Driving over the sea of asphalt that now overlays this highland basin, you’d be hard pressed to imagine that, a mere five centuries ago, it was filled by a chain of lakes. It would further stretch your powers to think that today’s downtown was on a small island crisscrossed by canals. Or that the communities who inhabited this island and the banks of the lake spoke a patchwork of languages that had as little to do with Spanish as Malaysian or Urdu. As their chronicles related, the Spaniards who arrived at the shores of that lake in the early 1500s were just as amazed to witness such a scene.
Water covered much of the floor of the Valle de México when humans began moving in as early as 30, 000 BC. Eventually it started shrinking back, and hunting became tougher, so the inhabitants turned to agriculture. A loose federation of farming villages had evolved around Lago de Texcoco by approximately 200 BC. The biggest of these, Cuicuilco, was destroyed by a volcanic eruption three centuries later.
Breakthroughs in irrigation techniques and the development of a maize-based economy contributed to the rise of a civilization at Teotihuacán, 40km northeast of the lake. For centuries Teotihuacán was the capital of an empire whose influence extended as far as Guatemala. However, unable to sustain its burgeoning population, it fell in the 8th century. The Toltecs, possibly descended from the nomadic tribes who invaded Teotihuacán, arose as the next great civilization, building their capital at Tula, 65km north of modern-day Mexico City. By the 12th century the Tula empire had collapsed as well, leaving a number of statelets to compete for control of the Valle de México. It was the Aztecs who emerged supreme.
The Aztecs, or Mexica (meh-shee-kah), arrived a century after the Toltecs’ demise. A wandering tribe that claimed to have come from Aztlán, a mythical region in northwest Mexico, they initially acted as mercenary fighters for the Tepanecas, who resided on the lake’s southern shore, and they were allowed to settle upon the inhospitable terrain of Chapultepec. After being captured by the warriors of rival Culhuacán, the Aztecs played the same role for their new masters. Cocoxtli, Culhuacán’s ruler, sent them into battle against nearby Xochimilco, and the Aztecs delivered over 8000 human ears as proof of their victory. They later sought a marriage alliance with Culhuacán, and Cocoxtli offered his own daughter’s hand to the Aztec chieftain. But at the wedding banquet, the ruler’s pride turned to horror: a dancer was garbed in the flayed skin of his daughter, who had been sacrificed to Huizilopochtli, the Aztec god of war.
Fleeing from the wrath of Culhuacán, the tribe wandered the swampy fringes of the lake, finally reaching an island near the western shore around 1325. There, according to legend, they witnessed an eagle standing atop a cactus and devouring a snake, which they interpreted as a sign to stop and build a city, Tenochtitlán.
Tenochtitlán rapidly became a sophisticated city-state whose empire would, by the early 16th century, span most of modern-day central Mexico from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico and into far southern Mexico. The Aztecs built their city on a grid plan, with canals as thoroughfares and causeways to the lakeshore. At the city’s heart stood the main Teocalli (sacred precinct), with its temple dedicated to Huizilopochtli and the water god, Tláloc. In the marshier parts of the island, they created raised gardens by piling up vegetation and mud, and planting willows. These chinampas (versions of which can still be seen at Xochimilco in southern Mexico City) gave three or four harvests yearly but were still not enough to feed the growing population.
To supplement their resources, the Aztecs extracted tribute from conquered tribes. The empire yielded products such as jade, turquoise, cotton, paper, tobacco, rubber, lowland fruits and vegetables, cacao and precious feathers, which were needed for the glorification of the elite and to support the many nonproductive servants of its war-oriented state. In the mid-15th century they formed the Triple Alliance with the lakeshore states Texcoco and Tlacopan to conduct wars against Tlaxcala and Huejotzingo, which lay east of the valley. The purpose was to gain a steady supply of prisoners to sate Huizilopochtli’s vast hunger for sacrificial victims, so that the sun would rise each day.
When the Spanish arrived in 1519, Tenochtitlán’s population was an estimated 200, 000 to 300, 000 – far bigger than any city in Spain at that time – and that of the whole Valle de México was perhaps 1.5 million, already making it one of the world’s densest urban areas.
The Aztec empire, and with it nearly 3000 years of ancient Mexican civilization, was shattered in two short years – 1519 to 1521. A tiny group of invaders brought a new religion and reduced the native people to second-class citizens and slaves. So alien to each other were the two sides that each doubted whether the other was human (the Pope gave the Mexicans the benefit of the doubt in 1537).
