Mexico’s story is always extraordinary and at times barely credible. How could a 2700-year tradition of sophisticated indigenous civilization crumble in two short years at the hands of some adventurers from Spain? How could Mexico’s 11-year war for independence from Spain lead to three decades of dictatorship by Porfirio Díaz? How could the people’s revolution that ended that dictatorship yield 80 years of one-party rule? Mexico's past is present everywhere you go, and is key to understanding Mexico today.
The Ancient Civilizations
The political map of ancient Mexico shifted constantly as cities, towns or states sought domination over one another, and a sequence of powerful states rose and fell through invasion, internal conflict or environmental disaster. These diverse cultures had much in common. Human sacrifice, to appease ferocious gods, was practiced by many of them; they observed the heavens to predict the future and determine propitious times for important events like harvests; society was heavily stratified and dominated by priestly male ruling classes. Versions of a ritual ball game were played almost everywhere and seem to have always involved two teams trying to keep a rubber ball off the ground by flicking it with various parts of the body. The game sometimes served as an oracle, and could also involve the sacrifice of some players.
A common framework divides the pre-Hispanic era into three main periods: pre-Classic (before AD 250); Classic (AD 250–900); and post-Classic (AD 900–1521). The most advanced cultures in Mexico emerged chiefly in the center, south and east of the country. Together with Maya lands in what are now Guatemala, Belize and a small part of Honduras, this zone is collectively known to historians and archaeologists as Mesoamerica.
The pre-Hispanic inhabitants of the Americas arrived from Siberia in several migrations during the last Ice Age, between perhaps 60,000 and 8000 BC, crossing land now submerged beneath the Bering Strait. Early Mexicans hunted big animal herds in the grasslands of the highland valleys. When temperatures rose at the end of the last Ice Age, the valleys became drier, ceasing to support such animal life and forcing the people to derive more food from plants. In central Mexico’s Tehuacán Valley and at Yagul near Oaxaca, archaeologists have traced the slow beginnings of agriculture between about 8000 and 3000 BC.
Mexico’s ‘mother culture’ was the mysterious Olmec civilization, which appeared in the humid lowlands of Veracruz and Tabasco. The evidence of the masterly stone sculptures they left behind indicates that Olmec civilization was well organized and able to support talented artisans, but lived in thrall to fearsome deities. Its best-known artifacts are the awe-inspiring ‘Olmec heads,’ stone sculptures up to 3m high with grim, pug-nosed faces and wearing curious helmets. Far-flung Olmec sites in central and western Mexico may have been trading posts or garrisons to ensure the supply of jade, obsidian and other luxuries for the Olmec elite.
Olmec art, religion and society had a profound influence on later Mexican civilizations. Olmec gods, such as the feathered serpent, persisted right through the pre-Hispanic era.
The first great civilization in central Mexico arose in a valley about 50km northeast of the middle of modern Mexico City. The grid plan of the magnificent city of Teotihuacán was laid out in the 1st century AD. It was the basis for the famous Pyramids of the Sun and Moon as well as avenues, palaces and temples that were added during the next 600 years. The city grew to a population of about 125,000 and became the center of the biggest pre-Hispanic Mexican empire, stretching as far south as modern El Salvador. It may have had some hegemony over the Zapotecs of Oaxaca, whose capital, Monte Albán, grew into a magnificent city in its own right between AD 300 and 600, with architecture displaying clear Teotihuacán influence. Teotihuacán’s advanced civilization – including writing, and a calendar system with a 260-day ‘sacred year’ composed of 13 periods of 20 days – spread far from its original heartland.
Teotihuacán was eventually burned, plundered and abandoned in the 8th century. But many Teotihuacán gods, such as the feathered serpent Quetzalcóatl (an all-important symbol of fertility and life) and Tláloc (the rain and water deity), were still being worshipped by the Aztecs a millennium later.
The Classic Maya
Maya civilization during the Classic period (AD 250–900) was the most brilliant civilization of pre-Hispanic America in the view of many experts, and flowered over a large area stretching from the Yucatán Peninsula into Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and the lowlands of Chiapas (Mexico). The Maya attained heights of artistic and architectural expression, and of learning in fields like astronomy, mathematics and astrology, that were not surpassed by any other pre-Hispanic civilization.
