An overview of Mexico's history, from its ancient Indian civilizations to its independence from Europe to modern day
- Grades: 6–8
Mexico is an ancient land that, long before the arrival of the Europeans, had already seen the rise and fall of great Indian empires. The Olmec were the first, followed by the Maya, Toltec, Zapotec, Mixtec, and the Maya again. The Indian civilizations made important breakthroughs in agriculture and science. They built great cities and created remarkable works of art. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the most powerful Indian empire was that of the Aztecs.
The Spanish Conquest
The first Spaniards to reach Mexico landed on the coast of Yucatán in 1517, but they were soon driven off. In 1518 a second expedition explored part of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. This time Indians and Spaniards exchanged gifts. A third expedition, led by Hernando Cortés, landed on the Gulf coast in 1519 and founded the city of Veracruz. From this point, within less than three years, Cortés would conquer all of Mexico.
Several factors helped Cortés in his conquest. His army, although small (it numbered about 500 or 600 men), was disciplined and equipped with some horses and a few cannons, both of which the Indians had never seen before. Cortés also had the military assistance of Indian opponents of the Aztecs. In addition, many Aztecs were killed by an epidemic of smallpox, a disease new to them, brought by the Spaniards. There is also the familiar legend that the Aztec emperor Montezuma II welcomed Cortés because he believed him to be the Indian god Quetzalcóatl. In 1521 the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán (the site of present-day Mexico City) fell to the Spaniards, and the rest of Mexico followed soon after.
The Colonial Period
For 300 years, Mexico, then known as New Spain, was ruled as a Spanish colony. The colony's wealth lay in its silver mines and agriculture. The Indians taught the Spanish how to cultivate corn, tomatoes, and cacao (from which chocolate is made), crops unknown in Europe. The Spanish, in turn, introduced sugarcane, wheat and rice, and large-scale cattle and sheep raising.
But only a relative few enjoyed the colony's prosperity. The ruling minority was composed of colonists born in Spain. They were the great landowners, who controlled all important government posts and dominated commercial enterprises. The criollos, or Spaniards born in the colony, were next in importance. Although often wealthy, they were allowed only minor government offices. Next came the mestizos, who frequently worked as supervisors or storekeepers or served as soldiers or parish priests. At the bottom were the Indians, who labored in the mines or on the large estates under conditions of virtual slavery.
Wars of Independence
In 1808 the French emperor Napoleon I invaded Spain and placed his brother Joseph on the throne. The resulting conflict sparked the Mexican independence movement, whose first leader was a priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla.
On the evening of September 16 (the date commemorated by Mexicans), 1810, Hidalgo summoned his parishioners to revolt. His army, composed mainly of mestizos and Indians, grew rapidly and won a number of victories, but they were eventually defeated by royalist troops in 1811. Hidalgo was captured and executed.
The struggle was kept alive by another priest, José María Morelos y Pavón, Hidalgo's former student. After two years of fighting and several victories, in 1813, Morelos called together a congress, which declared Mexican independence and drafted a constitution.
But Morelos was defeated in battle soon after. In 1815 he, too, was executed, leadership of the movement passing to Vicente Guerrero. The final victory was achieved after a royalist officer, Colonel Agustín de Iturbide, who had earlier been defeated by Guerrero, switched sides. Spain eventually was forced to sign the Treaty of Córdoba in 1821, acknowledging Mexico's independence.
The Struggle to Build a Nation
Although independent, Mexico had as yet no real government. Iturbide seized power in 1822, declaring himself emperor. Once again Guerrero rose to fight him, along with Antonio López de Santa Anna, an army officer. Their successful revolt overthrew Iturbide and, in 1824, made Mexico a republic. For a short period the country enjoyed constitutional rule under Guadalupe Victoria, its first president, and Guerrero, its second.
Mexico's progress to nationhood, however, was to be slow and difficult. Conflicts between conservatives and liberals weakened and divided the country. The conservatives supported a strong national government and sought to maintain their traditional privileges; the liberals advocated decentralized rule, sharply diminished church influence, and broad social reforms.
