Mexico is a country of North America, lying between the United States on the north and Guatemala and Belize to the south. It is bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Gulf of Mexico on the east. Culturally, Mexico is the northernmost country of Latin America, which includes the mainly Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations of the Western Hemisphere. It is the third most populous country in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States and Brazil.

A land of often striking contrasts, Mexico consists of snowcapped mountains and broad plateaus, lush tropical rain forests and parched deserts. Parts of the country are as modern and progressive as any places in the world, but there are also isolated areas where the people cling to age-old ways. The Mexicans themselves are the heirs of two distinct cultures, those of the native Indian civilizations and the Spanish conquerors who supplanted them.

The People

Ancestry and Religion. The majority of the people are mestizos -- that is, of mixed Indian and European (mainly Spanish) ancestry. An estimated 30 percent of the population is of pure Indian ancestry and about 15 percent is of European origin. Most Mexicans are Roman Catholics, with rural people tending to be more religiously observant than those in the cities. Freedom of worship is guaranteed under the constitution, and there is complete separation of church and state.

Language. Spanish is the official language. Mexico is, in fact, the world's most populous Spanish-speaking country. At the same time, some 6 million Mexicans, living mainly in isolated mountain areas or near the southern border, speak only Indian languages -- chiefly Nahuatl, Maya, Zapotec, Otomi, or Mixtec. As their contacts with the cities increase, however, more and more Indians are also expressing themselves in Spanish.

Many senior government officials, professional people, and business executives are fluent in English. Numerous language schools also offer courses in English, which are usually attended by ambitious middle-class students eager to land a job with a large Mexican or U.S. company.

Education. The basic course of study includes six years of primary education, required by law for all children, followed by three years of secondary schooling. Qualified students may continue their education at upper secondary schools to prepare themselves for entrance to a university or to be trained for technical or commercial occupations. Education at state-run schools is free from primary grades through the university level. There are, in addition, private and parochial schools in the large cities.

A growing population and a shortage of schools and teachers, particularly in rural areas, has hampered full implementation of Mexico's educational program. Less than half the students actually complete the full six years of primary schooling. Nevertheless, the government has succeeded in raising the literacy rate (the percentage of people able to read and write) from 10 to 20 percent in the early 1900's to about 90 percent today.

Mexico has hundreds of institutions of higher learning. The largest is the National Autonomous University of Mexico, with about 300,000 students, located in Mexico City. It was originally founded in 1551 and is the oldest university on the North American continent.

Population Growth. In recent years, Mexico has had one of the world's highest rates of population growth, due to improvements in health care and living conditions, which dramatically lowered the death rate. Between 1960 and 2000 the number of people more than doubled, with about one-third of the population under 15 years of age.

Concern about Mexico's ability to provide sufficient schooling, housing, and other social necessities for its people, and for the economy to generate enough jobs for the booming population, eventually led to a government-sponsored program of family planning. The result has been a reduction in the birthrate from more than 3 percent annually in 1972, when the program was adopted, to about 2 percent in 2000. Projections for the future indicate an even slower pace of population growth.

Migration to the Cities. Until the middle of the 1900's, most Mexicans lived in rural areas. Beginning in the 1950's, however, there was a large-scale migration of people from the countryside to the cities. By the year 2000, about 75 percent of Mexicans were city dwellers, with about one-quarter of the total population living in or near Mexico City, the capital and largest city.

There were several reasons for this change. Government-subsidized bus service provided inexpensive and convenient transportation between rural and urban areas. Small, unproductive plots of land made it increasingly difficult for the peasants who tilled the soil to scratch out a living, while the growth of industry and better public services in the cities seemed to offer the promise of jobs and a better way of life.

Way of Life

Mexican Society. Of the three main groups of Mexican society, those of European heritage constitute a small elite. They often enjoy wealth, live in spacious, servant-filled homes, fly to the United States for medical treatment, and send their children to private schools in Mexico before enrolling them in prestigious universities abroad. Such families are often found in the top ranks of business and in high government posts.

