+1(978)310-4246 credencewriters@gmail.com

This is

a 2200 words minimum final paper (including title page, and bibliography). Here are the requirements:

In the Introduction, provide a research question/thesis and highlight the significance of the study. Discuss the outline of the paper.

The body of the paper should be organized according to your initial outline. (Please note that each page of the paper must include at least two references MLA style).

Conclusions (go back to your research question and discuss your findings).

Future scenarios / recommendations and/or personal opinions are optional and should not take more than 1 page.

At least 8 sources, including books, journal articles, and reliable internet sources

Brian R. Hamnett,

A Concise History of Mexico;

this is the textbook, if you can use some references from it, will be good.

8 to 10 page research paper on the subject “the role of women in Mexican politics”

please talk about Mexican revolution as well. Immigration, the impact of women in the economy and society

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A Concise History of Mexico
Mexico’s fascinating complexities are difficult to approach. This illustrated
Concise History begins with a brief examination of contemporary issues,
while the book as a whole – ranging from the Olmecs to the present day –
combines a chronological and thematic approach while highlighting longterm issues and controversies over interpretation.
Modern Mexico, founded after independence from Spain in 1821, was a
state created out of a long and disparate historical inheritance, which has
constantly influenced its evolution. This book takes account of that past and
pays attention to the pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial influence, bearing
in mind that Mexico today is not necessarily either culturally or territorially
identical to those past societies. Mexico’s economic problems are given
historical treatment together with political analysis and attention to social
developments and cultural factors. The book stresses several prevailing
themes: the tension between constitutional and personal or group power,
the debate over federalism and the expansion of central power, the opposition between liberalism and the Catholic inheritance, nationalism and
Mexico’s global position, indigenous cultures and national integration, and
the problems of legitimising and transferring political power. The overriding issue of Mexico’s relationship to the United States also emerges as a
central theme.
The book’s prime objective is accessibility to a range of readers, including
those interested in gaining a broad general knowledge of the country and
those across the professions anxious to acquire a rapid but secure understanding of a subject where there are few starting points.
bri a n h am ne tt is a Research Professor specialising in Latin America,
based at the University of Essex. He has travelled widely and researched in
Latin America and the Iberian peninsula, devoting particular attention to
Mexico. Recent works include studies of the late colonial period, the
struggles for Independence, and the political career of Benito Juárez.
This is a new series of illustrated ‘concise histories’ of selected individual
countries, intended both as university and college textbooks and as general
historical introductions for general readers, travellers and members of the
business community.
Titles in the series:
A Concise History of Germany
mary fulbrook
A Concise History of Greece
richard clogg
A Concise History of France
roger price
A Concise History of Britain: 1707–1975
w. a. speck
A Concise History of Portugal
david birmingham
A Concise History of Italy
christopher duggan
A Concise History of Bulgaria
richard crampton
A Concise History of Brazil
boris fausto
A Concise History of South Africa
robert ross
A Concise History of Mexico
brian hamnett
A Concise History of Mexico
         
