Mexico - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Mexico: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Mexico, in full United Mexican States (Spanish Estados Unidos Mexicanos), federal republic in North America. Mexico is the fifth largest country in the Western Hemisphere and is rich in natural resources such as petroleum and natural gas. Mexico’s efforts to develop and modernize its economy have been slowed by the nation’s rugged terrain, limited farmland, rapidly growing population, and aseries of economic crises. The nation’s capital, Mexico City, is one of the largest cities in the world. In Latin America, only Brazil has a larger population than Mexico.

Mexico is bordered by the United States on the north, the Pacific Ocean on the west, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea on the east, and Guatemala and Belize on the south. It is characterized by an extraordinary diversity in topography and climate and is crossed by two major mountain chains, the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Sierra Madre Oriental. The high central plateau between these two mountain ranges historically funneled most of the human population toward the center of this region. Mexico features volcanic peaks, snow-capped mountains, tropical rain forests, and internationally famous beaches. Mexico City is an enormous metropolitan area and dominates the rest of the country’s culture, economy, and politics. Mexico City is also a central hub for Mexico’s transportation network—including railroads, highways, and airlines.

Mexico and the United States share a border that is 3,100 km (1,900 mi) long, much of which is formed by the Rio Grande, a major river known as the Río Bravo in Mexico. This international border is the longest in the world between an economically developing country and one with a highly developed, industrialized economy. This proximity has influenced Mexico’s internal and external migration patterns, prompting several million Mexicans to move north to the border region or to the United States itself. It has also affected the culture of both Mexico and the United States, fostering the development of a number of communities along the border that mix the cultures of both nations. Mexico covers an area of 1,964,382 sq km (758,449 sq mi).

The people of Mexico reflect the country’s rich history. The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the early 16th century soon led to widespread intermarriage and racial mixing between Spaniards and Native Americans. As late as the early 19th century, Native Americans accounted for nearly two-thirds of the population in the region. During that century, however, the racial composition of the country began to change from one that featured distinct European (Spanish) and indigenous populations, to one made up largely of mestizos—people of mixed Spanish and Native American descent. By the end of the 19th century, mestizos, who were discriminated against during three centuries of Spanish colonization, had become the largest population group in Mexico. Mestizos now account for about 60 percent of Mexicans.

During the colonial era, many Native Americans and mestizos adopted the Spanish language and were converted to Roman Catholicism, the religion of the Spanish colonizers (see Spanish Empire). This has provided the country with a greater religious and cultural homogeneity than might have been present otherwise. The vast majority of Mexicans are Catholic and speak Spanish. Some Mexicans continue to speak one of many Native American languages, the most common of which is Nahuatl. In recent decades, Mexicans have moved in large numbers from rural to urban settings; in 2005, 76 percent of Mexicans resided in urban areas, with half of those citizens living in cities of 100,000 or more.

Mexico has a rich heritage in art and architecture and is recognized internationally for the contributions of its 20th-century mural artists, who created murals that reflected not only Mexico’s history and culture, but also its current social issues. Mexico’s blend of indigenous and European influences has affected many of its traditions and much of its culture. This ethnic heritage has contributed to the development of notable musical styles, folk art, and cuisine, all of which are also now found throughout the United States.

Mexico’s economic achievements are many, but the country continues to face many obstacles as it tries to further develop its economy. Political instability prevented significant economic growth for much of the 19th century. The Mexican Revolution, a major social upheaval in the second decade of the 20th century, further delayed Mexico’s economic expansion. Since World War II (1939-1945), the country has moved away from an agrarian-based economy; its economy now relies heavily on light manufacturing and exports. The country’s enormous petroleum reserves rank it among the top ten countries in the world. Mexico is a major exporter of crude oil and remains one of the top producers and exporters of silver, a mineral resource that has been important since colonial times. Although petroleum dominated the economy in the 1960s and 1970s, recent governments have encouraged economic diversification. Manufacturing, tourism, and assembly industries in northern Mexico are now important sectors of the economy. Mexico’s economy is also of major importance to the United States, not only because of formal links through economic agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but also because Mexico is one of the largest trading partners of the United States. In turn, Mexico’s largest trading partner is the United States.

The history of Mexico revolves around the mixing of numerous cultural, ethnic, and political influences. These include contributions from several major indigenous civilizations, Spanish influences from the period of colonial rule, and a significant African heritage resulting from the slave trade of the early colonial era. Mexico’s post-independence period was characterized by violence and civil war, including European intervention and a long domestic dictatorship. The latter led to the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920)—the most important event in 20th-century Mexican history. This revolution influenced Mexican culture and politics for decades to come.

Mexico’s political system emerged from this era and has provided political continuity from 1929 to the present, a record achieved by few other governments. Its political system is dominated by a strong president and executive branch, to the detriment of the judicial and legislative arms of government. Throughout most of the 20th century, the government was controlled by a single party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which dominated national elective offices. In 2000, however, the PRI lost the presidency for the first time since the party was formed in 1929.


Mexico extends along the entire southern border of the United States, from Tijuana, just south of San Diego, California, southeast to Matamoros, along the Gulf Coast of Texas just below Brownsville. The entire border between Texas and Mexico follows the Rio Grande. Mexico is more than 2,000 km (1,200 mi) wide along its northern border with the United States, but narrows to only 210 km (130 mi) in the south, between the Bay of Campeche and the Gulf of Tehuantepec. In northwestern Mexico, the peninsula of Baja California extends southeast below California. In the southeastern part of the country, the Yucatán Peninsula extends northeast toward Cuba, separating the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea.

Mexico is a mountainous country with a large central plateau and relatively small amounts of naturally fertile land. Much of the country is characterized by a semiarid climate with limited rainfall. The varied topography and climate in other regions have contributed to regional diversity and uneven economic development.

The capital, Mexico City, has long served as the hub of the country’s development, and most major north-south transportation links pass through the city. Mexico’s population has historically been concentrated in the central regions of the country, with development moving northward along the central plateau. The south—characterized by dense forests, a tropical climate, a largely indigenous population, and a rural-based economy—is much less developed than the rest of the country.

Since World War II (1939-1945), the northern border states have been the focus of heavy government investment and have attracted increasing internal migration. Agricultural lands in these northern regions are often irrigated. Industrial enterprises, including border assembly industries, characterize much of this region. Due to the resources recently invested along Mexico’s northern border, as well as the proximity of the United States, northern Mexico and the border region now host some of the most economically advanced areas in Mexico.

Natural Regions in Mexico

Mexico can be divided into a number of main physical regions, based largely upon elevation. These include the immense central plateau, the Pacific lowlands, the Gulf Coast plains, the Yucatán Peninsula, the Southern Highlands, the Chiapas Highlands, and the Baja California Peninsula.

Mexico’s most distinguishing physical feature is the central plateau, which runs from the northern border with the United States as far south as the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The plateau is flanked by two major mountain ranges—the Sierra Madre Occidental in the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental in the east—that fall off sharply to narrow coastal plains. These ranges come together about 240 km (about 150 mi) southeast of Mexico City. Both have historically been major barriers to transportation between the central plateau and the coastal plains.

The plateau generally ranges in elevation from about 900 m (about 3,000 ft) in the north to about 2,400 m (about 8,000 ft) in the south. Most of Mexico’s major peaks and inactive volcanoes are located on this plateau. These include Popocatépetl (5,452 m/17,887 ft) and Ixtaccíhuatl (5,286 m/17,343 ft), both of which are located near Mexico City, and the highest peak in Mexico, Pico de Orizaba (5,610 m/18,406 ft), located northwest of the Gulf Coast city of Veracruz. Many of Mexico’s major cities, including Mexico City, are located in smaller basins within the central plateau and are surrounded by mountains. The large basin where Mexico City is located has been known historically as the Valley of Mexico. As with California to the north, Mexico has frequent seismic activity, and earthquakes are fairly common in the capital city. In 1985 a major earthquake in Mexico City killed thousands and left nearly 30,000 homeless.

Between the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Pacific Ocean (including the Gulf of California) are the Pacific Coast lowlands. This western coastal plain ranges from about 50 km (about 30 mi) wide in the north to just a few kilometers wide south of Cape Corrientes, directly west of the city of Guadalajara. The plain widens again near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the south. The irrigated northern regions are used heavily for agricultural production.

The Gulf Coast plain, which lies between the Sierra Madre Oriental and the Gulf of Mexico, is about 280 km (about 175 mi) wide at the border with Texas. It narrows to a width of just a few kilometers near Veracruz in the south, and then widens again at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The coast is characterized by swampy lowlands and numerous lagoons. The northern region is generally dry, and agriculture is possible only with the help of irrigation. Rainfall is more plentiful in the south, where there are tropical forests and some fertile farmland. The country’s most important port, Veracruz, is located in this region, which is also the site of many of Mexico’s petroleum discoveries.

The Yucatán Peninsula extends northeast from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec into the Gulf of Mexico. It is a flat, low-lying region without surface rivers. The northwestern peninsula is dry and brushy and supports some agriculture; further south rainfall is plentiful and the peninsula is covered by tropical rain forests. The important international tourist center of Cancún is located along the eastern coast of the Yucatán.

The Southern Highlands, located south of the central plateau, are made up of a number of steep mountain ranges, deep valleys, and dry plateaus. The Sierra Madre del Sur range dominates this region, rising in the west near the mouth of the Balsas River. The range generally runs parallel to the Pacific coast until reaching the Gulf of Tehuantepec in the east; in many areas the mountains meet the sea, creating a rugged coastline. This scenic coastal region has become known as the Mexican Riviera and is the site of a number of coastal resort cities, including Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta. Inland valleys are hot and dry and support some irrigated agriculture.

South and east of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, bordering Guatemala, are the Chiapas Highlands. Much of this region receives heavy rainfall and is covered by tropical forests. Some mountains in the Chiapas Highlands rise to more than 2,700 m (9,000 ft). Many of the residents of this sparsely populated area are Native Americans who work on subsistence farms or plantations.

In the far northwest of the country is the Baja California peninsula. Stretching from the U.S. border southeast for 1,300 km (800 mi), the peninsula is extremely arid and mountainous, with a very narrow coastal plain. It is largely unpopulated, but has become increasingly attractive to U.S. tourists who visit coastal resorts along the northern Gulf of California and on the Pacific Ocean.

Rivers and Lakes in Mexico

Mexico’s rivers are not navigable by large ships. Rather than serving as communications or commercial links, they have been harnessed as major sources of hydroelectric power, especially since the 1950s. Dams on these rivers also serve to prevent annual flood damage.

Among the country’s most important rivers is the Grijalva, which originates in Guatemala but flows through the state of Chiapas and then empties into the Gulf of Mexico near Villahermosa. It is navigable in places by small boats. Another important river is the Usumacinta, which also originates in Guatemala. The Usumacinta takes a more easterly route through Chiapas and joins the Grijalva near the Gulf of Mexico. The Infiernillo dam, on the Balsas River southwest of Mexico City, forms one of the largest reservoirs in the country and makes up much of the border between the states of Guerrero and Michoacán. The Papaloapan River originates in the mountains north of the narrow neck of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico near Coatzacoalcos, which boasts another major river by the same name.

The Grande de Santiago and Lerma rivers together form the largest and most important river system in Mexico. The Lerma originates in the Sierra Madre Occidental and flows into Lake Chapala. The Grande de Santiago drains out of the lake and empties into the Pacific Ocean in the state of Nayarit. It is a significant source of hydroelectric power. The Río Bravo (known as the Rio Grande in the United States) delineates the entire Texas-Mexico border and provides water for major irrigation projects in both countries. Mexico does not have many large lakes. Lake Chapala, south of the city of Guadalajara, is the largest in the country at about 80 km (about 50 mi) long and about 13 km (about 8 mi) wide.

Coastline of Mexico

Mexico’s coastline totals about 9,330 km (about 5,797 mi) in length, with its western coast being about twice as long as its eastern coast. The country has few good harbors. Tampico, Veracruz, and Coatzacoalcos are major ports on the Gulf of Mexico. Important Pacific ports include Acapulco, Manzanillo, Mazatlán, and Salina Cruz.

Plant and Animal Life in Mexico

Much of northern Mexico is covered by desert vegetation, including mesquite, cactus, desert scrub, and some grasses. The higher regions are forested largely with hardwoods such as oak, and needle-leafed trees such as pine and fir. Expansive grasslands also cover large parts of this region. The low-lying areas of southern Mexico are typically covered by tropical rain forests that contain a great variety of trees and ferns. Much of the forests of central Mexico were destroyed before the Spanish conquest or during the colonial era. Between 1990 and 2005, deforestation continued at an average rate of 0.5 percent per year, and Mexico lost a total of 260,000 hectares (0.6 million acres) of forest.

Some of the animals found in Central and South America—such as monkeys, tapirs, and jaguars—remain in parts of southern Mexico. This is especially true in the rain forests of Chiapas and the southern Pacific coast, where human settlement is sparse and population densities have remained relatively low compared to the northern regions of the country. As a consequence, more of the natural flora and fauna have survived in southern Mexico.

The introduction of large numbers of domesticated animals in central and northern Mexico, as well as the density of human settlement, has considerably reduced the natural wildlife populations in these regions. However, bear, deer, coyote, peccary, and mountain lion remain in the rugged, mountainous regions of the Sierra Madre. Environmental groups have tried to protect Mexico’s endangered species, particularly marine turtles, from further exploitation and decline, but a number of species have been deemed to be threatened in Mexico.

Natural Resources of Mexico

Most of Mexico’s natural resources are below the soil. The country’s semiarid climate, its lack of rainfall, and its limited amounts of fertile land have made large-scale agriculture difficult. Forests cover nearly a third of the land, giving Mexico some of the world’s largest remaining forest reserves, despite the high levels of deforestation. Most of these forests are found in the Sierra Madre ranges, and in the rainy, tropical regions of the Yucatán Peninsula and the Chiapas Highlands. Mexico has large deposits of silver, copper, salt, fluorite, iron, manganese, sulfur, phosphate, zinc, tungsten, molybdenum, gold, and gypsum. Petroleum is the country’s single most valuable mineral resource. Most of the major reserves have been discovered along the Gulf Coast, either inland or in the Gulf of Mexico.

Climate in Mexico

The climate throughout much of Mexico is characterized by high temperatures and moderate to low rainfall. The highland climates vary considerably with elevation, but the central plateau generally has a moderate climate with few extremes of hot or cold. Mexico City, for example, has an average July high temperature of 23°C (74°F) and an average January high temperature of 21°C (70°F). Cities at lower elevations on the plateau have somewhat warmer climates. The northern and central areas of the plateau are arid and semiarid, with the drier regions receiving about 300 mm (about 12 in) of rainfall annually. Rainfall increases in the southern regions of the plateau, which receive about 500 to 650 mm (about 20 to 26 in) of rainfall annually, with most of it typically falling in the summer. Traditional rainfall patterns in the Valley of Mexico have been altered by substantial industrial pollution, which has become so serious that the rainy and dry seasons no longer follow a regular annual cycle.

Much of northwest Mexico—including Baja California and the northern regions of the Pacific Coast lowlands—is quite arid, receiving less than 130 mm (5 in) of rain per year. The northern Gulf Coast plains are semiarid, receiving about 250 to 560 mm (about 10 to 22 in) of rainfall annually. As on the central plateau, rainfall increases toward the south on both the western and eastern coasts.

