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Geography ⇒


Pre-Columbian Mexico

The earliest human artifacts in Mexico are chips of stone tools found near campfire remains in the Valley of Mexico and radiocarbon-dated to circa 10,000 years ago. Mexico is the site of the domestication of maize, tomato and beans, which produced an agricultural surplus. This enabled the transition from paleo-Indian hunter-gatherers to sedentary agricultural villages beginning around 5000 BCE.

In the subsequent formative eras, maize cultivation and cultural traits such as a mythological and religious complex, and a vigesimal numeric system, were diffused from the Mexican cultures to the rest of the Mesoamerican culture area. In this period, villages became more dense in terms of population, becoming socially stratified with an artisan class, and developing into chiefdoms. The most powerful rulers had religious and political power, organizing construction of large ceremonial centers developed.

The earliest complex civilization in Mexico was the Olmec culture, which flourished on the Gulf Coast from around 1500 BCE. Olmec cultural traits diffused through Mexico into other formative-era cultures in Chiapas, Oaxaca and the Valley of Mexico. The formative period saw the spread of distinct religious and symbolic traditions, as well as artistic and architectural complexes. The formative-era of Mesoamerica is considered one of the six independent cradles of civilization.

In the subsequent pre-classical period, the Maya and Zapotec civilizations developed complex centers at Calakmul and Monte Albán, respectively. During this period the first true Mesoamerican writing systems were developed in the Epi-Olmec and the Zapotec cultures. The Mesoamerican writing tradition reached its height in the Classic Maya Hieroglyphic script.

In Central Mexico, the height of the classic period saw the ascendancy of Teotihuacan, which formed a military and commercial empire whose political influence stretched south into the Maya area as well as north. Teotihuacan, with a population of more than 150,000 people, had some of the largest pyramidal structures in the pre-Columbian Americas. After the collapse of Teotihuacán around 600 CE, competition ensued between several important political centers in central Mexico such as Xochicalco and Cholula. At this time, during the Epi-Classic, Nahua peoples began moving south into Mesoamerica from the North, and became politically and culturally dominant in central Mexico, as they displaced speakers of Oto-Manguean languages.

Post-classic period (ca. 1000–1519 AD)

During the early post-classic, Central Mexico was dominated by the Toltec culture, Oaxaca by the Mixtec, and the lowland Maya area had important centers at Chichén Itzá and Mayapán. Toward the end of the post-Classic period, the Mexica established dominance.

Alexander von Humboldt originated the modern usage of "Aztec" as a collective term applied to all the people linked by trade, custom, religion, and language to the Mexica state and Ēxcān Tlahtōlōyān, the Triple Alliance. In 1843, with the publication of the work of William H. Prescott, it was adopted by most of the world, including 19th-century Mexican scholars who considered it a way to distinguish present-day Mexicans from pre-conquest Mexicans. This usage has been the subject of debate since the late 20th century.

The Aztec empire was an informal or hegemonic empire because it did not exert supreme authority over the conquered lands; it was satisfied with the payment of tributes from them. It was a discontinuous empire because not all dominated territories were connected; for example, the southern peripheral zones of Xoconochco were not in direct contact with the center. The hegemonic nature of the Aztec empire was demonstrated by their restoration of local rulers to their former position after their city-state was conquered. The Aztec did not interfere in local affairs, as long as the tributes were paid.

The Aztec of Central Mexico built a tributary empire covering most of central Mexico. The Aztec were noted for practicing human sacrifice on a large scale. Along with this practice, they avoided killing enemies on the battlefield. Their warring casualty rate was far lower than that of their Spanish counterparts, whose principal objective was immediate slaughter during battle. This distinct Mesoamerican cultural tradition of human sacrifice ended with the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Over the next centuries Mexican indigenous cultures were gradually subjected to Spanish colonial rule.

Conquest of the Aztec Triple Alliance (1519–1521)

The Spanish first learned of Mexico during the Juan de Grijalva expedition of 1518. The natives kept "repeating: Colua, Colua, and Mexico, Mexico, but we [explorers] did not know what Colua or Mexico meant", until encountering Montezuma's governor at the mouth of the Rio de las Banderas. The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire began in February 1519 when Hernán Cortés arrived at the port in Veracruz with ca. 500 conquistadores. After taking control of that city, he moved on to the Aztec capital. In his search for gold and other riches, Cortés decided to invade and conquer the Aztec empire.