Politically, the Classic Maya were divided among many independent city-states, often at war with each other. A typical Maya city functioned as the religious, political and market hub for surrounding farming hamlets. Its ceremonial center focused on plazas surrounded by tall temple pyramids (usually the tombs of rulers, who were believed to be gods). Stone causeways called sacbeob, probably for ceremonial use, led out from the plazas, sometimes for many kilometers. In the first part of the Classic period most of these appear to have been grouped into two loose military alliances, centered on Tikal (Guatemala) and Calakmul (in the south of the Yucatán Peninsula).
Classic Maya Zones
Within Mexico, there were four main zones of Classic Maya concentration. Calakmul lies in a now-remote area known as the Río Bec zone, where Maya remains are typically long, low buildings decorated with serpent or monster masks and with towers at their corners. A second zone was the Chenes area in northeastern Campeche state, with similar architecture except for the towers. A third area was the Puuc zone, south of Mérida, characterized by buildings with intricate stone mosaics, often incorporating faces of the hook-nosed rain god Chaac. The most important Puuc city was Uxmal. The fourth zone was lowland Chiapas, with the cities of Palenque (for many people the most beautiful of all Maya sites), Yaxchilán and Toniná.
The Classic Maya Collapse
In the second half of the 8th century, conflict between Maya city-states started to increase, and by the early 10th century, the several million inhabitants of the flourishing central Maya heartland (Chiapas, Guatemala's Petén region and Belize) had virtually disappeared. The Classic era was at an end. A series of droughts combined with population pressure is thought to have brought about this cataclysm. Many Maya probably migrated to the Yucatán Peninsula or the highlands of Chiapas, where their descendants live on today. The jungle grew back up around the ancient lowland cities.
In central Mexico, for centuries after the fall of Teotihuacán, power was divided between various locally important cities, including Xochicalco, south of Mexico City; Cacaxtla and Cantona to the east; and Tula to the north. The cult of Quetzalcóatl remained widespread, society in at least some places became more militarized, and mass human sacrifice may have started here in this period. The Quetzalcóatl cult and large-scale human sacrifice were both exported to the Yucatán Peninsula, where they’re most evident at the city of Chichén Itzá.
Central Mexican culture in the early post-Classic period is often given the name Toltec (Artificers), a name coined by the later Aztecs, who looked back to the Toltec rulers with awe.
The Aztecs’ legends related that they were the chosen people of the hummingbird deity Huizilopochtli. Originally nomads from somewhere in western or northern Mexico, they were led by their priests to the Valle de México, the site of modern Mexico City, where they settled on islands in the valley’s lakes. By the 15th century the Aztecs (also known as the Mexica) had fought their way up to become the most powerful group in the valley, with their capital at Tenochtitlán, where downtown Mexico City stands today.
The Aztecs formed the Triple Alliance with two other valley states, Texcoco and Tlacopan, to wage war against Tlaxcala and Huejotzingo, east of the valley. The prisoners they took became the diet of sacrificed warriors that voracious Huizilopochtli (no sweet hummingbird himself) demanded to keep the sun rising every day.
The Triple Alliance brought most of central Mexico, from the Gulf coast to the Pacific, under its control. This was an empire of 38 provinces and about five million people, geared to extracting tribute (tax in kind) of resources absent from the heartland – items like jade, turquoise, cotton, tobacco, rubber, fruits, vegetables, cacao and precious feathers, all needed for the glorification of the Aztec elite and to support their war-oriented state.
Tenochtitlán and the adjoining Aztec city of Tlatelolco grew to house more than 200,000 people. The Valle de México as a whole had more than a million people. They were supported by intensive farming based on irrigation, terracing and swamp reclamation.