The Tropic of Cancer, which marks the northern limits of the tropics, passes through the southern tip of Baja California and crosses central Mexico. Much of southern Mexico has a tropical climate with distinct rainy and dry seasons; the Gulf Coast has more regular and abundant rainfall than the southern regions of the Pacific Coast. Temperatures in these coastal regions range between 21 and 27°C (70 and 80°F) during the year. Annual rainfall, which generally ranges between 1,500 and 2,000 mm (60 and 80 in), comes mainly during the rainy season of May to October. Mexico’s Gulf Coast is subject to hurricanes that pass through the region and often cause extensive damage.

The northern Yucatán Peninsula is hot and semiarid. Annual rainfall ranges between 500 and 1,000 mm (20 and 40 in). The extreme southern part of Mexico, including the Chiapas Highlands and the southern regions of the Yucatán Peninsula, is rainy and tropical. The climate in this region is generally hot and humid, with annual average temperatures of more than 24°C (75°F). Maximum precipitation occurs in summer, with average annual rainfall exceeding 2,030 mm (80 in) in some areas.

Environmental Issues in Mexico

Mexicans have become increasingly aware of environmental issues, ranging from water pollution to the potential side effects of nuclear power. The development of border industries along the northern frontier with the United States has drawn attention to these issues, as these industries have contributed heavily to numerous forms of pollution that have adversely affected both sides of the border. Groups in many border communities, as well as local governments in both countries, have worked together to improve environmental conditions, particularly those related to toxic waste disposal and water pollution.

In central Mexico, the most pronounced environmental problems are the dumping of toxins into local rivers and air pollution, especially in the capital city. High levels of dangerous air pollutants in Mexico City are exacerbated by its natural setting, located in a basin surrounded by mountains. Unless it rains or sufficient breezes occur, airborne particles create heavy smog on most days. The government has tried to reduce pollution by controlling industrial emissions and limiting the number of automobiles that can be driven daily. Mexican citizens, unsatisfied with the pace and level of government efforts, have organized grassroots environmental groups and begun to support political candidates at the national level who run on green, or environmentally friendly, campaigns. Domestic and international conservation groups are working in Mexico to create biological preserves.


At the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s, numerous advanced Native American civilizations existed in Mexico. Among the most important were the Maya, who resided in the southern and southeastern part of what is now Mexico, including the present states of Chiapas, Quintana Roo, and Yucatán. Central Mexico was dominated by the Aztecs, who had developed an extensive capital surrounded by a lake at Tenochtitlán, Mexico City’s present site.

The Spanish ultimately conquered the Native American civilizations and extended their control over the entire region, calling it New Spain. Unlike British settlers in North America, the Spaniards quickly intermarried with the indigenous people, producing a growing population of mestizos, or people of mixed European and Native American ancestry. By the end of the 19th century, mestizos had become the largest ethnic group in the population.

After World War II (1939-1945), which saw the beginning of a period of sustained industrial growth, Mexicans migrated rapidly from rural communities to large urban centers. Many of these people moved to the Federal District, which includes the capital of Mexico City and grew to contain almost one-fifth of Mexico’s population. During this postwar period the relatively unpopulated northern states also attracted numerous immigrants, as the economic base of frontier cities such as Ciudad Juárez and Monterrey grew rapidly.

Population in Mexico

Mexico’s population grew rapidly after 1940, when improved living standards and preventive health-care measures produced a dramatic increase in longevity and a decrease in infant mortality. At the 1990 census, the nation’s population stood at 81,249,645. A decade later, at the 2000 census, the population had grown to 97,483,412. In 2009 Mexico had an estimated population of 111,211,789. Population density averaged 58 persons per sq km (150 per sq mi). The lowest density in 2000 was in the state of Baja California Sur (6 persons per sq km/15 per sq mi), and the highest was in the Federal District (5,565 persons per sq km/14,415 per sq mi).

After President Luis Echeverría Álvarez took office in 1970, he argued that rapid population growth would make it difficult for the government to generate positive rates of economic growth per capita. The Mexican economy had not been creating enough new jobs to provide all of its people with employment. The situation was made worse by the fact that an increasing portion of Mexico’s population was under the age of 16, and therefore dependent on the economically active population for support. Consequently, the government began providing family planning information and education. These efforts, complemented by private programs and the increasing levels of education that resulted from migration to urban areas, contributed to a significant decline in population growth rates. These rates dropped from highs of around 3.7 percent per year in the 1970s to 1.1 percent in 2009.

Internal migration has led to a substantial shift in population from rural to urban centers. From 1970 to 2000, the percentage of Mexico’s population living in cities of 100,000 or more people doubled. Mexicans continue to migrate to the cities to seek employment opportunities, as well as better educational opportunities and access to healthcare.

Principal Cities of Mexico

Mexico is a country dominated by what geographers call a primary city, a single metropolitan area that is larger than the next four cities combined. Mexico City, the capital of Mexico, had an estimated population of 14,007,495 in 2005 and a population of 19 million (2007) in its metropolitan area. It has a concentration of economic, political, and cultural resources not seen anywhere else in the country. Much of Mexico’s manufacturing capacity is located in Mexico City or the Federal District, which surrounds it. Because political power is concentrated in the federal government, Mexico City dominates the country’s political life. These economic and political resources attract to the capital the majority of Mexico’s cultural resources. Most of the leading museums, prestigious educational institutions, skilled professionals, publishing firms, magazines, and newspapers are located in the capital.

Mexico’s second largest city, Ecatepec de Morelos, is an industrial and business center situated near Mexico City. It had a population of 1,723,987 in 2008. Guadalajara, Mexico’s third largest city, with a population of 1,579,128 in 2008, is located about 465 km (about 290 mi) northwest of Mexico City. It was a colonial center of considerable religious and architectural importance and is the administrative, commercial, and cultural center of the state of Jalisco. Guadalajara is second only to the capital in its importance as a cultural center. The city has produced numerous literary and cultural leaders.

One of the oldest Mexican cities, located southeast of Mexico City in the neighboring state of Puebla, is the colonial town of Puebla (1,474,789). The state capital, it is an important commercial link between Mexico City and the major Gulf Coast port of Veracruz to the east. One of Mexico’s newer cities and an example of the rapidly growing north is Ciudad Juárez (1,313,338), a large border city with the United States and a major source of trade and transportation with its sister city, El Paso, Texas.

Monterrey (1,140,639), located in the state of Nuevo León along Mexico’s border with the United States, is a major center of economic activity, and a significant channel of commerce linking Mexico to the United States. Long the hub of Mexico’s iron and steel industry, Monterrey has added electronics, biotechnology, and e-commerce companies in recent years.

Ethnic Groups in Mexico

Mestizos constitute approximately 60 percent of Mexico’s population. Indigenous peoples make up approximately 30 percent of the population, and people of European ancestry, primarily Spanish, make up about 9 percent of the population. Africans contributed to the original racial mixture when approximately 120,000 slaves were brought to the region between 1519 and 1650. By the end of the colonial period, as many as 200,000 Africans may have entered New Spain. Blacks intermarried with Native Americans and mestizos and live on both the west and east coasts.

A variety of factors are used to identify an individual as indigenous in Mexico, including customs, language, dress, food, and residence. The Mexican government prefers to use language as its primary determinant when counting the number of Native Americans in the population. About 8 percent of all Mexicans speak an indigenous language. The percentage of Mexicans who speak only an indigenous language has declined significantly, however. According to the 2000 census, only about 1 percent of people spoke an indigenous language exclusively.

Native Americans are concentrated in the regions of Mexico where indigenous civilizations were located at the time of the conquest—mainly in central, southern, and southeastern Mexico. The state of Yucatán, where the Maya civilization was important, has the highest concentration of Mexicans who speak a Native American language. It is followed by the state of Oaxaca and Yucatán’s neighboring states of Chiapas and Quintana Roo. The states of Hidalgo and Campeche also have significant proportions of Native Americans.

Languages spoken in Mexico

Spanish control of Mexico led to the dominance of Spanish, the official language. As many as 100 Native American languages are still spoken in Mexico, but no single alternative language prevails. Nearly all Mexicans who speak an indigenous language also speak Spanish. The most important of the Native American languages is Nahuatl. It is followed, in number of speakers, by Maya, Mixteco, and Zapoteco.

Religion in Mexico

During the colonial period, the Spanish colonizers imposed the Roman Catholic religion on the indigenous population. They did not permit the practice of any other religions. Consequently, the population has remained largely Catholic, although in practice Native American and rural versions of Catholicism differ considerably from the typical European and urban forms of the religion. These differences occurred because rural and indigenous peoples were never fully converted to Christianity, and because local priests and bishops tolerated the combination of some indigenous practices with the rites of Catholicism.

Mexico’s 1917 constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Major constitutional reforms in 1992 eliminated many of the severe restrictions on the Catholic Church and other religions. Reforms included the repeal of measures that had prevented clergy from voting. Although still prohibited from direct involvement in political affairs, Catholic bishops have recently become more vocal in criticizing economic policies and human rights abuses.

Although a large majority of the Mexican population identifies itself as Catholic, in recent years Protestant religions have grown in importance, particularly in rural regions and among Native Americans. Most of the growth has occurred among evangelical sects.

Education in Mexico

Throughout most of Mexico’s history, beginning with the colonial period, education was the task of the Catholic Church. After independence, Mexicans were concerned about the church imposing its values and beliefs on the population and started a public educational system. Religious influences of any sort were banned in primary school (grades 1 through 6). The federal government controls the curriculum and provides the textbooks for primary schools.

In the 1917 constitution, public education became mandatory through grade six. School attendance is high among 6- to 14-year-olds but declines significantly after age 13, somewhat more so for girls. In 2000, 52 percent of the population 15 years old or older had received some secondary or college education.

Mexico has improved its literacy rate through public education programs. In 1970, for example, 74 percent of all Mexicans age 15 or older were literate. By 2007 the literacy rate had risen to 92 percent. There are no significant differences in literacy rates based on gender. However, literacy rates are lowest in those states that have the highest poverty levels and, typically, high percentages of Native Americans. The most urbanized centers boast the highest literacy rates; the Federal District, for example, had a literacy rate of about 97 percent in 2000.

Mexican higher education is also dominated by public institutions, many of them in the capital city. Mexico’s leading institutions include the National Autonomous University of Mexico (founded in 1551), the National Polytechnic Institute (1937), the Colegio de México (1939), the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (1946), and the Ibero-American University (1943), all located in Mexico City. Other important universities include: the University of Guadalajara (1792); the Benemérita Autonomous University of Puebla (1937); Veracruz University (1944), located in the city of Jalapa Enríquez; and the Institute of Technical and Advanced Studies of Monterrey (1943), which is known by its Spanish acronym ITESM. Both the Ibero-American University and ITESM have established numerous branch campuses throughout the republic.

Way of Life in Mexico

Mexicans place a high value on family and traditional values. Although women make up an increasingly large portion of the labor force (35.6 percent in 2007), many women continue to work within the home. Children, especially in middle- and upper-income homes, typically remain at home longer than their counterparts in the United States. There are vast differences, however, in the daily lives of Mexican women depending on income level. Women in middle- and upper-income households typically have outside help with child care, cleaning, and meal preparation. Women in poor and working-class households often work both inside and outside the home, with many of them working at more than one outside job.

Income level and social class differences affect Mexican culinary customs. The basic diet of working-class Mexicans relies heavily on corn or wheat tortillas, along with beans, chili peppers, and tomatoes. Middle- and upper-income Mexicans consume a wide array of dishes, influenced by trends in the United States and Europe. Mexico has one of the most highly developed carbonated beverage industries in the world, and per capita consumption of soft drinks is high. Mexican-produced beer is extremely popular in Mexico and is also sold throughout the United States. In recent years Mexico has increased the quality of its wine production, and liquors such as brandy and tequila are manufactured on a large scale.

Mexicans enjoy many of the leisure activities found in the United States, including television, movies, rock concerts, and sports. Soccer is the most popular national sport, and many Mexicans attend traditional bullfights.

Social Issues in Mexico

Mexico is characterized by sharp class and social divisions. A small upper class controls much of the country’s property and wealth while more than half of the Mexican people live in poverty. Compared with the United States, Mexico’s middle class is relatively small. Mexico’s recent economic problems have hurt middle- and lower-income families much more than they have hurt wealthy families.

Many poor Mexicans have little or no access to healthcare and some live in housing that lacks one or more basic amenities such as running water or sewerage. Although the quality of housing has improved considerably since 1970, by 2000 about 10 percent of Mexican households still lacked access to safe water and one-quarter were without access to sanitation. Many children also suffer from malnutrition and drop out of school early in order to begin earning money for their families.

In addition, Mexico’s rapid population growth has severely strained government services, especially education and healthcare. This growing population has placed tremendous pressure on the government and economy to create new jobs. The economy has not been able to create enough jobs to keep up with population growth. Economic conditions have prompted thousands of skilled and unskilled workers to migrate north to the United States in search of employment.

Mexican cities suffer from many of the same social problems found in urban environments around the world. Poor economic conditions, however, have significantly increased the levels of urban crime in the country, especially in Mexico City. Drug abuse and juvenile crime have also increased in major cities in recent years.


Mexican culture is a fascinating blend of Native American traditions and Spanish colonial influences. Long before the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, the indigenous civilizations of Mexico had developed arts such as ceramics, music, poetry, sculpture, and weaving. After the conquest, the intricate designs and bright colors of many Native American arts were often mixed with European techniques and religious themes to create a hybrid and uniquely Mexican artistic style. Numerous churches constructed during the colonial era reflect the blending of Spanish architectural designs with the handiwork of Native American workers who built and decorated the buildings. Many of Mexico’s most popular modern crafts—such as textiles, pottery, and furniture making—borrow designs and techniques from Native American culture. Mexican painting and music have also been shaped by this heritage.

Indigenous influences were given a tremendous boost by the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). During and immediately after the revolution, many Mexican artists celebrated the nation’s unique mixture of races and cultures in their work. Political and social themes from the revolution—such as efforts at land reform and the right of common Mexicans to participate in the nation’s government—were also reflected in the arts.

Immediate post-revolutionary governments supported the arts and contributed to efforts to make them more accessible to average Mexicans, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. The individual most responsible for this support was José Vasconcelos, a leading intellectual who served as secretary of education in the first post-revolutionary government. The government was especially influential in promoting mural painting, commissioning artists to paint murals depicting Mexican history on public buildings. During the 1930s, painters came to Mexico from the United States to study the mural movement. Many people from Europe, the United States, and Latin America also visited Mexico as tourists in the 1930s and 1940s, increasing the popularity of native arts such as the making of silver jewelry.

Literature in Mexico

Mexican literature boasts a long and distinguished history. Notable pre-Columbian works include the Maya Chilam Balam and Popol-Vuh, which provide many insights into the origins of the myths and legends of the Maya. The Spanish conquest is described by Hernán Cortés in Cartas de Relación (first translated into English as Letters from Mexico in 1908), a collection of letters he wrote to the Spanish crown in the early 1500s. A detailed history of the conquest of Mexico, Historia Verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (True History of the Conquest of New Spain) was written by Spanish conqueror and author Bernal Díaz del Castillo in the 16th century. The book—started in 1568, published in three volumes in 1632, and translated into English in 1800—is famed for the objectivity of the writing. During the colonial period, Juana Inés de la Cruz, a female intellectual of considerable talent, contributed an extraordinary array of work, including lyrical poetry, plays, and mythology.

It was during the revolutionary period, however, that important groups of intellectuals, poets, and novelists began to develop significant literary movements in Mexico. The “generation of 1915” was one of the most important; many of this group became distinguished figures in public life. Mariano Azuela, a physician who participated in the Mexican Revolution under General Francisco “Pancho” Villa, authored the most widely read novel of that violent period: Los de Abajo (1916; translated as The Underdogs in 1929). The book portrayed the revolution in discouraging terms and is widely considered to be the best Mexican novel of that era.