The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, United Kingdom
  
The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 2RU, UK
40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011-4211, USA
477 Williamstown Road, Port Melbourne, VIC 3207, Australia
Ruiz de Alarcón 13, 28014 Madrid, Spain
Dock House, The Waterfront, Cape Town 8001, South Africa
© Brian Hamnett 2004
First published in printed format 1999
ISBN 0-511-03867-4 eBook (Adobe Reader)
ISBN 0-521-58120-6 hardback
ISBN 0-521-58916-9 paperback
Dionisio alegaba que él no era antiyanqui . . . por más que no
hubiese niño nacido en México que no supiera que los gringos, en el
siglo XIX, nos despojaron de la mitad de nuestro territorio, California, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, Nuevo México y Texas. La
generosidad de México, acostumbraba decir Dionisio, es que no
guardaba rencor por ese terrible despojo, aunque sı́ memoria. En
cambio, los gringos ni se acordaban de esa guerra, ni sabı́an que era
injusta. Dionisio los llamaba ‘Estados Unidos de Amnesia’. . . El
hecho es que si los gringos nos chingaron en 1848 con su ‘destino
manifesto’, ahora México les daría una sopa de su propio chocolate,
reconquistándolos con mexicanísimas baterís lingüísticas, raciales y
Dionisio maintained that he wasn’t anti-Yank . . . even though
everyone born in Mexico knew that the Gringos in the nineteenth
century had stripped Mexico of half its national territory – California, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
Mexico’s natural genorisity, Dionisio was accustomed to say, meant
that she bore no grudges: however, that didn’t mean she’d forgotten.
The Gringos, though, didn’t even remember they’d fought the war,
let alone that it had been unjustified. For that reason, Dionisio
would call their country, the ‘United States of Amnesia’. . . The fact
is that, if the Gringos fucked us up in 1848 with their ‘Manifest
Destiny’, now Mexico would give them a taste of their own medicine, reconquering the lost territories by the most Mexican of
methods – the Spanish language, racial identity, and the national
Carlos Fuentes, La frontera cristalina (Mexico 1995)
List of illustrations
1 Mexico in perspective
page ix
Nationalism and territory
Living with the USA
The border
Drug trafficking
Indigenous Mexico
2 The pre-Columbian era
The Olmecs
Monte Albán and the Zapotec cultures of Oaxaca
The Mayas
The north
The time of troubles, 750–950
The Toltecs
The Post-Classic Maya
The Zapotecs and Mixtecs of the Post-Classic era
Central Mexico
The Aztecs
3 The European incursion, (1519–1620)
The impact of the fall of Tenochtitlán
The imposition of Christianity
Hispanic land acquisition
4 New Spain, 1620–1770: Spanish colonialism and American
Spain and the Empire: merchants, financiers, and
Indian communities
New Spain’s Baroque culture
The cult of the Virgin
The exposed north and far north
The political processes
5 Destabilisation and fragmentation, 1770–1867
Part one: the climax and collapse of New Spain,
Part two: the failures and successes of a newly
sovereign state, 1821–1867
6 Reconstruction, 1867–1940
Part one: the Liberal republic: constitutionalism
or personal rule, 1867–1911?
Part two: the revolutionary system: state power or
democratisation, 1911–1940?
7 The monopoly party, 1940–2000
Part one: the ‘Mexican miracle’ and political
control, 1940–1970
Part two: economic crises and political divisions,
Final comments
plate s
1. Visit to the border barriers at Tijuana by Secretary
of Foreign Relations, Rosario Green
page 13
2. Federal Maximum Security Prison at Almoloya de Juárez
(State of Mexico), near Toluca
3. Local market at Tlacolula, Valley of Oaxaca
4. Olmec sculpture from the Jalapa Anthropology
Museum, Veracruz
5. Zapotec pyramid at Monte Albán, Valley of Oaxaca
6. Maya pyramid at Uxmal, Yucatán
7. Maya-Toltec pyramid at Chichén Itzá, Yucatán
8. Diego Rivera’s mural, ‘La gran Tenochtitlán’ (1945)
9. Hernán Cortés and La Malinche
10. Titian’s portrait of the Emperor Charles V
11. Detail from Cristóbal de Villalpando’s painting of
Mexico City’s central square
12. ‘La Dolorosa’ by Cristóbal de Villalpando
13. Miguel Cabrera’s study, ‘The Virgin of Guadalupe with
the three Juans’
14. Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Juan de Miranda 100
15. Basilica of the Virgin of Solitude, Oaxaca
16. Humboldt’s map of the Viceroyalty of New Spain
17. Father Miguel Hidalgo
List of illustrations
18. General view of the city of Valladolid de Michoacán
(now Morelia)
19. Father José María Morelos
20. General Antonio López de Santa Anna
21. Entry of United States’ forces into Mexico City,
14 September 1847
22. Benito Juárez
23. (a) The Emperor Maximilian in imperial robes
(b) The Empress Carlota in imperial robes
24. The young Porfirio Díaz
25. The Execution of Maximilian, 19 June 1867 (detail)
26. José María Velasco: two paintings of central Mexico
(a) The volcano of Citlaltépetl (El Pico de Orizaba),
(b) Hacienda de Chimalpa (1893), Valley of Mexico
27. The Monterrey Iron and Steel Plant of 1903
28. Porfirio Díaz in his prime
29. Diego Rivera’s mural, ‘Sunday Afternoon Dream
in the Alameda’ (1947)
30. Francisco I. Madero with Revolutionary generals,
April 1911
31. Federal soldiers on campaign against revolutionaries
in 1910–11
32. Venustiano Carranza
33. Pancho Villa and his wife
34. Villa and Zapata in the Presidential Palace, Mexico City
35. Zapatista soldiers at breakfast in Sanborn’s ‘House of
Tiles’, Mexico City
36. Álvaro Obregón with Plutarco Elı́as Calles and Adolfo
de la Huerta
37. Plutarco Elı́as Calles and his second wife
38. Lázaro Cárdenas with President Manuel Ávila Camacho
and Calles
39. Library of the National University (UNAM), Mexico
40. Gustavo Díaz Ordaz with the Generals on Army Day,
List of illustrations
41. Cardinal-Archbishop Norberto Rivera Carrera washing
feet on Holy Thursday
42. Cuauhtémoc Caŕdenas takes office as Mayor of Mexico
City in 1997
43. Tension in Agua Tinta, Chiapas, in 1998
44. Bishop Samuel Ruiz of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas,
with kneeling clerics
45. The Mexico City Stock Exchange
Modern Mexico at the turn of the millennium
The Maya world
Plan of the city of Teotihuacan
The Toltec-Aztec world
The Viceroyalty of New Spain in 1810
Territorial losses, 1836–53
Research on Mexico is an exciting and fast-developing topic. Perspectives are repeatedly changing. Mexico, with a population
around 95 million, forms part of the North American sub-continent.
Since the early sixteenth century, it has been part of the Atlantic
world that resulted from European expansion. Before that time,
Mexico was also part of a pre-Columbian world unknown to Europeans. For that reason, the country has a complex multi-ethnic and
multi-cultural pattern that continues to have an impact on contemporary events. Nevertheless, anyone interested in Mexico quickly
discovers that there are few things for the beginner to read. At the
same time, those who perhaps might have returned from their first
visit to the country will frequently look in vain for a book which
enables them to analyse what they have seen with any thematic
coherence. I myself have long been conscious of such a gap in the
literature. For that reason, I decided to write this book. The bibliography should help the reader to branch out in whichever may be
the preferred thematic direction. Since The Concise History must
rise above the detailed monographic type of work and identify the
broad outlines of Mexican history, I hope it will also find some
resonance among fellow disciplinarians.
I first went to Mexico as a research student in January 1966. A
great deal of my own history has been lived there since that time, and
the country itself has in some respects changed beyond recognition.
The scale of change reflects a dynamic North American society such
as Mexico. Yet, at the same time, particularly in the provinces and
the villages, and in general attitudes and assumptions, a great deal of
the traditional outlook, for better or for worse, still persists. In many
individuals, the outward styles of the turn of the twenty-first century
go together with the mentalities of the seventeenth.
Approaching Mexican history as I initially did from the geographical perspectives of the centre and south, the core zones of
Mesoamerican civilisation, I was always conscious of the deeply
rooted inheritance of the indigenous American past. My consciousness of the importance of the pre-Columbian era has grown over the
years that I have been involved in studying Mexico. This is so
particularly since the region I originally studied was Oaxaca, the
centre of Zapotec and Mixtec cultures and still a state with an
indigenous majority. My specialisation then was the late colonial
era. When I first arrived in Mexico I came by sea from Cádiz after a
long period of study in the Archive of the Indies in Seville. I sailed on
a 6,000–ton Spanish ship which took two and a half weeks to reach
Veracruz by way of Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican
Republic. After the turbulent January winds across the Gulf of
Mexico, I certainly didn’t arrive on Mexican soil feeling like a
Conquistador. Nevertheless, I had come to Mexico to study the
colonial era, and bold decisions had to be made as to how to go
about it. In the cities and towns of the central core of Mexico from
Zacatecas (where the north begins) to Oaxaca in the south, the
richness of a colonial culture transforming from European to American can be immediately appreciated. Cities such as Puebla, Tlaxcala,
Querétaro, Guanajuato, Morelia (then Valladolid), San Luis Potosí,
Zacatecas and the capital itself all exhibit an architectural and
artistic wealth comparable to European cities of the period. My
experience as a ‘Mexicanist’ began that way. However, many other
tendencies have emerged since then, the most recent being deepening
interest in the north. Readers will find the north and the ‘far north’
(currently described in the USA as the ‘American Southwest’) abundantly present in the following pages.
This book adopts a number of significant positions. It does not
start in 1821 with the independence of Mexico from the Spanish
Empire. It does not assume that in historical perspective Mexico
should be defined as the truncated political entity of the period after
1836–53, when the United States acquired half of Mexico’s claimed
territory. The approach is thematic as well as chronological, allusive
perhaps rather than all-inclusive. The book opens with a look at
Mexico today and a few suggestions about how it came to be that
way. After this, we shall then go back to the pre-Columbian era for
the real historical beginning, and continue forwards from there
through a combination of themes and chronology. The periodisation I have adopted corresponds more to contemporary reinterpretations of Mexican history than to traditional approaches. Even so,
halfway through writing, I abandoned the notion of a ‘mature
colonial period’, proposed by James Lockhart and Stuart Schwartz,
Early Latin America. A History of Colonial Spanish America and
Brazil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1983), on the
grounds that this was highly misleading. Those authors envisaged a
broad span from 1580 to 1750, within which ‘large-scale social and
cultural transformation quietly, gradually took place’. I should prefer formative to mature, an entirely different concept. In any case,
1580 is too early: my preference would be for a date around 1620.
In attempting a revised periodisation, I still found I had to compromise significantly. I had originally hoped to bridge the traditional
historiographical divisions at Independence (1810–21) and the Revolution (1910–40) by a more radical periodisation: ‘Destabilisation
and Fragmentation (1770–1867)’; ‘Reconstruction (1867–1940)’;
and ‘The Monopoly Party (1940–2000)’. However, I still found that
the dividing lines at 1810 and 1910 could not and should not be
avoided. At the same time, I have compromised by placing these
more traditional turning points within the context of my original
broader sweeps. It seemed to me also that the collapse of the French
Intervention and with it Maximilian’s Second Empire in 1867 represented a major turning point in the nineteenth century. This signified
the end of European attempts to recover control in Mexico and
assured the survival of the sovereign state which had emerged from
the War with the United States (1846–48). Similarly, 1940 and 1970
emerged as subsequent points of arrival and departure. The former
initiated the period of consolidation of revolutionary changes and
provided a symbolic starting point for three decades of economic
expansion and political stability; the latter opened the way for
descent into three decades of political division and economic dislocation. These lines of demarcation are, of course, subject to criticism
and revision. I hope that the question of periodisation will occupy
part of the ongoing historical debate concerning the interpretation
of Mexican (and Latin American) history.
Colleagues and friends in Mexico and elsewhere have contributed
to this book, sometimes without realising it. Many rewarding conversations helped to give it shape. First and foremost, I owe Dr Luis
Jáuregui (UNAM: Faculty of Economics) the debts of friendship,
hospitality, and use of his broad-ranging library. Many of the ideas
which we discussed in 1997–98 appear in the following text. I am
grateful for his criticisms and advice both informally and in reading