The Aztec emperor held absolute power. Celibate priests performed cycles of great ceremonies, typically including sacrifices and masked dances or processions enacting myths. Military leaders were usually elite professional soldiers known as tecuhtli. Another special group was the pochteca – militarized merchants who helped extend the empire, brought goods to the capital and organized large daily markets in big towns. At the bottom of society were pawns (paupers who could sell themselves for a specified period), serfs and slaves.
Other Post-Classic Civilizations
On the eve of the Spanish conquest, most Mexican civilizations shared deep similarities. Each was politically centralized and divided into classes, with many people occupied in specialist tasks, including professional priests. Agriculture was productive, despite the lack of draft animals, metal tools and the wheel. Corn tortillas, pozol (corn gruel) and beans were staple foods, and many other crops, such as squash, tomatoes, chilies, avocados, peanuts, papayas and pineapples, were grown in various regions. Luxury foods for the elite included turkey, domesticated hairless dog, game and chocolate drinks. War was widespread, and often connected with the need for prisoners to sacrifice to a variety of gods.
Several important regional cultures arose in the post-Classic period:
The Tarascos, who were skilled artisans and jewelers, ruled Michoacán from their base around the Lago de Pátzcuaro. They were one group that managed to avoid conquest by the Aztecs.
After 1200 the Zapotecs were increasingly dominated by the Mixtecs, skilled metalsmiths and potters from the uplands around the Oaxaca–Puebla border. Much of Oaxaca fell to the Aztecs in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The abandoned Maya city of Chichén Itzá was reoccupied around AD 1000 and developed into one of ancient Mexico’s most magnificent cities, in a fusion of Maya and central Mexican (Toltec) styles. The city of Mayapán dominated most of the Yucatán after Chichén Itzá declined around 1200. Mayapán’s hold dissolved from about 1440, and the Yucatán became a quarreling ground for many city-states.
Enter The Spanish
Ancient Mexican civilization, nearly 3000 years old, was shattered in two short years by a tiny group of invaders who destroyed the Aztec empire, brought a new religion, and reduced the native people to second-class citizens and slaves. Rarely in history has a thriving society undergone such a transformation so fast. So alien to each other were the newcomers and the indigenous Mexicans that each doubted whether the other was human (Pope Paul III declared indigenous Mexicans to be human in 1537). From this traumatic encounter arose modern Mexico. Most Mexicans today are mestizo, of mixed indigenous and European blood, and thus descendants of both cultures.
The Spanish Background
In 1492, the year Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, Spain was an aggressively expanding state, fresh from completing the 700-year Reconquista (Reconquest), in which Christian armies had gradually recovered the Spanish mainland from Islamic rule. With their mix of brutality and bravery, gold lust and piety, the Spanish conquistadors of the Americas were the natural successors to the crusading knights of the Reconquista.
Seeking new westward trade routes to the spice-rich Orient, Spanish explorers and soldiers landed first in the Caribbean, establishing colonies on the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba. They then began seeking a passage through the land mass to the west, and soon became distracted by tales of gold, silver and a rich empire there. Spain’s governor on Cuba, Diego Velázquez, asked a colonist named Hernán Cortés to lead one such 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, perhaps sensing a once-in-history opportunity, ignored him and set sail on February 15, 1519, with 11 ships, 550 men and 16 horses.
The Cortés expedition landed first at Cozumel island, then sailed around the coast to Tabasco, defeating inhospitable locals in the Battle of Centla near modern-day Frontera, where the enemy fled in terror from Spanish horsemen, thinking horse and rider to be a single fearsome beast. Afterward the locals gave Cortés 20 young women, among them Doña Marina (La Malinche), who became his indispensable interpreter, aide and lover.
Unhappy Aztec subject towns on the Gulf coast, such as Zempoala, welcomed the Spaniards. And as the Spaniards moved inland toward Tenochtitlán, they made allies of the Aztecs’ longtime enemies, the Tlaxcalans.
Aztec legends and superstitions and the indecision of Emperor Moctezuma II Xocoyotzin also worked to the Spaniards’ advantage. According to the Aztec calendar, 1519 would see the legendary Toltec god-king Quetzalcóatl return from banishment in the east. Was Cortés actually Quetzalcóatl? Omens proliferated: 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.