Mexico has produced numerous writers, essayists, and poets of international renown, including Octavio Paz, who in 1990 became the first Mexican to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. Carlos Fuentes is another Mexican writer whose fiction is widely read in Europe and the United States. He often writes about social issues in contemporary Mexico, but his best-known work deals with the decades that followed the Mexican Revolution. See also Latin American Literature.

Art in Mexico

Mexican arts, with the exception of folk arts, generally followed European patterns during the colonial period and the 19th century. The Mexican Revolution was instrumental in fostering a new sense of nationalism and experimentation at the School of Fine Arts in Mexico City. Artists such as David Alfaro Siqueiros belonged to a group of painters who decided that content and form were as important as aesthetics. A number of these artists, including Siqueiros, were political activists as well as artists who aimed to inspire the lower classes in Mexico by creating paintings that dealt with revolutionary themes. They encouraged the development of public murals, so that ordinary Mexicans could view the work of leading artists. Painting with a permanent medium on large walls, these muralists—including Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Juan O’Gorman—dominated the Mexican art world in the 1920s and 1930s.

Other artists pursued a different tack. Frida Kahlo painted numerous small self-portraits which captured her own vision in strange, often surrealistic presentations. Kahlo fractured her spine and pelvis in a traffic accident as a teenager and began to paint while recovering from her accident. The constant pain Kahlo suffered due to her injuries, as well as her sadness over being unable to bear a child, are reflected in much of her work.

In the 1930s Rufino Tamayo combined native folk themes with European art forms such as cubism. His work reached a much larger foreign audience than that of other Mexican artists, particularly in Europe and New York City. Tamayo was an outspoken opponent of the painting style of the revolutionary muralists, arguing that their focus on political and social themes came at the expense of artistic quality. The intense colors of many of Tamayo’s paintings and his use of flattened two-dimensional figures—a style that is common in Mexican folk or pre-Columbian art—gave his work a distinctly Mexican flavor.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo, who associated with some of the leading creative photographers in the United States, such as Edward Weston and Tina Modetti, became the first Mexican photographer to reach a large international audience. He was influential in promoting photography as an art form in Mexico. See also Latin American Painting; Latin American Sculpture.

Architecture in Mexico

From the 16th through the 18th centuries, architecture overshadowed other forms of art in Mexico. The early buildings of the Spaniards tended to be simple and practical. In the 17th and 18th centuries, however, architecture in Mexico became highly decorative and elaborate. It was during this period that many of the country’s famous churches were built, including the Cathedral of Mexico in Mexico City. Examples of Spanish colonial architecture are found throughout Mexico.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the French splendors of the Second Empire style were introduced in Mexico City. This trend began under Emperor Maximilian, who ruled Mexico briefly during the 1860s, and later under President Porfirio Díaz. Díaz commissioned the ornate Palace of Fine Arts, which was completed in the 1930s. Since the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), many outstanding examples of modern architecture have been built in Mexico. The National Autonomous University of Mexico contains many spectacular modern buildings that feature murals in fresco and mosaic. It includes a multistory library almost completely covered by mosaics designed by Juan O’Gorman. Another Mexican architect, Félix Candela, created highly original concrete shell designs for several churches and for the sports palace at the 1968 Olympic Games. One of Mexico’s most internationally admired architects, Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, designed the renowned Museum of Anthropology and History in downtown Mexico City. See also Latin American Architecture.

Music and Dance in Mexico

Music and dance were affected by the same European and indigenous currents that influenced painting and literature. The Ballet Folklórico de México, a folk-dance group based in Mexico City, has integrated folk music with classical music. The group tours the world and works to preserve authentic folk dance in Mexico.

Carlos Chávez, Mexico’s best-known composer, is remembered for his Sinfonia India (1935). A close friend of the painter Diego Rivera, Chávez wanted to employ Native American themes in his music, just as the Mexican muralists had done with their paintings. Chávez introduced 82 Mexican works as conductor of the National Symphony from 1928 to 1949. He studied piano under Manuel M. Ponce, another major figure in Mexican music, who founded the Academy of Music in Mexico City in 1911. Ponce served as a mentor to generations of Mexican musicians. Another figure in Mexican music, originally from Spain, was Rodolfo Halffter, who did much to encourage new students as a professor at the National Conservatory of Music. American-born Mexican composer Conlon Nancarrow is considered a forerunner of minimalism.

Mexican popular music, in the form of ballads and sidewalk performances, has contributed significantly to popular music in the United States. Examples include “La Bamba,” a Mexican folk song that was recorded in a rock-and-roll style by American singer Ritchie Valens in 1959, and the work of the Tijuana Brass in the 1960s and 1970s.

Theater and Film in Mexico

As in literature and art, Mexico’s motion pictures and theater have long dealt with social themes. A leading figure in the film industry was Emilio “El Indio” Fernández, whose first movie, The Isle of Passion, appeared in 1941. Fernández’s work won several international awards.

Since the 1940s refugees from the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) have contributed significantly to the expansion and quality of motion pictures in Mexico. Among the exiles working in the country, Luis Buñuel was one of the best known. His film Los Olvidados (The Forgotten, 1950), a film about juvenile delinquents in Mexican slums, is considered a classic. Although most Mexican films have not received widespread distribution outside of Mexico, some more recent work has achieved considerable international attention. Like Water for Chocolate (1992)—a film directed and produced by Alfonso Arau and adapted from the novel of the same name written by Laura Esquivel—was a hit in the United States and became one of the most successful films in Mexican history. Y Tu Mamá También (And Your Mother, Too, 2001), a sex comedy directed by Alfonso Cuarón, also achieved international popularity.

Theater also has a long tradition extending back to the colonial period, including the work of Juana Inés de la Cruz. Many of Mexico’s important directors and playwrights have been supported by various groups at the National University in Mexico City (now National Autonomous University of Mexico).

Libraries and Museums in Mexico

Mexico City is home to the country’s most important museums and libraries, due largely to the concentration of intellectual activity in the capital. Many good libraries in Mexico are found within the university system. The National Library, which houses a collection of rare documents, is affiliated with the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. Other important libraries include the Archivo General de la Nación (National Archives), the library at the Colegio de México, and numerous government libraries connected with various ministries.

Mexico City boasts several world-famous museums, noted not only for the quality of their collections but also for the architecture of the buildings themselves. The National Museum of Anthropology, designed by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, exhibits a striking array of archaeological discoveries from Mexico’s pre-Columbian era. The Museum of Mexico City is an excellent source of historical and archaeological information on the capital itself. The National Museum of History, devoted to history since the Spanish conquest, is located nearby in Chapultepec Park. The Museum of Modern Art, also located in the park, contains the finest collection of Mexican painting from the 19th and 20th centuries, including the work of internationally known masters such as Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Rufino Tamayo. Shortly before his death, Tamayo donated his personal collection of European and Mexican works, as well as many of his own paintings, to the Museum of Modern Art.


Mexico—like Argentina, Brazil, and Chile—is a semi-industrialized country. The country is rich in industrial resources, including petroleum and several metals. Mexico’s manufacturing output increased greatly during the second half of the 20th century, and it includes today many basic goods, such as steel, machinery, and petrochemicals, as well as a wide range of consumer goods. Agriculture still provides almost as many jobs as industry, however. Many farm families earn barely enough to survive, and many city dwellers are unable to find jobs.

After World War II Mexico became known for its ever-expanding economy. During that time, Mexico’s economy changed from a primarily agricultural one to an economy based on services and manufacturing. Beginning in the 1970s, however, the country’s economy began to stagnate as Mexico fell deeply into debt. In the late 1970s Mexico borrowed billions of dollars at extremely high interest rates in anticipation of increased oil revenues. When oil prices dropped sharply in the early 1980s, Mexico’s oil revenues plummeted, as well. This led to a large foreign debt, and the nation began to fall behind on its loan payments. Mexico soon faced a severe economic recession, forcing the government to renegotiate the nation’s foreign debt and begin instituting budget cuts and austerity programs.

The economic recession led the government to reexamine Mexico’s national economic policy, which had protected the nation’s young industries by imposing high tariffs on imported goods. These tariffs raised the price of goods imported from the United States, for example, and encouraged Mexicans to buy less-expensive goods produced in Mexico. On the other hand, this policy reduced competition in the Mexican economy and induced many state-owned industries and private companies to become less efficient. The Mexican government began to replace this official protection of domestic industries with an aggressive policy of privatization, selling back government-operated and owned industries—including banks, utilities, airlines, and manufacturing companies—to the private sector. Privatization aimed to make Mexican companies and industries more efficient and competitive by allowing private owners, rather than government officials, to make decisions that would affect an industry’s profitability.

Mexico also began working to integrate its economy into the larger and much more competitive global economy. These efforts culminated in Mexico’s signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into effect in 1994. NAFTA is a trade pact between Canada, Mexico, and the United States that aims to foster free trade and eliminate tariffs among the three nations.

These free-trade policies were pursued aggressively in the late 1980s and early 1990s, resulting in moderate economic growth. But this growth was built upon an increasingly shaky economic foundation. In 1994 the government devalued the peso to more realistically reflect its worth. As the value of the peso plummeted, foreign and domestic investors withdrew millions of dollars from the country, and Mexico’s economy went into a tailspin.

An economic crisis followed in the mid-1990s, leading to a serious decline in the standard of living for most Mexicans, as well as an increase in extreme poverty. Furthermore, NAFTA failed to bring about a reduction in poverty or in income inequality, as had been hoped. Instead, many poor farmers abandoned their small plots and left the countryside. A good percentage migrated across the border to the United States in search of jobs during the 1990s and 2000s.

By the beginning of the 21st century, the Mexican economy had improved, fueled by growth in its manufacturing and mining sectors. However, the gap between rich and poor remained wide, and economic conditions in rural areas lagged far behind those in urban areas. Moreover, Mexico’s economy remained vulnerable to external factors, especially to the economic situation in the United States, with which Mexico shares considerable trade and investment. The U.S. financial crisis of 2008 caused both a drop in trade and a decline in the money sent home by Mexican immigrants.

Agriculture of Mexico

Much of Mexico is too dry or mountainous for agriculture; only about one-seventh of the nation’s land is cultivated or used for plantations and orchards. Irrigation is required to farm in many regions. Much of the food consumed by Mexicans is raised on Mexican farms, although frequent droughts and a population that is growing faster than the amount of food produced have made Mexico dependent on agricultural imports, particularly grains and milk products.

Agriculture accounts for only a small percentage of Mexico’s GDP, although it employed one-fifth of the nation’s workforce in the mid-2000s. Many of Mexico’s agricultural workers are subsistence farmers, who produce only enough to feed their families. Although the Mexican government distributed millions of hectares of land to poor farmers between the 1920s and the 1970s, the plots were generally small and the quality of the land was often poor. In addition, many small farmers were unable to obtain the credit they needed in order to purchase the seeds, fertilizer, or equipment they required to stay in business. This led to high rates of migration from rural areas into the cities, as well as northward to the United States.

Mexican agriculture is highly productive in certain regions, especially near the capital and in the northwest. Corn and beans, the staples of the nation’s diet, are the primary food crops, and they grow best in the valleys and basins of the central plateau that surround Mexico City. Wheat is raised on irrigated land in central and northern Mexico and has replaced corn in the diet of many Mexicans. Other principal agricultural products grown for domestic consumption include barley, rice, soybeans, vegetables, and citrus fruits.

Large volumes of products such as coffee, cotton, citrus fruits, sugar, and tomatoes are grown for export, primarily to the United States. Most coffee is grown in the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, cotton is cultivated mainly on irrigated land in northwest Mexico, and sugar plantations are scattered in various states, with the largest concentration in Veracruz.

The main forage and hay crops are alfalfa and sorghum. They are raised in arid regions, often with the use of irrigation, and are important to livestock farmers. Beef cattle are the most important Mexican livestock and beef is an important export. Chickens are raised throughout the country and consumed locally.

Forestry and Fishing in Mexico

Mexico has significant forest resources, despite the fact that much of the nation’s land is semiarid and that many of the forests that existed prior to the arrival of Europeans have been lost to logging and erosion. It is estimated that nearly two-thirds of what is now Mexico was covered by forests in the early 1500s; by the 2000s forests covered only about one-third of the country. Almost all logging has been placed under strict government supervision, but this has failed to halt deforestation. Between 1970 and 1985 Mexico lost about one-sixth of its woodlands.

The most commercially valuable woods are pine, spruce, cedar, mahogany, logwood, and rosewood. Other important forest products include pitch, resins, and charcoal. Mexico does not produce enough wood pulp to meet its demand for paper products and the country imports much of its paper and cardboard. Mexico’s pine and oak forests are found largely in the nation’s mountainous central and northern regions. Tropical hardwoods such as mahogany are found in the tropical rain forests of southern Mexico. The country’s most important timber resources are located in the states of Chihuahua, Durango, Michoacán, Oaxaca, and Jalisco.

Fishing has increased in importance, symbolized by the fact that Mexico now devotes a cabinet-level agency to its development and protection. The most valuable fishery resources are found in the Gulf of Mexico, especially the states of Campeche and Veracruz; the Gulf of California, bordering the states of Sonora and Sinaloa; and the Pacific Ocean, notably off the coast of Baja California. The most important seafood export is tuna, and shrimp is increasingly valuable to the domestic market.

Mining in Mexico

Mining, especially of silver and copper, has historically been the most important extractive industry in Mexico. Although petroleum production has surpassed the mining of metals in importance, Mexico remains a major producer and exporter of silver. It also operates one of the largest salt extraction facilities in the world in Guerrero Negro in the state of Baja California Sur. Its chief mining regions are Chihuahua, Durango, Hidalgo, and Zacatecas. Mexico is also among the world’s top producers of celestite, silver, sodium sulfate, antimony, white arsenic, bismuth, fluorite, and graphite. Of the nation’s natural resources, petroleum far exceeds in value all other resources combined. Oil revenue is of enormous importance to Mexico’s economy.

Manufacturing in Mexico

Mexico has moved away from an economy dominated by oil revenues in the early 1980s, to one in which diversified manufacturing plays a much more significant role. The development of manufacturing in Mexico has included two important subsectors: an assembly and light manufacturing sector (whose businesses are known as maquiladoras in Spanish) that is concentrated largely along the country’s northern border with the United States, and a capital-intensive sector that includes industries such as steelmaking and automobile manufacturing.

Many large foreign companies, owned primarily by U.S. and Japanese investors, have located hundreds of maquiladoras in Mexico. These businesses produce specific parts of products to be sold in or exported from the home country, or they import parts from abroad, assemble the products in Mexico, and then ship the completed products back to the home country. This sector has been one of the fastest growing in the Mexican economy, contributing significantly to economic growth, and providing new employment even during the years that followed the 1994 economic crisis.

Mexican factories produce motor vehicles, cement, sulfuric acid, petrochemicals, metals, rubber products, plastics, paper products, and a variety of consumer goods, including cigars and cigarettes, textiles, clothing, shoes, glassware, beer and soft drinks, household appliances, and radios and televisions. Mexico built a thriving iron and steel industry after World War II, with much of this manufacturing capacity located in the city of Monterrey. Mexico’s capital-intensive industries such as steelmaking became more competitive in the late 20th century as modern factories with automated equipment were built.

Mexico’s most important manufacturing centers include the combined urban area of the Federal District and Mexico State, as well as the cities of Monterrey and Guadalajara. Since the late 1970s, Mexico has attempted to decentralize its manufacturing base and to encourage foreign investment in areas of central Mexico outside of Mexico City or the Federal District. While the nation has achieved some success in this area, most of Mexico’s poorer, rural regions have not attracted industry.