the manuscript. Accordingly, this book is dedicated to him by way
of thanks. Dr Josefina Zoraída Vázquez (El Colegio de México) has
been a continuous source of encouragement and support in many of
my recent projects, and always a stimulating critic and discussant.
Professor Brian Connaughton (UAM – Iztapalapa) has also been a
great help in probing the problems and issues of late-colonial and
nineteenth-century Mexican history, not only as a result of seminars
at the UAM, but also in regular, three-hour breakfasts in Mexico
City, which have ranged across the dynamics of Mexican culture. Dr
Bernardo García Martínez (El Colegio de Mex́ico), author of an
alternative concise history of Mexico, pressed home to me the
dynamics of the north in a memorable conversation in a Gallego
restaurant in Mexico City in March 1996, and thereby contributed
decisively to my shift in perspective. Professor Paul Vanderwood
(San Diego State University), who has been a source of ideas and a
good critic over two decades, gave me his hospitality in San Diego at
a crucial stage of rethinking and writing early in January 1998. The
libraries of the Instituto José María Luis Mora and the Centro de
Estudios de Historia de México (CONDUMEX) provided agreeable
places of study. Students and colleagues at the State University of
New York at Stony Brook, Strathclyde University, and Essex University helped refine the ideas and interpretations offered here. I am
particularly grateful to Xavier Guzmán Urbiola and Carlos Silva
Cázares, in Mexico City, for their help in selecting the illustrations
and maps which form a significant part of this work. Sven Wair gave
the manuscript a critical reading before submission to the press: his
perceptive comments have made for a tighter piece of work.
Mexico in perspective
Mexico may be part of the ‘New World’ (in the European nomenclature), but in reality much of the territory included within the present-day Republic formed part of a very old world unknown to
Europeans before the end of the fifteenth century. This pre-Columbian past needs to be appreciated when attempting to explain both
colonial and contemporary Mexico. We need to examine the way a
distinct Mexican civilisation has expressed itself through time. The
chronological and thematic sweep explains the structure and approach. The main purpose is to lay out the principal themes and
issues. The detail may be found in many specific works. Contemporary Mexico presents a paradox of an ostensibly stable regime but a
recrudescence of political assassinations and popular rebellions,
along with globalisation but recurrent economic crises.
Modern territorial boundaries distort the cultural unities of the
pre-Columbian world. The geographical dimension of Maya
civilisation, for instance, included areas that would in colonial times
become the south-eastern territories of the Viceroyalty of New Spain
(namely Yucatán) and the core territories of the Kingdom of
Guatemala. Although sites like Palenque, Bonampak, and Yaxchilán are located in Chiapas, and Uxmal and Chichén Itzá in
Yucatán, both states part of the Mexican Republic, Classic Period
Maya sites such as Tikal, Uaxactún, and Copán are in the Republics
of Guatemala and Honduras, respectively. Today, knowledge of
Maya civilisation is disseminated in Mesoamerica from the capital
city museums of contemporary states, even though these cities,
Map 1 Modern Mexico at the turn of the millennium.
Mexico in perspective
particularly Mexico City, played no part at all in its original
flourishing. In that sense, the Maya inheritance has been appropriated by the national states to reinforce their historical identity
and legitimacy. As in many other instances, the once-vanished Maya
world has been brought back to life in order to serve a contemporary
political purpose.
Two central processes have been at work since the collapse of the
pre-Columbian world: the creation of a Spanish colonial viceroyalty
out of the existing indigenous political and ethnic units, and the
development of a modern Mexican nation-state out of the former
viceroyalty. One can see immediately that in both processes discontinuities and continuities existed side by side. The discontinuities
and radical differences between contemporary Mexico and the preColumbian and colonial eras make it imperative that we do not
write history backwards from the perspective of the present day.
Geography and environment help to explain economic and political developments in Mexico through the historical perspective. Ethnic and linguistic diversity combined with regional and local disparities have shaped Mexican society and have defined its distinctive
culture. A number of obvious contrasts come to mind immediately:
the modernity, dynamism, and openness of the north, the cultural
and ethnic mixtures of the core zone from Zacatecas and San Luis
Potosí to Oaxaca, and the Maya world of Yucatán and Chiapas.
Federalism, first adopted in 1824, was intended to reflect this diversity and give institutional life to the changing relationships between
region and centre and between the regions themselves. For much
of the twentieth century, however, federalism remained a dead
n at ion al is m an d t erri to ry
The makers of Independence saw their country as the successor state
not only to the Spanish colonial Viceroyalty of New Spain but also
to the Aztec Empire originally established in 1325 in Tenochtitlán at
the centre of Lake Texcoco. For Mexican nationalists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Aztec inheritance became fundamental to any comprehension of nationhood. It distinguished
Mexico from other Hispanic-American societies, as well as from the
A concise history of Mexico
United States. At the same time, the argument that Mexico existed as
a nation before the Spanish Conquest in 1521 not only undermined
the legitimacy of Spanish rule but also provided a platform of
resistance to the French Intervention of 1862–67. Liberal President
Benito Juárez (1806–72), though born a Zapotec from the southern
state of Oaxaca, identified himself with Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec
Emperor, who had resisted Hernán Cortés until put to death by him.
The victorious Liberals of the Reform era (1855–76) portrayed the
execution of the Archduke Maximilian of Habsburg, who had
presided over the Second Mexican Empire (1864–67), as the revindication of the fallen Aztec Empire, the reaffirmation of independence,
and the means of solidifying republican institutions. As a Habsburg,
Maximilian was the descendant of Charles V, in whose name Cortés
had overthrown the Aztec Empire.
The Revolution of 1910–40 reaffirmed the symbolism of Mexican
republican nationalism, which has formed an essential aspect of the
ideology of the monopoly ruling party since its first constitution as
the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (PNR) in 1929. The Aztec
myth has been carried beyond its original territorial base to encompass the entire Republic. Neo-Aztecism, which first emerged in
the eighteenth century, has formed part of the ideology of the
contemporary state. In fact, Octavio Paz (1914–98), awarded the
Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990, has argued that the Aztec pyramid was the paradigm for the monopoly-party state, which characterised much of twentieth-century Mexican history.
Modern Mexico, however, is not and never was coterminous with
the looser political units ruled at the time of Cortés’s arrival by
Moctezuma II and his predecessors. Effectively, the northern limits
of the Aztec state hardly reached present-day San Juan del Río,
about two hours’ drive north of Mexico City. This line did not,
however, signify the northern limits of settled culture, since the
Tarascan territory of Michoacán and the princedoms in the territory
of present-day central Jalisco existed beyond Aztec control. Furthermore, the sites of La Quemada and Altavista, in the present-day
State of Zacatecas, provide evidence of sedentary cultures in Tuitlán
in the heart of territory later under nomad control.
When the Spanish Conquerors established their capital on the
ruins of Tenochtitlán, they could hardly have imagined that within a
Mexico in perspective
few decades Hispanic rule would push further northwards into
hitherto unsubdued territories. Similarly, they could not have anticipated the tenacity of the resistance they would encounter throughout the rest of the century. The Spaniards founded several specifically Hispanic cities within the settled Indian heartlands in the
aftermath of the Conquest. Puebla de los Angeles (1531) and
Guadalajara (1542) were the principal examples. These cities became centres of expansion for Hispanic culture among the surviving
indigenous population. Contemporary Mexico, however, also developed from the original, sixteenth-century thrust northwards,
with Guadalajara itself in a forward position in the centre-west.
The Viceroyalty of New Spain, established in 1535, was a Spanish
political entity superimposed upon pre-existing indigenous states
and subdued peoples. Until its collapse in 1821, it remained subordinate to the metropolitan government in Spain. The discovery of rich
silver deposits in the north-centre and north required military expansion well beyond the Río Lerma and the prompt consolidation of
Hispanic rule. In such a way, the push to the north became a
dynamic element in New Spain’s history from early in the colonial
experience. The north ensured that New Spain would be much more
than the agglomeration of distinct indigenous polities under Hispanic rule.
The Mexican north and far north (the latter refers to territory
beyond the Río Bravo or Rio Grande now in the United States)
remained only loosely connected to the political centre in Mexico
City. A series of administrative units generally under a military
commander attempted to define Spanish control. Though called
Kingdoms – such as Nueva Galicia (capital: Guadalajara), Nueva
Vizcaya (Durango), and Nuevo León (Monterrey) – they formed
part of the Viceroyalty until the organisation of the Commandancy
General of the Interior Provinces in 1776. The uncertainties of the
northern frontier and Mexico City’s reluctance to contribute effective financing to resolve the military problem with the unpacified
Indian groups continually frustrated territorial consolidation. New
Spain bequeathed this ongoing problem to the Mexican sovereign
state after 1821. As we shall see in chapter five, decades of deteriorating government finance in the late colonial period left independent
Mexico with a debt problem. External loans and trade recession
A concise history of Mexico
compounded this problem. Internal political divisions undermined
any attempt to apply a consistent policy with regard to the far
northern territories. When the crisis over Texas secession broke in
1835, Mexico was in no position to assert its sovereignty successfully in the face of resistance from Anglo-Saxon settlers.
Mexico became independent of metropolitan Spain in 1821 not as
a republic but as the Mexican Empire, a monarchy which extended
at least nominally from Panama in the south to Oregon in the north.
Its capital, Mexico City, remained the largest city of the Americas
and probably the most architecturally distinguished at that time.
The Mexican silver peso or dollar remained one of the world’s major
denominations: the US dollar was based on the peso and the two
currencies retained parity until the mid-nineteenth century. The
Chinese Empire, perennially short of silver, used the peso as its
principal medium of exchange until the turn of the century. In 1821,
it did not seem inevitable that the Mexican Empire would lose a
large part of its territory and after 1848 be surpassed and increasingly dwarfed by the United States of America.
Defeat in the War with the United States (1846–48) at a time of
internal division meant that an international border was drawn
through what had formerly been claimed as part of Hispanic North
America. After 1846, Mexicans in territories that fell under US
occupation frequently became second-class citizens in what had
been their own country: pushed off their lands or confined to ‘barrios’, they faced discrimination in a variety of ways. Out of that
experience sprang the Chicano movement from the 1960s which
expressed itself in both culture and politics. While beset by its own
historic ambiguities, the Chicano movement sought to reassert the
authenticity and dignity of the Mexican experience (and its connection to Mexico) within the United States. At the same time, Mexican
(and other Latin American) migrations into US cities altered their
character and ultimately their political life. Chicago, the second
largest Polish city in the world, acquired in recent decades a significant Mexican character as well, far beyond the traditional territories
of the Hispanic orbit.
Mexico in perspective
livi n g w it h t he us a
Mexico and the United States were products of the same historical
epoch, the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution over the period
from 1776 to 1826. Both became sovereign states as a result of
revolutionary movements which overthrew European colonial regimes. Why are they so different and why has their relationship
taken the course that it has? In Mexico, the Enlightenment, the
Atlantic Revolutions, and nineteenth-century Liberalism encountered the inheritance of the Spanish Conquest, Hispanic absolutism,
and the Counter-Reformation, all powerful counter-influences.
