The lands making up modern Mexico have been home to many different civilizations and cultures over thousands of years. All of these cultures have influenced the society of Mexico, creating a strong arts and literacy heritage and religious heritage, among others. See the sections below for more on these aspects of Mexican identity.
Almost immediately after the Spanish defeated the Aztecs and created the colony of New Spain, the mixing of colonial and indigenous people began. Right after the defeat of the Aztecs, there were simply the conquered and conquerors, but in the years after the colony was established, new colonists from the Spanish mainland arrived.
- Colonists born in Spain were known as peninsulares, and those of Spanish descent born in the colony were called criollos (creoles). The peninsulares saw themselves as superior to the criollos, and held the highest political offices and most lucrative positions in the colonial bureaucracy.
- The third category in this hierarchy was made up of mestizos, the children of unions, often forced, between the conquistadors and indigenous women.
- The lowest categories were indigenous populations of Mexico and African slaves, brought over during the conquest and for economic purposes in later years.
The various cultures and civilizations of Mexico have also led to a mixing of ethnicities and races. Today, Mexico’s population is majority mestizo (those with mixed Spanish, indigenous, African or other ancestry).
- Exact percentages vary as racial classifications are blurry in Mexico, but the mestizo population is well over 60%, and the indigenous population about 13%.
- Over time, the mestizo category came to encompass anyone of mixed heritage in Mexico, and there were over a dozen different subcategories of racial classification, including Spanish and African and Amerindian and African.
- Almost 500 years of intermarriage have created a country in which a majority of inhabitants are of mixed heritage. This makes it almost impossible to separate people into strict racial categories, and the mestizo label has therefore become more of a cultural marker than a strict racial designation.
Indigenous people are a significant part of contemporary Mexico, which has one of the largest and most diverse indigenous populations remaining in Latin America.
- Mexico officially recognizes 62 indigenous groups, each speaking a unique language. The majority live in southern and south-central Mexico, though groups are spread throughout the country, and many are moving to urban areas.
- The role of indigenous culture in Mexican identity is a complex one. Often indigenous arts, culture, and history are celebrated in society and are a core component of Mexico’s tourism appeal.
- The status of indigenous populations, however, is decidedly second class. Indigenous citizens are often among Mexico’s poorest; they face significant human rights abuses, and struggle to acquire and protect land rights. Over the decades, the Mexican government has taken steps to address some of these issues, but to little avail.
- Recently indigenous groups have become more adept at organizing for better living conditions. One of the most well known indigenous groups is the National Zapatista Liberation Army, known for a 1994 peasant uprising on behalf of indigenous populations in the state of Chiapas. See the Inside Mexico: Rural Life section for more information about indigenous rights and the Zapatistas.