Foreign Trade in Mexico

Foreign trade has been a crucial element in Mexico’s economic growth. By signing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States and Canada in 1992, Mexico’s leaders decided that the nation’s economic future lay with trade and with developing a competitive, export-oriented economy. The treaty led to a lowering of tariff barriers in all three countries. Despite the fact that Mexican labor costs are far lower than those in the United States, many Mexican businesses producing products for the Mexican market could not compete with their U.S. counterparts and were forced out of business. Most of these were medium and small companies, but their closings contributed significantly to unemployment rates after 1994.

The economic effects of NAFTA have been hotly debated in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. The Mexican government and NAFTA supporters in the United States claim that the growth of export industries slowed Mexico’s economic slide in 1996, and that exports actually helped to launch an economic recovery by the end of that year.

Critics of the trade pact claim that NAFTA has primarily benefited multinational companies operating in Mexico, while doing little to benefit the vast majority of Mexico’s citizens. While Mexico’s overall economic indicators showed an increase in foreign trade after the institution of NAFTA, real wages continued to fall throughout the country and poverty rates remained constant. Living conditions for many Mexicans worsened after NAFTA was put into place. NAFTA opponents say this is possible because export-oriented companies can take advantage of cheap Mexican labor without relying on the purchasing power of Mexican families. Since the products are being sold abroad, the success of the export industries does not hinge on Mexican citizens being paid enough to be able to buy their products.

In addition to NAFTA, Mexico is a member of a number of other trade organizations or agreements. Mexico belongs to the Latin American Economic System (known in Spanish as the Sistema Económico Latinoamericano, or SELA), an organization founded in 1975 to promote cooperation between the member countries in Latin America and to accelerate economic and social development within these countries. In 1980 Mexico became a party to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), a treaty and trade organization that worked to reduce tariffs, quotas, and other trade barriers between nations. Mexico is also a member of the Latin American Integration Association (known in Spanish as the Asociación Latinoamericana de Integración, or ALADI), an organization founded in 1981 to foster balanced economic development in Latin America. In 1993 Mexico became the first Latin American member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, an organization dedicated to promoting global free trade. In 1994 Mexico joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which seeks to promote economic growth through global cooperation and trade. The next year, Mexico became a founding member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO replaced GATT and aims to promote and enforce global trade laws and regulations.

Currency and Banking of Mexico

Mexico’s currency is the peso. The U.S. dollar is widely used in Mexico, due primarily to geographic proximity and extensive American tourism.

Mexico’s federal reserve bank is the Bank of Mexico, a government-owned central bank that was created in 1925. The Bank of Mexico is the nation’s bank of issue, meaning that it controls Mexico’s total money supply by monitoring the banking system’s reserve requirements and by allocating credit to other banks. Although all domestic banks were nationalized in 1982, the administration of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) sold them back to private investors. The bank nationalizations had given the Mexican government more control over the nation’s economy, angering many businesspeople in the private sector. The privatizations helped to alleviate the distrust of the Mexican government that had developed among many Mexican investors in the early 1980s. They also allowed the government to direct the revenue made from selling the banks toward a number of social-spending projects.

As a result of NAFTA, Mexico opened its banking system to foreign competition and began allowing retail branches of foreign banks to operate in the country. Mexico’s banks have been criticized for inefficiency. Many major banks have exceedingly high levels of debt because their clients cannot repay their loans. Mexico has a stock exchange (Bolsa de Valores), located in Mexico City, and some of the stock of companies on this exchange is also traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Transportation in Mexico

Mexico’s rapid population growth since the 1950s has placed considerable pressure on its transportation infrastructure. Its topography has made transportation difficult in some regions, particularly between the western coastal plains and the central plateau. Mexico’s railroads were extremely important in the economic development of the country in the 19th century. The state-owned and operated system received little investment and was inadequately maintained after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), however, leading to an outdated railroad system in need of significant improvement. In the late 1990s Mexico privatized its national railway, granting private firms 50-year concessions to operate the rail lines.

The growth of Mexico’s trucking industry put pressure on the government to improve the highway system. Under President Carlos Salinas (1988-1994), the government encouraged private contractors and investors to build toll roads. Mexico’s airline system serves domestic and international destinations through links to every major U.S. and European carrier.

Mexico’s long-standing urban transportation problems, especially in the Federal District, produce gridlock and air pollution. Although there is a modern, efficient bus and subway system in the capital, cars remain the most popular form of transportation. The government has been forced to institute severe restrictions on automobile use in an attempt to reduce air pollution.

Tourism of Mexico

Mexico’s tourism industry is an essential component of the economy, often helping to sustain economic growth during times when growth is slow in other economic sectors. The government has long had a cabinet-level agency devoted exclusively to expanding and improving tourist facilities. In terms of foreign exchange earnings, tourism often ranks third in importance behind petroleum and manufacturing.

Mexico’s most important tourist destinations, other than the capital city itself, are numerous beach resorts. These include: Cancún, an island and resort town just off the Yucatán Peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo; Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, and Mazatlán, all resort cities on Mexico’s Pacific coast; and Los Cabos, a sport fishing and resort center at the end of the peninsula of Baja California in the state of Baja California Sur. Mexico’s border cities are also important tourist attractions and are visited by residents in nearby U.S. states. The most popular of these destinations is Tijuana, just across from San Diego, California. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens regularly visit this community and other border cities on weekends. Most of Mexico’s visitors come from the United States and Canada, other countries in Latin America, or Europe.


Mexico’s political model theoretically has much in common with that of the United States. As with the U.S. government, Mexico’s government is divided into three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. In Mexico, however, the executive branch dominates the other branches to such an extent that the country effectively has a political system that is controlled by its president. For most of the 20th century, only one political party, the government-controlled Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), played an influential role in politics and in the decision-making process. After it was founded in 1929, the government party monopolized most national political offices. The PRI did not lose a senate seat until 1988 or a gubernatorial race until 1989. It lost the presidency for the first time in 2000, when Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) defeated the PRI candidate.

Given the dominance of the executive over the legislative and judicial branches, interest groups and lobbyists similar to those found in the United States have not developed in Mexico. Groups and individuals who wish to influence policy do so primarily through the executive branch, seeking contacts with agency heads and cabinet figures and, on occasion, with the president himself.

Executive of Mexico

The president is elected by direct popular vote every six years and cannot be reelected. Presidents acquire tremendous authority because they also control the selection of candidates in their party for elective office at the national level. Therefore, most members of Mexico’s congress owe their political careers to the president. The executive also can exercise great influence simply because many Mexicans have come to expect a strong president. The president is the chief policy maker, and the executive branch has initiated 90 percent of Mexico’s legislation. Members of the president’s handpicked cabinet are the most influential members of the executive branch. Until President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León took office in December 1994, no president had selected a member of an opposition party as a cabinet official. The cabinet is divided into smaller groups, such as an economic or national security cabinet, which make policy recommendations to the president or respond to his policy initiatives.

Legislature of Mexico

The Chamber of Deputies and the Senate make up Mexico’s bicameral legislative body. Members of the Chamber of Deputies are elected for three-year terms. Members of the Senate are elected every six years. Senators and deputies may be reelected, but not in consecutive terms.

The Chamber of Deputies has the power to pass laws, impose taxes, and verify elections. The chamber has at times disregarded election vote totals and simply declared certain candidates as winners. The Senate also ratifies treaties and approves certain presidential appointments. It may also authorize the intervention of the federal government in a state by declaring that constitutional order no longer prevails.

Judiciary in Mexico

As with the legislative branch, the judiciary has played a very minor role in Mexico’s political process. At its apex is the Supreme Court, appointed by the president with the approval of two-thirds of the Senate. Unlike its counterpart in the United States, the Supreme Court rarely invalidates or shapes laws through judicial precedent, a legal practice in which courts interpret new legislation by looking at previous court decisions and deciding how the earlier rulings apply to the new laws. This limits the ability of the Mexican Supreme Court to change or modify the country’s laws and leaves the court with little influence over important policy matters. The decisions of the Supreme Court usually follow the policies of the president and the executive branch. As a result of reforms initiated by President Zedillo that aimed to strengthen the court’s powers in 1995, the court can now review newly passed legislation within a short time period, if one-third of the members of the national legislature request such an appraisal.

Local Government of Mexico

The organization of local government in Mexico is somewhat similar to that of local government in the United States. Mexico has 31 states and the Federal District, where the national capital of Mexico City is located. Each state is administered by an elected governor, who serves a six-year term. The head of the Federal District government, commonly called the mayor of Mexico City, is also elected. Each state is divided into municipalities. Within each municipality, a city functions as an administrative center, much as a county seat does in the United States. This city collects and distributes local revenues for the municipality. Local governments exercise much less power than they do in the United States, however, because most revenues are collected by federal tax agencies, not by state or local governments.

Political Parties of Mexico

Although Mexico long had a political system dominated by one party, the PRI, opposition parties existed for many decades. In 2000 one of these opposition parties, the National Action Party (PAN), won the presidency, defeating the PRI, which also lost control of the congress.

The PAN was founded in 1939 by dissident leaders from the PRI. It occupies the center right of the political spectrum in Mexico, favoring rapid political reform and integrity in government. The party also calls for privatizing state-owned industries and resources and for decreasing government spending on social services such as healthcare.

Another major opposition party is the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The PRD was founded by dissident PRI and left-of-center party leaders in 1989. It dominates the center left. The PRD also favors rapid political reform, but cooperates less with the PRI than does the PAN. Members of the PRD are often critical of some of the consequences associated with economic policies or trade pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Some of these consequences include increased foreign control of Mexico’s economy after state-owned industries and resources are sold to foreign investors, and the failure of many Mexican businesses since NAFTA was first enacted in 1994.

Social Services in Mexico

Mexico was the first nation in the world to include the term social security in its constitution (1917), but the program was not implemented until 1943. Mexico’s social security system—which includes subsidized medical and hospital care that is available to all citizens—is much more comprehensive than that found in the United States. However, these medical services are often unavailable in smaller, isolated communities, and many Mexicans from rural locations or predominantly indigenous communities have limited access to healthcare. In addition, public facilities are generally inferior to private ones, but private care is too expensive for most Mexican households.

International Organizations in Mexico

Mexico belongs to the United Nations (UN) and participates in many of its agencies, such as the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Mexico is also a member of the Organization of American States (OAS), the most important regional diplomatic group; the Rio Group, a regional diplomatic organization that grew out of efforts by Latin American leaders to mediate conflicts in Central America during the 1980s; and the International Labor Organization (ILO).


Early Civilizations

Ancient Mexico and Central America were home to some of the earliest and most advanced civilizations in the Western Hemisphere. This region is known historically as Mesoamerica, a term that refers to the geographic area and cultural traditions of the pre-Columbian civilizations of Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Evidence indicates that hunting and gathering peoples populated Mesoamerica more than 15,000 years ago and that crop cultivation began around 8000 BC. The bottle gourd, useful for holding water and other liquids, is believed to have been one of the earliest domesticated crops; corn, beans, and squashes became the basis of the Mesoamerican diet during the period between 8000 and 2000 BC.

Mesoamerican civilization began to emerge around 2500 BC, as agriculture increasingly provided a reliable food source that could support larger and larger populations. Freed from having to constantly search for food, the formerly nomadic peoples were able to establish permanent settlements. The shift from a hunting-gathering existence to one that revolved around agriculture and village life also gave people more time to devote to architectural and cultural pursuits. This made possible large public projects such as irrigation canals and temples, as well as the creation of fired clay objects such as dishes and containers.

One of the first major Mesoamerican civilizations was established by the Olmec, a people who flourished between about 1500 and 600 BC in the swampy lowlands of what are now the Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz. Many scholars consider Olmec civilization to be one of the primary cultures from which subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations drew many of their beliefs, traditions, and architectural styles. The Olmec appear to have been the source of the widespread worship of several Mesoamerican deities. They began developing mathematics and a system of writing, used a calendar based on observation of the planets, and produced a variety of intricate jade figurines. Between 900 and 400 BC the major sites of the Olmec were destroyed.

The city-state of Teotihuacán, located in the Valley of Mexico about 40 km (25 mi) northeast of modern-day Mexico City, in turn became a powerful cultural center. Teotihuacán flourished as an important commercial and religious center between about AD 100 to 650. It had a population of at least 125,000 at its height, making it one of the largest cities in the world. Teotihuacán’s wealth and productivity enabled its inhabitants to construct great monumental structures, including the Pyramid of the Sun, more than 60 m (more than 200 feet) high, and the slightly smaller Pyramid of the Moon. Teotihuacán’s influence declined around AD 650, and the city was destroyed by a natural disaster or invasion. The fall of the “city of the gods” dispersed its people and culture across Mesoamerica.

The Zapotec people began building their religious center and capital at Monte Albán around 500 BC. Located on a mountaintop in what is now the state of Oaxaca, Monte Albán was one of the first cities in the Americas and rivaled Teotihuacán as a center of Mesoamerican culture. At its height, about AD 500, the city was home to approximately 25,000 people. The Zapotecs developed one of the earliest writing systems in the Americas, using pictorial characters known as hieroglyphics to convey simple ideas. They left numerous hieroglyphic inscriptions on the buildings and temples of Monte Albán.

Maya civilization flourished in southern Mexico and Central America between AD 300 and 900, a time known as the Classic period. The Maya built large religious centers that included ball courts, homes, and temples. They developed a method of hieroglyphic notation and recorded mythology, history, and rituals in inscriptions carved and painted on stone slabs or pillars known as stelae. Maya religion centered on the worship of a large number of nature gods and chronology among the Maya was determined by an elaborate calendar system. Although highly complex, this calendar was the most accurate known to humans until the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century.

About AD 900, the Maya centers were mysteriously abandoned, and some Maya migrated to the Yucatán Peninsula. During the Postclassic period, from 900 to the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, Maya civilization was centered in the Yucatán. A migration or invasion from central Mexico strongly influenced Maya culture and art styles during this period. Chichén Itzá and Mayapán were prominent cities.

The Toltecs rose to power in the 10th century AD and are the first people in Mesoamerica to leave a relatively complete history. Their capital of Tula, whose ruins are located near the town of Tula de Allende 75 km (47 mi) north of Mexico City, extended its political influence over much of central Mexico. Other groups paid them tribute. The Nahuatl-speaking Toltecs established colonies along their northern frontier, protecting the region against hostile groups and greatly expanding the amount of land given over to agriculture. In the 12th century droughts in the north central region weakened the Toltec hold on the region. Desperate and starving people from the north surged southward, eventually overwhelming the Toltecs and forcing them to abandon Tula. Toltec survivors migrated south to the Valley of Mexico, where they joined with other peoples.

Not all Native American groups reached the complex levels of culture achieved by those of southern and central Mexico. In general, as one moved northward the indigenous peoples tended to be more tribal and nomadic, with exceptions such as the Pueblo in what is now the southwestern United States. Native Americans in northern Mesoamerica, typically warlike and nomadic, could not be easily conquered and resisted intruders until well into the 19th century in some areas.

The Aztec Empire

A century after the collapse of the Toltec civilization, several allied tribes of Nahuatl-speaking people moved into the Valley of Mexico from the north. The principal tribe was known as the Mexica and collectively the tribes came to be known as the Aztecs. The Mexica eventually dominated the other tribes and became the major force in the establishment of the Aztec Empire in central Mexico. The name Mexico is derived from the word Mexica. Aztec civilization, drawing on the cultural advances of the Toltec and other peoples that had lived in the region, reached high levels of artistic, economic, and intellectual development.

When the Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico, most likely in the mid-13th century, they were surrounded by powerful neighbors who exacted tribute from them. They were forced to occupy a swampy area on the western side of Lake Texcoco, where their only piece of dry land was a tiny island surrounded by marshes. According to legend, the Aztecs established their settlement on the site where they observed an eagle with a serpent in its grasp on top of a cactus. The eagle and the serpent are the state symbol of modern Mexico and can be found on the nation’s flag and currency.


