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Mexico’s story is always extraordinary and at times barely credible. How could a 2700-year-long tradition of ancient civilization, involving the Olmecs, the Maya and the Aztecs – all intellectually sophisticated and aesthetically gifted, yet at times astoundingly bloodthirsty – crumble in two short years at the hands of a few hundred 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? And how was it that, after so many years of turbulent upheavals, one-party rule just laid down and died in Mexico’s first-ever peaceful regime change in 2000?

Travel in Mexico is a fascinating encounter with this unique story and the modern country that it has produced. From the awesome ancient cities to the gorgeous colonial palaces, through the superb museums and the deep-rooted traditions and beliefs of the Mexicans themselves, Mexico’s ever-present past will never fail to enrich your journey.

The ancient civilizations

From nomadic hunter-gatherer beginnings, early Mexicans first developed agriculture, then villages, then cities with advanced civilizations, then great empires. The political map shifted constantly as one city or state sought domination over another, and a sequence of powerful states rose and fell through invasion, internal dissension or environmental disasters. But the diverse cultures of ancient Mexico had much in common, as religion, forms of social organization and economic basics were transmitted from lords to masters and from one generation to the next. Human sacrifice, to appease ferocious gods, was practiced by many societies; observation of the heavens was developed to predict the future and determine propitious times for important events like harvests; society was heavily stratified and dominated by priestly ruling classes; women were restricted to domestic and child-bearing roles; versions of a ritual ball game were played almost everywhere on specially built courts.

Most Mexicans today are, at least in part, descended from the country’s original inhabitants, and varied aspects of modern Mexico – from spirituality and artistry to the country’s continued domination by elites – owe a great deal to the pre-Hispanic heritage.

There are many ways of analyzing the pre-Hispanic eras, but one common (if oversimplified) framework divides into three main periods: Preclassic, before AD 250; Classic, AD 250–900; and Postclassic, AD 900–1521. The Classic period saw the flourishing of some of the most advanced cultures, including the Maya and the empire of Teotihuacán.

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It’s accepted that, barring a few Vikings in the north and some possible direct transpacific contact with Southeast Asia, the pre-Hispanic inhabitants of the Americas arrived from Siberia. They came in several migrations during the last ice age, between perhaps 60, 000 and 8000 BC, crossing land now submerged beneath the Bering Strait. The first Mexicans hunted big animal herds in the grasslands of the highland valleys. When temperatures rose at the end of the 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, archaeologists have traced the slow beginnings of agriculture between 7000 and 3000 BC, leading to a sufficiently dependable supply of food for people to be able to settle in fixed villages. Pottery appeared by 2000 BC.

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The Olmecs

Mexico’s ‘mother culture’ was the mysterious Olmec civilization, which appeared near the Gulf coast in the humid lowlands of southern Veracruz and neighboring Tabasco. The name Olmec – ‘People from the Region of Rubber’ – was coined by archaeologists in the 1920s. 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 awesome ‘Olmec heads, ’ stone sculptures up to 3m high with grim, pug-nosed faces and wearing curious helmets.

Ten Olmec heads were found at the first great Olmec center, San Lorenzo, and at least seven at the second great site, La Venta. The Olmecs were obviously capable of a high degree of social organization, as the stone from which the heads and many other stone monuments were carved was probably dragged, rolled or rafted to San Lorenzo and La Venta from hills 60km to 100km away. They were also involved in trade over large regions. Olmec sites found in central and western Mexico, far from the Gulf coast, may well have been trading posts or garrisons to ensure the supply of jade, obsidian and other luxuries for the Olmec elite.

In the end, both San Lorenzo and La Venta were destroyed violently, but Olmec art, religion and society had a profound influence on later Mexican civilizations. Olmec gods, such as the feathered serpent and their fire and corn deities, persisted right through the pre-Hispanic era.

