Mexico remains a nation where the past plays a prominent role in shaping the nation's present day development. Mexico has a fascinating but often bewildering history. Its past differs from that of the U.S. and Canada in several respects, notably:
- When "discovered" in 1519, Mexico was home to an estimated 10 million native inhabitants living in feudal but highly disciplined and organized societies. These people could not be ignored or simply swept aside, but rather became the foundation upon which the Spanish conquerors built their colonial empire. Even today, Mexico is rich in ethnic diversity, with over 20 million pure-blooded Native Americans, speaking nearly sixty languages.
- Mexico endured 300 years of colonial domination (1521-1821) by a nation (Spain) that itself was one of the most "backward" in Europe. Iberian institutions, political heritage, and authoritarian traditions left an indelible mark on Mexico.
- Rich in mineral resources and manpower, Mexico has historically been exploited in one form or another by foreign powers. Its abundant reserves of gold, silver, lead, petroleum, copper, zinc, are in sharp contrast to its shortage of tillable, well-irrigated soil. Sustained economic development has been difficult to achieve and has generally been distorted in favor of a small segment of the country's population.
- For the past 150 years Mexico has been overshadowed by its neighbor to the north. The relationship has wavered between blatant intervention, to total ignorance, to a growing sense of interdependence. Nowhere in the world do two countries of such distinction share a common border.
Proximity to the U.S. has generated in Mexico a peculiar attitude towards the U.S. - extensive "cultural borrowing," (evidenced by the prevalence of American music, films, consumer products, and fashions) is mixed with staunch nationalism and the desire to "protect" the motherland from foreign economic and cultural domination.
The country's history can loosely be broken down as follows:
1200 B.C.-1521 A.D.
THE PRE-HISPANIC ERA
Five major native civilizations, each occupying a different period of history, have influenced the history of Mexico.
The Olmecs, Mexico's first established culture, developed in the coastal states of Veracruz and Tabasco. This was a particularly influential culture, since subsequent groups borrowed heavily from the Olmec's religious, architectural and artistic traditions.
Despite the absence of a local supply of stone, they developed massive buildings (La Venta, San Lorenzo, Tres Zapotes). They also created an advanced calendar that included the concept of zero. This culture is particularly mysterious, since we know little about its origin, political structure, or reason for disappearance. The Olmec period is believed to be 1200 B.C. until 200 B.C.
First appearing in about 1200 B.C. this culture developed in three distinct periods, each corresponding to a different region of Central America and Mexico. The Mayan are most noted for their complex systems of mathematics and astrology, prolific city-building and Baroque architecture. By 1400 A.D. the Mayan state had splintered and almost disappeared, leaving an incredible collection of ceremonial centers and ancient cities.
First appearing in the valley of Oaxaca in around 900 B.C. the Zapotecs were great city builders and artisans who created notable temples, burial chambers, pottery, and metal work. The Mixtec (pronounced "MISH-tec") culture conquered the Zapotecs and developed around Mitla and Yagul. They revived Monte Alban, though it was only used as a site for burial tombs. By the early 1400's the Mixtecs became vassals of the mighty Aztec empire. These two cultures continue their existence today in the State of Oaxaca, which is inhabited by some 2 million of their descendants.
These mighty warriors occupied the northern reaches of the Valley of Mexico from around 950-1300 a.d. They built one of Mexico's most impressive cities (Tula), were master craftsmen, and strongly influenced later Mayan and Aztec cultures. This culture is believed by some to have developed from the magnificent Teotihuacan culture of Central Mexico.
This civilization dominated Mexico for nearly 200 years (1345-1521) and was flourishing when Spanish conquerors arrived in 1519. The Aztecs used an elaborate system of taxing and patronage to subjugate an enormous empire that stretched well into Central America.
They too were master builders and imitators of Mexico's previous cultures. They borrowed heavily from their Olmec, Toltec, and Mayan predecessors to develop a complex linguistic, religious, artistic, architectural and military heritage.
The mighty empire came to a sudden and tragic end in 1521, though much of its influence is still evident today in the culture of the Central Plateau region.
CONQUEST AND SPANISH COLONIAL DOMINATION
After the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) in 1521, Spain embarked on a period of exploration and conquest to consolidate its control of the rest of Mesoamerica. Millions of natives fell victim to western disease, for which they had no resistance.
Spain and the Catholic church imposed their authority to create an extractive economy that reflected many of the worst features of colonialism and religious authoritarianism (including the Inquisition). Spain and its European creditors derived tremendous wealth from their Indian work force, which worked on enormous agricultural estates and huge mining operations. Colonial society was broken into a tight caste system reminiscent of European feudalism.
Revolutions abroad (U.S., France) and the simmering conflict between "criollos" (Mexican born Spaniards) and "peninsulares" (Spanish-born residents of Mexico) lead to the demise of Spanish political and economic domination of Mexico.
Following Napoleon's conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808, Spain could do little to resist Mexico's declaration of independence. The "criollo" leaders sought greater economic freedoms and autonomy, but proposed little in the way of structural reform. The revolt began in 1810, lasted 11 years and cost over 600,000 lives.
300 years of colonial domination had ill-prepared the country for independence. In the scramble for economic gain, political chaos prevailed and injustices against the native and "mestizo" population grew.
Border conflicts with the U.S. led to an invasion in 1847, and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo,in which Mexico surrendered over half of its territory for a mere $17 per square mile!
REFORM AND STABILITY
A conflict between liberals (urban intellectuals wanting a new nation modeled after the United States) and Conservatives (landed aristocracy wanting an all-powerful church and dictatorship) lead to the Reform Laws of 1860. The main target was the powerful church.
In protest, conservatives rallied support from their European allies and in 1861 French troops arrived to install a new ruler: an Austrian Arch duke, named Maximilian. His benevolent but ineffective rule ended with his assassination in 1867.
Benito Juarez, a Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca and promulgator of the Reform Laws re-assumed the presidency after the execution of Maximilian. His four year rule brought significant land reform and reduction of church rights.
Following Juarez's death in 1871 Porfirio Diaz (also a native of Oaxaca and one of Juarez's generals) took power, and in 1876 lead Mexico in 34 years of stability and material progress. Extensive mining, railroad building, large-scale agriculture and foreign investment transformed Mexico, but heightened the country's economic and political inequality.
REVOLUTION AND REFORM
One of few true revolutions of the twentieth century, this revolt was a reaction to Mexico's unbalanced prosperity and the pitiful living conditions of its masses.
The Revolution's two original leaders (Zapata and Madero) were seeking two different revolts; the former an economic change, the latter a political one. It started as a middle class revolt in 1910 that developed into a peasant-lead battle that fought for land reform, universal suffrage, an end to foreign economic control, and a complete separation of church and state. Millions of lives were lost as regional leaders battled for legitimacy and control. Finally, in 1917 a liberal constitution was ratified that still governs the nation. In fact the Mexican Constitution is almost identical to that of the United States.
The next twenty years saw two leaders play significant and daring roles: Calles and Cardenas. Calles brutalized the church, courted the U.S. and institutionalized the political gains of the Revolution by forming the PRI, Mexico's omnipotent political party. Cardenas' programs focused on economic reform, including massive agrarian reform, and the nationalization of the oil industry in 1938.
THE MODERN ERA
Significant material progress marked Mexican development following World War II. The country's infrastructure developed, and industrial manufacturing sectors expanded, as did agricultural production. However, several nagging problems have shaped the country's last twenty years. These include rapid population growth, massive internal migration from the countryside to urban areas, a decline in agrarian output, a huge foreign debt, and double digit inflation.