When the Spaniards arrived, the ruler of the Aztec empire was Moctezuma II, who was later killed. His successor and brother Cuitláhuac took control of the Aztec empire, but was among the first to fall from the first smallpox epidemic in the area a short time later. Unintentionally introduced by Spanish conquerors, among whom smallpox was endemic, the infectious disease ravaged Mesoamerica in the 1520s. It killed more than 3 million natives as they had no immunity. Other sources, however, mentioned that the death toll of the Aztecs might have reached 15 million (out of a population of less than 30 million) although such a high number conflicts with the 350,000 Aztecs who ruled an empire of 5 million or 10 million. Severely weakened, the Aztec empire was easily defeated by Cortés and his forces on his second return with the help of state of Tlaxcala whose population estimate was 300,000. The native population declined 80–90% by 1600 to 1–2.5 million. Any population estimate of pre-Columbian Mexico is bound to be a guess but 8–12 million is often suggested for the area encompassed by the modern nation.

Smallpox was a devastating disease: it generally killed Aztecs but not Spaniards, who as Europeans had already been exposed to it in their cities for centuries and therefore had developed acquired immunity. The deaths caused by smallpox are believed to have triggered a rapid growth of Christianity in Mexico and the Americas. At first, the Aztecs believed the epidemic was a punishment from an angry god, but they later accepted their fate and no longer resisted the Spanish rule. Many of the surviving Aztecs believed that smallpox could be credited to the superiority of the Christian god, which resulted in their acceptance of Catholicism and yielding to the Spanish rule throughout Mexico.

The territory became part of the Spanish Empire under the name of New Spain. Mexico City was systematically rebuilt by Cortés following the Fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521. Much of the identity, traditions and architecture of Mexico developed during the 300-year colonial period.

Viceroyalty of New Spain (1521–1821)

The capture of Tenochtitlan and refounding of Mexico City in 1521 was the beginning of a 300-year-long colonial era during which Mexico was known as Nueva España (New Spain). The Kingdom of New Spain was created from the remnants of the Aztec hegemonic empire. Subsequent enlargements, such as the conquest of the Tarascan state, resulted in the creation of the Viceroyalty of New Spain in 1535. The Viceroyalty at its greatest extent included the territories of modern Mexico, Central America as far south as Costa Rica, and the western United States. The Viceregal capital Mexico City also administrated the Spanish West Indies (the Caribbean), the Spanish East Indies (the Philippines), and Spanish Florida.

The indigenous population stabilized around one to one and a half million individuals in the 17th century from the most commonly accepted five to ten million pre-contact population. The population decline was primarily the result of communicable diseases, particularly smallpox, introduced during the Columbian Exchange. During the three hundred years of the colonial era, Mexico received between 400,000 and 500,000 Europeans, between 200,000 and 250,000 Africans and between 40,000 and 120,000 Asians. The 18th century saw a great increase in the percentage of mestizos.

Colonial law with Spanish roots was introduced and attached to native customs creating a hierarchy between local jurisdiction (the Cabildos) and the Spanish Crown. Whereby upper administrative offices were closed to native-born people, even those of pure Spanish blood (criollos). Administration was based on the racial separation of the population among "Republics" of Spaniards, Amerindians and castas, autonomous and directly dependent on the king himself.

The Council of Indies and the mendicant religious orders, which arrived in Mesoamerica as early as 1524, labored to generate capital for the crown of Spain and convert the Amerindian populations to Catholicism. The 1531 Marian apparitions to Saint Juan Diego gave impetus to the evangelization of central Mexico. The Virgin of Guadalupe became a symbol of criollo patriotism and was used by the insurgents that followed Miguel Hidalgo during the War of Independence. Some Crypto-Jewish families emigrated to Mexico to escape the Spanish Inquisition.

The rich deposits of silver, particularly in Zacatecas and Guanajuato, resulted in silver extraction dominating the economy of New Spain. Taxes on silver production became a major source of income for Spain. Other important industries were the haciendas (functioning under the encomienda and repartimiento systems) and mercantile activities in the main cities and ports. Wealth created during the colonial era spurred the development of New Spanish Baroque.