None of them was disposed towards government by consultation
and consent. Although both Mexico and the United States adopted
federalism, the comparative study of how this functioned remains in
its infancy. The question of why federalism broke down in Mexico
in 1835–36, only a decade and a half after Independence, still
generates controversy.
For Mexico, the unavoidable relationship with the United States
has been the predominant element in external policy since the Texas
War of 1836. For Mexicans, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
(1848), which confirmed the loss of the far north, continues to be a
significant event. It confirmed the shift in the balance of power
within the North American continent in favour of the United States.
By contrast, the United States’ perspectives are not those of Latin
Americans in general, nor of Mexicans in particular. For the United
States, the rest of the American continent is largely a sideshow at
best and a nuisance factor at worst. As a twentieth-century world
power, the principal focus of United States foreign policy was always Western and Central Europe, on the one hand, and the North
Pacific Basin (Japan and China), on the other hand. Mediterranean,
Middle Eastern, and South-East Asian affairs formed a necessary
but secondary sphere. This is not to deny the significance of sporadic
US attention to Caribbean or Latin American issues, but to affirm,
nevertheless, its tertiary nature. This is not the place to debate
whether these policy priorities have been the correct ones, given the
American location of the United States. They do help to explain,
though, why United States–Mexican relations – two countries which
share the longest common border in Latin America – have remained
A concise history of Mexico
so fraught with misunderstanding throughout the period from 1836
to the present.
From the vantage point of the United States, Mexico appears to be
underdeveloped, potentially unstable, and even conceivably a security risk. The primacy of negative sentiments remains a striking
feature of US perceptions of Mexico, which has not diminished but
may even have increased during the 1990s through media attention
to drug trafficking, human-rights abuses, and widespread corruption. Failure to eradicate these problems makes Mexico seem culpable across a wide span of US opinion. Mexican perceptions of the
United States frequently tend to be equally, if not more, negative.
The loss of the far north is the starting point, re-examined in full
detail in a series of conferences in Mexico City and in regional
capitals during the course of 1997–98, the 150th anniversary of the
defeat. ‘What went wrong?’ was the question asked. In the United
States, the anniversary, still overshadowed by the impact of its own
Civil War (1861–65), passed with scarcely a murmur.
Any discussion in Mexico of the projected McLane–Ocampo
Treaty of 1859 for US transit rights across Mexican territory reopens the rival nationalisms inherited from mid-nineteenth-century
Liberals and Conservatives. Two landings of US forces in Veracruz,
in 1847 and 1914, are usually commemorated in Mexico with
nationalist excoriation of US treachery and violations of national
sovereignty. Deep suspicion, frequently justified, characterised
much of US–Mexican relations during the course of the twentieth
century, right through to the establishment of the North American
Free Trade Agreement in 1992. Yet, political and economic developments during the 1980s and 1990s emphasised all the more the
interdependence of the two countries with a common border of
3,000 km. Even so, the significance of NAFTA still remains unclear,
especially in view of the uneven development of the three participating states and their differing perceptions of the free trade treaty’s
purpose. Since the treaty involved major concessions by the Mexican state to US private capital, intense warnings followed in Mexico
concerning the dire social consequences. These forebodings seemed
to be given reality with the outbreak of the Chiapas rebellion in
January 1994, which threw the focus once again on long-standing
indigenous grievances.
Mexico in perspective
The NAFTA resulted from a Mexican initiative, to which the US
government responded. Mexican motives were political as well as
economic, and reflected internal circumstances as well as external
goals. In that sense, the Mexican government was drawing the
United States deeper into Mexican affairs, while at the same time
expecting gains for Mexico in the US market. Any analysis of the
relationship between the two countries needs to recognise not only
US misinterpretations of Mexican conditions and misunderstanding
of the language and local susceptibilities, but also the Mexican
capacity for manipulation. How to ‘handle the Americans’ forms an
essential part of Mexican foreign relations.
Fundamentally, the Mexican–US relationship involves disparities
of wealth and power. These disparities are the crux of the issue.
Mexico and the United States, despite parallels and similarities,
operate in different worlds. Their international context and terms of
reference are wide apart. Perhaps worst of all, the two countries are
not really seriously thinking about one another. Mexico’s obsession
is with itself. Few Mexican newspapers or journals have any broad
and profound coverage of international affairs, still less any informed analysis of US developments, except perhaps where the
behaviour of the New York stock market is concerned. Enrique
Krauze’s comment that Mexico is symbolically an island is very
much to the point. There are remarkably few Institutes of US Studies
in Mexico and few historians specialise in US history. The Centro de
Investigaciones sobre América del Norte, based at the UNAM in
Mexico City, which also deals with Canada as its name implies, is a
notable exception.
Although Mexico and the United States have still not managed to
work out a satisfactory relationship after two centuries, not everything in this North American ‘special relationship’ has been a disaster. US Presidents usually meet more often with their Mexican
counterparts than with any other Heads of State; there are annual
meetings of US and Mexican Governors of border states. For the US
President a certain international proportion is inevitably involved.
In November 1997, for instance, President Ernesto Zedillo’s visit to
the White House followed in the wake of that of the Chinese
President, Jiang Zemin (who subsequently visited Mexico). The two
visits highlighted the dimensional difference between China and
A concise history of Mexico
Mexico in terms of their ranking in US foreign policy considerations.
Furthermore, the three decades of Mexican economic difficulties
since 1970 cost the country a great deal in terms of its position on
the US scale of world importance. Issues such as the border and drug
trafficking were inevitably discussed between Zedillo and President
Bill Clinton. However, the Mexican President’s visit was further
marred on 10 November 1997 by Clinton’s failure to persuade Congress to support his ‘fast-track’ option for the issue of
trade liberalisation in accordance with the NAFTA. The explanation lay in Democratic Party fears of Mexican competition in the
labour market. Since the South-East Asia financial crisis of late 1997
and early 1998, the ‘fast-track’ policy has died a quiet death.
Mexico, unlike the United States, is neither a world power nor a
significant military force. Mexican self-contemplation – looking
into the mirror – effectively removes the country from any possibility of exercising influence in world affairs. While Mexico certainly
has a strong and resilient culture, it shares with most of Latin
America an inability to project itself in any significant capacity onto
the world political stage. In that sense, Latin America represents a
missing factor, a huge area in terms of territory and population, but
without an influence on the course of events. Given the relationship
to the USA, the image of Mexico is frequently one projected to the
rest of the world through the medium of the United States. Accordingly, the image is rarely a favourable one.
th e b or d er
The Mexican presence ‘north of the border’ helps to explain further
the uneasy relationship between Mexico and the United States. The
border issue, as it is seen inside the United States, continues to be an
unresolved problem between the two countries. Even so, the border
remains more political than cultural, in the sense that the ‘American
South-West’ has never entirely superseded the Mexican far north.
Quite the reverse, the growing Mexican impact in former territories
such as Texas, Arizona, and California is evident to anyone who
lives or travels there. A slow, persistent recovery of ‘Mex-America’
has been taking place beneath the political superimpositions of
1848. Some might even portray this as a ‘Reconquista’. For gener-
Mexico in perspective
ations, families in northern Mexico have had relations across the
‘border’, and transit for one purpose or another has been constant.
For many Mexican families in the border zone (regardless of which
side) it is simply a formality that has to be passed through whenever
meetings take place. Carlos Fuentes (b.1928) in La frontera cristalina (Mexico 1996) directly portrayed this experience in ten short
stories that form a type of novel. Recent border novels by the US
author Cormac McCarthy, such as All the Pretty Horses (New York
1992), gave a distinct Texan perspective to the frontier experience.
The border itself, in spite of the ongoing argument over illegal
immigrants, is more a crossroads than a frontier. The string of twin
cities – Calexico–Mexicali, Nogales (Arizona)–Nogales (Sonora),
Douglas–Agua Prieta, El Paso–Ciudad Juárez, Eagle Pass–Piedras
McAllen–Reynosa, Brownsville–Matamoros – gives an idea of the
dimensions involved. Life in Monterrey (Nuevo León) is not radically different from life in San Antonio (Texas), and certainly a
good deal more similar to it than to prevailing cultures in central
Mexico. Even so, there are some striking distinctions on and beyond
the frontier. San Diego, California, fourteen miles from the Mexican
border, remains a characteristically US city oriented more towards
the rest of the USA than southwards to Mexico, despite the large
Mexican presence in the vicinity and in spite of the rhetoric of urban
cooperation with Tijuana.
Immigration studies, strong in assessing European entry into the
USA, Argentina, Uruguay, or Brazil, frequently overlook Latin
American migration into the United States. Although many such
immigrants may aspire to US citizenship and the benefits of US
material life, Latin American culture is strong enough to resist
absorption into prevailing English-language culture and most such
immigrants would not wish to forfeit their distinct identities. Accordingly, the late twentieth-century reinforcement of the already
existing Latin American historical presence within US-controlled
territory has raised the question of cultural and linguistic integration. Along with the Mexican ‘border question’ is the issue of the
status of the Spanish language within the United States in relation to
the (at present) unique official status of the English language. This
latter issue goes well beyond the question of the Mexican border,
A concise history of Mexico
since it involves at least the Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Central
American presence in the United States as well. Mexicans, in view of
their own cultural inheritance and the contiguity of the Mexican
Republic, have proved to be the strongest group of ‘unmeltables’
within the United States.
Earlier migration resulted from Porfirian land policies and conditions during the Revolution in the 1910s. Much mid-century crossborder migration derived from the US bracero programme of
1942–64, which introduced the concept of the ‘wet-back’ to California and Texas popular culture. Failed agricultural reform policies in
the aftermath of the Revolution led to the recreation of ‘branches’ of
Mexican villages within the US cities themselves. Re-planted communities from Jalisco, Michoacán or Oaxaca, for instance, resemble
the transplanted dissenter communities of seventeenth-century
Essex and Suffolk which contributed so much to the establishment
of New England, though they are rarely viewed through US eyes in
the same perspective. In January 1998, Jalisco was reputed to be the
Mexican state with the largest number of migrants: 1.5 million
people originating from there lived in the United States, particularly
in California, Chicago, and Washington DC. Migrants sent around
US$800 million back into the Jalisco economy.
The US Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which was
considered in Mexico to be a response to Mexican Government
independence on Central American issues, seemed to ignore the
dependence of significant sectors of the US economy on Mexican
labour. The first Clinton Administration, which took office in 1993,
began another attempt in the following year to stem Mexican immigration by increasing the number of patrols and constructing more
barriers, but four years later no one could tell whether it had been a
success or not. Funding for frontier control increased from US$374
million to US$631 million between 1994 and 1997. Operation
Hard-Line has been in force along the US southern border since
In the ‘border question’, the USA sees itself at its most vulnerable.
A society formed of immigrants from other continents has been in