From this traumatic encounter arose modern Mexico. Most Mexicans, being mestizo (of mixed indigenous and European ancestry), are descendants of both cultures. But while Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor, is now an official Mexican hero, Hernán Cortés, the leader of the Spanish conquistadors, is seen as a villain, and the native people who helped him as traitors.
The Spanish had been in the Caribbean since Columbus arrived in 1492. Realizing that they had not reached the East Indies, they began looking for a passage through the land mass to their west but were distracted by tales of gold, silver and a rich empire there.
The Aztec ruler at the time was Moctezuma II Xocoyotzin, a reflective character who believed (perhaps fatally) that Cortés, who arrived on the Gulf Coast in 1519, might be the feathered serpent god Quetzalcóatl. According to legend, Quetzalcóatl had been driven out of Tula centuries before but had vowed to return one day and reclaim his throne.
In 1518 the Spanish governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, asked Hernán Cortés, a colonist on the island, to lead a new expedition westward. As Cortés gathered ships and men, Velázquez became uneasy about the costs and Cortés’ loyalty, and tried to cancel the expedition. But Cortés ignored him and set sail on February 15, 1519, with 11 ships, 550 men and 16 horses. The Spaniards landed first at Cozumel off the Yucatán Peninsula then moved round the coast to Tabasco. There they defeated some hostile locals and Cortés gave the first of many lectures to Mexicans on the importance of Christianity and the greatness of King Carlos I of Spain. The locals gave him 20 maidens, among them Doña Marina (La Malinche), who became his interpreter, aide and lover.
The expedition next put in near the site of the city of Veracruz. In Tenochtitlán, Moctezuma began hearing tales of ‘towers floating on water’ bearing fair-skinned beings. Lightning struck a temple, a comet sailed through the night skies, and a bird ‘with a mirror in its head’ was brought to Moctezuma, who saw warriors in it. Unsure whether or not Cortés was the returning Quetzalcóatl, Moctezuma tried to discourage him from traveling to Tenochtitlán by sending messages about the difficult terrain and hostile tribes that lay between them.
Cortés apparently then scuttled his ships to prevent his men from retreating and, leaving about 150 men on the coast, set off for Tenochtitlán. On the way, he won over the Tlaxcalans as allies. After an unsuccessful attempt to ambush the Spaniards at Cholula, about 120km east of Tenochtitlán, Moctezuma finally invited Cortés to meet him. The Spaniards and 6000 indigenous allies thus entered Tenochtitlán on November 8, 1519. Cortés was met by Moctezuma, who was carried by nobles in a litter with a canopy of feathers and gold.
The Spaniards were lodged in luxury – as befitted gods – in the palace of Axayacatl, Moctezuma’s father. But they were trapped. Some Aztec leaders advised Moctezuma to attack them, but Moctezuma hesitated and the Spaniards took him hostage instead. Moctezuma told his people he went willingly, but hostility rose in the city, aggravated by the Spaniards’ destruction of Aztec idols.
After the Spaniards had been in Tenochtitlán for about six months, Moctezuma informed Cortés that another fleet had arrived on the Veracruz coast. This had been sent from Cuba to arrest Cortés. Cortés left 140 Spaniards under Pedro de Alvarado in Tenochtitlán and sped to the coast with his remaining forces. They routed the bigger rival force, and most of the defeated men joined Cortés.
Meanwhile, things boiled over in Tenochtitlán. Apparently fearing an attack, Alvarado’s men struck first and killed about 200 Aztec nobles trapped in a square during a festival. Cortés and his enlarged force returned to the Aztec capital and were allowed to rejoin their comrades, only to come under fierce attack. Trapped in Axayacatl’s palace, Cortés persuaded Moctezuma to try to pacify his people. According to one version, the king went on to the roof to address the crowds but was mortally wounded by missiles; other versions say that the Spaniards killed him.
The Spaniards fled on the night of June 30, 1520, but several hundred, and thousands of their indigenous allies, were killed on the Noche Triste (Sad Night). The survivors retreated to Tlaxcala, and prepared for another campaign by building boats in sections that could be carried across the mountains for a waterborne assault on Tenochtitlán. When the 900 Spaniards re-entered the Valle de México, they were accompanied by perhaps 100, 000 native allies.
Moctezuma had been replaced by his nephew, Cuitláhuac, who then died of smallpox brought to Mexico by a Spanish soldier. Cuitláhuac was succeeded by another nephew, the 18-year-old Cuauhtémoc. The attack started in May 1521. Cortés resorted to razing Tenochtitlán building by building, and by August 13, 1521, the resistance ended. The captured Cuauhtémoc asked Cortés to kill him, but was denied his request.
