History of Mexico


Pre-Columbian Mexico

Hunter-Gatherer peoples are thought to have inhabited Mexico more than 20,000 years ago. Evidence shows the beginning of farming between 1500 and 900 BC. Between 900 and 300 BC, more complex cultures began to form. From AD 100 to 900 some matured into advanced Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Maya, Olmec, Toltec and Aztec cultures developed and flourished for centuries before first contact with Europeans.

The Aztecs were the rulers of much of Mexico by about 1200. The modern name "Mexico" comes from either an Aztec god named Mextli or a name for ruling group of the Aztec people, the "Meshika."

Spanish conquest

Hernán Cortés Landing in Veracruz
Hernán Cortés Landing in Veracruz

The native cultures were invaded and conquered by Spain starting in 1519. Francisco Hernández de Córdoba explored the shores of South Mexico in 1517, followed by Juan de Grijalva in 1518. The most important of the early Conquistadores was Hernán Cortés, who entered the country in 1519 from a native coastal town which he renamed "Puerto de la Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz" (today's Veracruz).

The Aztecs, the dominant power in the country, believed (according to ancient myths) that the Spanish conquerors were people sent by the gods, so they offered little resistance initially to the advances of the conquerors. Eventually they opposed the Spanish when it became evident that they were not gods. After several battles in which the Spanish forces were close to being defeated, the conquerors finally surrounded and laid siege to the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, bringing about the Aztecs' total defeat in 1521.

Three major factors contributed to Spanish victory. First, the Spanish had superior military technology, including firearms, the crossbow, iron and steel weapons, and the horse. The Spanish were further aided in their conquest by the Old World diseases they brought with them, to which the natives had no immunity, and which became pandemic, killing large portions of the native population. Finally, the Spanish enlisted the help of various subject peoples in the Aztec Empire who saw the Spanish as a means to free themselves from Aztec oppression. With the notable exception of a less bloodthirsty state religion, these peoples were wrong; Spanish rule would turn out to be just as oppressive as Aztec rule.

With the conquest a new ethnic group was born: the mestizo, a result of the conquerors taking native women and beginning the mixing of both cultures.

The Spanish Inquisition, and its descendent, the Mexican Inquisition, continued to operate in the Americas until Mexico declared its independence.

During the colonial period, which lasted from 1521 to 1821, Mexico was known as "Nueva España" or "New Spain", whose territories included today's Mexico, the Spanish Caribbean islands, Central America up to and including Costa Rica, and an area comprising today's southwestern United States. Most of this land was dominated by Spanish landowners and their white descendents. Europeans, in fact, totally dominated the politics and economy of colonial Mexico. Mestizos came next, and native peoples occupied the lowest rung of society.

Wars of independence

Main article: Mexican War of Independence

The war for independence started September 16, 1810, and was spearheaded by Miguel Hidalgo, a priest of Spanish descent and progressive ideas. After Napoleon I invaded Spain and put his brother on the Spanish throne, Mexican Conservatives and rich land-owners who supported Spain's Bourbon royal family objected to the comparatively more liberal Napoleonic policies. Thus an unlikely alliance was formed in Mexico: liberales, or Liberals, who favored a democratic Mexico, and conservadores, or Conservatives, who favored Mexico ruled by a Bourbon monarch who would restore the old status quo. These two elements agreed only that Mexico must achieve independence and determine her own destiny.

Prominent figures in Mexico's war for independence were Father José María Morelos, Vicente Guerrero, General Agustín de Iturbide, and General Antonio López de Santa Anna. The war for independence lasted eleven years until the troops of the liberating army entered Mexico City in 1821. Thus although independence from Spain was first proclaimed in 1810, it was not achieved until August 1821, by the Contract of Córdoba, Veracruz, which was signed by the Spanish viceroy Juan de O'Donojú and Agustín de Iturbide, ratifying the Plan de Iguala.

