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Mexico remains a nation where the past plays a prominent role in shaping the nation’s present day development. Mexico has a fascinating but often bewildering history. Its past differs from that of the U.S. and Canada in several respects, notably:

* When "discovered" in 1519, Mexico was home to an estimated 10 million native inhabitants living in feudal, but highly disciplined and organized societies. These people could not be ignored or simply swept aside, as was done in North America, but rather became the foundation upon which the Spanish conquerors built their colonial empire. Even today, Mexico is rich in ethnic diversity, with nearly 15 million pure-blooded Native Americans, speaking nearly fifty languages.

* Mexico endured 300 years of colonial domination (1521-1821) by Spain, a nation that itself was one of the least progressive in Europe. Iberian Institutions, political heritage, and authoritarian traditions left an indelible mark on Mexico.

* Rich in mineral resources and man power, Mexico has historically been exploited in one form or another by foreign powers. Its abundant reserves of gold, silver lead, petroleum, copper, and zinc are in sharp contrast to its shortage of tillable, well-irrigated soil. Sustained economic development has been difficult to achieve and has generally been distorted in favor of a small segment of the country’s population.

* For the past 150 years, Mexico has been overshadowed by its neighbor to the north. The relationship has wavered between blatant intervention, to total ignorance, to a growing sense of interdependence. Nowhere in the world do two countries of such distinction share a common border. Proximity to the U.S. has generated a peculiar attitude towards the U.S. Extensive "cultural borrowing" –American music, films, consumer products, and fashion – is mixed with staunch nationalism and the desire to "protect" the motherland from foreign economic and cultural domination.

The country’s history can loosely be broken down as follows:

1 2 0 0 B. C. – 1 5 2 1 A. D.

The Pre-Hispanic Era
Five major native civilizations, each occupying a different period of history, have influenced the history of Mexico.

The Olmecs, Mexico’s first established culture, originated in the coastal states of Veracruz and Tabasco. This was a particularly influential culture, since subsequent groups borrowed heavily from the Olmeca’s religious, architectural and artistic traditions.

Despite the absence of stone or rock for construction, they developed massive cities ( La Venta, San Lorenzo, Tres Zapotes). They also created an advanced calendar that included the concept of the number zero. This culture is particularly mysterious, since we know little about its origin, political structure or reason for disappearance. The Olmec period is believed to have been from 1200 B.C. until 200 B.C.

First appearing around 1200 B.C., this culture developed in three distinct periods, each corresponding to a different region of Central America and Mexico. The mayas are most noted for their complex systems of mathematics and astrology, prolific city building and Baroque architecture. By 1400 A.D. the Mayan state had splintered and almost disappeared, leaving an incredible collection of ceremonial centers and ancient cities.

First appearing in the valley of Oaxaca around 900 B.C., the Zapotecs were great city builders and artisans who created extraordinary temples, burial chambers, pottery, and metal work. The Mixtec (pronounced "MEES-tec") culture conquered the Zapotecs and developed around the cities of Mitla and Yagul. They revived Monte Albán, although it was only used as a site for burial tombs. By the early 1400’s, the Mixtecs became servants of the mighty Aztec empire. These two cultures continue their existence today in the state of Oaxaca, inhabited by nearly 2 million of their descendants .

These mighty warriors occupied the northern reaches of the Valley of Mexico from around 950-1300 A.D.They built Tula, one of Mexico’s most impressive cities, and were master craftstmen who strongly influenced later Mayan and Aztec cultures. This culture is believed by some to have developed from the magnificent Teotihuácan culture of Central Mexico.

This civilization dominated Mexico for nearly 200 years (1345 A.D.-1521 A.D.) and was flourishing when Spanish conquerors arrived in 1519. The Aztecs used an elaborate systems of taxing and patronage to subjugate an enormous empìre that stretched well into Central America.

They were also master builders and imitators of Mexico’s previous cultures. They borrowed heavily from their Olmec, Toltec, and Mayan predecessors to develop a complex linguistic, religious, artistic, architectural and military heritage.

Their mighty empire came to a sudden and tragic end in 1521, although much of its influence is still present today in the culture of the central plateau region.

1 5 2 1 - 1 8 1 0

Conquest and Spanish Colonial Domination
After the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) in 1521, Spain embarked on a period of exploration and conquest to consolidate its control of the rest of Mesoamerica (SeeMEXICO CITY section.) Millions of natives fell victim to western disease, for which they had no resistance.