Establishing their headquarters at Coyoacán, on the southern shore of the Lago de Texcoco, the Spaniards had the ruined Tenochtitlán rebuilt as the capital of Nueva España (New Spain), as the new colony was called. The city’s central plaza (today the Zócalo) was laid out next to the former site of the Aztecs’ Teocalli. Beside the plaza Cortés had a palace (today the Palacio Nacional – the presidential palace) and a cathedral built.
From this capital, the Spanish sent out expeditions to subdue not only the rest of the Aztec empire but also other parts of Mexico and Central America that had not been under Aztec control. By 1600 the territory ruled from Mexico City stretched from what’s now northern Mexico to the border of Panama (though in practice Central America was governed separately).
The Spanish king Carlos I denied Cortés the role of governor of Nueva España, and the crown waged a long, eventually successful struggle through the 16th century to restrict the power of the conquistadors in the colony. (Cortés returned disillusioned to Spain in 1540 and died there in 1547.) In 1527 Carlos I set up Nueva España’s first audiencia, a high court with governmental functions. Then in 1535 he appointed Antonio de Mendoza as the colony’s first viceroy, his personal representative to govern it. Mendoza, who ruled from Mexico City for 15 years, brought badly needed stability, limited the worst exploitation of indigenous people, encouraged missionary efforts and ensured steady revenue to the Spanish crown.
By 1550 the city emerged as the prosperous, elegant capital of Nueva España. Broad, straight streets were laid out along the Aztec causeways and canals. Indigenous labor built hospitals, palaces and a university according to Spanish designs with local materials such as tezontle, a red volcanic rock which the Aztecs had used for their temples. The various Catholic orders (the Dominicans, Augustinians, Franciscans and Jesuits) had massive monastic complexes erected.
While the Spaniards prospered, the conquered peoples declined disastrously, less because of harsh treatment than because of a series of plagues, many of them new diseases brought over from the Old World, such as smallpox and measles. The native population of the Valle de México shrank, by most estimates, to less than 100, 000 within a century of the conquest.
The indigenous people’s best allies were some of the monks who started arriving in Nueva España in 1523 to convert them. Many of these were compassionate, brave men; the Franciscan and Dominican orders distinguished themselves by protecting the local people from the colonists’ worst excesses. The monks’ missionary work also helped extend Spanish control over Mexico. Under the second viceroy, Luis de Velasco, indigenous slavery was abolished in the 1550s. Forced labor continued, however, as indigenous slavery was partly replaced by African slavery.
Building continued through the 17th century but problems arose as the weighty colonial structures began sinking into the soft, squishy lake bed. Furthermore, lacking natural drainage, the city suffered floods caused by the partial destruction in the 1520s of the Aztecs’ canals. Lago de Texcoco often overflowed, damaging buildings, bringing disease and forcing thousands of people to relocate.
Urban conditions improved in the 1700s as new plazas and avenues were installed, along with sewage- and garbage-collection systems and a police force. This was Mexico City’s gilded age. But the shiny capital was mainly the domain of a Spanish and criollo (people born of Spanish parents in Nueva España) elite who made their fortunes in silver mining. The masses of indigenous and mixed-race peasants who served them were confined to outlying neighborhoods.
Spanish king Carlos III (1759–88), aware of the threat to Nueva España from British and French expansion further north, sought to bring his colony under firmer control and improve the flow of funds to the crown. He reorganized the colonial administration and expelled the Jesuits, whom he suspected of disloyalty, from the entire Spanish empire.
In 1804 the Spanish crown decreed the transfer of the powerful Catholic Church’s many assets in Nueva España to the royal coffers. The church had to call in many debts, which hit criollos hard and created widespread discontent. Then, in 1808, France’s Napoleon Bonaparte occupied most of Spain, and direct Spanish control over Nueva España evaporated. Rivalry in the colony between peninsulares (those born in Spain and sent by the Spanish government to rule the colony in Mexico), who remained loyal to Spain, and criollos, who sought political power commensurate with their economic power, intensified. Criollos began plotting rebellion.
On October 30, 1810, some 80, 000 independence rebels, fresh from victory at Guanajuato, overpowered Spanish loyalist forces just west of the capital. But they were not sufficiently equipped to capitalize on this triumph, and their leader, Padre Miguel Hidalgo, chose not to advance on the city – a decision that cost Mexico 11 more years of fighting before independence was achieved.