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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 a 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. At its peak, the city had a population of about 125, 000, and it was the center of probably the biggest pre-Hispanic Mexican empire. Developed after around AD 400, this domain extended all the way south to parts of modern Honduras and El Salvador. It was an empire seemingly geared toward tribute-gathering rather than full-scale occupation, and it helped to spread Teotihuacán’s advanced civilization – including writing and books, a numbering system based on bar-and-dot numerals and a calendar system that included the 260-day ‘sacred year’ composed of 13 periods of 20 days – far from its original heartland.

Within Teotihuacán’s cultural sphere was Cholula, with a pyramid even bigger than the Pyramid of the Sun. Teotihuacán may also have had hegemony over the Zapotecs of Oaxaca, whose capital, Monte Albán, grew into a magnificent city in its own right between AD 300 and 600.

Like all other ancient Mexican civilizations and empires, Teotihuacán’s time in the sun had to end. Probably already weakened by the rise of rival powers in central Mexico, Teotihuacán was burned, plundered and abandoned in the 8th century. But its legacy for Mexico’s later cultures was huge. Many of Teotihuacán’s gods, such as the feathered serpent Quetzalcóatl (an all-important symbol of fertility and life, itself inherited from the Olmecs) and Tláloc (the rain and water deity) were still being worshipped by the Aztecs a millennium later. Aztec royalty made pilgrimages to the great pyramids and believed Teotihuacán was the place where the gods had sacrificed themselves to set the sun in motion and inaugurate the world that the Aztecs inhabited. Today, New Age devotees converge on Teotihuacán to imbibe mystical energies at the vernal equinox.

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The classic Maya

The Classic Maya, in many experts’ view the most brilliant civilization of pre-Hispanic America, flowered in three areas:

North– Mexico’s low-lying Yucatán Peninsula

Central – the Petén forest of present-day northern Guatemala, and the adjacent lowlands in Chiapas and Tabasco in Mexico (to the west) and Belize (to the east)

South – the highlands Guatemala and a small section of Honduras.

It was in the northern and central areas that the Maya blossomed most brilliantly, attaining heights of artistic and architectural expression, and of learning in fields like astronomy, mathematics and astrology, which were not to be surpassed by any other pre-Hispanic civilization.

The Classic Maya were divided among many independent city-states –often at war with each other – but 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.

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Maya cities

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 deified rulers) and lower buildings – so-called palaces, with warrens of small rooms. Steles (tall standing stones) and altars were carved with dates, histories and elaborate human and divine figures. Stone causeways called sacbeob, probably for ceremonial use, led out from the plazas.

Within Mexico there were four main zones of Classic Maya concentration: one in lowland Chiapas and three on the Yucatán Peninsula.

The chief Chiapas sites are Yaxchilán, Bonampak, Toniná and Palenque. For many people the most beautiful of all Maya sites, Palenque rose to prominence under the 7th-century ruler Pakal, whose treasure-loaded tomb deep inside the fine Templo de las Inscripciones was discovered in 1952.

In the southern Yucatán, the Río Bec and Chenes zones, noted for the lavish monster and serpent carvings on their buildings, are in wild areas where archaeological investigations are relatively unadvanced. The sites here, which include Calakmul, Becán, Xpuhil and Río Bec itself, draw relatively few visitors.

The third concentration of Classic Maya culture on the Yucatán Peninsula was the Puuc zone, the most important city of which was Uxmal, south of Mérida. Puuc ornamentation, which reached its peak on the Governor’s Palace at Uxmal, featured intricate stone mosaics, often incorporating faces of the hook-nosed rain god, Chac. The amazing Codz Poop (Palace of Masks) at Kabah is covered with nearly 300 Chac faces. Chichén Itzá, east of Mérida, is another Puuc site, though it owes more to the later Toltec era.

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The Toltecs

After the fall of Teotihuacán, control over central Mexico was disputed between a number of cities. One of the most important was Xochicalco, a hilltop site near Cuernavaca, with Maya influences and impressive evidence of a feathered-serpent cult. But it was the Toltec empire, based at Tula, 65km north of Mexico City, that came to exert most influence over the course of Mexican history. The name Toltec (Artificers) was coined by the Aztecs, who looked back to them with awe and considered them as royal ancestors.