As the Aztecs grew in number, they established powerful military and civil organizations. Their island settlement, known as Tenochtitlán, soon grew from a small village of huts into a large city of adobe houses and stone temples. It became the Aztec capital, serving as the center for Aztec trade and military activity throughout the region. It is estimated that at the time of the Spanish invasion in the early 1500s, the city was one of the largest in the world and supported a population of about 200,000 people.

Tenochtitlán’s military strength increased, and under Itzcoatl, the first Aztec emperor, the Aztecs extended their influence throughout the entire Valley of Mexico. By the 15th century, the Aztecs had become the preeminent power in central and southern Mexico.

The political organization of the Aztec Empire extended far beyond Tenochtitlán and rested on a triple alliance between the city-states of Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. The alliance, which was established in the mid-1400s, was soon dominated by the Aztecs. A series of military campaigns extended the Aztecs’ power and influence well beyond the central valley and across Mesoamerica. On the eve of the Spanish conquest, Aztec-controlled territory reached west to the Pacific Ocean, east to the Gulf of Mexico, and south nearly to the modern-day border with Guatemala. Because of resentment against Aztec rule and internal strife within the far-flung Aztec Empire, Spanish invaders would later be able to ally with a number of Native American peoples who would help them to defeat the Aztecs.


As an agricultural society, Aztec civilization was greatly affected by the forces of nature; Aztec mythology, consequently, revolved around the worship of gods who represented the Earth, rain, and the Sun. The appeasement of such gods through human sacrifice, a practice already well established in Mesoamerica, was an indispensable part of Aztec religion. According to one Aztec belief, the Sun required daily offerings in order to ensure that it would rise again the next day.

Aztec priests typically offered the gods human hearts and blood from just-killed victims—most often male prisoners who had been captured in battle and later marched or dragged to the top of a ceremonial pyramid. The need for new sacrificial victims was one factor that pushed the warlike Aztec to continuously seek new territory and peoples to conquer.

Aztec religion also included worship of the plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl, the god of wind and learning. According to Aztec legend, Quetzalcoatl had been tricked and disgraced by another god, Tezcatlipoca, and then traveled to the east. He vowed to return and destroy those who worshiped his enemies. By the early 1500s, word of the arrival of the Spaniards in the Caribbean Sea had traveled to the Aztecs, triggering rumors that an angry Quetzalcoatl had returned to exact his revenge. While the Aztecs would soon learn that the Spanish conquerors were not gods, the prophecies of great destruction coming from the east would prove to be a reality.

The Conquest

The Spanish assault on the Aztec Empire in 1519 represented the second major stage of Spanish expansion in the Americas. The first stage had established permanent settlements in the Caribbean Sea, including the city of Santo Domingo (now the capital of the Dominican Republic) and outposts on the island of Cuba. These settlements made it possible for the Spaniards to probe the mainland of Mexico and Central America knowing that they could quickly return to their island outposts.

The first governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, sponsored three expeditions in the early 1500s that sought to explore the Gulf Coast of Mexico. The first expedition, commanded by Spanish navigator and conqueror Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, set sail from Cuba in 1517 and explored uncharted territory along the Yucatán Peninsula. When Spanish soldiers went ashore to seek water and food they were often attacked by Maya warriors. The Spaniards and the Maya engaged in a major battle in Champóton, now a port in the modern state of Campeche. More than half the Spanish expedition was killed. While the expedition ended in failure, it provided the Spaniards with more detailed knowledge of the native inhabitants of the region and sparked new interest in Mexico.

In 1518 Governor Velázquez sponsored another expedition, this time under the command of his nephew, Juan de Grijalva. The Spaniards returned to Champóton, where they avenged the defeat of the previous expedition, forcing the Maya to retreat inland after three days of fierce fighting. The expedition continued exploring the Gulf Coast, eventually encountering friendly Mayan-speaking peoples who told the Spaniards of a powerful empire to the west. Although the Spaniards did not realize it, they had reached the outer limits of the Aztec Empire.

The ruler of the Aztec Empire at this time, Montezuma II, had received reports of the Spanish explorations, as well as the battles at Champóton. He ordered his subjects along the Gulf Coast to greet the foreigners, offer them a large feast and gifts of gold and jewelry, and then ask them to leave the region. Montezuma knew of the Aztec legends and omens predicting future destruction, and is reported to have wondered whether the arrival of the Europeans heralded the return of an angry Quetzalcoatl.

The Cortés Expedition

Grijalva returned to Cuba and relayed to Governor Velázquez the tales of a powerful and wealthy Native American empire located in the interior of Mexico. This news spurred Velázquez to authorize a third expedition, this time commanded by Hernán Cortés.

As Cortés loaded his ships and recruited additional men in Cuba, some of his enemies complained that he was a poor choice to lead the expedition. They convinced Velázquez to cancel Cortés’s commission to lead the force. Cortés ignored the orders and set sail in February 1519 with about 600 men, as well as a few cannons and horses. On the Yucatán Peninsula, the expedition rescued a shipwrecked survivor, Jerónimo de Agúilar, who had been held captive by the Maya for eight years. He would provide the Spaniards with a valuable translator of the Mayan language.

The expedition sailed west along the Yucatán Peninsula and the Gulf Coast, engaging in a major battle against Tabascan warriors at the mouth of the Grijalva River. Cortés quickly realized the value of horses in battling the Native American peoples—the Tabascans had never seen horses and many fled in fear. The expedition sailed north in search of a good harbor and established a town, La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, at what is now the city of Veracruz. Cortés organized an independent government, renounced the authority of Governor Velázquez, and acknowledged only the supreme authority of the Spanish monarchy. In order to prevent any of his men from deserting because of these actions, Cortés destroyed his fleet.

When Cortés started to march inland he had about 500 men remaining. The Spaniards soon encountered the Tlaxcalan people, who lived east of the Aztec Empire and resented Aztec domination. Despite this resentment, the Tlaxcalans initially battled the Spanish invaders. After two weeks of fighting and heavy native losses, the Tlaxcalans surrendered and became allies of the Spaniards against the Aztecs. Until the conquest was achieved in 1521, the Tlaxcalans were important allies of the Spaniards and helped create a combined European/Native American army that numbered in the thousands.

In October 1519 the Spaniards and several thousand of their Tlaxcalan allies marched into Cholula, an ancient city devoted to the god Quetzalcoatl. Cholulan priests and leaders welcomed the Spaniards but demanded that the Tlaxcalans camp outside the city. After three days in the city, the Spaniards were informed of an impending ambush. Cortés reacted by summoning all the nobles of Cholula and locking them in a room, which left the Cholulans leaderless. The Spaniards, with the assistance of the Tlaxcalans, then massacred many of the city’s residents, killing more than 3,000 people in all.

As the Spaniards subdued the region around Cholula and began exploring the road to the Aztec capital, an increasingly desperate Montezuma decided not to oppose the invaders. Although about 4,000 Tlaxcalans accompanied the Spaniards as they marched toward Tenochtitlán, the combined force was still relatively small and vastly outnumbered by the Aztec warriors. On November 8, 1519, Cortés met Montezuma outside the city, the two leaders politely greeted each other, and the Aztecs led the Spaniards into their city. The Spanish soldiers established a headquarters in a large communal dwelling and were allowed to roam through the city, where they found much gold and other treasures in Aztec storehouses.

Despite the friendly reception given the Spaniards, Cortés believed that the Aztecs would attempt to drive him out. To safeguard his position, he seized Montezuma as a hostage and forced him to swear allegiance to the king of Spain, Charles I, and to provide an enormous ransom in gold and jewels. Over the next several months the Spaniards began devising strategies to conquer the entire region.

Meanwhile, Governor Velázquez had dispatched an expedition to Mexico to arrest Cortés and return him to Cuba. In April 1520 Cortés received word that the expedition had arrived on the Gulf Coast. Leaving 200 men at Tenochtitlán under the command of Pedro de Alvarado, Cortés marched with a small force to the coast. He entered the Spanish camp at night, captured the leader, and induced the majority of the Spaniards to join his force.

Battle for Tenochtitlán

In Tenochtitlán, Alvarado feared an Aztec attack and instituted a number of harsh rules while Cortés was absent from the city. When Alvarado’s men attacked and killed hundreds of worshipers at a religious ceremony, the city’s outraged population revolted and besieged the Spaniards in the building where Montezuma was still being held prisoner. The revolt was underway when Cortés returned to the city.

Cortés and his men, as well as 3,000 Tlaxcalan allies, were allowed to enter the city and join Alvarado, but they were immediately surrounded and attacked. At Cortés’s request, Montezuma addressed the Aztecs in an attempt to quell the revolt. The Aztec ruler was stoned by his people, and he died three days later. Immediate retreat from the city appeared to be the Spaniards’ only option for survival. On June 30, 1520—a rainy night that became known as the Noche Triste (“Sad Night”)—the Spaniards attempted a panicked retreat. Fleeing across a causeway, they were chased by Aztec warriors and attacked on both sides by Aztecs in canoes. More than half the Spaniards were killed, all of their cannons were lost, and most of the treasure they attempted to carry out was abandoned or lost in the lake and canals. The Aztecs pursued the retreating Spanish troops, but the survivors of the Noche Triste managed to find refuge in Tlaxcala.

During the summer of 1520, Cortés reorganized his army in Tlaxcala with the aid of reinforcements and equipment from Veracruz. He then began his return to the capital, capturing Aztec outposts along the way and subduing Aztec settlements around Lake Texcoco. By May 1521 the island capital of Tenochtitlán was isolated and surrounded by the Spaniards. Spanish artillery mounted on ships specially constructed for the shallow lake bombarded Tenochtitlán. Spanish soldiers launched daily attacks on the city, whose supplies of food and fresh water had been cut. Famine, dysentery, and smallpox ravaged the Aztec defenders. In August, after a desperate siege of three months, Cuauhtémoc, the new emperor, was captured and Tenochtitlán fell. More than 40,000 decomposed bodies littered the destroyed city and bloated corpses floated in canals and the lake. A fabulous city and its empire had been destroyed.

Colonial Mexico

The Spaniards were well aware of the political importance of the Aztec capital, and they decided to raze the city and build their Spanish city on the same site. The Spaniards set about establishing a governing bureaucracy, known as the Viceroyalty of New Spain, and expanded the reach of Spanish power north and south of the Valley of Mexico. Colonists were brought over from Spain, and the city became the principal European metropolis in the Americas. Mexico City has been the political and economic center of Mexico ever since.


A defining characteristic of colonial Mexico was the position and power of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic missionaries entered the country with the Spanish conquerors and immediately began working to convert Native Americans to Christianity. The church became enormously wealthy. In 1859 church holdings were nationalized.

The church played an important role in transferring Spanish culture and civilization to Mexico. Missionaries set up hospitals, monasteries, and schools in urban areas, and they established missions on the frontiers. They helped to expand and solidify Spanish control over the indigenous peoples of colonial Mexico, introducing Spanish culture and language to the Native Americans as they attempted to convert them to Christianity. The missionaries also became important intermediaries in conflicts between Native Americans, colonial settlers, and royal officials.

The Spanish Inquisition, a judicial institution established in Europe during the Middle Ages, was formally established in New Spain in 1571. The Inquisition enforced Catholic doctrine. It identified, tried, and sentenced religious heretics—people who held beliefs or opinions that disagreed with official church doctrine. The Inquisition also banned books that the church considered to be heretical.

The Spanish monarchy controlled the church through the device of the Patronato Real, or royal patronage, which gave the king the ability to select clerics and collect tithes. A tithe was a donation, equivalent to one-tenth of a person’s income, that Catholics were expected to give to the church for its support. Even papal bulls, or decrees, had to be approved by the king before they could be sent to the Americas.

Overall, the Catholic Church affected virtually every aspect of life in colonial Mexico. Social services—including education, hospital care, and assistance for the elderly, the poor, or the mentally disturbed—were offered primarily by the church rather than the colonial government or private operations. The church provided loans for some business ventures and kept records of births, deaths, and marriages. Priests taught in primary and secondary schools, as well as in universities, and they frequently counseled colonial officials on government matters.

Race and Social Class

The intermingling of races and cultures created a hybrid society in colonial Mexico. After the conquest, the Native American population declined dramatically due to European diseases such as smallpox and measles, to which the Native Americans had no resistance. These diseases spread quickly through the Native American population, killing large numbers of people. Estimates of the population decline vary, with the most extreme calculations suggesting a drop from about 25 million in 1519 to about 1 million by 1620.

Whatever the actual figures, the decline resulted in the emergence of a multiracial society made up of people of mixed Native American, European, African, and Asian heritage. Mestizos, or people of mixed European and Native American descent, were the biological and cultural bridge between Spaniards and Native Americans. The number of mestizos grew rapidly, as many Spanish men took Native American wives and had large families; by the 19th century mestizos would form the largest ethnic group in Mexico.

African contributions to the region began as soon as the Spaniards arrived. A free black, Juan Garrido, took an active part in the conquest of the Aztec Empire, and Hernán Cortés introduced African slaves into central Mexico shortly after the fall of Tenochtitlán. Several hundred slaves arrived in the first decade after the conquest; an estimated 200,000 African slaves were brought to New Spain over the course of the colonial period. Racial mixing and intermarriage produced a sizable population of mulattoes, or people of European and African descent, as well as zambos, who were people of African and Native American descent. By the 19th century, however, people of African descent had been almost completely absorbed into Mexico’s mestizo population.

Race was a sure indicator of social class immediately after the conquest. The highest social class was the peninsulares, a racial distinction that referred to people who were living in Mexico but had been born in Spain. The peninsulares were sent from Spain to hold the highest colonial offices in both the civil and church administrations. The peninsulares never made up more than 1 percent of the population of the colony and they held themselves aloof from the criollos (Creoles), people of European descent born in the Americas, who occupied the next step on the social ladder. Criollos were almost never given high office. The resentment of the criollos against the more privileged peninsulares became an influential force in the later movement for Mexican independence. Below the criollos were the mestizos, followed by the Native Americans and the blacks.

Gradually class became more important than race as a measure of social status in colonial Mexico. Individuals of mixed racial background who became wealthy and socially important often claimed criollo status. The number of claimants to criollo status prompted the Spanish monarchy in the 18th century to create a legal device that, in return for a fee, would establish a person’s legal whiteness.


An important aspect of the early colonial economy of Mexico was the exploitation of Native Americans. Although thousands of Native Americans were killed during the Spanish conquest, they were still the great majority of inhabitants and inevitably became the laboring class. Native Americans performed much of the farming, mining, and ranching work in the colony. Although Spain had decreed that the Native Americans were free and entitled to wages, they were often treated little better than slaves. Their plight was initially the result of the encomienda system, by which European settlers, explorers, and soldiers were granted access to Native American labor to work their large land holdings.

The government of Spain made several attempts to regulate the exploitation of Native American labor on farms and in mines in the mid-16th century. The New Laws of 1542 forbade the enslavement of Native Americans, prevented the granting of any new encomiendas, and declared that existing encomiendas would revert to the Spanish monarchy upon the death of their holders. Because the colonists strongly opposed the reforms and threatened general revolt, Spain relaxed its position on the inheritance of encomiendas. Spanish officials were largely unable to enforce the remaining measures.

Another system of forced labor, known as the repartimiento (division), emerged in the mid-16th century. The repartimiento required Native American communities to supply a quota of workers that would be available for hire by the Spanish settlers. This system could be burdensome and harsh, especially in silver mines, and it diverted native laborers away from their own agricultural tasks.

