Issue 10, August 2009
The lands of Mexico were home to many ancient Meso-American civilizations including the Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs. The early cultivation of crops, perhaps as early as 5000 BC, allowed for civilizations to flourish in this region. The most important of these crops was maize, which remains an important staple in Mexico today. The Olmecs were the first major civilization to take root in the region, around 1200 BC, and created the first known written language in the Western Hemisphere. The Maya were the next major civilization, founded first in what is today Guatemala, and spreading north to Mexico. The Maya were known for their large temples and stone pyramids, many of which can still be seen in the region today. The Aztec Empire superseded the Maya around 1300; the Aztecs built an elaborate city in the valley of Mexico, known as Tenochtitlán, and maintained an empire that spread from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean.
The Spanish first arrived in the Caribbean in the late 15th Century and soon set their sights on the coast of Mexico. After a failed expedition in 1517, Hernando Cortés was sent in 1519, and learned quickly that the Aztec Empire was a collection of city-states, with disparate languages and cultures, held together by force. After arriving on the Yucatan Peninsula, Cortés moved west toward Tenochtitlán, drawing various oppressed communities in the Aztec Empire to his cause along the way. By 1521, Cortés had penetrated to the heart of the Aztec capital and defeated their empire. The city was largely destroyed and Mexico City was built in its place as the capital of a new colony, christened New Spain.
From the start, indigenous populations were enslaved or marginalized in the new empire, confined to live on encomiendas (haciendas), where they labored under the authority of colonists. In addition to being stripped of rights to the land and divided racially (see Identity section), this system created distinct economic divisions, which reverberate today. Catholic missionaries embarked on an aggressive and systemized push to convert indigenous groups, and the Church was closely entwined with government in the new colony (see more in the Religion section). Smallpox brought over by the Spanish colonists decimated the native population of Mexico, killing millions.
Colonial control of Mexico lasted for approximately 300 years, and the Spanish eventually controlled an area that stretched north through the southwestern United States and all of modern California, south through Central America to Venezuela, and from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans. Mexico became one of the richest of Spain’s colonies, and agriculture was the economic engine, with wheat, sugar, and cattle as some of the main exports. By the 1700s resentment toward the Spanish crown was beginning to grow in the colonies, and Spain was also facing challenges on the European mainland. France conquered Spain in 1808, weakening control of the colonies even further. In 1810, a series of rebellions broke out when the upper classes in the colony chafed under French control and sought to increase their own power in the colony, and lower classes reacted to mistreatment by both colonial powers and the upper classes. Finally, in 1821, Mexico achieved independence from Spain.
The 1800s proved to be a tumultuous time for the new nation, with the Mexican-American War from 1846-1848, the loss of about half its previous territory to the United States, civil conflict between elites on one side and liberals and peasants on the other, temporary occupation by the French, and the authoritarian rule of Porfirio Díaz for the last 25 years of the century. During the rule of Díaz, foreign investment increased rapidly and urbanization began in earnest, with rural populations pouring into Mexico City. This economic explosion caused new unrest and spurred new populist movements. The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 and lasted for the next seven years, with the main rebel factions led in the North by Pancho Villa and in the South by Emiliano Zapata. In 1911, Diaz was removed from power, but rebel groups continued to push land reforms and stronger democratic representation. The Revolution officially ended when Álvaro Obregón became president and began to institute reforms.
In 1929, the National Revolutionary Party (PRN), later renamed the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was formed; it controlled Mexico’s presidency for the next 70 years. During this period, Mexico continued to modernize and expand economically and nationalized its oil industry. The country was hit hard by rising oil prices in the 1970s, and was forced to make structural adjustment in return for IMF loans to stabilize the economy. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994, bringing much needed economic growth to the country, at the cost of some unforeseen consequences, including devastation of the agricultural sector. Throughout the last century, urbanization continued at a rapid pace across the country, and as the economy rose and fell, so did the push and pull of migration around the country and into the United States. The legacy of these past struggles – for land reform, democratic representation, and economic growth among them – continues to impact Mexico today.