Naming the Mexican Schools– with People’s Names

By Julie Etra

When you started school, what was the name of your school? How about middle school? High school? I attended Roosevelt Elementary School in New York, but for which Roosevelt was it named? I’d like to forget junior high entirely – like many teens! My high school, New Rochelle High, was obviously named for a place. University of Colorado, Colorado State, places.

For years I have driven around Huatulco and its environs, up to Pluma Hidalgo, on to Oaxaca City through San José del Pacifico, out to Bahía San Augustín, and down to the Bajos de Coyula. In all these places, I have seen escuelas (schools) with specific names, the great majority named after renowned historical figures. While the schools I’m listing here are all in the vicinity of Huatulco, these names appear on schools throughout Mexico. They give us a picture of people recognized as important to Mexican history, philosophy, culture, and communication. To emphasize that history, they are listed in the chronological order of their lives.

Juan Jacobo Rousseau (1712-78) is the name of an escuela secundaria (grades 7, 8 9) in La Crucecita. This might seem a bit perplexing, given that the Swiss philosopher, writer, and composer never visited Mexico. However, Rousseau’s book The Social Contract (1763) – famous for the quote “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains” – greatly influenced those who led the national wars of independence and revolutions of the United States (1775-83), France (1789-99), and Mexico (1810-21).

Don Miguel Gregorio Antonio Ignacio Hidalgo y Costilla y Gallaga Mandarte Villaseñor (1753-1811) was his full name, but he is known as Father Miguel Hidalgo. He is the famous Catholic priest credited with the Grito de Dolores, the “shout of rebellion” given at midnight on September 15/16 in the town of Dolores Hidalgo. The grito marked beginning of the movement for Mexico’s independence from Spain. Miguel Hidalgo is considered the Father of the Nation and was very progressive for his time, including being anti-slavery. On 6 December 1810, Hidalgo issued a decree abolishing slavery, threatening death to those who did not comply. He abolished tribute payments that indigenous peoples had to pay to criollo lords (Creole, a European born in Mexico). He was excommunicated and executed by the Spanish government. Suffice it to say that you will see many places named after Miguel Hidalgo, including states, roads, and schools – a kindergarten in Palo Grande, on route 175 north of Pluma Hidalgo, bears his name.

José Miguel Ramón Adaucto Fernández y Félix (1786-1843)​​ was a Mexican general and political figure who fought in the Mexican War of Independence. He changed his name to Guadalupe Victoria after winning a battle in that town. After the adoption of the Mexican Constitution of 1824, Victoria was elected as the first President of the United Mexican States, an office in which he served from 1824 to 1829. There are at least two schools named for Guadalupe Victoria along the Oaxacan coast, a primaria (elementary school) in San Pedro Mixtepec, north of Puerto Escondido, and a primaria in Chahuites, near Salina Cruz.

Leona Vicario (1789-1842) was one of the most prominent figures of the War of Independence. From her home in Mexico City, she supported the insurrection by informing rebels of the movements of Spanish troops. She was wealthy, independent, a feminist, and a journalist, and provided substantial financial support to the insurgency. She received several postmortem recognitions, including the title of “Distinguished and Beloved Mother of the Homeland” by the Congress of the Union. Her name is inscribed in gold in the Mural of Honor in the lower house of the Mexican Congress. The year 2020 was declared the Year of Leona Vicario, Benemérita Madre de la Patria (Praiseworthy Mother of the Homeland).

Melchor Ocampo (1814-61) is one of the most intriguing individuals noted in this article. Ethnically he was a mestizo (mixed indigenous and European ancestry) and a radical liberal. He was abandoned as a child at the doorstep of a wealthy Mexican woman who not only raised him but to whom she bequeathed her estate. He was fervently opposed to the Catholic Church, reflected in his early writings that earned him the reputation as an intellectual. He served in the administration of Benito Juárez (the indigenous 26th president of Mexico) and negotiated a controversial agreement with the United States. The McLane-Ocampo Treaty, which dealt with transportation and commerce, gave the U.S. substantial rights in Mexico despite the recently fought Mexican-American War (1846-48), when Mexico lost 30% of its territory. In 1874, the state of Michoacán was renamed to honor Ocampo – its formal name is Estado Libre y Soberano de Michoacán de Ocampo (The Free and Sovereign State of Michoacán de Ocampo). Many schools throughout Mexico are named for Ocampo, including a primaria in Puerto Angel.

Agustín Melgar (1829-47), was a military cadet and major figure in the defense of Chapultepec Castle against invading American forces. The Battle of Chapultepec, one of the last major battles of the Mexican–American War, took place on September 13th, 1847. After finding himself alone, Melgar tried to stop the enemy on the north side of the castle, killing one American soldier and then taking refuge behind mattresses in one of the rooms. He was one of six cadets, aged 13 to 19, from the military academy located on Chapultepec Hill. All six died in battle that day. They are known as the Niños Héroes (Child Heroes), and are commemorated by a national holiday on September 13th. There is a kindergarten named for Melgar in Santa María Huatulco; several schools in the area named for the Niños Héroes.