the process of trying to seal the border with one of its two North
American neighbours, though significantly not with the other. The
incongruity of that situation – the attempted creation of a North
Plate 1 Visit to the border barriers at Tijuana by Secretary of
Foreign Relations, Rosario Green, 9 December 1998. During
the visit, the Secretary commented that the international
border between the United States and Mexico appeared to be
between two hostile countries. She stated that Mexico had so
far failed to persuade the United States of a humanitarian
policy, instead of the current situation in which potential
migrants put their lives at risk in attempting night-crossings.
The Secretary inspected the metal barrier constructed by the
US authorities from the El Mirador Hill across the Tijuana
beach and 50 m out into the sea to prevent Mexicans
swimming into US territory. The Mexican press drew
attention to the construction of a highway on the US side
designed to strengthen Border Patrol responses to clandestine
immigration. According to the Mexican Migrant Defence
Coalition in San Diego, California, 141 ‘indocumentados’ had
died mainly from hypothermia and drowning in attempts to
beat the US Border Patrol, which itself shot dead two
potential migrants in the Tijuana area in September 1998.
Rosario Green, author of a work published in 1976
examining Mexico’s external debt from 1940 to 1973, is a
former Senator and deputy Foreign Minister, and was
Ambassador in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1989.
A concise history of Mexico
American Berlin Wall when the European original had already
collapsed – has had repercussions at many levels. It flies in the face of
North American history as an immigrant society; it exposes yet
again US failure to understand even the most basic facts about
Immigration has become a political issue between the parties in
US elections, with the result that short-term party advantage is
allowed to prejudice US–Mexican relations. The topic is rarely
accorded rational treatment, least of all in the US media. The US
government invests huge sums in border restrictions, but, instead,
dialogue at the border-state level on both sides of the frontier might
prove to be a better way to resolving the issue. Mexican and US
perspectives on the immigration issue differ radically at national
level: Mexico sees immigration to the US (regardless of whether it is
legal or illegal) as a necessary social and economic release; the US
sees illegal immigration as a threat to living standards and a violation of national sovereignty. Both US and Mexican nationalism
have repeatedly thrown obstacles in the way of any amicable resolution of the question. The widely differing living standards between
the two societies remain at the heart of the problem.
d ru g t ra f f i c kin g
A prevailing issue between Mexico (and other Latin American
countries) and the USA continues to be drug trafficking. The
penetration of several Latin American countries’ governmental, judicial and security systems by narcotraficantes has caused consternation among commentators. Even so, the prime explanation for
the problem lies not in Latin America but in the United States. In
early November 1997, a US Government Report stated that
Americans spent an estimated US$57,300 million on the purchase
of illegal drugs during 1995. Of this sum, US$38,000 million was
spent on cocaine alone and a further US$9,600 million on heroin.
The same report stated that three-quarters of world cocaine production was destined for the United States. These figures help to
put the Latin American situation into perspective. Early in 1998,
the Director of the FBI argued before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the activities of Mexican drug cartels presented the
Mexico in perspective
principal criminal threat to the United States. The Director of the
Central Intelligence Agency held a similar view, arguing that divisions within the Mafia had enabled Mexican cartels to gain control of the international drug trade. The FBI identified seven large
Mexican organisations which controlled distribution, and singled
out the Tijuana cartel as the most dangerous, its alleged leader on
its ‘most-wanted’ list. The controversial US Government policy of
publicly categorising drug-risk sources led to strong opposition by
its Mexican counterpart.
A joint US–Mexican anti-narcotics strategy has usually proved
difficult to implement. Nevertheless, the US Drug Enforcement
Agency (DEA) operates inside Mexico in cooperation with the security services but the problem of supply in response to demand continues unabated and affects relations between the two countries. A
newspaper report in December 1998 suggested at least 400 clandestine landing strips used in the drug trade in secluded parts of Baja
California alone. Remote locations in Mexico have become areas of
Marijuana cultivation, or provide air-strips for Colombian cartels to
land cocaine destined for the US market by way of Mexican channels.
In the Lacandonian Forest in Chiapas, such landing strips promote
this clandestine trade, which accounts for around 60 per cent of the
cocaine bound for the USA. US budget proposals for the fiscal year
1999 included the relatively small sum of US$13 million towards
anti-drug trafficking measures inside Mexico. The package put before the US Congress on 2 February 1998 earmarked a total of
US$17,000 million for anti-narcotics operations out of a total Federal budget of US$173,000 million.
Perhaps the most serious problem which surfaced in Mexico
during the 1980s and 1990s was the extent of the penetration of the
political processes, armed forces, and security services by the drug
cartels. The most notorious case involved a range of dubious activities by Raúl Salinas de Gortari, brother of ex-President Carlos
Salinas de Gortari (1988–94). Salinas was arrested on 28 February
1995 for alleged involvement in the assassination of the ex-President
of the governing Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), José
Francisco Ruiz Massieu, in late September 1994, and was confined
to the Federal maximum security prison at Almoloya. The Swiss
Government, late in 1997, revealed suspected ‘money laundering’
A concise history of Mexico
by Salinas of over US$100 million, embargoed since 1995, allegedly
acquired through drug trafficking. His wife, Paulina Castanón, was
arrested in November 1997, when she attempted to withdraw large
sums from Swiss accounts. From exile in Ireland, Carlos Salinas, in
November 1998 denied all knowledge of his elder brother’s dealings. General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, head of anti-drug-traffic operations, was arrested on 18 February 1997, for allegedly protecting
one of the principal cartels. Gutiérrez, who was convicted of hoarding heavy-calibre weapons, had apparently collaborated in eliminating rival barons. He was sentenced in March 1998 to thirteen years
in prison.
Newspapers regularly carry reports of suspected drug involvements by political figures such as state governors. On 23 January
1998, for instance, the Office of the Federal Prosecutor
(Procuraduría General de la República) ordered the arrest of Flavio
Romero de Velasco, Governor of Jalisco from 1977 to 1983 and
three times federal deputy for Chapala, on the grounds that he had
maintained contact, while in office and thereafter, with identified
narcotraficantes. Romero governed at a time when ‘Operación Condor’ pushed the narcos out of the state of Sinaloa, where they had
been entrenched, with the result that they became established in
Jalisco. Although considered by some a possible President of the PRI
in 1995, the party’s National Executive Committee expelled him
after his arrest and confinement in Almoloya, in order to ensure a
cleaner public image. Romero’s alleged contacts were Rigoberto
Gaxiola Medina and Jorge Alberto Abrego Reyna (alias Gabriel
Pineda Castro), wanted for fraud. The former was believed to have
transferred money from the Cayman Islands to Mexico and used
front accounts for money laundering. At the Mexican Government’s
request, the US DEA arrested Reyna in Phoenix, Arizona, late in
January 1998, while attempting to withdraw one million dollars
from a hotel bank. The PGR was also investigating the relationship
of the Governor of Quintana Roo, Mario Villanueva Madrid, to the
Ciudad Juárez cartel, allegedly operating in that state and receiving
cocaine from Colombia.
The presence in Mexico in early April 1998 of Barry McCaffrey,
the US ‘anti-drug tsar’, as the press called him, was expected to produce a further joint initiative in the campaign of both governments
Plate 2 Federal Maximum Security Prison at Almoloya de Juárez (State of Mexico), near Toluca.
Ex-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s brother, Raúl Salinas, has been confined in the Almoloya prison since 1995. Also
held there is Mario Aburto, apparently the assassin of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, in Tijuana in March
A concise history of Mexico
to clip the power of the narcotraficantes. This problem, which came
to the forefront after the 1970s, is one of the gravest faced by
present-day Mexico. The recrudescence of the ‘Indian question’,
linked to broader social and economic problems, presents a further,
seemingly insoluble issue.
in digen o us m exi co
The pre-Columbian world, which we shall shortly examine, presented the European invaders of the early sixteenth century with the
problem of understanding American societies of which they had no
previous conception. Although the ‘Indian’ world changed radically under the impact of conquest, colonisation, and legislation,
the Indian presence in contemporary Mexico remains real and pervading. No one reading newspapers or watching television news in
the 1990s could escape the conclusion that contemporary Mexico
faced an ‘indigenous problem’. Although it is difficult to calculate
with any accuracy the extent of the population component described as ‘Indian’, some estimates opt for a figure of around 10
million and argue that its annual rate of growth exceeds the national average of 2 per cent. Since the term ‘Indian’ in contemporary
Mexico (particularly in urban areas) refers more to social position
than to ethnic character, the basis of such calculations remains
uncertain. Primary use of an indigenous language – there are estimated to be fifty-six linguistic groups – is frequently a criterion of
inclusion. In Chiapas, for instance, the population described as
‘Indian’ represents about one million out of a total state population
of 3.5 million. Of this million, around one-third speak no Spanish.
The Chiapas issue, though not the first of its kind, has aroused
international interest, in part due to human rights concerns but also
to the fact that since January 1994, when the initial rebellion began, Mexican administrations have so far not discovered a solution
to it.
The Indian question in present-day Mexico does not simply involve several districts in the state of Chiapas. It is far broader than
that and has roots as least as old as those of Chiapas itself, and it is
also an urban as well as a rural phenomenon. Internal migration
during past decades has been motivated by adverse conditions on
Mexico in perspective
the land – soil erosion, inadequate water-supply, failed land-reform
policies, lack of credit, landlord abuses, domination by local bosses
or caciques and their armed men. This has compounded problems
of overpopulation in the metropolitan areas, most especially in
Mexico City, with their large areas of shanty towns and inadequate
The contemporary ferment in the state of Oaxaca, the complex
pre-colonial history of which we shall look at in the next chapter,
provides another major example of indigenous mobilisation. Although the state capital frequently presents a deceptive façade of
colonial-era tranquillity, both the city and the countryside have been
seedbeds of constant ferment over issues such as control of land and
water, domination of local communities by armed bosses sometimes
connected to the state and national political processes, labour conditions and unofficial unionisation, and the autonomy of municipal
institutions. Frequent large-scale mobilisation by rural schoolteachers and by local peasant groups has kept Oaxaca politics
simmering for the past decades. The struggle for political supremacy
within indigenous towns and villages has similarly provided a constant source of agitation. The violent conflicts in the southern Isthmus zone of Juchitán and Tehuantepec since the late 1960s clearly
demonstrate the intensity of these issues. Many parallel conflicts
have surfaced in other areas and at other times, lately in the states of
Guerrero, Puebla, Tlaxcala, and Veracruz. During the early 1970s
the Mexican army put down an insurrection in Guerrero, led by
Lucio Cabañas, which attempted to connect district-level issues to
wider political ideologies in an embracing military organisation.
That model has provided an example for the entry of the EZLN
(‘Zapatista Army of National Liberation’) into the Chiapas problem
after 1983. The guerrilla band originated from the ‘Fuerzas de
Liberación Nacional’ (FLN), founded in Monterrey in August 1969,
in the aftermath of government repression of the Mexico City student protests in the previous year.
The following chapters refer to a range of factors altering the
demographic and cultural balance within Mexico since the early