As a result of its trade links with Asia, the rest of the Americas, Africa and Europe and the profound effect of New World silver, central Mexico was one of the first regions to be incorporated into a globalized economy. Being at the crossroads of trade, people and cultures, Mexico City has been called the "first world city". The Nao de China (Manila Galleons) operated for two and a half centuries and connected New Spain with Asia. Goods were taken from Veracruz to Atlantic ports in the Americas and Spain. Veracruz was also the main port of entry in mainland New Spain for European goods, immigrants, and African slaves. The Camino Real de Tierra Adentro connected Mexico City with the interior of New Spain.

Due to the importance of central New Spain, Mexico was the location of the first printing shop (1539), first university (1551), first public park (1592), and first public library (1646) in the Americas, amongst other institutions. Important artists of the colonial period, include the writers Juan Ruiz de Alarcón and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, painters Cristóbal de Villalpando and Miguel Cabrera, and architect Manuel Tolsá. The Academy of San Carlos was the first major school and museum of art in the Americas. Scientist Andrés Manuel del Río Fernández discovered the element vanadium.

Spanish forces, sometimes accompanied by native allies, led expeditions to conquer territory or quell rebellions through the colonial era. Notable Amerindian revolts in sporadically populated northern New Spain include the Chichimeca War (1576–1606), Tepehuán Revolt (1616–1620) and the Pueblo Revolt (1680). In order to protect Mexico from the attacks of English, French and Dutch pirates and protect the Crown's monopoly of revenue, only two ports were open to foreign trade—Veracruz on the Atlantic and Acapulco on the Pacific. Among the best-known pirate attacks are the 1663 Sack of Campeche and 1683 Attack on Veracruz.

Many Mexican cultural features including tequila, first distilled in the 16th century, charreria (17th), mariachi (18th) and Mexican cuisine, a fusion of American and European (particularly Spanish) cuisine, arose during the colonial era.

War of Independence (1810–1821)

On September 16, 1810, a "loyalist revolt" against the ruling Junta was declared by priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, in the small town of Dolores, Guanajuato. The first insurgent group was formed by Hidalgo, the Spanish viceregal army captain Ignacio Allende, the militia captain Juan Aldama and "La Corregidora" Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez. Hidalgo and some of his soldiers were captured and executed by firing squad in Chihuahua, on July 31, 1811. Following his death, the leadership was assumed by priest José María Morelos, who occupied key southern cities.

In 1813 the Congress of Chilpancingo was convened and, on November 6, signed the "Solemn Act of the Declaration of Independence of Northern America". Morelos was captured and executed on December 22, 1815.

In subsequent years, the insurgency was near collapse, but in 1820 Viceroy Juan Ruiz de Apodaca sent an army under the criollo general Agustín de Iturbide against the troops of Vicente Guerrero. Instead, Iturbide approached Guerrero to join forces, and on August 24, 1821 representatives of the Spanish Crown and Iturbide signed the "Treaty of Córdoba" and the "Declaration of Independence of the Mexican Empire", which recognized the independence of Mexico under the terms of the "Plan of Iguala".

Mexico’s short recovery after the War of Independence was soon cut short again by the civil wars and institutional instability of the 1850s, which lasted until the government of Porfirio Díaz reestablished conditions that paved the way for economic growth. The conflicts that arose from the mid-1850s had a profound effect because they were widespread and made themselves perceptible in the vast rural areas of the countries, involved clashes between castes, different ethnic groups and haciendas, and entailed a deepening of the political and ideological divisions between republicans and monarchists.

First Empire and First Republic (1821–1846)

Agustín de Iturbide became constitutional emperor of the First Mexican Empire in 1822. A revolt against him in 1823 established the United Mexican States. In 1824, a Republican Constitution was drafted and Guadalupe Victoria became the first president of the newly born country. Central America, including Chiapas, left the union. In 1829 president Guerrero abolished slavery. The first decades of the post-independence period were marked by economic instability, which led to the Pastry War in 1836. There was constant strife between liberales, supporters of a federal form of government, and conservadores, who proposed a hierarchical form of government.