After independence, Mexico was ruled by a long succession of short-lived governments, with an ongoing struggle between proreform liberals and antireform conservatives. The presidency was occupied repeatedly by General Antonio López de Santa Anna, who is best remembered for losing large chunks of Mexican territory to the USA. It was under Santa Anna’s watch that the Mexican–American War broke out, following the US annexation of Texas. During the conflict, US troops briefly captured Mexico City after a fierce battle at the Ex-Convento de Churubusco in Coyoacán.
The liberal government that finally replaced Santa Anna in 1855 attempted to dismantle Mexico’s conservative state and break the economic power of the church. Under the reform laws instituted by President Benito Juárez, the monasteries and churches were appropriated by the government, then sold off, subdivided and put to other uses. This anticlerical stance precipitated the internal War of the Reform between the liberals and conservatives. The liberals won, but in 1862 France’s Napoleon III decided to invade a weakened Mexico. Despite a May 5 defeat at Puebla (still celebrated every year as Cinco de Mayo), 130km east of Mexico City, the French occupied Mexico City in 1863. The following year Napoleon installed the Austrian archduke, Maximilian of Hapsburg, as emperor of Mexico. Juárez and his government retreated to the provinces.
Maximilian and his wife, Empress Carlota, moved into the Castillo de Chapultepec (instead of the Palacio Nacional on the Zócalo, traditional residence of Mexico’s heads of state). They had Paseo de la Reforma, still the city’s grandest boulevard, laid out to connect Chapultepec with the city center. But their reign was brief. Under pressure from the USA, Napoleon withdrew his troops and in 1867 Maximilian – a noble but naive figure – was defeated and executed by republican forces at Querétaro, 215km northwest of Mexico City.
Mexico City entered the modern age under the despotic Porfirio Díaz, who ruled Mexico for most of the period from 1877 to 1911 and attracted much foreign investment. Díaz ushered in a construction boom, building Parisian-style mansions and theaters, while the city’s wealthier residents escaped the center for newly minted neighborhoods toward the west like Roma and Polanco. Some 150km of electric tramways threaded the streets, industry grew, and by 1910 the city had more than half a million inhabitants. A drainage canal and tunnel finally succeeded in drying up much of Lago de Texcoco, allowing further expansion.
Díaz kept Mexico free of the wars that had plagued it for over 60 years, but at the price of political repression, foreign ownership of Mexican resources, and appalling conditions for many workers. Wealth became concentrated in the hands of a small minority. Such extreme economic disparity led to the Mexican Revolution, a confusing sequence of allegiances and conflicts between a spectrum of leaders and their armies, in which successive attempts to create a stable government were wrecked by new outbreaks of devastating fighting.
When rebels under Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa took Ciudad Juárez on the US border in May 1911, Díaz resigned. The liberal Francisco Madero was elected president in November 1911, but found himself in conflict with more radical leaders, including Emiliano Zapata in the state of Morelos, south of Mexico City, who was fighting for the transfer of land from large estates to the peasants.
In February 1913 two conservative leaders – Félix Díaz, nephew of Porfirio, and Bernardo Reyes – were sprung from prison in Mexico City and commenced a counterrevolution based in La Ciudadela, a building 700m south of the Alameda Central. This brought the Decena Trágica, 10 days of fierce fighting, to the capital. Thousands were killed or wounded and many buildings were destroyed. The fighting ended only after US ambassador Henry Lane Wilson negotiated for Madero’s general, Victoriano Huerta, to switch to the rebel side and help depose Madero. Huerta became president; Madero and his vice president José María Pino Suárez were executed.
The unpopular Huerta himself was soon deposed and the revolution devolved into a confrontation between the liberal ‘Constitutionalists, ’ led by Venustiano Carranza, and the forces led by populist Villa and the radical Zapata. But Villa and Zapata, despite a famous meeting in Mexico City in 1914, never formed a serious alliance, and the fighting became increasingly anarchic. Carranza emerged the victor in 1917, but in 1920 former allies including Álvaro Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles ran him out of office and had him assassinated. The revolutionary decade had devastated the economy – starvation was widespread, including in Mexico City – and an estimated 1.5 to two million Mexicans, roughly one-eighth of the country’s population, had lost their lives.
The 1920s ushered in peace and a modicum of prosperity. The postrevolution minister of education, José Vasconcelos, commissioned Mexico’s top artists – notably Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco – to decorate numerous public buildings in Mexico City with vivid, semipropagandistic murals on social, political and historical themes. This was the start of a major movement in Mexican art, with a lasting impact on the face of the city.