In 1821 Agustín de Iturbide, a former Spanish general who switched sides to fight for Mexican independence, proclaimed himself emperor – officially as a temporary measure until a member of European royalty could be persuaded to become monarch of Mexico (see Mexican Empire for more information). A revolt against Iturbide in 1823 established the Republic of Mexico. In 1824 "Guadalupe Victoria" became the first president of the new country; his given name was actually Félix Fernández but he chose his new name for symbolic significance: Guadalupe to give thanks for the protection of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Victoria, which means Victory.

U.S. intervention and the struggle for liberal reforms

Many presidents came and went, which brought a long period of instability that lasted most of the 19th century. The dominant figure of the second quarter of that century was the dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna. During this period, many of the territories in the north were lost to the United States. Santa Anna was Mexico's leader during the conflict with Texas, which declared itself independent from Mexico in 1836, and during the Mexican-American War (1846-48). One of the memorable battles of the U.S. invasion of 1847 was when the young cadets of the Military College (now considered national heroes) fought to the death against a large army of experienced soldiers in the Battle of Chapultepec (September 13, 1847). Ever since this war many Mexicans have resented the loss of much Mexican territory, some by means of coercion, and more territory sold cheaply by the dictator Santa Anna to enrich himself.

In 1855 Ignacio Comonfort, leader of the self-described Moderates, was elected president. The Moderados tried to find a middle ground between the nation's Liberals and Conservatives. During Comonfort's presidency a new Constitution was drafted. The Constitution of 1857 retained most of the Roman Catholic Church's Colonial era privileges and revenues, but unlike the earlier constitution did not mandate that the Catholic Church be nation's exclusive religion. Such reforms were unacceptable to the leadership of the clergy and the Conservatives, Comonfort and members of his administration were excommunicated and a revolt was declared. This led to the War of Reform, from January 1858 to January 1861. This civil war became increasingly bloody and polarized the nation's politics. Many of the Moderados came over to the side of the Liberales, convinced that the great political power of the Church needed to be curbed. For some time the Liberals and Conservatives had their own governments, the Conservatives in Mexico City and the Liberals headquartered in Veracruz. The war ended with Liberal victory, and Liberal president Benito Juárez moved his administration to Mexico City.

French intervention and an emperor

The presidential terms of Benito Juárez (1858-71) were interrupted by the Habsburg monarchy's rule of Mexico (1864-67). Conservatives tried to institute a monarchy when they helped to bring to Mexico an archduke from the Royal House of Austria, known as Maximilian of Habsburg (wife Carlota of Habsburg) with the military support of France, which was interested in exploiting the rich mines in the north-west of the country.

Although the French, then considered one of the most efficient armies of the world, suffered an initial defeat in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862 (now commemorated as the Cinco de Mayo holiday) they eventually defeated the Mexican government forces led by the general Ignacio Zaragoza and enthroned Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico. Maximilian of Habsburg favored the establishment of a limited monarchy sharing powers with a democratically elected congress. This was too liberal to please Mexico's Conservatives, while the liberals refused to accept a monarch, leaving Maximilian with few enthusiastic allies within Mexico. Maximilian was eventually captured and executed in the Cerro de las Campanas, Querétaro, by the forces loyal to President Benito Juárez, who kept the federal government functioning during the French intervention that put Maximilian in power. In 1867, the republic was restored, and a new constitution was written that, amongst other things, confiscated the vast landholdings of the Catholic church (which had been acting as landlord over half the country), established civil marriages and forbade the participation of priests in politics (separation of Church and State).

After the victory, there was resentment by Conservatives against President Juárez (who they thought concentrated too much power and wanted to be re-elected) so one of the army's generals, named Porfirio Díaz, rebelled against the government with the proclamation of the Plan de Tuxtepec in 1876.

Order, progress and the Díaz dictatorship

Missing image
Porfirio Díaz

Porfirio Díaz became the new president. During a period of more than thirty years (1876–1911) while he was the strong man in Mexico, the country's infrastructure improved greatly thanks to investments from other countries. This period of relative prosperity and peace is known as the Porfiriato. But the people were not happy with the form of government during the Porfiriato: it was attracting investors because the pay for workers was very low, which produced a very steep social division: only a small group of investors (domestic and foreign) were getting rich, but the vast majority of the people remained in abject poverty. Democracy was completely suppressed, and dissent was dealt with in repressive, often brutal ways (see, for example, Nogales, Veracruz).