Macedonio Alcalá Prieto (1831-69). For all the times I’ve walked the pedestrian corridor in Oaxaca City – the Andador de Macedonio Alcalá – I never really realized for whom it was named. A majestic theatre in the historic district – el Teatro de Macedonio Alcalá – was also named for him. Alcalá was born in Oaxaca City and showed an early interest in music, learning the piano, cello, viola, flute, and ophicleide (a keyed brass instrument in the bugle family), but he excelled on the violin.

He grew up to be a violinist, pianist, and composer. After completing studies in Mexico City he returned to Oaxaca, where he became a member of the Philharmonic Society of Santa Cecilia, an orchestra specializing in regional music and composers. Later he became the director of the Banda de Música de Oaxaca. Alcalá was said to be passionate and high-strung, characteristics that distinguished his playing and his compositions. He struggled with poverty, disease, and alcoholism. Few of his compositions survive since he was remiss in putting them on paper. Among the surviving works are “Marcha Funebre” (Funeral March), “Solo dios en los cielos” (Only God in Heaven), “El Cohete” (The Rocket), “Ave María,” and a well-known waltz “Dios nunca muere” (God Never Dies), which is the unofficial state anthem of Oaxaca. Oaxaqueños stand when they hear it. Macedonio Alcalá is the name of a preschool in Pluma Hidalgo sponsored by CONAFE (Consejo Nacional de Fomento Educativo, which sets up schools in rural areas); there is a Macedonio Alcalá primary school on Hwy 175, north of Pochutla.

Enrique de Olavarría y Ferrari (1844-1919). Olavarría was a well-educated Spanish attorney who emigrated to Mexico in 1865, where he became a journalist, publisher, and educator. He briefly returned to Europe but made his way back to his final home in Mexico where he died. He collaborated on the short-lived (52 issues in 1869) literary magazine El Renacimiento (The Renaissance), considered essential to “awakening the interest in literature all over Mexico” after the chaotic period of the Mexican-American War and the French Intervention (1861-67).

Olavarría founded and collaborated on La Revista Universal and El Federalista, and worked as a columnist for a number of other journals and newspapers (El Constitucional, El Globo, and El Correo de México, among others). His teaching career in Mexico City included literature classes at the Conservatory of Music; geography, universal history, history of Mexico and declamation at the School of Arts and Crafts for Young Ladies; and mathematics at the Municipal Normal School and was administrator of the Colegio de las Vizcaínas. Many schools throughout the country are named for him.

Filomeno Mata Rodríguez (1845-1911) was a Mexican professor and journalist during the Porfiriato (the presidency of Porfirio Díaz) He is particularly noted as an opposition writer during this period, which resulted in his being incarcerated several times. He supported the candidacy for president of Francisco I. Madero at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. A primary school in Erradura, just outside of Santa María Huatulco on the way to Pluma Hidalgo, is named for Mata Rodríguez.

José Vasconcelos (1882-1959. Passing a kindergarten in Santa María Huatulco, I wondered, “Hmmm, who is José Vasconcelos?” José Vasconcelos Calderón is often called the “cultural caudillo” (leader) of the Mexican Revolution. He was a writer, philosopher, politician (and presidential candidate), an influential as well as controversial figure in the history of modern Mexico. Although he was born in the state of Oaxaca (along with Benito Juárez and Porfirio Díaz) he was raised in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, on the Texas border and attended school in Eagle Pass, USA, where he learned English. Vasconcelos served as Mexico’s minister of education after the Revolution; he is credited with starting the Mexican muralism movement, in which artists created large murals to give a largely illiterate population an understanding of its history. The muralism movement made Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco international famous in their own right.

Vasconcelos is particularly noted for penning the book entitled La raza cósmica (The Cosmic Race), which expressed the ideology of a future “fifth race” in the Americas, an agglomeration of all the races in the world with no respect to color. Vasconcelos espoused an anti-Anglo philosophy; he was also a bit of a rake. In addition to the kindergarten in Santa María, there is a Jose Vasconcelos secundaria in Santa María, and a Jose Vasconcelos primaria in Sector H3 in La Crucecita.

Adolfo López Mateos (1909-69) was a Mexican politician who served as Mexico’s president from 1958 to 1964. Born in Atizapán de Zaragoza in the state of México, he began his political career as a campaign aide to presidential candidate José Vasconcelos (who lost the 1929 election). López Mateos was the first self-declared left-wing politician to hold the presidency since Lázaro Cárdenas del Rio (President from 1934-40).

López Mateos said his political philosophy was “leftist, but within the Constitution.” In 1959, his administration created the Instituto de Seguridad y Servicios Sociales de los Trabajadores del Estado (Institute for Social Security and Services for State Workers) and La Comisión Nacional de Libros de Texto Gratuitos (National Commission for Free Textbooks). In 1960, López Mateos created the CFE (Comisión Federal de Electricidad) during a time of economic growth, and opened the National Museum of Anthropology in 1964.

He was an advocate of non-intervention and settled a border dispute with the U.S. with the Chamizal Treaty, signed August 31, 1964. The treaty granted Mexico 630 acres of what was South El Paso. He advocated a course of independence from the U.S., but cooperated on some issues, despite his opposition to the hostile U.S. policy toward the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Along with Cárdenas and his predecessor, Adolfo Tomás Ruiz Cortines (1952-58), he is considered to be one of the most popular Mexican presidents of the 20th century. Many schools throughout Mexico bear his name, including a primaria in Santa María Huatulco.