Slaves and free blacks worked in the ports of cities such as Veracruz and Acapulco, and labored in mines, factories, plantations, and sugar mills. Some slaves worked as household servants in urban areas, while some free blacks managed rural properties for absentee owners or were put in charge of Native American workers. Colonial Mexico witnessed several slave riots and some runaway slaves managed to establish independent communities in rugged, isolated regions.

European crops such as wheat, oats, barley, and a variety of secondary items were introduced after the conquest and soon flourished. Cattle, sheep, goats, hogs, oxen, mules, burros, and horses added new food stocks as well as draft animals. By 1600 an estimated 10 million animals of European origin roamed the countryside. Land holdings varied in size depending on climate. In the north, scarce water and dry grasses required vast haciendas, or estates, to support cattle. In more fertile areas in central Mexico, the land holdings were much smaller, and hacienda owners generally engaged in mixed agricultural activities.

Mining operations centered on silver deposits. Cortés owned the first silver mine in New Spain, which opened in Taxco (Taxco de Alarcón), located about 110 km (70 mi) southwest of Mexico City. Small, but disappointing strikes followed until 1546, when rich silver deposits were discovered to the northwest of the capital, in what is now the state of Zacatecas. Other major strikes followed, mostly in the north, drawing miners and settlers into that region. Unlike agricultural items, silver enjoyed an instant market in Europe and Asia, and its high value covered the cost of transportation. Mining, exporting, and trading silver made possible a complex and diversified economy in colonial Mexico.

Large merchants tended to dominate commerce in New Spain. Merchants dealt in products imported from Spain, as well as items obtained from trade with other nations. This trade was illegal, as Spain required Mexican colonists to export to Spain raw materials such as silver and sugar, and to buy processed goods only from Spanish merchants. These attempts at strict regulation of trade in colonial Mexico were largely ineffective. Thus, much of Mexico’s silver was used to buy goods from foreigners and found its way into the pockets of Spain’s competitors; an estimated one-third of the silver mined in colonial Mexico ended up in Asia.


According to royal decree, every municipality in New Spain had the obligation to operate a primary school; most did not do so. People with sufficient resources sent their children to church schools; in a small village a priest might offer some instruction. Young girls sometimes attended convent schools or private secular schools operated by women, and secondary schools for young women opened shortly after the conquest. Secondary education for males was largely in the hands of Jesuit missionaries, who arrived in Mexico in 1572. Only a limited number of students attended school at any level, however. In general, wealthy individuals employed private tutors and the lower class remained illiterate. Blacks, Native Americans, people of mixed ethnicity, and women of any race had limited educational opportunities. Nevertheless, a determined individual could acquire a basic education, regardless of class.

Higher education began with the founding of the University of Mexico in 1551. Theology and law dominated the curriculum, but the university had chairs in medicine and Native American languages. Mexican-born don Carlos de Sigüenza y Gongora, who held the chair of mathematics and astronomy, demonstrated the high intellectual achievement made possible by the colonial educational system. Women could not attend the university, however. The great 17th-century Mexican intellectual, Juana Inés de la Cruz, begged to be allowed to enter the university, even offering to attend dressed as a man.


Soon after the conquest, Hernán Cortés established a basic but functional local governmental structure based on the municipality, or city. Municipalities controlled smaller towns and villages. In 1528 the Spanish monarchy established a high court, known as the Audiencia, and by 1530 it was staffed by well-trained judges and had established a degree of royal control. In 1535, nearly 15 years after the fall of the Aztec empire, the Spanish government established the Viceroyalty of New Spain and appointed the first Spanish viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza, who was an accomplished administrator. The viceroy served as the head of the Audiencia, chief executive of New Spain, and military leader of the viceroyalty under the title of captain-general.

Theoretically, the viceroys controlled all of New Spain, which eventually included what is now Mexico, the Philippine Islands, Central America, the islands of the Antilles, California, New Mexico, and uncharted territory along the Gulf Coast. In reality, however, the viceroy exercised direct authority only over the central regions of New Spain. In other areas, distance and poor communications made it necessary to rely upon governors and other officials.

The administration of New Spain also relied on other bodies, including the Consulado (merchant guild), which dealt with commercial matters. A special tribunal, the Juzgado de Indios, was established in 1573 to hear appeals from Native Americans against the actions of district governors. A variety of lesser bodies dealt with the needs of a complex colonial society.


During the late 18th century, after Spain suffered a number of military defeats in Europe, the Spanish monarchy determined to improve the defenses of its empire. To pay for these improvements, it attempted to increase revenues. The Spanish monarchy was also concerned about inefficiency and corruption in the bureaucracy of its colonial governments. Bribery and extortion were common, despite periodic royal investigations. In the late 1700s the monarchy instituted a series of administrative changes, known as the Bourbon Reforms, that aimed to raise money for defense and centralize government authority. Spain sent one of its leading bureaucrats, José de Gálvez, on a visita, or official tour of inspection, of New Spain between 1765 and 1771. Gálvez reorganized tax collection methods and changed the tax structure.

One of the most significant reforms, decreed in 1778, lifted restrictions on colonial trade. The measure allowed colonists a greater role in commerce and permitted widespread trade between the Viceroyalty of New Spain and other Spanish colonies in the Americas. Another reform, aimed at centralizing the colonial government, created important administrative positions and filled them all with peninsulares. As part of the effort to defend its empire, Spain created colonial armies by enlarging existing militias.

The extensive tax and administrative changes received little sympathy in Mexico, where many had prospered under the old system. Attempts to institute reforms provoked riots and antigovernment protests, which were put down by force, further upsetting many Mexicans. Many colonists disapproved of Spain’s attempt to strengthen its political control. Criollos, in particular, were upset that they had been excluded from the new administrative jobs in the viceroyalty. The colonists’ new-found economic freedom also increased their resentment against Spain—many colonists believed they would benefit even more if they broke away from Spain completely and ran their own economic affairs.

Efforts by the Spanish monarchy to limit the power of the Catholic Church also aroused opposition in New Spain. The church and various religious orders, most notably the Jesuits, had amassed great wealth and held large amounts of land in the colony. The monarchy viewed the church as an economic and political rival and moved to limit its power by curtailing church privileges. In 1767 the monarchy expelled the Jesuits from Spain and its colonies, and confiscated the economic holdings of the religious order. The Spanish monarchy went even further in 1804, seizing additional land and economic assets from the Catholic Church. These actions angered many colonists and priests, and induced many clergy to begin to support the idea of independence.

By the beginning of the 19th century, criollo resentment against the peninsulares and the government of New Spain had seriously weakened the link between the colony and the parent country.

To these internal conditions was added the influence of the Enlightenment, a European intellectual movement that challenged many political and social institutions, such as class distinctions, monarchy, and religion. Many criollos in New Spain read the works of leading Enlightenment writers and began to question the legitimacy of their colonial relationship with Spain. The Mexican colonists were also influenced by the political examples of the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799), both of which overthrew a monarchy and established a republican form of government.

Crisis in Spain

The immediate crisis that moved Mexico to take the final steps toward independence came as a result of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain. In 1808 French troops of Napoleon I flooded into Spain, and the Spanish royal family was lured to France, where it passed the Spanish crown into Napoleon’s hands. He then gave it to his brother. The people of Madrid began a revolt that spread throughout Spain.

With central authority in Spain weakened, the leaders of New Spain began to quarrel among themselves. The viceroy, under pressure from influential criollos, permitted some criollos to participate in the administration. A small group of peninsulares objected to the viceroy allowing the criollos to have more influence. The peninsulares staged a coup d’état and overthrew the viceregal government.

Hidalgo’s Rebellion

The struggle for power between various political factions eventually set off a rebellion that led to civil war. In 1810 Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a priest who was familiar with the ideas of the Enlightenment, launched a revolt that aimed to free Mexico from the oppression of the Spanish colonial government and the peninsulares. Hidalgo called for the immediate abolition of slavery and an end to taxes imposed upon Native Americans.

The effort to overthrow the colonial government soon turned into a social rebellion as tens of thousands of Native Americans near Mexico City—suffering from the effects of rising food prices and declining wages—joined thousands of mestizos in the uprising. Hidalgo recruited an army of about 80,000 troops and enjoyed some initial military success. When they encountered armed resistance in the city of Guanajuato, the rebels massacred loyalist forces and looted the city. The extreme violence and destruction of the revolt appalled many criollos, and few of them joined the rebellion; many sided instead with the peninsulares, who offered stability.

The rebels marched south toward Mexico City, fighting royalist forces near the capital on October 30, 1810. The royalists retreated from the battle, opening the way for Hidalgo’s troops to march on the city. Hidalgo’s force had suffered heavy casualties, however, and many of his inexperienced soldiers deserted. Aware that a large royalist force was approaching, and fearing that his army would turn into an unruly mob if it entered the capital, Hidalgo abandoned his plans to occupy the city. As the rebels withdrew to the northwest, many of Hidalgo’s followers drifted away. In January 1811, the remains of Hidalgo’s army were soundly defeated near Guadalajara by a smaller group of Spanish soldiers. Hidalgo fled to the north but was captured in March and executed on July 30, 1811.


The leadership of the popular insurgency next fell to another priest, José María Morelos y Pavón. Like Hidalgo, he called for racial and social equality in Mexico, in addition to independence, but he was a better military leader. Under Morelos, the rebel forces captured considerable territory, including the city of Acapulco, and declared Mexican independence at the Congress of Chilpancingo in 1813. Royalist forces, however, still controlled Mexico City and most of the viceroyalty. Morelos’s army suffered a major defeat in December 1813 at the hands of royalist forces under Agustín de Iturbide, a criollo general. Morelos was captured by royalist forces in 1815 and executed. After Morelos was killed, the revolution continued under Vicente Guerrero, who headed a comparatively small army. The rebels fragmented into small groups, however, often mixing banditry with politics.


The Spanish revolution of 1820 altered the rebellion in Mexico. This revolution restored the liberal Spanish constitution of 1812 and emphasized representative government and individual liberty. These liberal political tendencies in Spain dismayed some Mexican leaders, but of more concern to Mexico’s elite was the instability in Spain. Reflecting elite consensus, Iturbide met Guerrero in 1821 and signed a compromise agreement in which the two agreed to combine their forces to bring about independence. Their plan, known as the Plan of Iguala, set forth three mutual guarantees: Mexico would become an independent country, ruled as a limited monarchy; the Roman Catholic Church would be the state church; and criollos would be given the same rights and privileges as peninsulares. The viceroy took no active measures against Iturbide and was forced to resign. The last viceroy of New Spain arrived in Mexico in July 1821 and was forced to accept the Treaty of Córdoba, marking the formal beginning of Mexican independence. See also Latin American Independence.

The hero of the moment, Iturbide, proclaimed himself emperor of Mexico in May 1822. He held the position with some difficulty until March 1823, when the military forced him to abdicate. A republic was proclaimed, and Guadalupe Victoria became the first president. With the end of the Mexican Empire, Central America broke away from Mexico to become the United Provinces of Central America.

The Early Republic

Mexico was unprepared for the task of creating a new republic. Civil war had destroyed both social stability and the economy. Tax revenue fell to disastrously low levels as the economy struggled to revive. Moreover, few had the political experience to bind the nation together. Regional elites viewed with suspicion any attempt by Mexico City to establish a degree of central control. Deciding the actual role of the federal government required time and debate. The first constitution, promulgated in 1824, gave state legislators the power to elect both the president and the vice president. As a result, a series of weak presidents struggled to form an effective government.

During this time, Mexico’s political elite began to divide into two opposing factions: conservatives and liberals. The conservatives favored a highly centralized government, even a dictatorship if necessary, and wanted to maintain the Catholic Church’s power and control of educational facilities. The conservative faction was composed primarily of church leaders, rich landowners, criollos, and army officials. The liberals wanted a federation of states that was not strictly controlled by a central government. They also sought to limit the power of the Catholic Church, foster public education rather than church-controlled education, and institute social reforms.

Vicente Guerrero, who had become a leader in the liberal faction, became president in 1829, but was shot and killed in 1831 by forces led by conservative political and military leader Anastasio Bustamante. Revolt followed revolt until 1833, when Antonio López de Santa Anna, a military commander, was elected president. Santa Anna—who had led the military revolt that brought down Iturbide and the short-lived Mexican Empire—was a man of considerable egotism, energy, and intelligence. Shortly after he came to power, his policies involved the new republic in war over the future of Texas.

The Texas Revolution

In the early 1800s Texas was a sparsely populated and weakly governed region that functioned as part of the Mexican state of Coahuila and Texas. In 1820 Moses Austin, a U.S. citizen, received permission from the Mexican government to bring American settlers to the region. He died shortly thereafter, but his son, Stephen F. Austin, was allowed to continue with the project in 1821. By the 1830s most of the residents of Texas were immigrants from the southern United States. These new residents of Texas soon had differences with the Mexican government, which had abolished slavery in 1829 and in 1830 had passed a law that prohibited further immigration from the United States.

In 1834 a political crisis resulted in the overthrow of the constitution of 1824, which had created the federal republic of Mexico. A new centralist constitution, which stripped the Mexican states of their autonomy, was enacted in 1836. Protests and revolts rocked the country, but the conservatives prevailed. However, the protests against centralization encouraged the Texans to rebel against Mexican authority in 1835, in what came to be known as the Texas Revolution. President Santa Anna, alarmed and anxious to avoid the unraveling of the nation, arrived in San Antonio, Texas, in early 1836, where his troops defeated a small group of Texans at The Alamo, a Franciscan mission that had been converted into a fort.

The subsequent execution of more than 280 Texan prisoners at Goliad, by order of Santa Anna, ended any hope of political compromise. At the Battle of San Jacinto Santa Anna’s forces were defeated by troops under the command of Texan leader Sam Houston. In May 1836 Santa Anna signed the Treaty of Velasco, in which he agreed to order Mexican troops in Texas to retreat south of the Rio Grande, a major river known as the Río Bravo in Mexico, and to persuade the Mexican government to accept the independence of Texas. Mexico refused to acknowledge the independent republic but made no serious effort to regain control of the territory.

Meanwhile, Texans elected Houston to be the first president of the Republic of Texas. The short-lived republic was annexed by the United States less than a decade later. The Texas Revolution and the annexation of Texas by the United States were among the factors that led to the outbreak of war between the United States and Mexico in 1846.

The Mexican War

In 1845 U.S. president James K. Polk sent diplomat John Slidell to Mexico to seek border adjustments in Texas in return for the U.S. government’s settlement of the claims of U.S. citizens against Mexico, and also to make an offer to purchase California and New Mexico. The Mexican authorities refused to negotiate with Slidell. After the failure of this mission, a U.S. army under General Zachary Taylor advanced to the mouth of the Rio Grande, the river that the state of Texas claimed as its southern boundary. Mexico, claiming that the boundary was the Nueces River, to the northeast of the Rio Grande, considered the advance of Taylor’s army an act of aggression and sent troops across the Rio Grande in 1846. Polk, in turn, declared the Mexican advance to be an invasion of U.S. soil, and the U.S. Congress declared war on Mexico. See also Mexican War.

Santa Anna, who had been deposed and exiled to Cuba in 1844, was called back to the presidency to attempt to save the republic. Mexican forces were defeated in battle after battle, however, and U.S. troops occupied much of northern Mexico by the end of the year. Mexico City fell in 1847, and Mexican forces surrendered soon thereafter. Under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848, the Rio Grande was fixed as the southern boundary of Texas. Territory now forming the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming became part of the United States.