The Mexican revolution

(See also: Mexican Revolution)

In 1910 the 80-year-old Díaz decided to hold an election to serve another term as president. He thought he had long since eliminated any serious opposition in Mexico; however, Francisco I. Madero, an academic from a rich family, decided to run against him and quickly gathered popular support, despite Díaz's putting Madero in jail.

When the official election results were announced, it was declared that Díaz had won reelection almost unanimously, with Madero receiving only a few hundred votes in the entire country. This fraud by the Porfiriato was too blatant for the public to swallow, and riots broke out. Madero prepared a document known as the Plan de San Luis Potosí, in which he called the Mexican people to take their weapons and fight against the government of Porfirio Díaz on November 20, 1910.

This started what is known as the Mexican Revolution (Revolucion Mexicana). Madero was incarcerated in San Antonio, Texas, but his plan took effect in spite of him being in jail. The Federal Army was defeated by the revolutionary forces which were led by, amongst others, Emiliano Zapata in the South, Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco in the North, and Venustiano Carranza. Porfirio Díaz resigned in 1911 for the "sake of the peace of the nation" and went to exile in France, where he died in 1915.

The revolutionary leaders had many different objectives; revolutionary figures varied from liberals such as Madero to radicals such as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. As a consequence, it proved very difficult to reach agreement on how to organize the government that emanated from the triumphant revolutionary groups. The result of this was a struggle for the control of Mexico's government in a conflict that lasted more than twenty years. This period of struggle is usually referred to as part of the Mexican Revolution, although it might also be looked on as a civil war. Presidents Francisco I. Madero (1911), Venustiano Carranza (1920), and former revolutionary leaders Emiliano Zapata (1919) and Pancho Villa (1923) were assassinated during this time, amongst many others.

Following the resignation of Díaz and a brief reactionary interlude, Madero was elected President in 1911. He was ousted and killed in 1913. Venustiano Carranza, a former revolutionary general who became one of the several presidents during this turbulent period, promulgated a new Constitution on February 5, 1917. The Mexican Constitution of 1917 still guides Mexico.

In 1920, Álvaro Obregón became president. He accommodated all elements of Mexican society except the most reactionary clergy and landlords, and successfully catalyzed social liberalization, particularly in curbing the role of the Catholic Church, improving education and taking steps toward instituting women's civil rights.

While the Mexican revolution and civil war may have subsided after 1920, armed conflicts did not cease, The most widespread conflict of this era was the battle between those favoring a secular society with separation of Church and State and those favoring supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church, which developed into an armed uprising by supporters of the Church that came to be called "la Guerra Cristera."

Stabilization and the revolution institutionalized

In 1929 the National Mexican Party, PNM, was formed by the serving president, General Plutarco Elías Calles. (It would later became the PRI or Partido Revolucionario Institucional that ruled the country for the rest of the 20th century.) The PNM succeeded at convincing most of the remaining revolutionary generals to dissolve their personal armies to create the Mexican Army, and so its foundation is considered by some the real end of the Mexican Revolution.

President Lázaro Cárdenas del Río came to power in 1934 and transformed Mexico: on April 1st 1936 he exiled Calles, the last general with dictatorial ambitions, managed to unite the different forces in the PRI and set the rules that allowed this party to rule unchallenged for decades to come without internal fights. He nationalized the oil industry on March 18, 1938, the electricity industry, created the National Polytechnic Institute, granted asylum to Spanish expatriates fleeing the Spanish Civil War, started land reform, started the distribution of free textbooks for children, and, in general, pursued policies that for good or ill have marked the development of Mexico until the present day.

