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History and Politics of Mexico

Ancient Mexican Cultures

Present-day Mexico was home to many important native cultures before the arrival of Europeans in the fifteenth century. The first major central Mexican culture to develop was the Olmecs, whose civilization peaked between 1500 to 600 B.C.They built great cities, including Monte Albán, which can still be visited outside of Oaxaca. In Southern Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula, the Maya culture flourished: the high point of their civilization was around 600 A.D.

The Reign of the Mexica (Aztecs)

Around 1320, a tribe wandered into central Mexico from the north. According to legend, they would found a great empire on a special site: they would know they were in the right place when they saw an eagle, eating a snake, while perched on a cactus that grew out of a rock. These people were the Mexica, also known as the Aztecs. According to Mexica tradition, the wandering tribe saw the eagle on an island in a marshy lake, and there they founded the city of Tenochtitlán, which was destined to become one of the greatest cities in the world.

Although they arrived to central Mexico with no power, within one hundred years the Aztecs were the ruling force in the region. They attacked and subjugated all of the other tribes in the area, reducing them to vassal states.At the height of their power, the Aztecs controlled most of central and southern Mexico. They instituted a very complex system of military alliances which helped them rule their empire. Today, the ancient Aztecs are probably most famous for the bloody human sacrifices carried out on their temples, but that was only part of their culture: they were also great poets and artists.

The Spanish Arrive

In 1519, a Spaniard named Hernán Cortés landed on the eastern coast of Mexico with just over 600 men and sixteen horses. He was determined to explore the interior of the continent and claim all of its lands for Spain. There had been disastrous attempts to penetrate the mainland before, but Cortés was undaunted and according to legend, he burnt his ships behind him. Within two years, Cortés and his small band of men had conquered the mighty Aztec empire.

Cortés accomplished his feat through a remarkable combination of skill and luck. The ruling Aztecs were hated by their vassal states, who resented the costly tributes the Aztecs demanded.Cortes exploited this, turning the vassal states of the Aztec empire against each other and their rulers. By the time he arrived in Tonochtitlán, Cortés had over 200,000 native allies. Cortés was also extremely lucky: he found a Spaniard who had survived one of the earlier expeditions. This man had spent several years among the natives and had learned some of their languages, and was able to serve as interpreter. Cortés also met Doña Marina, an Indian woman who would later become Cortés’ wife. This woman, also known as Malinche, interpreted for Cortés and helped him immensely in his conquest. Today, many Mexicans consider Malinche to be a symbol of treason and betrayal.

The Spanish Colonial Era

By 1535, the Spanish had installed a colonial government in Mexico. The country was placed under the command of viceroys, Spanish colonial officials appointed by the king.Between 1535 and 1821, Mexico – or New Spain as it was then called – had a total of 61 viceroys. The viceroyalty period is marked by abuses against the native populations. One culprit was the repartimiento system, under which Spanish conquistadores, bureaucrats and even priests would be given huge tracts of land. Any natives living on the land were considered to be the property of the owner. In theory, the landowners were supposed to provide food, shelter, education, religious instruction, etc. for the natives, but in reality the system was little more than thinly-disguised slavery. The Spanish crown tried on several occasions to improve the living conditions of its Indian subjects, but these reforms were unpopular in Mexico and difficult to enforce.

Social Stratification and the Struggle for Independence

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Mexico had developed a creole elite, an upper class of Mexican-born Spaniards. They had little say in their own politics, however, which was still ruled by Spain and they had been thinking of declaring independence. The famous “grito de la independencia” or “shout for independence” first came not from the creole elite but from a village pastor, Miguel Hidalgo. On September 16, 1810, he exhorted his native parish to rise up and throw off the tyranny of Spanish rule. The revolution spread, and even though Hidalgo was captured and executed in Chihuahua in 1811 he is still considered the father of Mexican independence.

The battle for independence continued for eleven years. In 1820, Spain was conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte, who put his brother Joseph on the throne. Even Spanish loyalists in Mexico realized that the time had come to separate from Spain, and the leading royalist officer, creole-born AgustĂ­n de Iturbide, made peace with Vicente Guerrero, the leading revolutionary general. Within a year, however, Iturbide crowned himself Emperor AgustĂ­n I, and he was overthrown by Antonio LĂłpez de Santa Anna, his former aide.

The Santa Anna Era

Santa Anna is one of the most fascinating figures in Mexican history. A despotic leader and remarkably incompetent general, he nevertheless was beloved by the people and ruled for much of the middle of the nineteenth century. A pompous and bizarre man, he had his leg buried with full military honors after he lost it in one of the numerous wars over which he presided.

In the 1830's, Santa Anna sought to end American westward expansion, fearing the loss of California. He allowed Anglo settlers into the northern state of Texas, hoping to create a buffer zone of sorts. The move backfired, and Texas declared itself independent in 1836. Santa Anna marched a large army north into Texas, where they fought several battles with the rebellious Texans, most notably the battle of the Alamo in San Antonio. Although the Alamo was a victory for Santa Anna, he lost many more men than the Texans, who turned “Remember the Alamo!”into a rallying cry. Santa Anna was soundly defeated in the battle of San Jacinto by Sam Houston, who surprised the Mexican army with a sudden attack.Santa Anna himself was captured and forced to surrender Texas.

Ten years later, in 1846, the United States, still expanding westward, used Mexican non-payment of foreign debt as an excuse to declare war on Mexico and invade.The Americans won the war, partly because of Santa Anna’s incompetence as a general. When Mexico City was taken, Santa Anna fled, leaving the country essentially leaderless. In 1848, the two countries signed the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ceded California, New Mexico, and Arizona to the United States in exchange for forgiveness of debt and some additional money. Santa Anna returned to Mexico City in 1853 and was re-elected president, but his term lasted less than one year before he was forced to flee into exile once again.