sixteenth century to the disadvantage of the indigenous population.
These factors raise the question: if the Indian population collapsed
so drastically in the aftermath of the Spanish Conquest, then why is
A concise history of Mexico
Plate 3 Local market in Tlacolula, Valley of Oaxaca.
‘Indian’ Mexico has always been characterised by networks of
markets, some specialising in local produce such as the
textiles of Teotitlan del Valle, the glazed green pottery of
Atzompa, or the black pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec, all
three villages in the Valley of Oaxaca. The market of
Tlacolula, one of the main valley towns, existed during the
colonial period and was probably of pre-Columbian origin. It
was an important market for the sierra villages as well.
Periodic markets are usually known by the Náhuatl term,
tianguis, while fixed markets take the Spanish term, mercado.
Urban markets, covered and uncovered, proliferate, not least
in Mexico City.
there an Indian problem in contemporary Mexico? A number of
answers rapidly spring to mind: Spanish colonial policy never intended to eliminate the indigenous population but to offer protection in the disastrous aftermath of conquest; colonial law reconstituted and safeguarded (where practicable) Indian community institutions, including landownership; weak nineteenth-century
governments largely failed to transform Indian peasants into individual smallholders; the neo-indigenist tradition in the Mexican
Revolution pressed for re-establishment of community landownership and the provision of credit for peasant farmers. Above all, there
is the factor of Indian population recovery from the late seventeenth
Mexico in perspective
century onwards. To that should be added another factor, only
recently explored in the historical literature: the reconstitution of
indigenous community identity under the impact of political
changes imposed at provincial and national levels from the late
eighteenth century. It has been argued that this became more pronounced in response to the mid-nineteenth-century Liberal Reform
One major issue has recently surfaced in discussion of the contemporary indigenous question: political autonomy for indigenous
areas. This position explicitly rejects the nineteenth-century Liberal
and early twentieth-century revolutionary constitutional tradition.
For that reason, it became a highly contentious issue in the 1990s.
The demand for the formation of autonomous territories within the
context of the nation-state radically contradicts that tradition. Liberal state-building sought to eliminate the corporative inheritance of
the Spanish colonial era and thereby construct a homogeneous
Mexican nation.
The Constitutions of 1824, 1857, and 1917 saw in the guarantee
of individual liberties and the establishment of a federal system the
best legal protection for the ‘citizens’ of a modern republic. In the
autumn of 1997, by contrast, a spokesman for the Otomí Indian
communities of the state of Querétaro complained that the 1917
Constitution, product of large-scale popular mobilisation during the
Revolution, made no provision for indigenous communities as such.
In its attempts to defuse the Chiapas question and thereby persuade
the national and international press to lose interest in it, the Mexican government signed the Agreements of San Andrés Larráinzar on
16 February 1996. This Chiapas town had been the focus of earlier
peasant mobilisation by the ecclesiastical authorities. The agreements appeared to sanction the formation of autonomous indigenous zones, though existing constitutional structures made them
unrealisable. Zapatista declarations since January 1994 repeatedly
called for the formulation of a new constitution.
The 1917 Constitution, in part heir to the nineteenth-century
Liberal tradition but in other respects a response to social pressures
on the land and from urban workers, assumed the existence of a
Mexican nation rather than a series of distinct ethno-linguistic
communities each striving to safeguard its identity. The controversy
A concise history of Mexico
in 1992 over the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the Americas involved the issue of European subordination of indigenous cultures. The continuation of this process led to
rejection by indigenous groups of what, in the negative terminology
of the late 1990s, is described as ‘occidentalisation’.
Contemporary indigenous groups repeatedly refer to mid-nineteenth-century legislation as a failure. Their critique of the Reform
movement rests on the argument that Liberal attempts to transform
Indian-community peasants into smallholders resulted in land loss
and deepening social deprivation. The focus of criticism has turned
towards ‘neo-Liberalism’, a political economy implemented at government level in Mexico since the mid-1980s, though particularly
during the Salinas presidency. Salinas’s revision in 1992 of article 27
of the 1917 Constitution sought to reduce on economic grounds the
communitarian element in the reconstituted agrarian units which
arose largely from revolutionary legislation during the 1930s. Indigenous mobilisation during the 1990s did not arise, however,
uniquely from hostility towards the consequences, real or imagined,
of ‘neo-liberalism’. Long-term and short-term trends within the
economy as a whole – at national and global levels – had farreaching social and political repercussions. The coffee recession in
the Chiapas production sector, for instance, blocked opportunities
for migrant labour from the predominantly indigenous areas of the
central sierra at a time of rising population and deepening social
The Indian question, which Mexico shares, though in very different ways, with Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, differentiates the country from societies such as Argentina, or Venezuela, in
which the indigenous presence has been either eradicated or marginalised. A recrudescence of Indian political demands can be seen
from Canada to Chile, not least in the United States and Mexico.
The indigenous presence distinguishes Mexico and the Indo-American cultures from Europe: they are not simply European societies
transported to another continent, but complex mixtures (and conflicts) of many cultures of remote historical origins.
In contrast to the United States and Argentina, Mexico was never
a country of large-scale immigration. That in itself helps to explain
the continuing impact of the pre-Columbian world and the strong
Mexico in perspective
Indian presence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Mexico, it
is correct to say, has received immigrants, but more as manual
workers like the Chinese of the late Díaz era, or as specific groups
such as the Spanish Republican exiles of the late 1930s. None of this,
however, altered either the structure of the population or the prevailing culture.
The pre-Columbian era
Controversy accompanies discussion of the earliest inhabitants of
the Americas. The peoples referred to by Europeans as ‘Indians’,
who appear to have crossed from Asia some 12,000 years ago, may
not have arrived first. With the extinction of the hunted mastodons
around 8000 BC, seed for food crops and the domestication of
animals began. The cultivation of maize developed in the Valleys of
Tehuacán and Oaxaca between 8000 and 5000 BC. In relative
terms, this would compare with the cultivation of wheat in Syria and
Mesopotamia around 9000 BC and 8000 BC, respectively, and the
development of barley in the Indus Valley around 7000 BC. In this
increasing reliance on plant food, women played the crucial role of
cultivators. During the Meso-American Archaic Period (7000–1500
BC), village farming and networks of exchange over distance
emerged. By 3000–2000 BC, settled villages, cultivating maize and
other cereals and making pottery, had appeared over large areas of
th e o lm ecs
There is an ongoing debate concerning whether Olmec culture,
which flourished between 1200 and 300 BC in the tropical lowlands
of the Gulf of Mexico, represented the base from which later cultures developed in different geographical directions, or whether it
was simply a culture parallel to others which flourished contemporaneously. Although the Olmecs never apparently formed a great
empire, their political organisation and religious system, long-
The pre-Columbian era
distance commerce, astronomy, and calendar reached sophisticated
levels. Their linguistic group was probably Mixe-Zoque, which was
related to the Maya languages. Although Olmec influences may be
found across central and southern Mesoamerica, no evidence exists
for any political control beyond the Gulf base area. Olmec culture
flourished from different sites for a period of some six hundred years
from c. 1200 BC, a chronology established by radiocarbon tests in
the mid-1950s. The Olmecs appear to have been the first to construct large-scale ceremonial sites. Their name is a misnomer, based
on the later Aztec name for the southern Gulf zone – Olman (the
land of rubber) – and first applied to them in 1927. Having vanished
for over two millennia, evidence of Olmec culture slowly began to
re-emerge from the swamps and forests into which it had sunk. In
1862, the first gigantic Olmec head was uncovered in the Veracruz
district of San Andrés Tuxtla. Axes and jade figures followed at later
dates. Then, in 1925, Frans Blom and Oliver La Fage made further
decisive discoveries in the Laguna de Catemaco, a crater lake near
the volcano of Pajapan. The heads were carved from basalt boulders
flung from erupting volcanoes: a fiery birth from the centre of the
earth. Transporting these immense boulders and then transforming
them into ritual shapes dignified the Olmecs and demonstrated the
power they derived from their relationship to supernatural sources.
It has become evident that the core of the Olmec culture lay in the
area of the Papaloapan, Coatzacoalcos, and Tonalá Rivers. In the
Early Formative Period (1500–900 BC), urban areas with many
specialised buildings and a social stratification emerged out of a
previously egalitarian farming society. The sculptures had a ritual
and symbolic significance, which arose immediately from local agricultural and artisan society. Although naturalistic rather than abstract, they frequently portrayed a spiritual state rather than a
specific physical condition, and were executed by skilled craftsmen,
evidently spiritually prepared for the task, in highly polished jade,
jadeite, or serpentine.
Shaman-kings, emerging from the elite, interpreted the cosmos,
creation, and the cycle of human life. Since the ceremonial sites
required the organisation of a large labour force, a state organisation became necessary, and took the form of chiefdoms exercising
control over limited territories. The focal points were the San
A concise history of Mexico
Plate 4 Olmec sculpture in the Jalapa Museum of
Anthropology, Veracruz (author’s photo).
Discovered in 1945 at the San Lorenzo site in the southern
Veracruz district of Texistepec, south-west of Minatitlán, this
and other basalt heads date from 1200–1000 BC. San
Lorenzo, an artificial mound with a gigantic platform, was
one of the oldest Olmec sites.
Lorenzo and La Venta sites, which flourished from 1200–900 BC
and 900–600 BC, respectively. Michael D. Coe worked on the
former site in 1964–67: San Lorenzo consisted of an artificial mound
about 1200 m long with many monuments on it raised above the
swamps. The site was the nexus of a series of small villages and
shrines beyond its circumference. Alfonso Caso and Ignacio Bernal
(Director of the National Institute of Anthropology and History
[INAH] from 1968 to 1971) worked on Olmec sites during much of
the 1960s; Bernal suggested linguistic links with the early Zapotec
culture of the Valley of Oaxaca. In chronological terms, Tres
Zapotes was the last significant Olmec site, though it was researched
in 1938–39, before San Lorenzo and La Venta.
The Olmec belief system pointed to a cosmos in which all elements and creatures were infused with a spiritual power. This
energy gave the universe its momentum. Olmec art formed an expression of this power. Humans sought the means of gaining access
The pre-Columbian era
to spiritual power through discipline, fasting, meditation, and mutilation in the form of blood-letting. They sought access, for instance,
to animal spirits, such as the power of the jaguar, in order to
transcend human consciousness, often by means of hallucinogenic
drugs, such as ritual snuff powders. Shamans were sometimes portrayed in the sculpture in the process of taking on the jaguar spirit.
This transformation process explains the widespread use of masks,
often carved from jade, which combined jaguar and human features,
and conveyed a state of spiritual ecstacy. Contorted facial expressions portrayed the strain of passing from one reality into another.
The jaguar held especial significance as the creature which lived in
the jungle, swam, and hunted both by day and by night, thereby
encompassing land, water, and air, and light and darkness at the
same time. The American eagle was the jaguar of the sky. The
pyramid of La Venta, a symbol of Pajapan, reached into the sky, and
thereby gained access to the heavens. The earth and sky were linked
by special deities, which combined aspects of both. Olmec sculpture
portrayed a flying jaguar, with a human passenger, or winged jaguars bearing the earth on their backs. In the jungle trees was the
poisonous snake, the fer-de-lance, which had a crested brow: since it