Manuel Ávila Camacho, Cárdenas's successor, presided over a "bridge" between the revolutionary era and the era of machine politics under PRI that would last until 2000. Camacho, moving away from nationalistic autarchy, proposed to create a favorable climate for international investment, favored nearly two generations ago by Madero. Camacho's regime froze wages, repressed strikes, and persecuted dissidents with a law prohibiting the "crime of social dissolution." During this period, the PRI regime thus betrayed the legacy of land reform. Miguel Alemán, Camacho's successor, even had Article 27 amended to protect elite landowners.

Although PRI regimes achieved economic growth and relative prosperity for almost three decades after World War II, the management of the economy collapsed several times, and political unrest grew in the late sixties, culminating in the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968. In the 1970s, economic crises affected the country in 1976 and 1982, after which the banks were nationalized, having been blamed for the economic problems. On both occasions the Mexican peso was devalued, and until 2000, it had been normal to expect a big devaluation and a recessionary period after each presidential term ended every six years. The crisis that came after a devaluation of the peso in late 1994 threw Mexico into economic turmoil, triggering the worst recession in over half a century.


The PRI was the political party of Mexico that set up a new type of system, led by a caudillo. In 1934, Cárdenas removed the army from power. The PRI is typically referred to as the three-legged stool, in reference to Mexican workers, peasants and bureaucrats.

See Confederación de Trabajadores de México

Fall of the PRI

From the mid-1990s President Ernesto Zedillo faced an economic crisis. There were public demonstrations in Mexico City and constant civil unrest in the southern state of Chiapas. Zedillo also oversaw political and electoral reforms that reduced the PRI's hold on power. After the 1988 election, which was strongly disputed and arguably lost by the government party, the IFE (Instituto Federal Electoral – Federal Electoral Institute) was created in the early 1990s. It is run by ordinary citizens, overseeing that elections are conducted legally and fairly. As a result of this, the presidential candidate of the National Action Party, (PAN) Vicente Fox Quesada won the federal election of July 2, 2000, and both chambers of congress are now composed of members of several different parties of all political persuasions. The results of this election ended 71 years of PRI hegemony in the presidency.

Many in Mexico claim that, even if Fox won the election, President Zedillo did not give his party (PRI) a chance to dispute the results of the election by making Fox's victory "official" by addressing the nation the same night of the election, a first in Mexican politics (and in other places, too, where it is more normal for the losing candidate to admit defeat, rather than the outgoing incumbent). One reason offered for this is that many still believe that Zedillo never forgave the PRI for the death of friend and former presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, though the convicted killer is jailed and the case is officially closed.

Ongoing economic and social concerns include low real wages, underemployment for a large segment of the population, inequitable income distribution, resistance to democratic change in old PRI strongholds, and few advancement opportunities for the largely Amerindian population in the impoverished southern states, even though the Mexican government has made efforts to improve these problems. The country has continued to struggle with such issues as economic control and development, especially with the petroleum sector and the evolution of trade relations with the United States. Civil unrest and corruption and violence stemming from the drug trade have also brought problems to Mexico lately.

Rulers and presidents

Notable Mexican heads of State include:

Further reading

  • Great River, The Rio Grande in North American History, Paul Horgan, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, reprint, 1977, in one hardback volume, ISBN 0-03-029305-7

External links

  • Brown University Library: Three for Three Million (http://www.brown.edu/Facilities/University_Library/exhibits/ThreeForThree/Mexican.html) – Information about the Paul R. Dupee Jr. '65 Mexican History Collection in the John Hay Library, including maps and photos of books.
  • History of Mexico (http://www.historyofnations.net/northamerica/mexico.html) – Provides a history of Mexico from ancient times to today.
  • Mexico: From Empire to Revolution (http://www.getty.edu/research/conducting_research/digitized_collections/mexico/) – Photographs from the Getty Research Institute's collections exploring Mexican history and culture though images produced between 1857 and 1923.
  • US-Mexican War (http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/mexican_war.htm) – US political context and overview of military campaign that ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 1816-1848. Provides links to US military sources.ca:Història de Mèxic

da:Mexicos historie de:Zeittafel Geschichte Mexikos es:Historia de México eo:Historio de Meksiko fr:Histoire du Mexique nl:Geschiedenis van Mexico pt:História do México


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