It’s hard to disentangle myth from history in the Toltec story, but a widely accepted version is that the Toltecs were one of many semicivilized tribes from the north who moved into central Mexico after the fall of Teotihuacán. Tula became their capital, probably in the 10th century, and grew into a city of about 35, 000. Tula’s ceremonial center is dedicated to the feathered serpent god Quetzalcóatl, but annals relate that Quetzalcóatl was displaced by Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror), a newcomer god of warriors and sorcery who demanded a regular diet of the hearts of sacrificed warriors. A king identified with Quetzalcóatl, Topiltzin, fled to the Gulf coast and set sail eastward on a raft of snakes, promising one day to return – a legend that was to have extremely fateful consequences centuries later when the Spanish arrived.

Tula seems to have become the capital of a militaristic kingdom that dominated central Mexico. Mass human sacrifice may have started here. Toltec influence spread to the Gulf coast and as far north as Paquimé, and is even suspected in temple mounds and artifacts found in Tennessee and Illinois. But it was in the Yucatán Peninsula that they left their most celebrated imprint. Maya scripts relate that around the end of the 10th century much of the northern Yucatán Peninsula was conquered by one Kukulcán, who bears many similarities to Tula’s banished Quetzalcóatl. The Yucatán site of Chichén Itzá contains many Tula-like features, including gruesome Chac-Mools (reclining stone figures holding dishes for sacrificial human hearts). Tiers of grinning skulls engraved on a massive stone platform suggest sacrifice on a massive scale. And there’s a resemblance that can hardly be coincidental between Tula’s Pyramid B and Chichén Itzá’s Temple of the Warriors. Many writers therefore believe that Toltec exiles invaded the Yucatán and created a new, even grander version of Tula at Chichén Itzá.

Tula itself was abandoned around the start of the 13th century, seemingly destroyed by one of the hordes of barbarian raiders from the north known as Chichimecs. But later Mexican peoples revered the Toltec era as a golden age.

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The Aztecs

The Aztecs’ legends related that they were the chosen people of their tribal god, the hummingbird deity Huizilopochtli. Originally nomads from somewhere to the west or north, they were led by their priests to the Valle de México, 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 (on the site of present-day downtown Mexico City). Legend tells that the site was chosen because there the Aztecs witnessed an eagle standing on a cactus and devouring a snake, a sign that they should stop wandering and build a city. The eagle-snake-cactus emblem sits in the middle of the Mexican flag.

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 formed the diet of sacrificed warriors that voracious Huizilopochtli demanded to keep the sun rising every day.

The Triple Alliance brought most of central Mexico – from the Gulf coast to the Pacific, though not Tlaxcala – under its control. This was an empire of 38 provinces and about five million people, ruled by fear and geared to exacting tribute of resources absent from the heartland. Jade, turquoise, cotton, paper, tobacco, rubber, cacao and precious feathers were needed for the glorification of the Aztec elite, and to support the many nonproductive servants of its war-oriented state.

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Economy & society

Tenochtitlán and the adjoining Aztec city of Tlatelolco grew to house more than 200, 000 inhabitants. The Valle de México as a whole had more than a million people. They were supported by a variety of intensive farming methods that used only stone and wooden tools, and involved irrigation, terracing and swamp reclamation.

The basic unit of Aztec society was the calpulli, consisting of a few dozen to a few hundred extended families, who owned land communally. The king held absolute power but delegated important roles, such as priestly duties or tax collecting, to members of the pilli (nobility). Military leaders were usually tecuhtli, elite professional soldiers. Another special group was the pochteca, militarized merchants who helped extend the empire, brought goods to the capital and organized the large markets that were held daily in big towns. At the bottom of society were pawns (paupers who could sell themselves for a specified period), serfs and slaves.

