02/07/2013 11:19 am ET Updated Apr 09, 2013

A 'Eureka' Moment: Mexico in New York

One of the curiosities of upstate New York is that the landscape is littered with towns and villages named after more famous counterparts in other parts of the world. In just St. Lawrence County, we have Potsdam, Canton, Madrid, Lisbon, and Stockholm, just to name a few. Yet among this repertoire of exotic place names transposed onto the New York map, one finds the hamlet of Churubusco, located in Clinton County, northwest of Lake Champlain and not too far from Montreal, Canada. As a specialist in early colonial Mexican history, I have been strongly attracted to this place.

According to most sources, the place was named by veterans of the Mexican-American War, in commemoration of the Battle of Churubusco. That battle took place in a small village directly south of Mexico City, in the far outskirts of the metropolis. The battle took place on August 20, 1847, when the Mexican army fell back on the village of Churubusco, taking up defensive positions near the Franciscan convent church. Just one month later the Mexican capital would fall and the victorious United States Army would impose a peace treaty.

What those veterans of the Mexican-American War did not know was that Churubusco was a very important and famous place in its own right. The original name of the village was Huitzilopochco, in Aztec times. In Nahuatl, the Aztec language, that means the "Place of Huitzilopochtli." Huitzilopochtli was the most important god of the cosmos and the Aztec tribal god. His name means "Hummingbird on the Left." Yet in spite of this imposing name, Huitzilopochco was a minor territory, one of four small city states in the southern part of the Valley of Mexico, along with Culhuacan, Mexicaltzingo, and Iztapalapa. The city of Huitzilopochco was located on the southeastern shore of Lake Texcoco, the lake which used to occupy much of what is now the Valley of Mexico. It also controlled the causeway which stretched from Tlalpan in the far south and Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, in the north, as well as where another causeway from Iztapalapa joined the Tlalpan causeway. It was an extremely strategic location.

When the Spanish conquerors arrived, the nuances of Nahuatl posed some difficulties to their tongues, so the poetic Huitzilopochco became the clumsy Churubusco. As part of the Spanish imperial enterprise, Franciscan friars arrived in Mexico on the heels of the conquest and began to convert the natives. One of their early centers for evangelization was the convent they founded in Huitzilopochco, now Churubusco.

So, in Northern New York, just a few miles from Quebec province in Canada, we have a hamlet named after a battle in the Mexican-American War, named after a village in the outskirts of Mexico City, derived from the name of the Aztec tribal god.

I love this 'eureka' moment which comes from finding commonalities from points on a map, reaching back to points in time -- some largely forgotten, some pivotal. Those connections allow us to momentarily 'travel' in time, remembering the people and places that have gone before.

This is a lot like liberal education. We consciously try to make connections between things that on the surface not only seem unconnected, but even totally unrelated. This is why graduates of liberal arts colleges are so highly prized in the workplace: they make the connections which lead on to new discoveries.

A group of eight students recently made just such connections on a unique SUNY Potsdam travel course that brought them to Mexico for two weeks in January, to continue their study of the historical development of mathematics in various cultures. After learning about the mathematics of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, Islamic nations and Greece, they were immersed in Meso-American math. The class was generously hosted by the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Hidalgo, the university with which we are proud to have formed an exchange partnership. The course instructors, Dr. Blair Madore and Dr. Cheryl Miller, challenged the students throughout the trip to find connections between history, culture and mathematics. For instance, the students were asked to complete a scavenger hunt while visiting Teotihuacan, to orient themselves at the enormous archaeological site -- and then, they had to use the mathematics skills they had learned to figure out just how complex and difficult it was to construct the Pyramid of the Sun.

At SUNY Potsdam, as a liberal arts college, we revel in the fact that students take literature courses, physics, sociology and art at the same time, and bless their souls, they find the connections. Yes, we guide their discovery. Yes, we try hard to empower them to make the connections, to discover it on their own. But at the end of the day, they make the connections. I hope they enjoy those 'eureka' moments as much as I do.