Latin America: Mexico

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE Quetzalcoatl was a god worshiped by the Toltec and Aztec peoples of Mexico and Central America. According to Native American legend, Quetzalcoatl traveled east across the sea. It was said that he would return some day, bringing peace. One day, messengers brought Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, news that strangers had arrived from across the sea. Montezuma thought that these strangers might be Quetzalcoatl and his servants.

Instead, it was Hernando Cortes and his soldiers, who would claim the land for Spain. When the Spanish landed, the cultures of two widely separated regions came into contact, which forever changed the Aztec and Spanish worlds—and made Mexico what it is today.

Colonialism and Independence

The history of Mexico is the story of the conflict between native peoples and settlers from Spain and the Spanish conquest of the region. The result was a blending of Indian and Spanish cultures that has greatly affected Mexico's development.


The territory of present-day Mexico was originally occupied by many different native peoples. These people included the residents of Teotihuacan, an early city-state, the Toltecs, the Maya (in the Yucatan Peninsula), and the Aztecs, as well as a number of other smaller groups or tribes. The rich fabric of native life in Mexico was torn apart by the Spanish conquest. In 1519, Hernando Cortes landed on the coast of Mexico. Cortes and his men marched into the interior of the country until they reached the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, the site today of Mexico City. By 1521, Cortes and his soldiers had conquered the Aztecs.


For centuries afterward, Mexico was a part of the Spanish empire. Mexico's abundant resources, such as gold and silver, made it a great prize. In 1821, Mexico achieved independence from Spain under Agustin de Iturbide, who proclaimed himself emperor in 1822. Then, beginning in the mid-19th century, Benito Juarez led a reform movement and became president of Mexico. He worked for separation of church and state, better educational opportunities, and a more even distribution of the land.

Under Spanish rule, and even after independence, land had been unequally distributed. A few rich landowners owned haciendas (estates or ranches) that covered most of Mexico's farmland. Landless peasants worked on these haciendas. Juarez tried to remedy this problem by giving some land to the peasants. Juarez was eventually succeeded by Porfirio Diaz, a dishonest politician who ruled Mexico for more than 30 years. His harsh and corrupt rule brought about a revolution and civil war, led by Francisco Madero, Pancho Villa, and Emiliano Zapata. A new constitution was adopted in 1917. It redistributed nearly half of Mexico's farmland to peasants.


In 1929, a new political party arose in Mexico. This was the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). It helped to introduce democracy and maintain political stability for much of the 20th century. It continued the policy of redistributing land to the peasants. However, because it did not tolerate opposition, fraud and corruption undermined the democratic process. In 1997, two parties opposed to the PRI won a large number of seats in the congress. In 2000, Vicente Fox, the National Action Party candidate, was elected president of Mexico. For the first time in 71 years, the PRI did not control Mexico's congress or presidency. This election showed that Mexico was gradually becoming more democratic.

A Meeting of Cultures

The culture of Mexico is a blend of Spanish influences with original native cultures. Mexico's native population has helped to shape the country's self-image.


Before the arrival of the Spanish, Mexico was a place of many advanced native cultures. For example, the Aztec empire arose in the Valley of Mexico, a mountain basin about 7,500 feet above sea level. According to legend, the Aztec people arrived there around A.D. 1200 from the deserts of northern Mexico. Then they built their capital of Tenochtitlan, a city of beautiful temples, palaces, gardens, and lakes. Canals linked parts of the city. People grew food on islands in Lake Texcoco surrounding the city. Tenochtitlan was where the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice in their temples.

When Cortes and the Spanish conquered the Aztec empire, they destroyed most of the capital and built Mexico City on top of the ruins of Tenochtitlan. Today, though, ancient Aztec ruins and relics keep turning up as modern projects in Mexico City are built. Like the ruins, the past is still very much present in Mexico.

The Spanish brought their language and Catholic religion, both of which dominate modern Mexico. In spite of Spanish cultural diffusion, though, Mexico's Indian heritage remains very strong. In fact, the name of the country comes from Mexica, an older name for the Aztecs. Mexico has a large mestizo population—people of mixed Spanish and Native American heritage.


Mexico has a long heritage of architecture and art. In the 20th century, Mexico's tradition of painting took the form of public art. Many important painters portrayed the history of Mexico on the walls of its public buildings. Among the important Mexican mural painters of the 20th century were Jose Orozco, Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and Juan O'Gorman. Frida Kahlo was an important Mexican painter known for her selfportraits. Most of the important Mexican painters blended European and Native American influences.


The Native Americans constructed beautiful temples and public buildings, often in the shape of pyramids. At Teotihuacan, for example, the people built a city of pyramids, many of which were topped with temples. The Aztec city of Tenochtitlan was filled with temples and palaces before it was demolished by the Spanish. The Spanish buildings included beautiful missions that were scattered throughout the territory they conquered. Later the Spanish built huge cathedrals, such as the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City. This cathedral is located on the main square, or zocalo, of the city.

Economics: Cities and Factories

Mexico continues to struggle with two main economic challenges. First, it is attempting to close a long-standing gap between rich and poor people. Second, it is attempting to develop a modern industrial economy. Mexico had traditionally been an agricultural society, but it started to industrialize in the middle of the 20th century.

Population Distribution in Mexican States


Mexicans are moving to cities because they see economic opportunities there. Jobs in cities provide a way to narrow the gap between rich and poor because such jobs pay more than those in rural areas. Mexico's population of about 52 million in 1970 almost doubled by the year 2000. Its population is largely very young.


Mexico's economy includes a large industry based on its oil reserves in and along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Mexico has emphasized its oil industry as an important part of developing an industrial economy. The profits from oil have helped to finance development, especially in manufacturing industries.

Manufacturing is the most important part of Mexico's recent economic development. Many of the new factories are located in the north of the country, along the border with the United States. Maquiladoras are factories in Mexico that assemble imported materials into finished products that are then exported, mostly to the United States. These products include electronic equipment, clothing, and furniture.

Mexico is a vital member, along with the United States and Canada, of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). This important trade agreement has created a huge zone of cooperation on trade and economic issues. Trade is expected to contribute to the economic prosperity of the member nations, creating jobs for millions of people.

Under NAFTA, import tariffs on manufactured goods are being slowly reduced and eventually will disappear.

Mexican Life Today

The people of Mexico face big challenges in today's world. Jobs, emigration, and education are foremost
among their concerns. Many of these issues relate to the income gap between rich and poor.


Emigration has had an impact on family life in Mexico. Mexico shares a 2,000-mile border with the United States. Many workers leave Mexico and travel to the United States in search of work. This separates families. Nonetheless, most of these workers remain in touch with their families in Mexico. Many send money back to their native villages. Often, after a year or two working in the United States, they return to Mexico with savings to help improve living conditions for their extended families.


The rapidly growing population and various government policies have contributed to a shortage of jobs. This has led many Mexicans to migrate to the United States in search of work.

Without education and training, young workers cannot find good jobs. In recent years, attendance of eligible students at school has improved. Today, about 85 percent of school-age children attend school. In the coming years, Mexico will have to invest large sums in education to provide a better life for its young citizens. Education will become even more important as Mexico becomes more industrialized.

In the next section, you will read about Central America and the Caribbean. This subregion links North America and South America.