During this period, the frontier borderlands to the north became quite isolated from the government in Mexico City, and its monopolistic economic policies caused suffering. With limited trade, the people had difficulty meeting tax payments and resented the central government's actions in collecting customs. Resentment built up from California to Texas. Both the mission system and the presidios had collapsed after the Spanish withdrew from the colony, causing great disruption especially in Alta California and New Mexico. The people in the borderlands had to raise local militias to protect themselves from hostile Native Americans. These areas developed in different directions from the center of the country.

Wanting to stabilize and develop the frontier, Mexico encouraged immigration into present-day Texas, as they were unable to persuade people from central Mexico to move into those areas. They allowed for religious freedom for the new settlers, who were primarily Protestant English speakers from the United States. Within several years, the Anglos far outnumbered the Tejano in the area. Itinerant traders traveled through the area, working by free market principles. The Tejano grew more separate from the government and due to its neglect, many supported the idea of independence and joined movements to that end, collaborating with the English-speaking Americans.

General Antonio López de Santa Anna, a centralist and two-time dictator, approved the Siete Leyes in 1836, a radical amendment that institutionalized the centralized form of government. When he suspended the 1824 Constitution, civil war spread across the country. Three new governments declared independence: the Republic of Texas, the Republic of the Rio Grande and the Republic of Yucatán.

Second Republic and Second Empire (1846–1867)

The 1846 United States annexation of the Republic of Texas and subsequent American military incursion into territory that was part of Coahuila (also claimed by Texas) instigated the Mexican–American War. The war was settled in 1848 via the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexico was forced to give up more than one-third of its land to the U.S., including Alta California, Santa Fe de Nuevo México and the territory claimed by Texas. A much smaller transfer of territory in what is today southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico—known as the Gadsden Purchase—occurred in 1854.

The Caste War of Yucatán, the Maya uprising that began in 1847, was one of the most successful modern Native American revolts. Maya rebels, or Cruzob, maintained relatively independent enclaves in the peninsula until the 1930s.

Dissatisfaction with Santa Anna's return to power led to the liberal "Plan of Ayutla", initiating an era known as La Reforma. The new Constitution drafted in 1857 established a secular state, federalism as the form of government, and several freedoms. As the conservadores refused to recognize it, the Reform War began in 1858, during which both groups had their own governments. The war ended in 1861 with victory by the Liberals, led by president Benito Juárez, who was an ethnic Zapotec.

In the 1860s Mexico was occupied by France, which established the Second Mexican Empire under the rule of the Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria with support from the Roman Catholic clergy and the conservadores. The latter switched sides and joined the liberales. Maximilian surrendered, was tried on June 14, 1867, and was executed a few days later on June 19 in Querétaro.

Porfiriato (1876–1911)

Porfirio Díaz, a republican general during the French intervention, was elected the 29th president in 1876. The 1880 election was won by Manuel González Flores. Díaz was reelected in 1884 and ruled until 1911. The period, known as the Porfiriato, was characterized by economic stability and growth, significant foreign investment and influence, investments in the arts and sciences and an expansion of the railroad network and telecommunications. The period was concurrent with the Gilded Age in the US and Belle Époque in France and was also marked by economic inequality and political repression.

Díaz ruled with a group of confidants that became known as the científicos ("scientists"). The most influential cientifco was Secretary of Finance José Yves Limantour. The Porfirian regime was influenced by positivism. They rejected theology and idealism in favor of scientific methods being applied towards national development. Various iconic buildings and monuments were initiated by Díaz, including the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Palacio de Correos de Mexico, Monumento a la Independencia and the Palacio Legislativo (which became the Monumento a la Revolución).

Mexican Revolution and one-party rule (1910–2000)

President Díaz announced in 1908 that he would retire in 1911, resulting in the development of new coalitions. But then he ran for reelection anyway and in a show of U.S. support, Díaz and William Howard Taft planned a summit in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, for October 16, 1909, an historic first meeting between a Mexican and a U.S. president and also the first time an American president would cross the border into Mexico. Both sides agreed that the disputed Chamizal strip connecting El Paso to Ciudad Juárez would be considered neutral territory with no flags present during the summit, but the meeting focused attention on this territory and resulted in assassination threats and other serious security concerns.