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Other postclassic 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. Luxuries for the elite included turkey, domesticated hairless dog, game and chocolate drinks. War between different cities and empires was widespread, and often connected with the need for prisoners to sacrifice to a variety of gods.

Apart from the Toltecs and Aztecs, several important regional cultures arose in the Postclassic period:

Yucatán Peninsula The city of Mayapán dominated most of the Yucatán after the Toltec phase at Chichén Itzá ended around 1200. Mayapán’s hold dissolved from about 1440, and the Yucatán became a quarreling ground for numerous city-states, with a culture much decayed from Classic Maya glories.

Oaxaca After 1200 the Zapotec settlements, such as Mitla and Yagul, were increasingly dominated by the Mixtecs, who were metalsmiths and potters from the uplands around the OaxacaPuebla border. Much of Oaxaca fell to the Aztecs in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Michoacán The Tarascos, skilled artisans and jewelers, ruled Michoacán with their capital at Tzintzuntzan, about 200km west of Mexico City. They were one group which managed to avoid conquest by the Aztecs.

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The Spanish arrive

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 in a new religion and reduced the native people to second-class citizens and slaves. Rarely in world history has a thriving society undergone such a total transformation so fast. Why the Spanish embarked on this conquest, how they were able to subdue Mexico so easily, and why their arrival had such a devastating effect, are questions whose answers lie partly in the characters of the two societies involved, but also in some pure happenstance and luck. The characters of the leading protagonists – the ruthless, Machiavellian genius of the ambitious Spanish leader, Hernán Cortés, and the superstitious hesitancy of the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma II Xocoyotzin – were of supreme importance to the outcome.

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). Yet from their traumatic encounter arose modern Mexico. Most Mexicans are mestizo, of mixed indigenous and European blood, and thus descendants of both cultures. But while Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor, is now an official Mexican hero, Cortés, the leader of the Spanish conquerors, is today considered a villain and his indigenous allies as traitors.

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The Spanish background

In 1492, with the capture of the city of Granada, Spain’s Christian armies finally completed the 700-year Reconquista (Reconquest), in which they had gradually recovered territories on the Spanish mainland from Islamic rule. Under its Catholic monarchs, Fernando and Isabel, Spain was an aggressively expanding state to which it came naturally to seek new avenues of commerce and conquest. With their odd mix of brutality, bravery, gold lust and piety, the Spanish conquistadores of the Americas were the natural successors to the crusading knights of the Reconquista.

The notion that the world was round was already widespread in Europe, and Spain’s Atlantic location placed it perfectly to lead the search for new westward trade routes to the spice-rich Orient. Its explorers, soldiers and colonists landed first in the Caribbean, establishing bases on the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba where they quickly put the local populations to work mining gold and raising crops and livestock. Realizing that they had not reached the East Indies, the Spanish began seeking a passage through the land mass to their west, and soon became distracted by tales of gold, silver and a rich empire there.

After the first Spanish expeditions sent west from Cuba had been driven back from Mexico’s Gulf coast, Spain’s governor on the island, Diego Velázquez, asked Hernán Cortés, a colonist there, 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, sensing a once-in-history opportunity, ignored him and set sail on February 15, 1519, with 11 ships, 550 men and 16 horses. This tension between Cortés’ individual ambition and the authorities’ efforts to bring him to heel persisted until his death in Spain in 1547.

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The conquest

The Cortés expedition landed first at Cozumel island, then sailed around the coast to Tabasco, defeating inhospitable locals in the Battle of Centla in modern-day Frontera, where the enemy fled in terror from Spanish horsemen, thinking horse and rider to be a single fearsome beast. Afterwards Cortés delivered the first of many lectures to Mexicans on the importance of Christianity and King Carlos I of Spain – a constant theme of the conquest – and the locals gave him 20 maidens, among them Doña Marina (La Malinche), who became his indispensable interpreter, aide and lover.