The Taking of Tenochtitlán
The Spaniards, with 6000 indigenous allies, were invited to enter Tenochtitlán, a city bigger than any in Spain, on November 8, 1519. Aztec nobles carried Moctezuma out to meet Cortés on a litter with a canopy of feathers and gold, and the Spaniards were lodged, as befitted gods, in the palace of Moctezuma’s father, Axayácatl.
Though entertained in luxury, the Spaniards were trapped. Unsure of Moctezuma’s intentions, they took him hostage. Believing Cortés a god, Moctezuma told his people he went willingly, but tensions rose in the city. Eventually, after six or seven months, some of the Spaniards killed about 200 Aztec nobles in an intended pre-emptive strike. Cortés persuaded Moctezuma to try to pacify his people. According to one version of events, the emperor tried to address the crowds from the roof of Axayácatl’s palace, but was killed by missiles; other versions say it was the Spaniards who killed him.
The Spaniards fled, losing several hundred of their own and thousands of indigenous allies, on what’s known as the Noche Triste (Sad Night). They retreated to Tlaxcala, where they built boats in sections, then carried them across the mountains to attack Tenochtitlán from its surrounding lakes. When the 900 Spaniards re-entered the Valle de México in May 1521, they were accompanied by some 100,000 native allies. The defenders resisted fiercely, but after three months the city had been razed to the ground and the new emperor, Cuauhtémoc, was captured. Cuauhtémoc asked Cortés to kill him, but he was kept alive until 1525 as a hostage, undergoing occasional foot-burning as the Spanish tried to make him reveal the whereabouts of Aztec treasure.
Mexico as a Colony
The Spanish crown saw Mexico and its other American conquests as a silver cow to be milked to finance its endless wars in Europe, a life of luxury for its nobility, and a deluge of new churches, palaces and monasteries that were erected around Spain. The crown was entitled to one-fifth of all bullion sent back from the New World (the quinto real, or royal fifth). Conquistadors and colonists, too, saw the American empire as a chance to get rich. Cortés granted his soldiers encomiendas, which were rights to the labor or tribute of groups of indigenous people. Spain asserted its authority through viceroys, the crown’s personal representatives in Mexico.
The populations of the conquered peoples of Nueva España (New Spain), as the Spanish named their Mexican colony, declined disastrously, mainly from new diseases introduced by the invaders. The indigenous peoples’ only real allies were some of the monks who started arriving in 1523. The monks’ missionary work helped extend Spanish control over Mexico – by 1560 they had converted millions of people and built more than 100 monasteries – but many of them also protected local people from the colonists’ worst excesses.
Northern Mexico remained beyond Spanish control until big finds of silver at Zacatecas, Guanajuato and elsewhere spurred efforts to subdue it. The northern borders were slowly extended by missionaries and a few settlers, and by the early 19th century Nueva España included (albeit loosely) most of the modern US states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah and Colorado.
A person’s place in colonial Mexican society was determined by skin color, parentage and birthplace. At the top of the tree, however humble their origins in Spain, were Spanish-born colonists. Known as peninsulares, they were a minuscule part of the population, but were considered nobility in Nueva España.
Next on the ladder were the criollos, people of Spanish ancestry born in the colony. As the decades passed, the criollos began to develop a distinct identity, and some of them came to possess enormous estates (haciendas) and amass huge fortunes from mining, commerce or agriculture. Not surprisingly, criollos sought political power commensurate with their wealth and grew to resent Spanish authority.
Below the criollos were the mestizos, and at the bottom of the pile were the indigenous people and African slaves. Though the poor were paid for their labor by the 18th century, they were paid very little. Many were peones (bonded laborers tied by debt to their employers), and indigenous people still had to pay tribute to the crown.
Social stratification follows similar patterns in Mexico today with, broadly speaking, the ‘pure-blood’ descendants of Spaniards at the top of the tree, the mestizos in the middle and the indigenous people at the bottom.
