Nestled between the United States and Central America is the geographically diverse and large country of Mexico. Reaching both the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico is both wide and long, making it the third-largest country of all the Latin American countries, with nine total regions of Mexico that complete it.
But Mexico has much more to offer than just geographical size and features. There is a deep, rich history that has transformed Mexico into the country we know today, and to appreciate this present-day Mexico, we need to go back in time.
- Population: ~ 128 million
- Languages: Spanish, Nahuatl, Mixtec, Zapotec, Mayan
- Ethnicities: Mexican, Mestizo, European, Hispanic, Latino, Mayan, Aztec, Spaniard
- Capital: Mexico City
Ancient Mesoamerica to the Toltecs (8000 B.C. to 1300 A.D.)
The history of Mexico notably begins during the Ancient Mesoamerican Era. Mesoamerica primarily encompasses the central and southern regions of Mexico, and those who live in the region are described as Mesoamericans.
Beginning around 8000 B.C., it is believed that the Mesoamericans in the region developed the many developmental skills that are still seen today. Farming, education, and recreation were all formed during this time.
The Mesoamericans of what is now modern-day Mexico developed methods for harvesting maize (corn), cacao (chocolate), and a large variety of various fruits, vegetables, and meat. The formation of successful harvesting methods combined with the invention of education and sports catapulted the Ancient Mesoamerican Olmec civilization into a desirable revolutionary culture that flourished for centuries.
By the Formative Period, around 1000 B.C., cultural, social, and educational establishment has exploded. This time period included the development of a calendar system, religion, numbers, letters, architecture, sports (ulama), trade routes, and luxury goods and lasted for centuries.
While educational, cultural, and societal innovations are beginning, so are various native tribes, like the Aztecs. The Aztecs were predominantly located in northern Mexico before expanding to the Mesoamerican region in central and southern Mexico.
Their expansion to central and southern Mexico inevitably led to the downfall and collapse of the Toltecs, who had helped established Mexico thus far. Because of the Toltecs, the Aztecs were able to take the civic advancements and developments that the Toltecs created and use it to their advantage for continued growth.
At the same time, just prior to 1000 B.C., additional civilizations had formed, including the Mayans, Zapotecs, and Totonacs, and these civilizations thrived for centuries. By 900 A.D., these different civilizations of Olmecs developed cultural specialties, including a calendar system, astronomy, mathematics, and architecture. The area was undeniably thriving during this time, having Teotihuacán as the capital of Mesoamerica.
The Toltecs’ success in Teotihuacán lasted until around 1200 A.D. when the civilization began to crumble. A combination of weather and internal conflict ultimately led to the downfall of the Toltecs. By the mid-13th Century, many buildings, statues, and columns had been destroyed and pilfered by the Aztecs. This was the end of the Toltecs and the beginning of the Aztecs in present-day Mexico.
The Rise and Fall of the Aztecs (1325 A.D. to 1521 A.D.)
The Aztecs originated in northern Mexico as hunters and gatherers until migrating south into central and southern Mexico. Once arriving, they settled Teotihuacán as their own before officially colonizing the capital of Tenochtitlán in 1325 A.D.
The Aztecs used their ability to hunt and gather to create a full-blown agricultural system for themselves. They used the geography of central and southern Mexico to create an irrigation system and flourishing farmland. By now, the Aztecs were thriving in their new location.
Because of their success, the Aztecs began to form partnerships with nearby territories and civilizations, including Texcoco and Tlacopan. This became known as the Aztec Triple Alliance.
Through these alliances, Tenochtitlán grew in size and per capita. By 1519 A.D., Tenochtitlán had control over hundreds of states that covered a total area of approximately 80,000 square miles. This is how the Aztecs became a prominent civilization in Mexico, with evidence that can still be seen today.
Also, in 1519 A.D., the Aztecs were met with their first real challenge: the Spanish explorers. The emperor of the Aztecs in 1519 A.D. was Montezuma II, and he was taken as a prisoner by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes. Once Montezuma II had been taken as a prisoner, the Aztec empire fell.
Montezuma II died while he was a prisoner, and subsequently, the Aztec empire fell. Montezuma II’s successors were unable to resist the Spaniards’ strength, which caused the Aztec empire to officially come to an end in 1521 A.D.
Spanish Conquest and the Colonial Period (the 1500s to 1800)
Once the Aztec empire fell in 1521 A.D., the Spanish Conquest began what came to be known as the Spanish colonization of Mexico. This is the time period in which Spanish influence (culture, religion, and language) played its major role in Mexico that we know today.