At the opposite end of the social scale are the Indians, who traditionally have lived in their own villages, spoken their distinctive languages, and eked out a modest living from the land. Their religious practices are a blend of Roman Catholicism and native Indian beliefs. Those who have moved to the cities typically inhabit the shantytowns that form part of the urban landscape. Most live impoverished lives with limited opportunities for education and employment.

Between the two are the mestizos, the largest social group. The average mestizo family lives in an apartment or small house and possesses an automobile and a television set as well as the usual home appliances. Family gatherings are the focus of their social life. When not in school, children amuse themselves playing soccer or baseball and listening to the same kind of music as their counterparts in the United States. Women increasingly work outside the home to help make ends meet.

Strong family attachments are common to all classes. One often finds three generations living under the same roof, with a grandmother or older aunt helping with child-rearing and other household chores. Children usually display great respect, as well as affection, toward their parents and older relatives.

Food and Drink. The tortilla, a flat, thin corn cake of Indian origin, is eaten throughout Mexico. When rolled or folded and filled with cheese, chicken, or ground meat, it forms the basis for tacos, enchiladas, and tostadas. Frijoles (beans) and rice are also basic foods. Turkey mole, made with chocolate, nuts, and spices, is a traditional holiday dish. Roast goat, sun-dried beef, fish stews, shrimp, and mussels are popular regional foods. Cactus and maguey plants yield both food and drink. One variety of cactus produces tender shoots for salads; another furnishes the prickly pear used in desserts and preserves. The maguey is a source of two kinds of alcoholic drink--the fiery tequila and the milder, milk-colored pulque. Mexicans have also developed a taste for fast food from the United States. Restaurants selling hamburgers and pizza can be found in most cities.

Sports. Most popular sports in Mexico were brought from Spain. Jai alai is a kind of especially fast handball that originated in the Spanish Basque region. Soccer has many enthusiasts, as does bullfighting, which is considered more of a spectacle and art than a sport. Bullrings are found in all the major cities. Baseball, introduced from the United States, is quite popular. Mexicans have played in the major leagues, and many fans look forward to the day when their country will field a major league baseball team of its own.

Holidays. The colorful blending of Mexico's Christian and Indian traditions is most evident during the Christmas season. Every night from December 16 through December 24, families re-enact the pilgrimage to Bethlehem with special prayers and songs. At the end of each day, the children play a game to receive their holiday treats. A piñata, a brightly colored earthenware pot or other vessel, is suspended over the head of a blindfolded child, who tries to break it with a stick. The children then share the candies, fruits, and coins that pour out of the cracked piñata.

On All Souls'Day, people make a point of visiting the graves of their ancestors to pay them respect. The celebrants pray, sing, and traditionally eat foods that were favored by their ancestors. On December 12, many Mexicans make a pilgrimage to Mexico City, to the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the country's patroness.

Mexico also has a number of civic holidays, most of which commemorate the country's progress from a colony to a modern nation. The most important is September 16, which celebrates the beginning of the revolt against Spanish rule in 1810. On Revolution Day, November 20, Mexicans observe the anniversary of the 1910 Revolution.

The Arts

Mexico has won international recognition for its contribution to the arts. Most of its famous painters and architects have taken their inspiration from the country's past. Among these are painters Diego Rivera (1886-1957), José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), and Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991), as well as architects Juan O'Gorman (1905-82) and Luís Barragán (1902-88). The composer Carlos Chávez (1899-1978) has frequently utilized Mexican folk elements in his work.

Mexican writers include the critic, poet, and scholar Alfonso Reyes (1889-1959), the novelist Carlos Fuentes (1928-    ), and the renowned poet Octavio Paz (1914-98), winner of the Nobel Prize for literature (1990). Mexico also has a large motion-picture industry, whose most acclaimed directors included the Spanish-born Luis Buñuel (1900-83) and Emilio Fernández (1904-86).

More information on the arts in Mexico can be found in the separate articles Latin America, Art and Architecture of, Latin America, Literature of, and Latin America, Music of in this encyclopedia.