Mexico as a Republic
Criollo discontent with Spanish rule really began to stir following the expulsion of the Jesuits (many of whom were criollos) from the Spanish empire in 1767. The catalyst for rebellion came in 1808 when Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Spain, and direct Spanish control over Nueva España evaporated. The city of Querétaro became a hotbed of intrigue among criollos plotting rebellion against Spanish rule. The rebellion was launched on September 16, 1810 by Padre Miguel Hidalgo in his parish of Dolores (now Dolores Hidalgo). The path to independence was a hard one, involving almost 11 years of fighting between rebels and loyalist forces, and the deaths of Hidalgo and several other rebel leaders. But eventually rebel general Agustín de Iturbide sat down with Spanish viceroy Juan O’Donojú in Córdoba in 1821 and agreed on terms for Mexico’s independence.
Mexico’s first century as a free nation started with a period of chronic political instability and wound up with a period of stability so repressive that it triggered a revolution. A consistent thread throughout was the opposition between liberals, who favored a measure of social reform, and conservatives, who didn’t. Between 1821 and the mid-1860s, the young Mexican nation was invaded by three different countries (Spain, the USA and France), lost large chunks of its territory to the US and underwent nearly 50 changes of head of state.
Juárez & Díaz
It was an indigenous Zapotec from Oaxaca who played the lead role in Mexican affairs for two tumultuous decades after the midpoint of the century. Lawyer Benito Juárez was a key member of the new liberal government in 1855, which ushered in the era known as the Reform, in which the liberals set about dismantling the conservative state that had developed in Mexico. Juárez became president in 1861. With the French Intervention soon afterward, his government was forced into exile in provincial Mexico, eventually to regain control in 1866. Juárez set an agenda of economic and social reform. Schooling was made mandatory, a railway was built between Mexico City and Veracruz, and a rural police force, the rurales, was organized to secure the transportation of cargo through Mexico. Juárez died in 1872 and remains one of the few Mexican historical figures with a completely unsullied reputation.
A rather different Oaxacan, Porfirio Díaz, ruled as president for 31 of the following 39 years, a period known as the Porfiriato. Díaz brought Mexico into the industrial age, stringing telephone, telegraph and railway lines and launching public works projects. He kept Mexico free of civil wars – but political opposition, free elections and a free press were banned. Peasants were cheated out of their land by new laws, workers suffered appalling conditions, and land and wealth became concentrated in the hands of a small minority. All this led, in 1910, to the Mexican Revolution.
The Mexican Revolution
The Revolution was a tortured 10-year period of shifting conflicts and allegiances between forces and leaders of all political stripes. The conservatives were pushed aside fairly early on, but the reformers and revolutionaries who had lined up against them could not agree among themselves. Successive attempts to create stable governments were wrecked by new outbreaks of devastating fighting. All told, one in eight Mexicans lost their lives.
Francisco Madero, a wealthy liberal from Coahuila, would probably have won the presidential election in 1910 if Porfirio Díaz hadn’t jailed him. On his release, Madero called successfully on the nation to revolt, which spread quickly across the country. Díaz resigned in May 1911, and Madero was elected president six months later. But Madero could not contain the diverse factions now struggling for power throughout the country. The basic divide was between liberal reformers like Madero and more radical leaders such as Emiliano Zapata, who was fighting for the transfer of hacienda land to the peasants, with the cry ‘¡Tierra y libertad!’ (Land and freedom!).
In 1913 Madero was deposed and executed by one of his own generals, Victoriano Huerta, who had defected to conservative rebels. The liberals and radicals united (temporarily) to defeat Huerta. Three main leaders in the north banded together under the Plan de Guadalupe: Venustiano Carranza, a Madero supporter, in Coahuila; Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa in Chihuahua; and Álvaro Obregón in Sonora. Zapata also fought against Huerta.
But fighting then broke out again between the victorious factions, with Carranza and Obregón (the ‘Constitutionalists,’ with their capital at Veracruz) pitted against the radical Zapata and the populist Villa. Zapata and Villa never formed a serious alliance, and it was Carranza who emerged the victor. He had Zapata assassinated in 1919, only to be liquidated himself the following year on the orders of his former ally Obregón. Pancho Villa was killed in 1923.