The Era of Santa Anna
In l833 the presidency passed to Santa Anna, who dominated the country's life for more than twenty years. It was a time of political turmoil, with numerous governments succeeding one another. Foreign wars also sapped the country's strength. A dispute with France over Mexican debts brought French troops to Veracruz in 1838. The French were repulsed, but in a war with the United States (1846-48), Mexico lost nearly half of its territory.
War of the Reform: Juárez
The liberals exiled Santa Anna in 1855 and began to lead the country out of chaos. Among their leaders was Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian, who became one of Mexico's greatest statesmen. Juárez played a leading role in framing the Constitution of 1857, which limited the power of the army and the church, recognized civil marriage, and called for freedom of religion, press, and assembly.
Conservatives violently opposed the constitution, and Mexico was plunged into a three-year civil war known as the War of the Reform (1857-61). With a liberal victory in 1861, Juárez became provisional president. But the conflict had bankrupted the country. When Juárez suspended payment on debts owed to France, Spain, and Britain, troops of the three countries occupied Veracruz.
French Aims: Maximillian
The British and Spanish soon departed, but France's emperor Napoleon III, urged on by the conservatives, seized the opportunity to establish a monarchy in Mexico. French troops invaded the country in 1862 and captured Mexico City the following year. Juárez'government, forced to flee the capital, began a campaign of guerrilla warfare. Meanwhile, Napoleon III and the conservatives had chosen as emperor of Mexico the archduke Maximilian of Austria, who arrived in 1864 with his wife, the empress Carlota, to assume the throne.
Maximilian was a well-meaning but weak ruler who tried to govern benevolently. His moderate policies and acceptance of the reforms that had deprived the church of much of its land cost him the support of the church hierarchy and conservative political leaders, however. When Napoleon III, under pressure from the United States, withdrew the support of French troops in 1866, Maximilian was left isolated in the nation he supposedly ruled. In 1867 he was captured by republican forces and executed.
The Republic Restored
Once again free to govern as president, Juárez laid the foundation for Mexico's industry as well as its transportation and communications system. Most important, he introduced a program of free public education that reached out to the great mass of Indians and mestizos who could neither read nor write. When he died in office in 1872, Mexico had become a nation.
The Long Rule of Porfirio Díaz
Porfirio Díaz, one of Juárez' generals, seized power in 1876 and served several terms as president. Known as Don Porfirio, he ruled Mexico with an iron hand for nearly 35 years. He brought stability to the country, built railroads, improved harbors, and increased agricultural output. He established the country's oil industry, promoted good relations with other countries, and encouraged foreign investment in Mexico.
At the same time, under Díaz, the church, the aristocracy, and the army regained their old privileges. The Indians found themselves with less land than ever, city and rural workers were impoverished, and political opposition was suppressed.
The Revolution of 1910
Díaz' dictatorial rule brought about a revolution in 1910. Pancho Villa, a former bandit and guerrilla fighter, led the uprising in the north. In the south, Emiliano Zapata, a tough peasant leader, took up the cause of the landless Indians. Díaz was forced to resign, and Francisco I. Madero, the liberal son of a wealthy landowner and a champion of political reform, was elected president in 1911.
In the years that followed, Mexico was torn by almost continuous violence in the struggle among rival revolutionary leaders. Victoriano Huerta, a general supported by the conservatives, had Madero assassinated in 1913 and seized power. Villa and Zapata rebelled against Huerta, as did Venustiano Carranza, the governor of Coahuila state. Huerta was deposed and Carranza became president in 1914.
By 1915, however, Carranza was at war with both Villa and Zapata, particularly over the slow pace of land reform. U.S. president Woodrow Wilson twice intervened on behalf of Carranza, and in 1915 he dispatched a cavalry force against Villa, who had raided a U.S. border town. In 1916 the victorious Carranza called for a convention to draft a new constitution.