Between 1521 A.D. and 1821 A.D. is when Spanish immigrants fled Spain to escape war, poverty, and invasion. Because of Hernan Cortes, many Spanish immigrants relocated to Mexico. Mexico presented immigrants with the opportunity for a better life by way of a stable government, wealth, and job opportunities.
One of the biggest cultural and ethnic changes that happened during this time occurred when hundreds of thousands of Spanish men relocated to Mexico. The Spanish men and indigenous women mixed to create a new race called Mestizo. Over time, Mestizos began to make up the majority of the people throughout the regions of Mexico.
The mixture of indigenous people and Spanish immigrants was not limited to just creating a new race. In fact, during this time is when many present-day Mexican goods, ideals, and trademarks. Mariachi music was born during this time, combining the music styles of the indigenous people with the styles of the Spaniards. Tequila, food, and art were all founded during this time period because the indigenous people and the Spanish immigrants intertwined.
Hidalgo, Santa Anna, and War (1800 to 1860)
After 300 years of Spanish rule in Mexico, the area was now dealing with unrest and war because of the turmoil that was occurring in both Spain and the United States to the north. This unrest overflowed into the New Spain territories, including Mexico.
Mexico wanted independence from Spain. The tension that was occurring in Spain was negatively affecting Mexico. Wanting to be separated from the Spanish rule and taking notes from the United States during its quest for independence, Mexico revolted. This revolt was led by Catholic priest Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla.
Hidalgo met with revolutionists Ignacio Allende and Juan Aldama to plan a rebellion. The rebellion was discovered in 1810 by the Spanish monarchy, so Hidalgo had to act quickly. He summoned his religious followers in Dolores to bear arms and rebel against the royal government.
On September 16, the approximately 80,000 Dolores revolutionists who were against the Spanish government shouted, “Independence and death to the Spaniards!” This became known as the Cry of Dolores and would eventually commemorate September 16 as Mexico’s Independence Day.
Unfortunately, the 80,000 armed parishioners were no match for the royal army. They were quickly defeated, and Hidalgo was taken into custody, where he was executed and beheaded. As a warning to future revolutionists, the Spanish army placed Hidalgo’s head on a stake in Guanajuato, a city located in central Mexico.
In 1814, another Catholic priest succeeded Hidalgo and attempted to rebel against the Spanish government. His name was Jose Maria Morelos, but he was also unsuccessful in overturning the royal army. The royal army captured and executed him the following year.
Five years later, in 1820, Mexico gained the momentum it needed to gain independence from Spain. Spanish army officer Agustin de Iturbide renounced the Spanish army and switched sides to join the rebellion that had begun under Father Hidalgo.
Agustin de Iturbide was able to gain an immeasurable amount of support for Mexico’s independence from Spain. With the help of allies, especially General Vicente Guerrero, the rebellion against the royal Spanish army was successful. Mexico was officially independent on September 27, 1821.
Agustin de Iturbide inevitably became the emperor of Mexico, but it was shortlived. The Mexican revolution for independence was based solely on escaping the totalitarian rule of the Spanish monarchy. Because Iturbide was a Spanish army general, he was influenced by the Spanish to become Mexico’s emperor. By establishing Iturbine as the emperor, he had strong Spanish ties and influences, which did not sit well with the rebels whose goal was to escape the Spanish control.
Iturbide could feel the tension brewing and began fearing that he would be thrown out. His biggest fear and adversary was Mexican politician and general Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. To distance himself from Santa Anna, Iturbide discharged Santa Anna of his military duties, hoping that he would lose power and nobility.
Instead, the opposite happened. Santa Anna assembled a large number of supporters who wanted to see Mexico as a republic rather than a Spanish monarch. In just four days, Santa Anna and his supporters proposed to have Iturbide removed from his seat to establish a Mexican government instead of a Spanish monarch. With Mexican general Guadalupe Victoria’s help, Santa Anna presented the Plan of Casa Mata, which was created to establish a new process of electing a congress.
On March 19, 1823, the Mexican army authorized the Plan of Casa Mata. Iturbide was officially ruled out as the emperor of Mexico.
Santa Anna controlled Mexico from 1823 to the mid-1850s during what was known as the Age of Santa Anna. Santa Anna was elected president in 1832 and was reelected 11 total times.
In the beginning, the Age of Santa Anna was successful, but it began to decline in 1834 when Santa Anna repealed the Mexican constitution. This caused a rebellion in two specific areas: the Yucatan Peninsula and the northern region of Mexico, Coahuila y Tejas. During this time, the Yucatan Peninsula region negotiated with Santa Anna and essentially became part of the Mexican sovereignty.
Tejas, however, did not. They established the Republic of Texas on March 2, 1836, making them an independent republic, not part of Mexico. Because of the location, there were many English-speaking natives in this region. Barely a month later, on April 21, 1836, the Battle of San Jacinto began.