Mexico as a One-Party Democracy
From 1920 to 2000, Mexico was ruled by the reformists who emerged victorious from the Revolution and their successors in the political party they set up, which since the 1940s has borne the name Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party), or PRI as it’s universally known. Starting out with some genuinely radical social policies, these governments became steadily more conservative, corrupt, repressive and self-interested as the 20th century wore on. Mexico ended the century with a bigger middle class but still with a yawning wealth gap between the prosperous few and the many poor.
Between the 1920s and '60s more than 400,000 sq km of land was redistributed from large estates to peasants and small farmers. Nearly half the population received land, mainly in the form of ejidos (communal landholdings). Meanwhile, Mexico developed a worrying economic dependence on its large oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico. The 1970s and '80s saw the country veer from oil-engendered boom to oil-engendered slump as world oil prices swung rapidly up, then just as suddenly down. The huge government-owned oil company Pemex was just one face of a massive state-controlled economic behemoth that developed as the PRI sought control over all important facets of Mexican life.
Decline of the PRI
The PRI was discredited forever in the minds of many Mexicans by the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968, in which an estimated 400 civil-liberties protesters were shot dead. The PRI came to depend increasingly on strong-arm tactics and fraud to win elections.
Mexicans’ cynicism about their leaders reached a crescendo with the 1988–94 presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who won the presidential election only after a mysterious computer failure had halted vote-tallying at a crucial stage. During Salinas’ term, drug trafficking through Mexico – on the rise since the early '80s when traffickers from Colombia began shifting their routes from the Caribbean to Mexico – grew into a huge business, and mysterious high-profile murders proliferated. Salinas did take steps to liberalize the monolithic state-dominated economy. The apex of his program, the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), boosted exports and industry, but was unpopular with food growers and small businesses threatened by imports from the US. The last year of his presidency, 1994, began with the left-wing Zapatista uprising in Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas, and shortly before Salinas left office he spent nearly all of Mexico’s foreign-exchange reserves in a futile attempt to support the peso, engendering a slump that he left his successor, Ernesto Zedillo, to deal with.
It was also left to Zedillo to respond to the rising clamor for democratic change in Mexico. He established a new, independently supervised electoral system that opened the way for his own party to lose power when Vicente Fox of the business-oriented Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) won the presidential election in 2000.
Vicente Fox’s election itself – a non-PRI president after 80 years of rule by that party and its predecessors – was really the biggest news about his six-year term. He entered office backed by much goodwill. In the end, his presidency was considered a disappointment by most. Lacking a majority in Mexico’s Congress, Fox was unable to push through reforms that he believed were key to stirring Mexico’s slumbering economy.
Fox was succeeded in 2006 by another PAN president, Felipe Calderón. During Calderón's term Mexico's economy sprang back surprisingly fast after the recession of 2009, and Mexico became something of a global environmental champion when it enshrined its carbon-emissions targets in law in 2012. But his presidency will be remembered far more for its war on drugs.
The Drugs War
Presidents Zedillo and Fox had already deployed the armed forces against the violent mobs running the multi-billion-dollar business of shipping illegal drugs into the USA, but had failed to rein in their violence or their power to corrupt. By 2006 over 2000 people a year were already dying in violence engendered chiefly by brutal turf wars between rival gangs.
Calderón declared war on the drug mobs and mobilized 50,000 troops plus naval and police forces against them, predominantly in cities along the US border. Some top gang leaders were killed or arrested, and drug seizures reached record levels, but so did the killings – an estimated 60,000 in the six years of Calderón's presidency. The gangs’ methods grew ever more shocking, with street gun-battles, gruesome beheadings and torture. Cities such as Monterrey, Nuevo Laredo, Acapulco and Veracruz saw violence spike when local turf wars erupted; as of 2016, Acapulco had the highest murder rate in Mexico. When the numbers of killings finally started to fall at the end of Calderón's presidency, many people believed this was simply because the two strongest mobs – the Sinaloa cartel in the northwest of Mexico and Los Zetas in the northeast – had effectively wiped out their weaker rivals.