On the day of the summit, Frederick Russell Burnham, the celebrated scout, and Private C.R. Moore, a Texas Ranger, discovered a man holding a concealed palm pistol standing at the El Paso Chamber of Commerce building along the procession route, and they disarmed the assassin within only a few feet of Díaz and Taft. Both presidents were unharmed and the summit was held. Díaz was re-elected in 1910, but alleged electoral fraud forced him into exile in France and sparked the 1910 Mexican Revolution, initially led by Francisco I. Madero.

Madero was elected president but overthrown and murdered in a coup d'état two years later directed by conservative general Victoriano Huerta. That event re-ignited the civil war, involving figures such as Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who formed their own forces. A third force, the constitutional army led by Venustiano Carranza managed to bring an end to the war, and radically amended the 1857 Constitution to include many of the social premises and demands of the revolutionaries into what was eventually called the 1917 Constitution. It is estimated that the war killed 900,000 of the 1910 population of 15 million.

Assassinated in 1920, Carranza was succeeded by another revolutionary hero, Álvaro Obregón, who in turn was succeeded by Plutarco Elías Calles. Obregón was reelected in 1928 but assassinated before he could assume power. Although this period is usually referred to as the Mexican Revolution, it might also be termed a civil war since president Díaz (1909) narrowly escaped assassination and presidents Francisco I. Madero (1913), Venustiano Carranza (1920), Álvaro Obregón (1928), and former revolutionary leaders Emiliano Zapata (1919) and Pancho Villa (1923) all were assassinated during this period.

One-party rule (1929–2000)

In 1929, Calles founded the National Revolutionary Party (PNR), later renamed the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and started a period known as the Maximato, which ended with the election of Lázaro Cárdenas, who implemented many economic and social reforms. This included the Mexican oil expropriation in March 1938, which nationalized the U.S. and Anglo-Dutch oil company known as the Mexican Eagle Petroleum Company. This movement would result in the creation of the state-owned Mexican oil company known as Pemex. This sparked a diplomatic crisis with the countries whose citizens had lost businesses by Cárdenas' radical measure, but since then the company has played an important role in the economic development of Mexico.

Between 1940 and 1980, Mexico remained a poor country but experienced substantial economic growth that some historians call the "Mexican miracle". Although the economy continued to flourish for some, social inequality remained a factor of discontent. Moreover, the PRI rule became increasingly authoritarian and at times oppressive in what is now referred to as 'Mexico's dirty war' (see the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, which claimed the life of around 300 protesters based on conservative estimates and as many as 800 protesters).

Electoral reforms and high oil prices followed the administration of Luis Echeverría, mismanagement of these revenues led to inflation and exacerbated the 1982 Crisis. That year, oil prices plunged, interest rates soared, and the government defaulted on its debt. President Miguel de la Madrid resorted to currency devaluations which in turn sparked inflation.

In the 1980s the first cracks emerged in PRI's monopolistic position. In Baja California, Ernesto Ruffo Appel was elected as governor. In 1988, alleged electoral fraud prevented the leftist candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas from winning the national presidential elections, giving Carlos Salinas de Gortari the presidency and leading to massive protests in Mexico City.

Salinas embarked on a program of neoliberal reforms which fixed the exchange rate, controlled inflation and culminated with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which came into effect on January 1, 1994. The same day, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) started a two-week-long armed rebellion against the federal government, and has continued as a non-violent opposition movement against neoliberalism and globalization.

In 1994, Salinas was succeeded by Ernesto Zedillo, followed by the Mexican peso crisis and a $50 billion IMF bailout. Major macroeconomic reforms were started by President Zedillo, and the economy rapidly recovered and growth peaked at almost 7% by the end of 1999.

Contemporary Mexico

In 2000, after 71 years, the PRI lost a presidential election to Vicente Fox of the opposition National Action Party (PAN). In the 2006 presidential election, Felipe Calderón from the PAN was declared the winner, with a very narrow margin over leftist politician Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). López Obrador, however, contested the election and pledged to create an "alternative government".

After twelve years, in 2012, the PRI won the Presidency again with the election of Enrique Peña Nieto, the governor of the State of Mexico from 2005–2011. However, he won with only a plurality of about 38%, and did not have a legislative majority.