The Battle of San Jacinto was fought in present-day Houston, Texas, between General Samual Houston of the Texan army and General Santa Anna of the Mexican army. During this epic battle, Santa Anna was captured. The Texas Revolution lasted from this time until 1845, when the United States Congress officially established Texas as a state in the United States.
In 1846, the Mexican-American war began and lasted until 1848. During this time, the Americans attacked the port of Veracruz with 70 ships. This was known as the Seige of Veracruz, and after 20 days of assault, Veracruz was finally overtaken by the Americans. The Mexicans finally surrendered, and Santa Anna was defeated.
The war finally ended in 1848 when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. This treaty stated that Mexico had to sell the northern regions to the United States. It also stated that the citizens living in those regions must be given voting and citizenship rights. Finally, the United States would absorb the $3 million in debt that Mexico owed to the Americans during the war.
Once peace was established between the United States and America, Santa Anna remained in control, but not before making one last detrimental mistake. The United States discovered that the Gila River in Mexico had an area to the south that made it extremely easy to access California through the railroad.
Therefore, the United States offered to buy this stretch of land to which Santa Anna agreed. He sold the northern region of Mexico for $10 million, something that the Mexicans completely disapproved of. Thus, the Mexicans banded together in 1854 to overthrow Santa Anna and force him into exile.
Road to Revolution (1860 to 1933)
The struggle between France and Spain traveled abroad and found itself in Mexico. France invaded Mexico to collect debts that they felt were owed to them while also establishing a strong French presence in the region to gain control of Mexico. During this invasion, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria was named the Second Mexican Empire emperor.
Maximilian stayed in power from 1862 until 1865, when the United States ordered France to withdraw from Mexico. Napoleon III agreed, but Maximilian stayed in Mexico, where he was eventually captured and executed in 1867.
In 1877, Mexican general Porfirio Diaz became the new ruler of Mexico and thus began Mexico onto the road to revolution.
During Diaz’s rule in Mexico, the region improved dramatically. There were advanced civil engineering systems, including railways, trade, and mining. The public sector also improved through advanced health systems, taxation methods, and public safety. Through all of these advancements and establishments, the economy began booming for the first time in decades.
Another aspect of the region also increased: population. In 1877, the population in Mexico was 11 million, but by 1910, it had grown to 15 million. With the population growth, Diaz understood the importance of expanding the average life expectancy past the abysmal 25 years that were predicted at birth. Therefore, he created and influenced the Superior Health Council to control disease and combat diseases so that his people could live longer than just 25 years.
At the same time, in 1894, the economy had a surplus for the first time. Essentially all areas of Mexico were thriving during this revolutionary time.
Success lasted for several decades until the Cristero War began in 1926. The Cristero War was a battle between the Mexican government led by President Calles and the Catholic church. The Cristero rebellion officially began in 1927 when rebels, who called themselves Cristeros, fought back against the Calles regime. The Callas regime had begun an anti-Catholic movement that the Cristeros formally began to fight back in 1927.
By 1929, the Cristero War ended, but not before claiming the lives of 90,000 total Mexicans; approximately 57,000 who supported the Calles regime and 30,000 who supported the Cristeros, with the remainder of the 90,000 being made up of civilians as casualties of war.
When the Cristero War ended in 1929, Calles created the National Revolutionary Party (NPR). The NPR gave Calles the power of the party and the presidency while there were presidents to hold the office. This lasted until Lazarus Cardenas del Rio was able to take control of the NPR from Calles in 1924. By 1946, the NPR had been reconfigured into a new political party called the Institutional Revolution Pary (PRI).
Rebuilding the Nation (1943 – 1967)
Under the Cardenas rule, the nation was rebuilt. Agriculture, education, and the economy all began to flourish. Unfortunately, by 1938, Mexican oil was boycotted by the Allied powers, leaving Mexico to tell its oil production to Germany and Italy.
In 1940, Manuel Avila Camacho succeeded Cardenas as the president of Mexico and ultimately deteriorated the region from what it had once become. Under his presidency, there was an extreme decline in the economy and a rise in crime. This would be the beginning of what was known as the Mexican Miracle.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States created the Good Neighbor Policy. This policy strengthened the relationship between Mexico and the United States. During such a time of uncertainty, the United States needed as many allies as possible, and they took advantage of the opportunity to the south. Because of this rapport, Mexico made one of the greatest economic comebacks of all time.
PRI in Power (1968 – 1996)
This economic growth through the PRI lasted for decades after World War II until the National Action Party (PAN) came on the scene to threaten the PRI.