The Spaniards were greatly assisted by the hostility felt toward the Aztecs by other Mexican peoples. Resentful Aztec subject towns on the Gulf coast, such as Zempoala, welcomed them. And as they moved inland toward Tenochtitlán, they made allies of the Aztecs’ long-time enemies, the Tlaxcalans.

Aztec legends and superstitions and the indecisive character of Emperor Moctezuma also worked to the Spaniards’ advantage. As soon as the Spanish ships arrived along the coast, news of ‘towers floating on water, ’ bearing fair-skinned beings, was carried to Moctezuma. According to the Aztec calendar, 1519 would see the legendary Toltec god-king Quetzalcóatl return from the east. Was Cortés actually Quetzalcóatl? Moctezuma could only play a waiting game to find out. 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 Spaniards, with 6000 indigenous allies, were invited to enter Tenochtitlán, a city bigger than any in Spain, on November 8, 1519. Moctezuma was carried out to meet Cortés on a litter with a canopy of feathers and gold borne by some of his nobles, 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, aggravated by the Spaniards’ destruction of Aztec idols. Eventually, after some six or seven months and apparently fearing an attack, 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 the Spaniards 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). The survivors retreated to Tlaxcala, where they built boats in sections, then carried them across the mountains for a waterborne assault on Tenochtitlán. When the 900 Spaniards re-entered the Valle de México in May, 1521, they were accompanied by some 100, 000 native allies. For the first time, the odds were in their favor. The defenders resisted fiercely, but after three months the city had been razed to the ground and the new emperor, Cuauhtémoc, was captured.

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Mexico as a colony

Spain’s policy toward conquered Mexico, as for all its conquests in the Americas, can be summed up in one word: exploitation. The Spanish crown saw the New World 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 churches, palaces and monasteries that were erected around Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries. The crown was entitled to a fifth (the quinto real, or royal fifth) of all ­bullion sent back from the New World. Individual conquistadors and colonists saw the American empire as a chance to get rich, and by the 18th century some of them had amassed huge fortunes in Mexico from mining, commerce or agriculture, and possessed enormous estates (haciendas).

The populations of the conquered peoples of Nueva España (New Spain), as the Spanish named their Mexican colony, declined disastrously, mainly from epidemics of 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 were compassionate and brave men, who protected local people from the colonists’ worst excesses. Indigenous slavery was abolished in the 1550s, but partly replaced by black slavery.

Cortés granted his soldiers encomiendas, which were rights to the labor or tribute of groups of indigenous people. Spain began to exert control by setting up Nueva España’s first audiencia, a high court with government functions, in 1527. Later, authority was vested in viceroys, the Spanish crown’s personal representatives in Mexico.

Northern Mexico remained beyond Spanish control until big finds of silver at Zacatecas, Guanajuato and elsewhere spurred Spanish attempts 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.

As the decades passed, many Spaniards put down roots in Mexico, and those born and bred in the colony began to develop their own identity and a growing alienation from the mother country. When Mexico came to its next big turning point – the throwing off of the colonial yoke – it was these criollos, people born of Spanish parents in Nueva España, who engineered the separation.

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, some of whom were enormously rich. Not surprisingly, criollos sought political power commensurate with their wealth and grew to resent Spanish authority over the colony.

Below the criollos were the mestizos (people of mixed ancestry), 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.

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. When the crown confiscated church assets in 1804, the church had to call in many debts, which hit criollos hard. The catalyst for rebellion came in 1808 when Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Spain, and direct Spanish control over Nueva España evaporated. Rivalry between peninsulares and criollos intensified.

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The young republic

The city of Querétaro, north of Mexico City, became a hotbed of intrigue among disaffected criollos plotting rebellion against Spanish rule. The rebellion was finally launched in 1810 by Padre Miguel Hidalgo in his parish of Dolores on September 16 – a date that is still celebrated as a Mexican national holiday. 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 incoming Spanish viceroy Juan O’Donojú in Córdoba in 1821 and agreed the terms for Mexico’s independence.