The Constitution of 1917
The 1917 Constitution revived Juárez' ideal of free public education and government control of church property and wealth. It regulated hours and wages for workers and upheld their right to unionize and strike. It also affirmed the government's right to reclaim ownership of all land, as well as the resources beneath the surface, in the name of the nation. Although socially progressive, many provisions of the new constitution were not carried out because of a lack of funds and political will.
The Post-Constiutional Era
Carranza was himself deposed in 1920 (and later killed), when he tried to prevent Alvaro Obregón from becoming president. Obregón was a cautious man who achieved some results in land distribution, education, and labor reform. His successor, in 1924, was Plutarco Elías Calles, who expanded the distribution of land. He also enforced the constitutional provisions against the church, which led to the bloody but unsuccessful Cristero revolt (1926-28) by militant Catholics.
Under Calles' successors, however, the pace of reform slowed down. He was succeeded in the presidency by Emilio Portes Gil, Pascual Ortiz Rubio, and Abelardo Rodríguez. The three held office between 1928 and 1934.
A New Political Party
Although he retired as president in 1928, Calles remained for some six years thereafter the most powerful figure in Mexican political life. In 1929, in order to stabilize the country's fragmented political system, he created a new party, the National Revolutionary Party, to include the various revolutionary factions. It was the predecessor of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which remains the dominant political party today.
Lázaro Cárdenas, elected president in 1934, restored the revolutionary fervor of an earlier time. He recast the party, making it national in scope and bringing it under presidential control, and he undertook a number of bold economic and social changes. He nationalized the oil industry (much of which was foreign-owned) and the railroads, distributed more land to the poor than any previous president, and greatly increased the number of schools.
A New Direction
The presidents after Cárdenas stressed Mexico's industrial development, placing less emphasis on social and economic reforms. This policy began during the administration of Manuel Ávila Camacho (1940-46), who also made peace with the church and took Mexico into World War II on the side of the Allies. It continued under his successors--Miguel Alemán Valdés (1946-52), Adolfo Ruiz Cortines (1952-58), and Adolfo López Mateos (1958-64).
While Mexico did achieve rapid industrialization, it was accompanied by the great migration of people to the cities, high unemployment, and inflation. Criticism of the government intensified during the presidencies of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964-70) and Luis Echeverría Álvarez (1970-76). It was under Echeverría that a national family-planning program was launched to combat the enormous population growth.
The Prosperity to Crisis
The discovery of new oil resources ushered in a period of prosperity during the presidency of José López Portillo (1976-82). But his free-spending policies and falling prices for oil led to an economic crisis in 1982. His successor, Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado (1982-88), sought to curb wasteful programs and bring the country's enormous foreign debt under control. He also linked Mexico economically to the international community through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
Efforts to improve the economy continued under Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-94), who returned the nationalized banking system to private ownership and sold off state-owned steel mills, copper mines, and airlines. Even more important was his negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States and Canada. But the Salinas years also saw an increase in drug trafficking, official corruption (particularly within the country's police forces), and a revolt in poverty-stricken Chiapas state by the Zapatista National Liberation Army, a peasant guerrilla group.
The 1994 presidential election was marred by the assassination of the PRI candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio. Soon after winning election, his successor, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, faced an even more severe economic crisis. To prevent a default on Mexican government bonds, the United States loaned Mexico $12.5 billion in 1995. Additional funds were provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
To restore the reputation of the PRI, which had come under increasing attack because of its single-party rule and entrenched corruption, Zedillo introduced political reforms intended to make Mexico a true multiparty democracy. He promised fair and honest elections, consultations with the opposition on key issues, a strengthened judiciary, and political democratization. He also negotiated with the Zapatista rebels, although violence in Chiapas continued. Zedillo's reforms contributed in 1997 to the PRI's loss of control of the lower house of the legislature for the first time in the party's history.
In early 1998, opposition candidates won six gubernatorial races, but by the end of the year, the PRI appeared to be regaining strength. Nevertheless, in 2000 an opposition candidate, Vicente Fox Quesada of the National Action Party, was elected president, ending 71 years of PRI presidential rule.