Following the Great Depression, a drive to industrialize attracted more money and people, and by 1940 the population had reached 1.7 million. Factories and skyscrapers rose in tandem with the population surge in the following decades. But the supply of housing, jobs and services could not keep pace, and shantytowns appeared on the city’s fringes as Mexico City began to grow uncontrollably. Economic growth continued in the 1960s, but political and social reform lagged behind, as was made painfully evident by the massacre of hundreds of students in the lead-up to the 1968 Olympic Games.
Mexico City continued to grow at an alarming rate in the 1970s, as the rural poor sought economic refuge in the capital’s thriving industries, and the population of the metropolitan area surged from 8.7 to 14.5 million. Unable to contain the masses of new arrivals, the Distrito Federal (DF; Federal District, the geographic entity that comprises Mexico City’s territory) spread beyond its boundaries into the adjacent state of México, which eventually became more populous than the DF proper. The result of such unbridled growth was some of the world’s worst traffic and pollution, only partly alleviated by the metro system (opened in 1969) and by attempts in the 1990s to limit traffic. On September 19, 1985, an earthquake measuring over 8.0 on the Richter scale hit Mexico City, killing at least 10, 000 and displacing thousands more. Still, people kept pouring in.
Today the metropolitan area counts an estimated 22 million inhabitants, around a fifth of the country’s population. Though growth has slowed in the last decade, there are still some 100, 000 newcomers and 150, 000 births annually. Mexico City is the industrial, financial and communications center of the country; its industries generate a quarter of Mexico’s wealth, and its people consume two-thirds of Mexico’s energy. Its cost of living is the highest in the nation.
The year 2000 marked a watershed in Mexico’s political development. After 70 years of continuous rule by the Partido Revolucionaria Institucional (PRI; Institutional Revolutionary Party), an opposition candidate, Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN), was elected president. Furthermore, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly known as AMLO), a member of the left-leaning PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution), was elected mayor of Mexico City. Under López Obrador’s administration, the face of the capital began to change for the better, starting with a massive renovation of the Centro Histórico. Financed in part by Carlos Slim (the world’s richest man as of 2007), the city launched renovations of the zone’s cobblestone streets and building facades, installing new lighting, bolstering security and sweeping thousands of unauthorized vendors from the streets. Similar face-lifts have been performed on the Paseo de la Reforma corridor and in the Alameda Central area. The urban landscape has been further transformed by a wave of new construction, attributed to low interest rates, a stable currency and renewed attention by foreign investors. Among the more architecturally impressive new structures are the new Foreign Relations Secretariat building, alongside the Alameda Central, and the 59-storey Torre Mayor, Latin America’s tallest building.
The DF’s notorious smog has been significantly curtailed thanks to tougher emission controls, while traffic congestion has been relieved by the construction of elevated highways along various sections of the city’s freeways (a project that was poignantly documented in the 2007 film, In the Pit). Meanwhile, the installation of the metrobus along Av Insurgentes, the city’s principal north–south corridor, has displaced an unruly, polluting fleet of buses, further reducing congestion (though the increased volume of vehicles on the road somewhat offsets those improvements). Crime, though still a persistent concern for capitalinos (residents of Mexico City) and visitors, has significantly dropped off since the 1990s.
PRD candidate Marcelo Ebrard won a sweeping victory in Mexico City’s mayoral elections of 2006, consolidating his party’s grip on the city government. Also registering an overwhelming takeover of the Federal District’s legislative assembly, the PRD passed a flood of progressive initiatives, including the sanctioning of gay unions and the legalization of abortion and euthanasia. Though Ebrard doesn’t inspire the sort of fervor demonstrated by AMLO’s followers, his work may have longer-lasting effects. Whether due to the city’s recently won autonomy or the country’s exhilaration after being released from the grip of seven decades of one-party rule, the turn of the millennium marked an improvement in Mexico City’s mood.
Not content with having a safer, cleaner city, current Mayor Marcelo Ebrard is also striving to make the DF a more fun place, providing a slew of new recreational options for stressed-out Chilangos. Every Sunday morning, skaters and cyclists have the run of Paseo de la Reforma and other thoroughfares that have been closed to auto traffic. The city has poured truckloads of sand alongside various public swimming pools to create ‘urban beaches, ’ much to the delight of residents who lack the means to get to the coasts. And during the winter holidays, an enormous ice-skating rink is installed on the Zócalo, with thousands of pairs of skates loaned free of charge.