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Mexico - History

In the center of Mexico City, near the Paseo dela Reforma, there is a very unusual plaza. In andof itself it offers a display of the major periods ofMexico's history. It is called La Plaza de TresCulturas (The Plaza of Three Cultures). In thecenter are the ruins of an Aztec pyramid, on oneside is a church built by the early Spaniards, andin the background are the new, modern structuresof Mexico City. The history of Mexico isbasically divided into these three eras: theancient period before the arrival of the Spaniards,the Colonial Period when Spain ruled the land,and the modern period after Mexico won its independence.

Nomadic paleo-Indian societies are widely believed to have migrated from North America into Mexico as early as 20,000 B.C. Permanent settlements based on intensive farming of native plants such as corn, squash, and beans were established by 1500 BC. Between 200 BC and AD 900, several advanced indigenous societies emerged. During this "Classic Period," urban centers were built at Teotihuacán (in central Mexico), Monte Albán (in the territory now making up the state of Oaxaca), and in the Mayan complexes (in the modern-day states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo, as well as at sites in the modern-day countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize). These advanced societies developed written languages, displayed high levels of occupational specialization and social stratification, and produced elaborate art, architecture, and public works.

After the unexplained collapse of the Teotihuacán society around AD 650, the early civilizations of central Mexico were eclipsed by the Mayan city-states of the Yucatan Peninsula. The lowland Mayan communities flourished from AD 600 to AD 900, when they, too, abruptly declined. The Post-Classic period (from about 900 to 1500) was characterized by widespread migration throughout Mesoamerica and the reemergence of the central valley of Mexico as the site of large-scale urban settlement and political power.

1325-1521 - México-Tenochtitlan

By the 1300s, the Aztecs had established themselves on the site of present-day Mexico City. The militaristic and bureaucratic Aztec state ruled a far-flung tributary empire spanning much of Central Mexico. The cultural heritage of the Aztec, the Maya, and other advanced civilizations, seen in the ruins of their temples and in their artifacts, bears witness to the achievements of the early inhabitants of Mesoamerica (see Glossary). Following a pattern that spans the pre-Columbian era to modern times, new civilizations have been built on the ruins of the old. In this ongoing process of cultural superimposition, many elements of the past have endured, despite occasional efforts to root out traditional practices and native identities.

Despite Mexico's rich pre-Columbian history, following the Spanish conquest in 1519, the country's new rulers made a concerted attempt to erase all things related to indigenous cultures. Conquerors and missionaries felt divinely inspired to "civilize and evangelize" the native peoples of the New World. The attempts to Europeanize and Christianize Mexico led to the devaluation of much of the indigenous culture for the next 400 years.

This situation was finally reversed in the 1920s during what has become known as the cultural phase of the Revolution, when a conscious effort was undertaken to search for a national cultural identity known as mexicanidad ("Mexicanness"). The search for this new national consciousness resulted in a renewed appreciation of the advanced civilizations encountered by the Spanish in 1519. Since the 1920s, extensive scholarship has been devoted to native Mexican values and the cultural expressions of those indigenous values in contemporary society.

1521-1821 - Nueva España

During the early sixteenth century, Spanish military adventurers based in Cuba organized expeditions to the North American mainland. The first major military expedition to Mexico, led by Hernán Cortés, landed near present-day Veracruz in 1519 and advanced inland toward the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán hoping to conquer central Mexico. By 1521 Spanish forces under Cortés, reinforced by rebellious Indian tribes, had overthrown the Aztec empire and executed the last Aztec king, Cuauhtémoc. The Spanish subsequently grafted their administrative and religious institutions onto the remnants of the Aztec empire. During the early years of colonial rule, the conquistadors and their descendants vied for royal land titles (encomiendas) and Indian labor allotments (repartimientos). The early colonial economic system was based largely on the ability of the encomienda holders (encomenderos) to divert Indian labor from agriculture to the mining of precious metals for export to Spain. The encomienda became the basis for a semi-autonomous feudal society that was only loosely accountable to the central authorities in Madrid.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Mexico experienced far-reaching demographic, cultural, and political change. New Spanish-style cities and towns were founded throughout central Mexico, serving as commercial, administrative, and religious centers that attracted an increasingly Hispanicized and Christianized mestizo population from the countryside. Mexico City, built on the ruins of Tenochtitlán, became the capital of Spain's North American empire. Colonial society was stratified by race and wealth into three main groups: whites (European- and American-born), castas (mestizos), and native peoples; each had specific rights or privileges (fueros) and obligations in colonial society. New Spain was ruled by a viceroy appointed by the Spanish crown but in practice enjoyed a large degree of autonomy from Madrid.

Throughout the colonial period, Mexico's economic relationship with Spain was based on the philosophy of mercantilism. Mexico was required to supply raw materials to Spain, which would then produce finished goods to be sold at a profit to the colonies. Trade duties that placed stringent restrictions on the colonial economies protected manufacturers and merchants in Spain from outside competition in the colonies. In the mid-eighteenth century, the third Bourbon king of Spain, Charles III, reorganized the political structure of Spain's overseas empire in an effort to bolster central authority, reinvigorate the mercantile economy, and increase tax revenues. New Spain was divided into 12 military departments (intendencias) under a single commandant general in Mexico City who was independent of the viceroy and reported directly to the king.

1821-2xxx - México Independiente

Throughout the colonial period, a distinctly "Mexican" national identity was emerging among the mestizo and creole inhabitants of New Spain. By the early nineteenth century, Spain's mercantilist trade policies and its discrimination against native-born Mexicans in colonial business and administrative affairs fostered widespread resentment and a desire for greater autonomy. The geopolitical crisis of the Napoleonic wars and the influence of Enlightenment ideas provoked a sudden break with Madrid in 1810.

In the aftermath of independence, Mexico suffered a prolonged tumultuous period of factionalism and foreign intervention. Riven by bitter disputes between conservatives and liberals and governed by a series of military strongmen, the country languished in political turmoil while it lost half of its territory to an expanding United States. Stability, when it was finally achieved at the close of the nineteenth century, was imposed by the modernizing but politically repressive regime of José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, Mexico's population was denied opportunities for individual prosperity and fair and equal treatment before the law. In a country that remained predominantly rural until the 1950s, landlessness and rural unemployment had become endemic. The suppression of civil liberties and the excessive concentration of wealth during the Porfiriato (the name given to the years of the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship, 1876-1910) polarized Mexican society and eventually led to the bitter and destructive factional wars collectively known as the Mexican Revolution. After nearly a decade of devastating warfare, the combatants came together in the town of Querétaro in 1917 to draft a grand compromise that would incorporate the ideals of the diverse revolutionary factions.

The constitution of 1917 gave Mexicans the legal and ideological framework on which to base national development: equality before the law, national self-determination, and a state-mediated balance between private property rights and social welfare objectives. In the decades that followed, different Mexican administrations would alternatively promote redistribution or economic growth, depending on a variety of circumstances.

By the late twentieth century, the burgeoning Mexican state could no longer assure the Revolution's promise of growth with equity. After decades of semiauthoritarian rule by the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional--PRI), corruption and excessive clientelism had overshadowed the ideal of equality before the law. Poverty, although lessened, continued to beset half of the population. The debt crisis of the early 1980s marked the end of Mexico's protectionist, state-centered economic model and set the stage for far-reaching trade and financial liberalization and systematic privatization of key industries. By the early 1990s, Mexico's economy was thoroughly integrated into the global market, and a renascent civil society was exercising increasing autonomy from Mexico's corporatist political institutions. Mexico approached the end of the twentieth century in a state of profound transition.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 15:39:10 ZULU