struck from above rather than from below, it combined the properties of the earth and the sky, and became symbolised as the serpent of
the skies, the forerunner of the Plumed Serpent of Teotihuacan, with
the attributes of rain and wind.
Virtually all Mesoamerican cultures attached great religious significance to a ritual ball-game with specially laid-out courts at the
monumental sites. From at least Olmec times, human sacrifice,
which accompanied the ball-game ritual, was possibly associated
with the rain god and a component of rain-making, whether in the
form of supernatural beings devouring humans or as shamans impersonating sacred beings through ritual trance. Rain-making was
also associated with the carrying of feather bundles or live vipers,
symbolising the serpent of the skies.
Since 1985 discoveries concerning the Olmecs have multiplied.
Even so, basic questions posed by anthropologists remain largely
unanswered: when did Gulf cultures adopt subsistence agriculture?
How did population growth influence social diversification? What
was the relation of smaller to larger centres? What influenced chro-
A concise history of Mexico
nology and location? How did control of resources affect status?
What was the nature of religion and how did style reflect this? What
relations did the Olmecs have with other Mesoamerican peoples?
Were they unique? Why did their civilisation collapse? The Olmecs
provided a significant legacy for subsequent Mesoamerican cultures:
the belief that meditation, austerities, and sacrifice could enable the
attainment of a superior spiritual state; that contact could be made
with the reality beyond the human and physical world; that ceremonial sites reflected supernatural sanction for earthly cultures; that
humanity not only existed in conjunction with cosmic powers and
deities, but also shared identities with them; and by their development of a religious complexity founded on rain and agricultural
fertility. The Maya Chac, Zapotec Cocijo, and Toltec Tlaloc seem
all to have been derived from an Olmec rain god.
The economic basis for Olmec civilisation lay in the extreme
fertility of the Gulf basin rivers zone, which yielded two annual
maize crops and provided not only animal life but fish as well.
Available food supply from this land base sustained a large population. Much of the subsequent reputation of the Olmecs among
Mesoamerican peoples may have derived from their agricultural
success. The broad influence of the Olmec culture suggests the
possibility of a shared cosmology, symbolism, artistic style, and
rituals across Meso-America, allowing for differences of region and
language, throughout the period 900–500 BC.
m o nte al bá n a nd th e z apo te c c ul tur es o f
oa xaca
The Monte Albán culture dominated Oaxaca for a thousand years
from its first phase (or Monte Albán Ia) in 500–400 BC. The antecedents were the seventeen permanent settlements of the Tierras
Largas complex of 1400–1150 BC, north-east of Monte Albán, and
the San José Mogote area (1150–850 BC) on the River Atoyac in the
north-eastern part of the valley in the Etla district, the demographic
centre. Both of these areas have yielded large ceramic finds. San José,
the focus of a network of eighteen to twenty villages, showed
evidence of a more stratified society and inter-regional commerce.
Olmec symbols appeared in the decorative use of the fire-serpent and
The pre-Columbian era
the were-jaguar. A more immediate antecedent was the Rosario
phase (700–500 BC) in the Huitzo district, since the origins of
Monte Albán I pottery, art, architecture, and masonry may be seen
in that period. Monte Albán emerged out of this local background.
Growth of population and the strain on resources may have
required a more concentrated labour force with greater social direction, in order to guarantee the food supply. In such a way, an
economic and political reordering beyond the level of the peasant
household addressed a basic need at a specific historical period. The
concentration of landownership in the valley would have explained
an increasing social differentiation and the emergence of a ruling
elite with an agrarian base. By 400–200 BC, Monte Albán had
passed through its key period in state development, and between
200 BC and AD 100 (Monte Albán II) clear evidence of statehood
had emerged. This, then, had proved to be a slow process, covering
some three hundred years, after which it reached its maximum
development between AD 100 and 600 . Already in Monte Albán II,
writing in double-columned hieroglyphics testified to the existence
of a Zapotec state before the foundation of Teotihuacán in central
Mexico or the Classic Maya city of Tikal. An urban centre for
several hundred years before its ‘Classic’ Period (Monte Albán IIIa
and IIIb), in those centuries the Zapotec state reached the height of
its power in terms of construction, religious expression, social stratification, and rulership. The total population possibly reached between 15,000 and 30,000 inhabitants, supported by the valley agricultural system and receipt of tribute.
The site of Monte Albán, a fortified position at the top of a 400-m
mountain overlooking the three sectors of the Valley of Oaxaca,
consisted of a concentration of temples with stairways situated
around a rectangular square, where public ritual took place. The
Zapotec rulers usually passed through a year of religious instruction
before taking office. Dead rulers became intermediaries between the
living and supernatural forces at work in the universe. At Monte
Albán, a graded hierarchy of residences corresponded to their occupants’ status. The professional ruling caste and upper tier of the city,
some 2–4 per cent of its inhabitants, lived in stone or adobe palaces.
They married within their caste or with nobilities from other regions. The Monte Albán tombs were for rulers and members of the
A concise history of Mexico
Plate 5 Zapotec pyramid (labelled L Alfonso Caso) at
Monte Albán, Valley of Oaxaca (author’s photo).
The site contains several pyramids constructed around the
central plaza under the auspices of local rulers, and a northern
platform ‘acropolis’. Their characteristic form probably dates
from the prime period, Monte Albán IIIa and IIIb (350–700
AD). Population at the site itself possibly reached a peak of
24,000 in Period IIIb; the Valley of Oaxaca population
exceeded 100,000 distributed through 1,075 known
communities, of which the largest number were in the
Tlacolula subvalley. Tombs at the Monte Albán site, of which
the most remarkable is tomb 104, contain wall-paintings, and
funeral urns, shaped with distinctive human characteristics,
placed in niches.
nobility, and contained extraordinary funeral urns crafted in the
form of living human faces, though sometimes wearing ritual masks.
Ancestor worship, it appears, formed a major part of Zapotec
religious expression.
The ball-game also assumed great significance in Zapotec culture.
Some forty ball-courts have been located in the Valley of Oaxaca,
though most are unexcavated and undated. Those that have been
excavated appear to have been constructed in Monte Albán II. They
continued to be built thereafter, as the Monte Albán IV ball-court at
Dainzú in the Tlacolula Valley, dating from 900–1000, shows.
The pre-Columbian era
Players wore protective masks, knee-guards, and gloves, and the
balls were made of latex. The significance of the game still remains
unclear. It seems to have been officially sanctioned, perhaps as a type
of political ritual designed to determine implicitly with divine sanction the outcome of disputes between communities. Such disputes
may well have been over land or water usage.
The traditional view used to be that the Olmecs stimulated Monte
Albán I and that Teotihuacan influenced Monte Albán III. Since the
time of Bernal’s first workings at Monte Albán during the early
1940s, the view has changed to one which from the 1970s and 1980s
has emphasised the autochthonous nature of the development of
Zapotec civilisation. Monte Albán differed from Teotihuacan in
that it was not a commercial centre, since in Oaxaca the craftsmen
who sustained the urban complex and inter-market trades lived in
the villages of the valley floor. The city itself expanded well beyond
its earlier walls during the Classic period. The maximum territorial
extent of Monte Albań’s power was in Period II between 100 BC and
AD 100. At this time there were four outlying zones, which acted as
nuclei for defence and expansion, as well as cultural influence: on
the Ejutla River and in the Valley of Miahuatlán, both directly on
the route southwards to the Pacific Ocean, in Nejapa on the way to
the lagoons of Tehuantepec, and in the Cañada of Cuicatlán, a
tropical valley at 500–700 m above sea level, which produced cotton
and fruits usually by means of irrigation. This latter zone had a vital
strategic significance for Monte Albán, since it controlled access
from the Valley of Tehuacán into Oaxaca, that is from the routes
leading directly from the Valley of Mexico. For that reason, the
Zapotecs constructed a powerful fortress at Quiotepec overlooking
the edge of the Cañada and the Tehuacán Valley. In effect,
Quiotepec marked the northernmost expansion of the Monte Albán
state. It appears that the rulers of the Zapotec state were attempting
to control the passage across Oaxaca from the principal access
routes from the Valley of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean and the
Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
After 500, however, the growth of provincial centres which
were founded led to the slackening of Monte Albán’s authority
and increasing autonomy. Nevertheless, Joyce Marcus and Kent
Flannery describe the period 350–700, which corresponds to
A concise history of Mexico
Monte Albán iiia (to 550) and iiib as ‘the Golden Age of Zapotec
t he m aya s
Apart from a few works by Franciscan friars, knowledge of Maya
civilisation largely disappeared after the Spanish Conquest. However, the publication of descriptions of the ruined cities by John
Lloyd Stephens in 1839–42, which were illustrated by the engravings of Frederick Catherwood, awakened a new interest. Together
they travelled through the rainforests of Chiapas and the
Guatemalan Petén and across the Yucatán savannah. Their findings
stimulated awareness of Maya culture in a period already fascinated
by the rediscovery of Ancient Egypt, where written records dated
back to 3000 BC. Jean-François Champollion’s decipherment of the
Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1822 by means of the parallel scripts on the
Rosetta Stone, pointed to the importance of a similar interpretation
of the Maya writing. Stephens and Catherwood had drawn attention to the upright stone slabs or stelae, found at the centre of the
sites or at the stairways, on which were carved glyphs. However, at
the time no one knew whether the sites were ceremonial centres or
urban conglomerations, or whether the glyphs represented religious
ideas. The first attempt at glyph transcription began during the years
1864 to 1882, though evidently the key to understanding Mayan
writing had been lost.
Although the Minoan script known as Linear B was deciphered
during the 1950s, Maya glyphs remained the subject of considerable
dispute in the following decade, when it was argued that they
recorded the history of Mayan cities. This realisation made it possible to reconstruct the dynastic history of the rulers of Tikal from
292 until 869. The breakthrough in the decipherment of written
language came after 1973, when it was realised that the glyphs
represented a spoken language with a fixed word order, which made
possible the identification of verbs and nouns, syntax and sound. In
this way, Maya inscriptions, which had mystified scholars for so
long, became texts revealing the history of the ruling groups in
particular states. A lost history was recovered from the stone, clay,
jade, bone, or shell on which it had been recorded. The rediscovery
The pre-Columbian era
Map 2 Location of Maya Sites and Trade Routes.
A concise history of Mexico
of the language further emphasised the cultural coherence of the
Maya world over a period of a thousand years.
During the Pre-Classic period (1500 BC to AD 200), the Maya
peoples developed agriculture and built villages. The swamp beds
and river banks of the lowland forests provided fertile material for
high-yield products, such as maize, cacao, and cotton. The Hondo,
Usumacinta, and Grijalva Rivers provided access to the sea by
canoe. Farming settlements existed at Tikal, which would become
the great Classical-era site in the Petén, by AD 600, its principal
temples constructed between AD 300 and 800. A greater social
stratification took place during the Middle Pre-Classic period of
900–300 BC, when Olmec influences were at their height. In due
course, the traditional extended family, village, shaman, and patriarch supported the emergence of kingship, an institution which had
earlier cultural precedents in Mesoamerica. The sharper division of
wealth sustained a kingly office and a nobiliar caste, related to the
king in varying degrees of intimacy. The king, who in religious terms
symbolised the Tree of Life, contained the power required for communion with the other reality of the gods and supra-human entities.
The Classic Maya period covered the years 250 to 900, subdivided into three categories: Early, 250–600; Late, 600–800; Terminal, 800–900. Since no manuscripts survived from that era, the