The PAN was grossly popular in northern Mexico, while the PRI still influenced the remainder of the region. The PAN had a legitimate contender to run for governor of Chihuahua. This threatened the PRI, to which they responded by urging voters in the Catholic church to vote in the election. The PRI candidate won, but it came at a price. The PRI was tainted with the reputation of committing voter fraud to win the election.
The PRI stayed in power and remained the dominant party in Mexico. This lasted until the 1988 presidential election when the son of Lazaro Cardenas left the PRI and created his own political party known as the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) to run against the PRI candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, for president. Cardenas’s bid for presidency came up short when he lost to Salinas. The PRI maintained its power throughout Mexico until 2000.
Present Day Mexico (1997 – present)
With so many discrepancies surrounding the PRI, a committee was formed by civilians to supervise the election process. This committee was called the Federal Electoral Institute (FEI), and it was established in the 1990s. The FEI was solely created to ensure that the PRI could not commit voter fraud or illegally influence the election.
In 2000, a PAN candidate was elected as president of Mexico. This solidified the official decline of the PRI party in present-day Mexico.
The languages spoken in Mexico began as native tongues spoken by the indigenous people before the Spanish conquest began in the 1500s. Once the Spanish conquered the region, their influence expanded far and wide, including their Spanish language. Spanish quickly became the primary language that was learned, spoken, and eventually taught throughout Mexico.
Some of the native dialects that can still be heard today include Nahuatl, Mayan, Mixtec, and Zapotec. These languages are centralized around the region in which they are the most prominent.
In addition to language, another area that the Spanish influenced was religion. Roman Catholicism was the primary religion in Spain when they expanded westward to Mexico. Today, it is estimated that around 81% of the Mexican population is Roman Catholic, with the remainder of the population practicing either evangelism or being non-believers.
The history of Mexico has played a major role in the culture that we see today. September 16 commemorates the anniversary of Mexico’s independence from Spanish control. The Cry of Dolores is shouted during festivals and parades, honoring the cries for death and independence from Spain.
Another major cultural exhibition that is native to Mexico is the Day of the Dead. On November 1 of every year, families will place shrines and vigils to honor the loved ones who have passed on. There are dances, parades, and markets set up to celebrate in the streets.
The Mariachi band was also founded in Mexico. Musicians in Mexico’s countryside would play violins, horns, and guitars with an upbeat and fast tempo. Mariachi bands can still be seen today in Mexico and Mexican-influenced settings.
Immigration and Migration Patterns
Hernan Cortes paved the way for Spaniards to relocate to Mexico. When he conquered the region after the Aztecs collapsed in 1521 A.D., he allowed Spanish immigrants to leave Spain and call Mexico their home; and that’s exactly what they did.
Because there was so much unrest, poverty, and unemployment in Spain, hundreds of thousands of Spanish men moved westward to find a new opportunity for a new life.
It is estimated that approximately 700,000 Spanish men relocated to Mexico during the Spanish conquest of the 1500s. Because of this, a new race was created that mixed Spanish with native indigenous Mexicans. They were called Mestizos, which can still be seen today.
The second wave of immigration occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s when the Mexican government encouraged the Chinese to relocate to Mexico. Mexico was struggling with developing their region, especially when it came to railroads and transportation. The Chinese had all but perfected this area of their civil engineering, so Mexico called on them for help and incentivized the Chinese to relocate to Spain.
Another ethnic group that relocated to Mexico was the French. When the French were in control of Mexico in the late 1800s, there became a larger presence of French immigrants during this time.
It wasn’t until 1910 when Mexicans emigrated from Mexico and relocated to the United States. For the most part, Mexicans stayed in Mexico, but when there was war and unrest in Mexico during the first decades of the 1900s, many Mexicans migrated to the United States for better job opportunities and to make a better life. It is estimated that somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 Mexicans emigrated from Mexico to the United States per year beginning in the 1920s.
Because the Spanish conquistadors settled in Mexico and controlled the region for centuries, the genealogy of Mexicans began to include Spanish heritage and traits. This continued for centuries, which made Spanish genealogy in Mexico show up for generations and generations. This is why people in Mexico often have dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. These are common characteristics of Spanish people.
At the same time, it is not uncommon for someone living in Mexico to be able to trace their genealogy back to Spain. Spain controlled much of the region of Mexico at one time or another, and this caused Spanish heritage to be spread out throughout the region and continue for generations to come.
Because there were also French and Chinese immigrants that relocated to Mexico throughout history, it would not be uncommon to find French and Chinese genealogy in Mexicans. While it may not be a large percentage, it would not be uncommon to find even a small percentage of French or Chinese genealogy in Mexican heritage today.