During the Mexican War, the Maya people of the Yucatán Peninsula had launched a major revolt against the white and mestizo population of the region. This struggle, known as the Caste War of the Yucatán, began in 1847 and was an effort to end the exploitation of the Maya and stop nonnatives from taking over communal Maya lands. The rebellion was largely defeated by 1853, and the war drove many Maya across the Yucatán Peninsula into remote regions of what is now the state of Quintana Roo. These eastern Maya maintained an independent state in the region until Mexico’s federal army occupied their land and subdued them in 1901.

Famine, disease, and battlefield casualties combined to kill at least 30 percent of the prewar population of the Yucatán Peninsula during the Maya revolt. The conflict also decimated the sugar industry of southeastern Yucatán, and induced much of the region’s remaining population to move to the northwest. In addition, the rebellion strained relations between the Maya and nonnatives throughout southern Mexico, resulting in more racially motivated conflicts later in the century.

After the Mexican War, Mexico was confronted with a grave reconstruction problem. Finances were devastated, and the prestige of the government, already weak, had diminished considerably. Santa Anna, who had been compelled to resign after the war, returned from exile in 1853 and, with the support of conservatives, declared himself dictator. Later that year, Santa Anna sold the Mesilla Valley in northwestern Mexico to the United States for $10 million. Known as the Gadsden Purchase, the deal clarified the New Mexico boundary and gave an additional strip of territory (now southern Arizona and a slice of southwestern New Mexico) to the United States. This was the last territorial transfer made by Mexico.

Early in 1854 a group of young liberals launched a revolt against Santa Anna; after more than a year of intense fighting, the liberal forces prevailed and took over the government. Santa Anna fled into exile, and liberal rebel leader Juan Álvarez became the provisional president of Mexico. The rebellion was the first event in a long, fierce struggle between the powerful conservative elites that had traditionally dominated Mexico and the liberals.

Juárez and the French Occupation

The 1855 takeover of the government by the liberals began a period known as La Reforma, in which liberal leaders sought to reduce the power of the church and the military in Mexican politics and society. Later that year President Álvarez was replaced by Ignacio Comonfort, a liberal who sought a more gradual pace of reform. In 1857 the liberals enacted a new constitution, which reestablished a federal form of government. It provided for individual rights, universal male suffrage, freedom of speech, and other civil liberties. The constitution also abolished special courts for members of the military or clergy, and ordered the church and other institutions to auction off any land or buildings not absolutely necessary for their operation.

Conservative groups bitterly opposed the new constitution. With Spain supporting the conservatives and the United States supporting the liberals, a bitterly divided Mexico sank into a period of civil strife known as the War of the Reform (1858-1860). This violent struggle between conservative and liberal groups devastated Mexico.

The great leader to emerge from the liberal faction during this period was Benito Pablo Juárez, a Native American who became famous for his integrity. Juárez served as the minister of justice in President Álvarez’s cabinet, and for the next 15 years he would be the principal influence in Mexican politics.

In 1858 a political revolt overthrew President Comonfort and Juárez became provisional president. Soon afterward conservatives who had participated in the revolt forced Juárez to flee Mexico City; he established a new seat of government in Veracruz. Mexico now had two competing governments: one led by conservatives based in Mexico City, and one led by liberals based in Veracruz. Conservative forces controlled much of central Mexico, but they were unable to drive the Juárez forces from Veracruz. As provisional president, Juárez issued a decree nationalizing church property, separating church and state, and suppressing religious orders. The Juárez government gradually gained the upper hand, and by 1861 the liberal armies had decisively defeated the conservative forces.

Juárez moved his government to Mexico City, was elected president in 1861, and set about trying to establish order in the troubled country. He attempted to ease the financial chaos caused by the civil war by suspending interest payments on foreign loans incurred by preceding governments. Angered by his decree, France, Britain, and Spain decided to intervene jointly to protect their investments in Mexico.

The prime mover in this decision was Napoleon III of France, who believed that Mexico would welcome the creation of a monarchy. He hoped that a Mexican monarchy would protect Latin America from the Anglo-Saxon republicanism of the United States. A joint expedition occupied Veracruz in 1861, but when Napoleon’s colonial ambitions became evident, the British and Spanish withdrew in 1862.

The French encountered unexpected resistance at Puebla, as General Ignacio Zaragoza repulsed the invaders on May 5, 1862. That date, known as Cinco de Mayo in Spanish, henceforth became a popular national holiday. A shocked and angered Napoleon III dispatched another 30,000 troops, who spent two months capturing Puebla before sweeping into Mexico City in June 1863. A provisional conservative government proclaimed a Mexican empire and offered the monarchy, at Napoleon’s request, to Austrian archduke Maximilian.

Meanwhile, Juárez and his cabinet had fled northward with a small force. By early 1865 only the states of Chiapas, Guerrero, and part of Michoacán—in southern Mexico—and Chihuahua and Sonora—in northern Mexico—remained under liberal control. While the United States continued to recognize the Juárez regime, it could offer little help because of its own civil war. Just as Maximilian hovered on the verge of establishing control over the entire country, events in Europe prompted the French to withdraw their troops in 1867. The Juárez forces reconquered the country, and troops under General Porfirio Díaz occupied Mexico City. Maximilian was besieged at Querétaro and forced to surrender. He was executed by a Mexican firing squad in 1867.

The Restored Republic

Although Benito Juárez now faced some opposition from other liberals who opposed his efforts to alter the Mexican constitution, he won the presidential elections of December 1867. In the struggle to put down chronic political and social violence in the aftermath of the French intervention, Juárez sought to draw liberals and conservatives together in some sort of political consensus. He also suspended some constitutional guarantees and worked to strengthen the presidency, which prompted critics to accuse him of running a dictatorship.

Juárez’s decision to run for a fourth term in 1872 split his followers. After an indecisive election in 1871, the congress of Mexico declared Juárez president. Díaz, who had been defeated in the election, led an unsuccessful insurrection. Juárez died in office in 1872 and was succeeded by Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, head of the Mexican supreme court. In 1876, when Lerdo de Tejada sought reelection, Díaz led another revolt. Successful this time, he became president in 1877.

Díaz used his first term to consolidate his position and then stepped aside for a personally selected successor, General Manuel González. In 1884 Díaz once again became president. He would remain in office until 1911 and his long rule would become known as the Porfiriato.

The Díaz Years

Porfirio Díaz projected a statesmanlike image of calm strength that reassured the country. He accepted the notion that Mexico’s future depended upon modernization and foreign investment. Completion of the nation’s railway network and its links with that of the United States received considerable attention, and Díaz did everything in his power to attract foreign investment. In 1888 Mexico negotiated a debt consolidation plan that opened the way for a flood of foreign money to pour into the nation. The country opened up new markets for its mineral and agricultural products and brought new land under cultivation. Díaz also laid the foundation for industrial development.

Concentration of land ownership during the Porfiriato, coupled with the loss of communal holdings, made it difficult for people to practice subsistence agriculture. Díaz favored the rich owners of large estates, increasing their properties by allowing them to absorb communal lands that belonged to Native Americans. Many landless peasants fell into debt peonage, a system of economic servitude in which workers became indebted to their employers for both money and supplies and were forced to labor in mines or plantations until the debt was paid. Sometimes the debt was handed down from generation to generation, forcing the children of indebted laborers to work to pay off their parents’ debts. By 1910 some 90 percent of the rural inhabitants of central Mexico were landless.

During the Porfiriato a two-tier society emerged, as those able to take advantage of modernization became rich and the poor sank further into poverty. As many rural inhabitants and Native Americans lost land to large commercial interests, agricultural workers failed to secure a reasonable share of the nation’s growing wealth. Large operations, intent on achieving the most production at the lowest cost, kept wages low. Most employees had no paid holidays, sick leave, or industrial accident insurance. This started to change in 1904, when legislation began to address the problems.

Real wages relative to purchasing power declined approximately 20 percent in Mexico between 1876 and 1910. Moreover, agricultural production for internal consumption dropped as agricultural exports reduced food stocks. Corn and beans, the core of the lower-class diet, had to be imported. Sporadic food riots occurred throughout the country. In 1905 the government sold food at subsidized prices, and in 1909 it opened 50 subsidized food stores in Mexico City.

Unbalanced economic progress was one problem that marred the Porfiriato, but there were others. Díaz gave insufficient attention to social needs, paying little attention to education for the people. He also favored the church, ignoring the secularization policy of 1859. Finally, he failed to modernize the political system, allowing regional elites to control the country’s economic and political affairs. Although elections were held at all levels of government, they were generally meaningless. Only handpicked candidates were allowed to win, and the president appointed his loyal friends to political offices throughout the country.

Discontent and a spirit of revolt increased throughout Mexico. Many working-class Mexicans became sympathetic to the ideas of people such as Ricardo Flores Magón, a journalist and labor activist who founded the newspaper Regeneración in 1900 to oppose the Díaz dictatorship. The paper was shut down the next year and Flores Magón was arrested. He continued to criticize the tyranny of the government in other newspapers and was eventually banned from publishing in Mexico; in 1904 he renewed publication of Regeneración from Texas. Flores Magón’s attacks on the Díaz regime in turn influenced other radical reformers such as Emiliano Zapata, in the state of Morelos, and Felipe Carrillo Puerto in Yucatán.

Aware of the growing discontent, Díaz announced in 1908 that he would welcome an opposition candidate in the 1910 election. The candidate put forward by a liberal group was Francisco Indalécio Madero. However, Díaz had Madero arrested and Díaz won the election. After Madero was freed, he fled to San Antonio, Texas, where he proclaimed a revolt. His first call to arms met with little response, but across the border in Mexico, small groups began to gather recruits and oppose the Díaz regime with violence. Madero soon found himself at the head of an unexpectedly successful movement. Díaz resigned on May 25, 1911, and went into permanent exile in Europe. See also Mexican Revolution.

The Mexican Revolution

Madero was swept into office with few concrete ideas. As a wealthy northerner, he envisioned political reform, not revolution. Radical groups who had pinned their hopes on Madero quickly became disenchanted. Emiliano Zapata soon understood that Madero had no interest in revolutionary change. When Madero adopted a cautious policy on land reform, Zapata revolted and issued his Plan of Ayala in November 1911. The proclamation called for the immediate transfer of land to peasant farmers and insisted on the right of Mexican citizens to choose their own leaders. In the north, Madero’s former followers, most notably supporters of rebel leader Francisco “Pancho” Villa, felt betrayed and also took up arms against Madero.

Many feared that Madero could not control the increasingly chaotic situation. Anti-Madero conspiracies and an attempted coup further unsettled the nation. The head of Madero’s army, Victoriano Huerta, seized control of Mexico City and became provisional president in February 1913. Four days after assuming power, Huerta had Madero murdered. Huerta attempted to make peace with Zapata, but Zapata did not trust him and the fighting continued. A third group, known as the Constitutionalists, was outraged at the blatant seizure of power. This group, led by the governor of the state of Coahuila, Venustiano Carranza, also challenged the federal army.

In the United States, President Woodrow Wilson refused to recognize the Huerta government because Huerta had taken power illegally. Under Wilson’s order the U.S. Navy seized the port of Veracruz to prevent the delivery of weapons to Huerta’s forces. To Wilson’s surprise the occupation of Veracruz set off violent anti-American protests throughout Mexico. Nevertheless, Huerta resigned in July 1914.

Huerta’s resignation further split the rebels into factions. Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata pressed for social change and land reforms, while Carranza thought primarily in terms of political reforms. The two rebel leaders eventually teamed up against Carranza; by December 1914 rebel forces had occupied Mexico City and Puebla. Carranza’s general, Alvaro Obregón, succeeded in driving Villa and Zapata out of Mexico City, and his forces eventually dominated the country.

As head of the Constitutionalist forces, Carranza became provisional president in 1914 and manipulated events along the border to force the United States to recognize his government. Carranza insisted he could not control cross-border violence unless the United States recognized his authority. Mexican rebels had attacked a ranch, derailed a passenger train, and engaged in other types of violence on the U.S. side of the border, killing more than 100 people. In August 1915 a commission representing eight Latin American countries and the United States recognized Carranza as the lawful authority in Mexico. The rebel leaders, with the exception of Villa, laid down their arms.

In March 1916 Pancho Villa sent a raiding party into Columbus, New Mexico, apparently attempting to demonstrate that Carranza did not control northern Mexico. He evidently hoped to provoke a reaction from the United States—perhaps an arms embargo that might deny his enemies the weapons they needed. As a result of the raid, a punitive expedition under U.S. General John J. Pershing chased the rebels for more than a year, but failed to capture Villa.

The Constitution of 1917

Carranza called for a constitutional convention, which met in Querétaro in 1917 to draft a new constitution. Many of the delegates shared Carranza’a belief that political reform combined with some minor social reforms were all that the country needed. Others insisted that social issues needed more attention. In the end, the document that emerged was clearly more radical than the president desired.

The new constitution provided for a labor code that established the right of workers to organize and strike. It also stated that all subsoil minerals, including petroleum and silver, belonged to the people of Mexico. This measure aimed to curb foreign ownership of mineral properties and land and represented a sharp break with Mexico’s past natural resources policies, which had encouraged foreign investment in the nation’s economy. In addition, the constitution prohibited a president from serving consecutive terms, placed severe limitations on the ability of the Roman Catholic Church to own land, and restored communal lands to Native Americans. Many provisions were, for their day, quite radical. The constitution fostered the development of organized labor in Mexico, severely reduced the role of the Catholic Church in education, and laid the groundwork for the nationalization of Mexico’s petroleum industry in the 1930s. It also paved the way for the land reforms that would occur from the 1920s through the 1940s.

Carranza, who was elected president in 1917, did not enforce many of the constitutional provisions, and turbulence continued. In 1920 three leading generals—Plutarco Elías Calles, Obregón, and Adolfo de la Huerta—revolted against Carranza, who was killed in the ensuing conflict. Obregón was elected president in 1920.

Obregón hoped to end the widespread violence, restore the nation’s shattered economy, and make the social reforms necessary to establish class cooperation. He instituted some land reforms and established rural schools, but he also used bribes, concessions, or force to gather support. Obregón secured U.S. recognition for his regime in 1923 when he consented to arbitrate and adjust the claims of U.S. oil companies. Later in the year, the United States supported the Obregón regime during an abortive revolt. Obregón chose Plutarco Elías Calles to succeed him as president.

The Calles Years

President Calles continued Obregón’s land and education policies and cut the army’s budget to free money for social needs. He also rehabilitated Mexican finances, instituted an educational program, and succeeded in adjusting the dispute with the foreign oil companies. In carrying out religious reforms, however, Calles provoked considerable opposition; relations between the church and the Mexican government became severely strained. The church resisted the placing of primary education under secular supervision, the required registration of priests, the expulsion of foreign-born priests, and the closing of 73 convents.

In 1926 a general religious strike suspended all public religious services. In what came to be known as the Cristero Rebellion, Catholic insurgents burned schools, dynamited troop trains, and even murdered rural schoolteachers. The states of Jalisco, Michoacán, and Colima echoed with the cry, “Viva Cristo Rey” (Long Live Christ the King). The tension was lessened largely through the mediation of Dwight W. Morrow, who became U.S. ambassador to Mexico in 1927. The Mexican government eventually compromised on some of the most anticlerical measures. At least 90,000 Mexicans died during the three-year conflict.

Presidential succession again resulted in a crisis after Obregón was assassinated on July 17, 1928, at a dinner to celebrate his reelection. Calles devised a solution in which he would effectively run the country through a series of puppet presidents. He established an official party, the Partido Nacional Revolucionario, or PNR, known in English as the National Revolutionary Party. The PNR was the forerunner of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI, known in English as the Institutional Revolutionary Party. The PRI dominated Mexican politics from its formation until the end of the 20th century. Calles became known as the undisputed Jefe Maximo, or Maximum Chief, of Mexico, and his period of rule via puppet presidents was known as the Maximato.