The country’s first nine decades 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 social revolution. A consistent theme throughout was the opposition between liberals, who favored a measure of social reform, and conservatives, who didn’t. Of the era’s three major figures, one, Benito Juárez, was a liberal. The other two, Antonio López de Santa Anna and Porfirio Díaz, started out as liberals but ended up as conservatives – a fairly common transition for those who acquire power and one that Mexico’s entire governing party, the PRI, underwent in the 20th century.

Between 1821 and the mid-1860s, the young Mexican nation was invaded by three different countries, lost large chunks of its territory to the US and underwent nearly 50 changes of head of state. No one did much to stir the economy, and corruption became entrenched. The dominant figures were almost all men of Spanish origin, and another consistent theme was the repeated intervention in politics by ambitious soldiers. The paragon of these military opportunists was Santa Anna, who first hit the limelight by deposing independent Mexico’s first head of state, Emperor Agustín I, in 1823. He defeated a small Spanish invasion force at Tampico in 1829 and two years later overthrew the conservative president Anastasio Bustamante. Santa Anna himself was elected president in 1833, the first of his 11 terms in 22 years, during which the presidency changed hands 36 times.

But Santa Anna is most remembered for helping to lose large chunks of Mexican territory to the US. After his 1836 defeat in Texas and his disastrous territorial losses in the Mexican–American War in 1848 (the US has had the upper hand in American–Mexican relations ever since), a Santa Anna government sold Mexico’s last remaining areas of New Mexico and Arizona to the US for US$10 million in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. This precipitated the Revolution of Ayutla that ousted him for good in 1855.

Amazingly, it was an indigenous Zapotec from Oaxaca who played the lead role in Mexican affairs for almost two tumultuous decades thereafter. 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 it set about dismantling the conservative state that had developed in Mexico. Juárez became president in 1861. Come the French Intervention almost immediately afterwards, his government was forced into exile, eventually to regain control in 1866. Juárez immediately set an agenda of economic and educational 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 is one of the few Mexican historical figures with a completely unsullied reputation, and his sage maxim, ‘El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz’ (Respect for the rights of others is peace), is widely quoted.

Juárez was succeeded at Mexico’s helm by Porfirio Díaz, who ruled as president for 31 of the 35 years from 1876 to 1911, a period known as the Porfiriato. Díaz brought Mexico into the industrial age, stringing telephone, telegraph and railway lines and launching public works projects throughout the country. He kept Mexico free of the civil wars that had plagued it for more than 60 years – but at a cost. 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 the country was kept quiet by a ruthless army and the now-feared rurales. Land and wealth became concentrated in the hands of a small minority. All this led, in 1910, to the Mexican Revolution.

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The Mexican revolution

The revolution was no clear-cut struggle between good and evil, left and right or any other pair of simple opposites. It was a 10-year period of shifting 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 never agree among themselves. Successive attempts to create stable governments were wrecked by new outbreaks of devastating fighting. The overall outcome was that one in eight Mexicans lost their lives and the country swapped the right-wing dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz for a radical government that later lost its revolutionary verve but kept a grip on power right through the 20th century.

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 for 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 that were now fighting 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!). Madero sent federal troops to disband Zapata’s forces, and the Zapatista movement was born.

When Madero’s government was brought down in 1913, it was by one of his own top generals, Victoriano Huerta, who defected to conservative rebels. Madero was executed and Huerta became president – which succeeded only in (temporarily) uniting the revolutionary forces in opposition to him. 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. The latter pair, despite a famous meeting in Mexico City in 1915, never formed a serious alliance, and it was Carranza who emerged the victor. The Zapatistas continued to demand reforms in the state of Morelos, south of Mexico City, but Carranza had Zapata assassinated in 1919. The following year Carranza himself was in turn assassinated on the orders of his former ally Obregón. Pancho Villa was killed in 1923.

The 10 years of violent fighting and upheaval had cost up to two million lives and shattered the economy.

