cesar Chavez.

CARLOS TORTOLERO: Cesar Chavez appeared in the museum a week before he passed away. This is the last place he spoke in the Mexican community before he passed away.

NARRATOR: The tape of Chavez' final speech captures his undying passion.

CARLOS TORTOLERO: We figured we can't show the tape inside the wall; that's so cold. So we bought a farm worker's truck, and we put him in the back of the truck—the screen, you know, the monitor—with crates, with all the protest signs all around it to make it seem like he's at home.

NARRATOR: And that's the whole point, making people feel at home.

CARLOS TORTOLERO: Many people are afraid of institutions. You know, I am still afraid of institutions, and I created one. I've—I've always had this thing, that if it's—oh, that's big or something, that's not for me. So if I feel it, imagine people who have never walked into a museum in their life. You have somebody from the community who walks into this museum—it's for the first time going to a museum—it's a brave step.

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