Benito Juarez

In the 1850's, there was a great political struggle for control of Mexico between the conservatives (who protected the church and were in favor of the elite) and the liberals (who wanted many reforms, including voting rights). Benito Juárez was a liberal and a rising political star. A full blooded Indian and former governor of Oaxaca, Juárez was named head of the Supreme Court in 1857. In 1858, the conservatives rebelled and Juárez was forced to go to Veracruz, where he set up a government in exile. In 1861, he returned to Mexico City and was elected president. His presidency was known for its liberal reforms, such as freedom of speech and voting rights for all adult males.

Juárez was a popular president and a skilled leader, but he had one huge problem: there was no money in the state coffers. He was forced to default on Mexico’s foreign debt, angering France, Britain and Spain. The three nations worked together to land forces at Veracruz and blockade Mexico, demanding payment. Spain and Britain eventually backed off, but France persisted, hoping to establish in Mexico a colonial empire like Britain’s.

French forces marched on the capital. But on May 5,1862, a small, rag-tag militia of less than four thousand men led by general Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin defeated the larger, better equipped French force at the battle of Puebla. Considered the greatest victory in Mexican military history, this date is still celebrated on the festive “Cinco de Mayo” in Mexico.

But the victory was short-lived. Using the battle of Puebla as an excuse, France sent 30,000 fresh troops to invade Mexico and by 1864 they had succeeded in capturing the capital. France found the most unlikely ruler imaginable for Mexico: Maximilian of Austria, an old-world royal, was established as Emperor of Mexico. He didn’t even speak Spanish.

Maximilian and his insane wife Carlota were despised by the Mexicans. Juárez, who had set up another exile government in northern Mexico, kept up the fight, never accepting French rule in Mexico. In 1865, the United States government pressured France to leave Mexico. They did so, abandoning Maximilian to his fate. In 1867, his government fell and Maximilian was executed.

El Porfiriato

Benito Juárez returned victorious to Mexico City in 1867 and resumed the presidency. But he was ill, and in 1872 he died. Mexico went through a few presidents in the next few years until 1877, when a former Juárez aide named Porfirio Díaz reached the presidency. He would rule for more than three decades, and his long presidency is full of contradictions. Mexicans today still argue whether Díaz was the best or worst president in Mexican history. During his rule, whcih came to be known as the Porfiriato, he was an absolute dictator and he curbed many important freedoms. He was not a believer in education, and millions of Mexicans suffered from illiteracy and ignorance, particularly the indigenous population. However, he did more to develop Mexico than any president before or since. He built miles and miles of railroads, vastly improving the infrastructure of the country. He was able to lure foreign investment and the Mexican economy boomed. The foreign capital brought with it industry, development and public works.

By 1908, Díaz was becoming unpopular. He declared that in the 1910 election he would permit the liberals to present a candidate to oppose him, and they selected Francisco Madero. Díaz won the election, but Madero’s popularity with those that Díáz had repressed for so long turned into a revolution.Díaz fled the country in 1911, never to return. Madero could not contain the revolutionary forces that had been unleashed and war broke out all over the country between the different revolutionary leaders and government loyalists.Madero himself was murdered by one of his own generals in 1913.

The Mexican Revolution

The Mexican Revolution was a long, convoluted, ugly war. One of the key players was Venustiano Carranza, a former governor who became president in 1917. Although his government was recognized by the United States and other Latin American nations, the other revolutionary generals refused to accept him and he was assassinated in 1920. Francisco “Pancho” Villa was a northern bandit chieftain and general who raided U.S. border towns for supplies. Emiliano Zapata was a poor farmer from central Mexico who rose to become a great general and man of the people. Villa and Zapata were also killed before the end of the conflict.

Revolution to Modernity

By the 1930's, the situation in Mexico had calmed down. The PRI (revolutionary party) was formed, and it would rule Mexico for the next several decades. Slowly, Mexico rebuilt itself and its relations to the United States improved after World War two. Mexico grew steadily in economic power through the next few decades.

1968 was an important year: Mexico City hosted the summer Olympics, which was a big boost to national morale, but it was also the year when the Mexican government brutally repressed student demonstrators calling for reform. Hundreds were murdered one night alone when the army opened fire on student protesters in Tlatelolco Square. The Tlatelolco Massacre is still considered one of the darkest days in the history of Mexico.

On January 1,1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, went into effect. It had the effect of easing trade restrictions between Canada, the United States and Mexico. On that same day, poor farmers in the southern state of Chiapas rose up in revolt. Calling themselves the Zapatistas, after revolutionary general Emiliano Zapata, they captured several small towns. Cleverly using new tools like the internet, the Zapatistas are more of a protest movement than a revolution. Many of their demands – such as land reform, for example – are injustices that the original Zapata had fought against.

The PRI stranglehold on power was weakening by the 1990's. Mexicans, fed up with a one party system that encouraged rampant corruption, began electing opposition candidates in local elections and calling for reform.With the eyes of the world upon them, the PRI had no choice but to begin to allow free and fair elections.In July of 2000, opposition candidate Vicente Fox was elected president, ending over seven decades of PRI rule. The trend continued in 2006, when Felipe CalderĂłn Hinojosa of the PAN party was elected to succeed Fox.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Mexico: The Ciudad Juarez Murders, Teotihuacan History, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, Emiliano Zapata, The Aztec Sun Stone, Who Killed Luis Donaldo Colosio?, Tequila tour, Subcomandante Marcos, Porfirio Diaz and Pueblo Fantasmo.








By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
03 Oct 2011




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