stelae became the principal historical sources. The deciphered date
of the earliest stelae was AD 199. From at least early Classical times,
a thriving network of long-distance trade connected the Maya lowlands with the Guatemalan highlands and south-eastern Mexico.
Central Mexican cults and architectural styles appeared in Maya
cities, such as the cult of Tlaloc, for instance, in Tikal. The Maya and
central Mexican calendars had remarkable similarities.
Yaxchilán (on the Chiapas bank of the Usumacinta River) and
Uxmal (below Yucatán’s Puuc hills) both flourished in the eighth
and ninth centuries. Yaxchilán flourished through the period 320 to
790, according to the stone-carved hieroglyphic texts recording the
history of its lords, but declined over the years 790–810. Uxmal
reached its peak period between 850 and 925, only to be abandoned
shortly thereafter. This centre contained large buildings with expertly crafted decorations. The Puuc sites represented an extension of
Late Classic styles of the period 700–900. The recorded dynastic
The pre-Columbian era
Plate 6 Maya pyramid at Uxmal (author’s photo).
Uxmal, founded at the end of the tenth century in the Puuc
hills of Yucatán, south of Mérida, consists of six principal
groups of buildings, of which the great pyramid is the highest
construction. Names have been given to several buildings –
the Governor’s Palace, the House of Turtles, and so on. The
Uxmal style is distinct from that of Chichén Itzá and lacks its
central Mexican features. The site reached its peak period
between 850 and 925 AD.
A concise history of Mexico
history of Palenque, located in the Chiapas rainforest, began in 431.
The city reached its maximum influence under Pacal the Great
(615–683), Chan-Bahlum II (684–702), and Kan-Xul who reigned
sometime between 702 and 721, but the power of the Palenque
kings finally petered out by the end of the eighth century. Written
history and pyramid and temple construction, asserted dynastic
legitimacy in the deep reaches of Maya history and cosmology. The
tablets on which Chan-Bahlum wrote his detailed discussion of
kingship came to light again in 1841, when Stephens and Catherwood published their Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán, though they were unable to decipher the glyphs
they encountered. Pacal’s tomb was not discovered inside the Temple of Inscriptions until 1949.
As in the case of the Olmecs, the rituals of the Maya were designed
to harness the sacred energies. Blood-letting stood at the centre of
these religious rites. Along with limited human sacrifice, it accompanied the dying and burial of kings. In this way, the shaman-king,
whether by small drops of blood or by greater flows from the tongue
or penis, gained a vision into the other reality of the sacred energies
beyond the material and human universe, and sought communion
with the divinities and ancestors. Razor-sharp blades of obsidian – a
black, volcanic glass – cut clean wounds for these ritual purposes.
Exaltation of dynastic kingship, combined with ritual propitiation of the gods, did not save the Maya from the collapse of urban
life and high civilisation after the eighth century. From Palenque to
Copán, as kingship collapsed, the great monuments were abandoned in favour of a reversion to peasant life on forest strips. By 910,
no more temple-pyramids appear to have been constructed in the
southern lowlands. The failure of the city-states ruled by dynasties
of kings led to the general abandonment of literacy by the political
elite as the principal means of understanding the cosmos. Maya
civilisation, however, did not come to an end, but rekindled in the
north on the plains of Yucatán from the ninth century onwards.
teo tih u ac an
The predominant historical influence in central Mexico was
Teotihuacan, an urban and religious centre which at its height
The pre-Columbian era
contained a population of some 200,000 inhabitants, sustained by
the Valley of Mexico’s agricultural system. Teotihuacan, which
flourished for eight centuries from c. 50 BC to 750 AD, influenced
the subsequent Nahua civilisations of the Toltecs and Aztecs. The
site, about 50 km to the east of Mexico City, spread over a vast
expanse. It was a functioning city and not, as previously supposed,
simply a ceremonial site. The so-called Pyramids of the Sun and
Moon and the Temple of Quetzalcóatl were linked by a long causeway running north to south. By c. 500, Teotihuacan had become the
metropolitan and religious centre of Mesoamerica. For some six
hundred years, a great urban centre flourished, which would become
the model for the Toltec capital, Tollán (Tula, 65 km north of
Mexico City), and subsequently the Aztec Tenochtitlán. Unlike
Monte Albán, Teotihuacan was constructed on a grid plan. Most of
the city’s inhabitants lived in some 2,000 compounds divided into a
multiplicity of apartments. Workshops demonstrate the commercial
nature of the settlement, alongside the religious.
The name, Teotihuacan, was an Aztec attribution meaning Place
of the Gods. We do not, in fact, know the original name of the city,
its chronological history or the names of its rulers, or even the
language spoken there. No written texts or glyphs associated with
them, as there were in the case of the Mayas or Zapotecs, have so
far appeared. In fact, the only writing encountered to date has been
in the so-called Oaxaca barrio for resident Zapotec diplomats or
merchants. As a result, we have little knowledge of the type of
government that functioned in Teotihuacán. There does not seem to
have been an official dynastic cult there, which has suggested to
some archaeologists that the city might have been ruled by an
Teotihuacan was the first urban state in central Mexico. From the
first century AD, population (up to 90,000) concentrated in the city
rather than the surrounding countryside. For most of the
Teotihuacán era, no other great population concentration existed in
the Valley of Mexico. So far we lack sufficient evidence to explain
this population concentration, though the reason may be the impetus of a great religious myth. At Teotihuacan, a major religious
theme was water and the life associated with it. When excavated in
1917–20, the Citadel revealed a pyramid of the feathered serpent,
Map 3 Plan of the city of Teotihuacán.
The sixth largest city in the world in 500 AD, Teotihuacán covered a considerably larger area than Monte Albán
and dominated Mesoamerica. Built on a grid-iron pattern, the city covered 20 km2.
The pre-Columbian era
which Manuel Gamio, then Director of Anthropology, identified as
Quetzalcóatl, and the Rain God, Tlaloc, alternating in six tiers at
either side of the pyramid steps. The cult of the feathered serpent
effectively originated in Teotihuacán, where the symbols of the god
proliferated in stone and in murals.
The cult of Quetzalcóatl (Plumed Serpent), the most pervading
cult in Mesoamerica, may have arisen from the notion of a deity
associated with the cultivation of maize, the staple crop. When the
seed was planted in the darkness of earth, the struggle between the
lords of darkness and the celestial twins began. The growth of the
plant forced the lords of darkness to recognise the annual cycle and
return it to the light of day. In this sense, earth became a fertile
womb, and creation triumphed over death. The maize god, portrayed in the Maya city of Copán as a beautiful youth, provided food
for the human race. A clear interrelationship existed between cosmology and the mythical world, on the one hand, and the natural
world and human experience in society, on the other hand. Out of
this confluence Quetzalcóatl emerged.
The Plumed Serpent represented the union of heavenly and
earthly powers, the symbol of fertility and regeneration, the duality
of spirit and matter. In mythological terms, Quetzalcóatl had been
miraculously conceived during the Age of the Fourth Sun (the fourth
cosmic age) by Chimalman without sexual contact with any male.
According to one version, she had swallowed a precious stone and
thereby conceived a son.
In the early eighth century, Teotihuacan ceased to be a major
urban unit. The abandonment of Teotihuacan around 750 left
decaying, wind-swept ruins for the following twelve hundred years.
One early visitor to the site, in full process of reclamation, was D.H.
Lawrence, who had arrived in Mexico for the first time in March
1923. Lawrence considered Teotihuacan a more impressive site than
the ruins of Ancient Rome or Pompeii, and wrote in his own novel,
The Plumed Serpent (1926), that Quetzalcóatl was more alive than
the Hispanic churches in Mexico. Gamio, who had brought to life
this vanished universe, became the model for Don Ramón in the
novel, the revolutionary leader who wants to replace Christianity
with a rebirth of the ancient religion and thereby bring Quetzalcóatl
back into ordinary people’s lives.
A concise history of Mexico
th e n orth
By AD 200–300, the north-central zone of the present-day Republic,
from the Bajı́o as far as Durango, Zacatecas, and San Luis Potosí,
was already inhabited by sedentary groups linked to the cultures
further south. There were considerable cultural advances in this
zone between the fourth and tenth centuries, as the Chalchihuite
culture in Durango and Zacatecas demonstrated, reaching their
climax at La Quemada. Irrigation and an extended commerce characterised these cultures. However, the collapse of Teotihuacan in the
mid-eighth century cut this zone off from the centre and left it
exposed to the nomadic tribes generically known as the Chichimecas. The rise of the Toltec culture during the tenth century,
however, pointed to a partial reoccupation of these marginal areas,
until the collapse of Tollán in the twelfth century. Even so, the
farther north-western zone of Zacatecas and Durango does not seem
to have been resettled. After the twelfth century, Chichimecas of
different sorts dominated the territory north of the Río Lerma,
which not even the Aztecs managed to penetrate.
th e ti m e o f t ro u ble s , 75 0–950
During the eighth century, the main political units which had taken
centuries to construct declined, collapsed or were overthrown.
Monte Albán declined during the period of instability from 600–900
AD throughout Mesoamerica. Although its public buildings fell into
ruin, the city itself was never abandoned. The explanation for this
decline may lie in the competition for resources between the city and
the villages of the valley floor. Rapid population growth in the valley
would have led to land disputes and possibly to conflict with the
city’s requirements. Food shortages in the frequent dry years, when
the expected rainfall failed, would have pressed heavily on the
administrative institutions of the city. Furthermore, the decline of
Teotihuacan around 700–750 AD removed a rival centre of power,
against which the Zapotecs had sought to preserve their independence and identity. Population no longer required such concentration in the Valley of Oaxaca. Authority became dispersed through a
number of smaller centres in the subsequent period.
The pre-Columbian era
In central Mexico, itinerant armed bands roved the countryside. A
number of lesser, more peripheral states rose in significance, such as
El Tajín (Veracruz), Cacaxtla (Tlaxcala), and Xochicalco in the
present-day state of Morelos. Xochicalco flourished between 600
and 900 as a wartime state situated in a strong, defensible position,
although it would ultimately be brought down by violence. The
prominence of the cult of the Plumed Serpent was evident there at its
principal pyramid, and there was also a ball-court.
The explanations for the collapse of the great Classic Maya
centres of the southern lowlands during the ninth century continue
to be disputed. A combination of factors probably accounted for the
abandonment of the urban centres. Military rivalries and internal
conflicts between kings and nobles may provide the main cause.
During the same period, repeated fighting between rival city-states
worsened the impact of population growth on delicate and complex
agricultural systems. Outside pressures and internal conflict would
have undermined the effectiveness of central government, necessary
for the coordination of effort in the struggle with the forest environment. The collapse of Teotihuacan may also have affected conditions in the Maya lands by loosening control over border territories
between the principal cultural zones. Semi-civilised groups such as
the Maya-speaking Chontal in the southern Gulf zone of presentday Tabasco established control of the trade routes in this period.
th e to lt ec s
During the Toltec period (950–1170), the Quetzalcóatl myth became elaborated in political terms and formed part of the power
struggle within the city of Tollán. In the history of Tollán, Quetzalcóatl became confused with the human figure, Ce Acatl Topiltzin,
either the founder of the city or its last ruler (or both), to whom the
name Quetzalcóatl was given. In the former version, Ce Acatl, said
to have been born in Tepoztlán (Morelos) around 940, arrived in
Tollán in 968, but was expelled in 987. The father of the human
Quetzalcóatl was a semi-god, the Cloud-Serpent, Mixcóatl, who
had first established Toltec power. The twinning of man and god
became a characteristic feature of Toltec and Aztec religion and
politics. Tollán adopted the myths of Teotihuacan as part of its own
A concise history of Mexico
legitimisation, and the Quetzalc…
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