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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 self-contradictory name Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI as it’s universally known. Starting out with some genuinely radical social policies, these governments became steadily more conservative, more corrupt, more repressive and more self-interested as the 20th century wore on. Mexico rode many economic ups and downs, and ended the century with a bigger middle class but still a great wealth disparity between the prosperous few and many poor. Rampant population growth became a critical problem in the mid-20th century but by the end of the century growth rates had slowed sharply.

One of Mexico’s longest-standing and most bitterly resented inequities – land ownership – was addressed by the redistribution of more than 400, 000 sq km from large estates to peasants and small farmers between the 1920s and ’60s. This included most of the country’s arable land, and nearly half the population received land, mainly in the form of ejidos (communal landholdings). However, by the end of the century, small-scale agriculture came under severe pressure from the effects of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), which permitted cheaper imports from the US and Canada with which traditional Mexican growers found it hard to compete.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, Mexico developed a worrying dependence on its huge 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. Today, Mexico has managed to significantly reduce its reliance on oil for both government tax revenue and exports by developing other industries.

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. The PRI was born as an institution for bringing together the most important influence sectors in Mexican society and politics – labor, the military, farmers and political groupings. It became effectively a monolithic state party that, while governing in the name, and ostensibly the interests, of the people, inevitably bred corruption, inefficiency and violent intolerance of political opposition.

The PRI’s antipathy to civil liberties first attracted opposition in the 1960s, especially in the 1968 student-led protests in Mexico City, which resulted in the Tlatelolco Massacre, where an estimated 400 protesters were shot dead. Though it has never been revealed who was really responsible, Tlatelolco discredited the PRI forever in the minds of many Mexicans. The party came to depend increasingly on strong-arm tactics and fraud to win elections, especially as rival parties, such as the business-oriented Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) and the left-of-center Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD; Party of the Democratic Revolution), gained growing support in the following decades.

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 grew into a huge business in Mexico (many believe he and other PRI high-ups were themselves deeply involved in it), and mysterious assassinations proliferated. Salinas did take steps to liberalize the monolithic state-dominated economy. The apex of his program, Nafta, undoubtedly helped to boost exports and industry, but it was unpopular with farmers and small businesses threatened by inexpensive imports from the US. 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 now almost irresistible clamor for democratic change in Mexico. He established a new, independently supervised electoral system that saw growing numbers of non-PRI mayors and state governors elected during his term, and opened the way for the country’s first-ever peaceful change of regime at the end of his term in 2000, when Vicente Fox of the business-oriented Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) won the presidential election.

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Mexico under the PAN

Fox’s election itself, after over 70 years of one-party rule, was really the biggest news about his six-year term. A charismatic, 6ft 5in (nearly 2m) rancher, he entered office with the goodwill of a wide range of Mexicans, who hoped a change of ruling party would bring real change in the country. In the end, his presidency was considered a disappointment by most. He had no magic solutions to the same economic and social problems that previous governments had struggled with. Without the full support of Mexico’s Congress, where the PAN did not enjoy a majority, Fox was unable to push through the reforms that he believed were key to stirring Mexico’s slumbering economy. His government consequently lacked money to improve education, social welfare or roads. At least government had become more transparent, honest and accountable, and Mexicans less cynical about their political system.

Fox was succeeded in late 2006 by another PAN president, the less charismatic but potentially more effective Vicente Calderón. Again, it was the manner of his election that signified most. His victory over the PRD candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was by the narrowest of margins. López Obrador, who had led all the way in the opinion polls, cried ‘fraud’ and his supporters staged several weeks of large protests in Mexico City. But the protestors could find no convincing evidence of foul play by the PAN. The fact that the electoral apparatus had come unscathed through a second election and survived a severe cross-examination was at least as significant for Mexico’s future as the name or party of the winning candidate. It had taken a decade of independence war for Mexico to throw off Spanish rule, and a decade of revolution to throw off the post-colonial elite that entrenched itself after independence. The elite party that entrenched itself after the Revolution had, in the end, given way with barely a shot fired.

At the time of writing, after a contested election in 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI was named the President elect, signifying a return to power of the party that ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century.

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