The Cárdenas Era

In 1934 Calles selected Lázaro Cárdenas as the PNR candidate and Cárdenas was elected easily. Cárdenas turned out to be much more independent than the puppet presidents who had preceded him, which surprised and angered Calles. After his election, Cárdenas moved to reduce the role of the army in Mexican politics, and emphasized land reforms, social welfare, and education. When Calles opposed some of these reforms, he was sent into exile.

Cárdenas established a reputation as a revolutionary reformer. By the end of his term, one-third of the country’s population had received land, usually as a member of a communal farm known as an ejido. Workers became a major political force and were able to press for improved wages and working conditions.

In 1936 an expropriation law was passed enabling the government to seize private property whenever it was deemed necessary for public or social welfare. The national railways of Mexico were nationalized in 1937. In 1938, after foreign-owned oil companies refused to pay workers a wage set by arbitration and backed by the Mexican supreme court, the Mexican government took over the property of the foreign oil companies. A government agency called Petróleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, was created to administer the nationalized industry. The expropriations seriously affected the Mexican oil industry, making it difficult for Mexico to sell oil in U.S., Dutch, and British territories. Mexico was forced to arrange barter deals with Italy, Germany, and Japan. The oil trade with these nations, however, was cut short by World War II (1939-1945).

Cárdenas’s successor, Manuel Ávila Camacho, was selected to strengthen the economy as well as consolidate the social reforms. To those who viewed Cárdenas as a true revolutionary, the election of 1940 represented the effective end of the Mexican Revolution. Ávila Camacho softened anticlericalism and cut back on land reforms. World War II also shifted the country’s focus. Mexico declared war on the Axis powers on May 22, 1942, and cooperated fully with the U.S. war effort. Approximately 250,000 Mexicans served in the U.S. military, and one received the Medal of Honor. Mexican workers, both agricultural and industrial, worked in the southwestern United States during the war under a contract labor arrangement known as the Bracero program.

Q. Postwar Mexico

Miguel Alemán Valdés, the first Mexican president without a military background since Francisco Madero, assumed office in 1946. His government began recruiting administrators from among university graduates, rather than military professionals. In 1947 Alemán became the first Mexican president to visit the United States as head of state. Alemán emphasized large-scale industrial and agricultural growth, as well as foreign investment. During his presidency government-financed dams and irrigation projects brought large areas of Mexico into cultivation and tripled the nation’s output of electricity. A dual society began to emerge during this period—one based on capital-intensive industrial and agricultural wealth, and the other tied to labor-intensive activities with poor wages. Economic growth helped Mexico’s growing middle class, but it failed to benefit many poor Mexicans and contributed to growing social inequality. Alemán promised to battle growing corruption in local and state PRI organizations, but his own administration became tarnished by bribery and corruption at all levels.

Dissatisfaction and anger over government corruption resulted in the selection of Adolfo Ruíz Cortines as president in 1952. Ruíz Cortines initiated an anticorruption drive that made some progress in restoring the government’s credibility, but did little to combat the custom of the mordida (bite), a bribe that was often demanded by minor bureaucrats, or to stop larger payoffs to officials who awarded government contracts. In 1953 the president helped to pass a constitutional change that gave women the right to vote. Increasingly, the Mexican government relied upon troops and police to quell protests or social unrest.

Growing Social Problems

In the 1960s student activism and clashes with the police agitated the country. Presidents Adolfo López Mateos (1958-1964) and Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964-1970) both underestimated the extent of social discontent in Mexico. Díaz Ordaz, anxious to avoid disruption of the Olympic games in Mexico City in 1968, stepped up the repression and set the stage for a disaster. On October 2, 1968, some 10,000 students in the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Tlateloco were fired upon by soldiers and police. At least 325 died, many more were wounded, and thousands were jailed. The massacre shocked the country, which was already facing an increasingly grim reality of political failure, runaway population growth, and economic decline.

Uncontrolled urbanization began to pose a major social problem in the 1970s, when annual population growth reached 3.4 percent. Between 1940 and 1970, 4.5 million Mexicans moved from rural areas into cities. By 1975 about 2,600 people a day were arriving in Mexico City. Unemployment increased, and malnutrition became commonplace, with over half the population severely undernourished. Cities were unable to house the massive influx of residents and urban slums grew unchecked. Netzahualcóyotl, a slum settlement near Mexico City, became one of the largest cities in the republic in the 1970s.

In an effort to undercut growing opposition, the government decreed wage increases and distributed land to some 9,000 peasants. In 1970 Luis Echeverría Álvarez became president; the former interior minister had been elected as the candidate of the PRI. During his six-year term Echeverría criticized the growing gap between rich and poor nations and tried to establish Mexico as a leader of developing countries around the world. He also adopted measures to reduce foreign control of the economy, and attempted to loosen the economic and cultural ties between Mexico and the United States. He urged the people of Mexico to stop emulating U.S. customs and business practices, and he negotiated economic accords with several Latin American nations, Canada, and the European Community (now called the European Union).

Echeverría made a point of appearing sympathetic to students and other protesters, calling on Mexicans of all classes to work together for social change and economic progress. In reality, the populist rhetoric of his administration was not matched by concrete action; upper-income Mexicans continued to benefit from the government’s economic policies while living conditions declined for poor and middle-income citizens. Moreover, in July 2006 Echeverría became the first former Mexican president to be placed under arrest. A judge ordered his arrest on charges of genocide for his role in two student massacres: the massacre of student protesters in Mexico City in 1968 when he was interior minister and another student massacre in 1971 when he was president. Echeverría was accused of directing the 1968 massacre when rooftop sharpshooters shot into a crowd of student demonstrators. Officially, 25 people were killed in that incident, but many human rights activists say the actual toll was as high as 350 people dead.

Economic Crisis

In 1976 widespread voter apathy resulted in the PRI candidate, José López Portillo, being elected without opposition. A former finance minister, López Portillo followed a program of economic austerity after taking office. He called on workers to reduce wage demands and asked businesspeople to hold down prices and to increase investment expenditures. In foreign affairs, López Portillo improved ties with the United States. A brief period of euphoria occurred when Mexico discovered vast oil reserves in 1974 and 1975 in the states of Campeche, Chiapas, Tabasco, and Veracruz. Oil production more than doubled during the latter half of the 1970s, and this economic strength allowed Mexico to adopt a more independent foreign policy, especially regarding the United States. But the promise of wealth from oil revenues led to reckless government spending, corruption, and a staggering foreign debt. Mexico borrowed billions of dollars at high interest rates in anticipation of increased oil revenues. When oil prices dropped sharply in the early 1980s, Mexico’s income from petroleum production dropped as well. The nation soon faced a severe economic recession and an enormous foreign debt. Mexico announced that it was postponing payments on its foreign debt, causing international banks to rethink their policy of providing large loans to developing countries. The United States government alleviated the situation somewhat by agreeing to buy oil and gas at a price that was higher than what Mexico would have been able to get on the world market.

Both López Portillo and his immediate successor, Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado (1982-1988), favored technocrats (technical experts) over politicians when filling political appointments. Graduates from Yale, Harvard, and other foreign universities staffed the Mexican government. Under de la Madrid, the nation tried to stabilize its economy by renegotiating its large foreign debt. Mexico accepted a bailout loan of $4 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), on the condition that the Mexican government raise taxes, cut public spending, and limit imports. De la Madrid also launched another campaign against government corruption, which was often linked to drug traffickers. Narcotics generated vast amounts of money, which drug traffickers used to bribe police, the army, and government officials. Several high-ranking government officials—including a senator who was the former head of the state-owned oil company, Pemex—were jailed and charged with fraud during this campaign.

Perceived mismanagement and corruption strengthened the appeal of opposition political parties in Mexico. The inability of the state to deal with significant problems, including the aftermath of a major earthquake in Mexico City in 1985, angered the country’s citizens and increased criticism of the PRI government. Many Mexicans were increasingly skeptical of a political process they believed was rigged and elections they felt were fixed. Although opposition parties were allowed to function and participate in national elections, the PRI’s control of the government and its vast resources ensured that the party was always able to mobilize enough voters to win. In many instances, citizens were paid to go to the ballots and vote for the PRI, or local PRI officials threatened small business owners with harassment and retaliation of they did not vote for the PRI.

1988 Election

In 1987 the PRI underwent the first major split in its history. A so-called “Democratic Current” within the PRI feared that multiparty democracy could not be delayed and pushed for reform from inside the party. The selection of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a Harvard-educated technocrat, as the PRI candidate in 1988 further divided the party. Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano—a dissident PRI member and the son of the popular former president Lázaro Cárdenas—challenged the PRI in the election. Cárdenas attacked the IMF-imposed austerity programs, which had sped the decline in the standard of living for most Mexicans, and called for a moratorium on interest payments to foreign creditors. When Cárdenas announced his candidacy for the PRI’s 1988 presidential election, he was expelled from the party. Cárdenas ran as a candidate of his own leftist coalition, the National Democratic Front, and the campaign saw the growth of unprecedented opposition to the ruling PRI.

Salinas was declared the winner with 51 percent of the vote, although many election observers believe Cárdenas actually won. Cárdenas carried Mexico’s large cities, where balloting was closely monitored, but Salinas carried the rural areas where observers claimed that much of the balloting was fraudulent and dishonestly counted. A conservative party, the Partido de Accíon Nacional (PAN), known in English as the National Action Party, demonstrated increasing strength in northern Mexico in the 1988 elections. A PAN candidate won the governorship of the state of Baja California. PAN, together with the National Democratic Front, won nearly half the seats in the Chamber of Deputies in the 1988 elections, underscoring the growing strength and influence of Mexico’s opposition parties.

Salinas turned out to be a remarkably resourceful politician. While facing enormous economic problems and political opposition, he was initially able to revitalize Mexico’s economy by stimulating exports, supporting free trade with the United States, and lowering inflation. The Salinas administration accelerated privatization efforts, selling off hundreds of state-owned companies. The president also allowed U.S. oil companies to explore for oil in Mexico for the first time since the petroleum industry was nationalized in 1938.

Most significant, perhaps, were Salinas’s efforts to stimulate foreign trade. In 1991 he led the effort to establish a free trade agreement among Central American countries. He was instrumental in working out the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which promised economic development and prosperity for Mexico. NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, is a trade agreement between Canada, Mexico, and the United States that aims to lower tariffs and other trade barriers among the three nations.

Rebellion and Recession

In 1994 an uprising in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas by a group of Native Americans known as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (known by its Spanish acronym EZLN) stunned the country and shook international confidence in the Mexican government. The group, also known simply as the Zapatistas, was named for Emiliano Zapata, an early-20th-century Mexican revolutionary leader and agrarian reformer. The Zapatistas sought to bring attention to the plight of indigenous peoples in Mexico and demanded economic and political reforms.

In 1994 the PRI presidential candidate, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, won the presidential election. Shortly after he took office, the government devalued Mexico’s currency. The devaluation, coupled with the Zapatista uprising, caused foreign investors to withdraw millions of dollars they had invested in the Mexican economy. The result was the near collapse of the economy. Mexico was able to prop up its economy through a multi-billion-dollar loan from the United States and prompt action by the International Monetary Fund. In return, Mexico had to pledge some of its future oil revenues.

The Zedillo administration faced a broad array of economic problems throughout 1995 and into 1996, including soaring inflation, labor unrest, a decline in investor confidence, and a prolonged recession. Zedillo worked to implement the economic austerity measures that had been a condition of the U.S. financial bailout and continued efforts to privatize state-owned petroleum and transportation enterprises. Plans to sell part of the enormous state-owned oil monopoly, Pemex, prompted thousands of protesters to blockade oil wells in the southern Gulf state of Tabasco in early 1996.

Despite these economic problems, President Zedillo pressed ahead with political reforms. In 1995 he replaced the country’s entire Supreme Court—which then began to rule against government agencies on a regular basis—and picked a member of the main opposition party to be his attorney general. He also began transferring some power from the office of the president to Mexico’s national legislature and 31 states. Zedillo oversaw a major overhaul of the country’s social security and health-care systems in 1995.

Zedillo also managed to bring the Zapatistas to the negotiating table to seek a political compromise. In 1996 Zapatista representatives and the Mexican government signed peace accords that aimed to address the issues highlighted by the Zapatista rebellion, such as the need for increased political participation and local political autonomy for indigenous peoples. However, the Zapatistas later broke off negotiations with the government.

By the end of 1996 President Zedillo was struggling with continuing economic and political problems. Drastic economic measures, including steep cuts in social services, had helped to stabilize the economy. But these cuts came at great expense to the majority of the Mexican people, who suffered from reduced government spending on education, healthcare, and price subsidies for basic food items. The austerity programs also raised interest rates and kept the value of the peso low, which resulted in many Mexicans losing their jobs or businesses. These actions enabled Mexico to refinance its foreign debt on more favorable repayment terms. In 1997 Mexico made the last payment on its emergency loan to the United States, three years ahead of schedule.

In 1997 voters dealt a major setback to the PRI, which lost its majority in the Chamber of Deputies for the first time in its history. The PRI also lost gubernatorial races in several states and lost the first election for mayor of Mexico City since 1928 to opposition candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). (Previous mayors had been appointed by Mexico’s president.) However, the PRI remained the dominant political force in Mexico, largely because political differences between the left-wing PRD and the right-wing PAN left them unable to form a working coalition.

The political environment of Mexico had changed by the beginning of the 21st century. In addition to the PRI losing its majority in the lower house of Congress, international public opinion, particularly in the United States and Europe, increasingly played a role in Mexican domestic politics. Pressure to move toward a functioning democratic political system resulted in the election of an effective political opposition in the Mexican congress and the consequent curtailment of presidential powers. Unilateral executive action was no longer possible. Unaccustomed to a functioning political process, Mexico’s political parties tried to define the balance of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government.

In 1999, in an attempt to make the PRI more democratic and thus revive the party’s political fortunes, President Zedillo relinquished his right to pick the next PRI candidate for president. In November the PRI held the first presidential primary election in Mexico’s history. In the election, open to all registered voters in Mexico, Francisco Labastida Ochoa overwhelmingly defeated three other candidates to win the party’s nomination for the July 2000 presidential election. However, Labastida was defeated in the election by Vicente Fox of the PAN. It was the first time the PRI had not won the presidency since the party’s founding in 1929. During the 2000 elections the PAN also became the largest party in the Chamber of Deputies, and the PRI lost its majority in the Senate.

Despite its losses in the presidential and congressional elections in 2000, the PRI continued to play a pivotal role in national politics. It effectively blocked Fox’s efforts in the congress to reform the tax code, the labor code, and national energy policies during the first half of Fox’s term. In midterm legislative elections in the summer of 2003, the PRI scored significant gains. In the Chamber of Deputies, it secured the largest number of seats of any party by a wide margin, 224 out of 500, placing it in a dominant position in the chamber. As a result the legislative initiatives Fox promoted in late 2004 were not expected to do well. Local and state elections across much of Mexico in the late summer of 2004 also testified to the PRI’s ability to remain a strong political force.

The presidential elections in 2006 were closely contested between Felipe Calderón, a former energy secretary and the candidate of the conservative PAN, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor and the candidate of the leftist PRD. In early July the Federal Electoral Tribunal declared Calderón the winner by a narrow margin of about 243,000 votes out of 41 million votes cast. However, López Obrador challenged the results, charging fraud and irregularities, and he demanded a recount. The Federal Electoral Tribunal subsequently certified Calderón’s election. It was the closest presidential election in Mexico’s history.

© The Globe Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. Distributed by ASThemesWorld