Mexican history

A closer look

Mexican history

Mexico’s history is divided into the pre-HIspanic era, the colonial period, its independence, and its transition into one of the world’s major players. To understand why Mexican culture is the way that it is, you first have to understand the history behind the country.

Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs

Before the Spanish arrived, Mexico was home to some of the oldest and most advanced civilizations in the world. Around 1,500 BC the Olmecs built their cities on the Gulf coast, and evidence shows they were the first in the Western hemisphere to create hieroglyphic and numeric systems. In 300 AD, the Aztec Empire created the first urban society in the West in Teotihuacán, where the Sun and Moon pyramids stand to this day. In the South, the Mayans were perfecting the calendar, as well as developing the most sophisticated writing system in the pre-Columbian Americas and gathering architectural and astronomical knowledge. By 1502, the Aztec Empire reached what is now Nicaragua, and built Mexico-Tenochtitlan, where civilization thrived until 1521.


In 1519, Hernan Cortés landed on the coast of Veracruz. The Spaniards were welcomed with open arms and given gifts upon their arrival. When Cortés saw the riches that Mexico offered, he allied himself with disaffected subjects of the Aztec Empire. The most important of which was Malinche, a woman whose circumstances in life had forced her to learn most of the region’s languages. She was key in negotiating alliances with those under Aztec control, decimating the Aztec Empire’s loyal servants. She later gave birth to Hernan Cortés’ first son, Martin. The term malinchista, derived from her name, is a word used to shun disloyal compatriots. With newer technology, disaffected subjects, and disease on his side, Cortés was able to reach Mexico-Tenochtitlán and eventually take control of the city in 1521. 

Colonial Era

After having consolidated its power in Mexico, the Spanish Crown created Nueva España (The Viceroyalty of New Spain) and subsequently established a series of viceroys for the next 300 years. The population of indigenous people fell from 25 million in 1519 to just six million at the beginning of the 19th century as a result of genocide and diseases to which the locals were susceptible, having no immunity. This period saw mass conversion to Catholicism, and the Catholic Church became one of the most powerful institutions in the colonies. Riches looted from Mexico were conveyed to Spain, and class divisions based on race became an organizing logic of society.


While Spain was busy dealing with the French Revolution, Mexico saw an opportunity to rebel. On September 16, 1810, Miguel Hidalgo called for independence, marking the start of the War of Independence. Mexico finally secured independence in 1821, when the Ejercito Trigarante (Army of the Three Guarantees) entered Mexico City. From 1810 to 1876, the national government changed hands at the blink of an eye and Mexico lost most of its territory to the north because of political instability. Many generals were president several times over (like Santa Ana, who took office 11 different times). Mexico even had two emperors, Agustin de Iturbide and Maximiliano de Hapsburgo, during this period. This instability led to a dictatorship under Porfirio Díaz that lasted almost 35 years, from 1986 to 1911. This was followed was a revolution that completely changed the political and social landscape of Mexico. 


Porfirio Díaz used his power to modernize Mexico at all costs during a period that is referred to as the Porfiriato. His policies benefited the upper class whose share of the country’s land increased greatly, leaving indigenous people dispossessed and stuck in a feudal system with practically no rights. In 1910, Díaz set himself up for re-election and he was challenged by Francisco I Madero. Madero ran under the idea of no re-election; an integral part of Mexican politics since then. His campaign slogan was “sufragio efectivo, no reeleccion,” (real democracy,  no reelection) demanding transparent elections where the population’s will is respected, along with single-term presidencies.

Madero then had to flee while calling for a revolution to rise up against Porfirio Diaz. Pascual Orozco, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata led armed revolutionary groups on the promise of giving back the land to the peasantry. Their fight was successful in both deposing Díaz and securing meaningful civil rights for the first time, as enshrined in the Constitution of 1917. But before that, there were six years of bloody confrontation between the factions left behind after Diaz’s resignation and subsequent exile in 1911.


In terms of politics, Mexico has been relatively stable and disturbance-free since 1928. This is mostly down to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) winning power in 1928 and essentially keeping ahold of it until the early 2000’s. While reelection is illegal, there is no law regarding political parties. Socially and economically Mexico has struggled, especially in 1982 when Mexico defaulted on its sovereign debt. Since then, Mexico has grown steadily to become one of the largest world economies .

Further reading

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