Spain and the Catholic church imposed their authority to create an extractive economy that reflected many of the worst features of colonialism and religious authoritarianism (including the Inquisition). Spain and its European creditors derived tremendous wealth from Indian laborers, who worked on enormous agricultural estates and huge mining operations. Colonial Society was fashioned in a tight caste system reminiscent of European feudalism.

1 8 1 0 - 1 8 6 0

Independence and Insurrection
Revolutions abroad (U.S.,France) and the simmering conflict between criollos (Mexican-born Spaniards) and peninsulares (Spanish-born residents of Mexico) led to the demise of Spanish political and economic domination of Mexico.

Following Napoleon’s conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808, Spain could little to resist Mexico’s declaration of independence. The criollo leaders sought greater economic freedom and autonomy, but proposed little in the way of structural reform. The flight for independence began in 1810, lasted 11 years and over 600,000 lives were lost.

Three hundred years of colonial domination had ill-prepared the country for independence. In the scramble for economic gain, political chaos prevailed and injustice against the native and mestizo population grew.

Border conflicts with the U.S. led to an invasion in 1847, and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, in wich Mexico surrendered over half of its territory (the States of Texas, California, Colorado, Utah and Nevada) for a mere $17 per square mile. In 1853 the Gadsden Purchase yielded the U.S. another 30,000 sq.mi of Mexico’s lands (southern New Mexico and Arizona).

1 8 6 0 – 1 9 1 0

Reform and Stability
A conflict between liberals (urban intellectuals wanting a new nation modeled after the United States) and Conservatives (landed aristocracy wanting an all-powerful church and dictatorship) led to the Reform Laws of 1860. The main target was the omnipotent Catholic Church. In protest, conservatives rallied support from their European allies and in 1861 French troops arrived to install a new ruler: an Austrian Archduke, named Maximilian. His benevolent but ineffective rule ended with his execution in 1867.

Benito Juárez, a Zápotec Indian from Oaxaca and promulgator of the Reform Laws, reassumed the presidency after the execution of Maximilian. His four-year rule brought significant land reform and reduction of church rights.

Following Juarez’s death in 1872, Porfirio Díaz (also a native of Oaxaca and one of Juarez’s generals) named Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada to the presidency. Four years later Díaz himself took power and led Mexico through 34 years of stability and material progress. Extensive mining , railroad building , large-scale agriculture and foreign investment transformed Mexico, but heightened the country´s economic and political inequity.

1 9 1 0 – 1 9 4 5

Revolution and Reform
One of few true revolutions of the twentieth century, this revolt was a reaction to Mexico’s unbalanced prosperity and the pitiful living conditions of its masses.

The Revolution’s two original leaders, Zapata and Madero, were seeking two different revolts: Zapata an economic change; Madero a political change. It started as a middle class revolt in 1910 and developed into a peasant-led battle over land reform, universal suffrage, an end to foreign economic control, and a complete separation of church and state.

Millions of lives were lost as regional leaders battled for legitimacy and control. Finally, in 1917, a liberal constitution was ratified–one that still governs the nation. In fact, the Mexican Constitution is almost identical to that of the United States.

The next twenty years saw two leaders play significant and daring roles: Calles and Cardenas. Calles brutalized the church, courted the U.S. and institutionalized the political gains of the Revolution by forming the PRI, Mexico’s omnipotent political party. Cardenas’ programs focused on economic reform, including massive agrarian reform, and the nationalization of the oil industry in 1938.

1 9 4 5 – present

The Modern Era
Significant material progress marked Mexican development following World War II. The country’s infrastructure developed , and industrial /manufacturing sectors expanded, as did agricultural production . However, several nagging problems have shaped the country’s past twenty years. These include rapid population growth, massive internal migration from the countryside to urban areas, a decline in agrarian output, a huge foreign debt, and double digit inflation.

Mexico remains the most stable democracy in Latin America. However, its single party dominated system has faced serious electoral challenges since 1988.

The current President, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, was the outright winner of the hotly contested 1994 presidential election. He took office on Dec. 1,1994 with promises to continue Mexico’s economic liberalization while addressing social and political inequities within the country.

Landmark elections held on July 6, 1997 were the first since major electoral reform was implemented in August of 1996. The reforms provide a new constitutional framework that establishes unprecedented conditions to guarantee transparent and equitable elections. No one party may now hold more than 60% of Chamber of Deputy seats. Thirty-two of the 120 total Senatorial seats are assigned proportionally in accordance with the vote received nationally by each party. In addition, Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies is no longer controlled by the PRI, rather the majority of seats are held by members of the PRD, PAN, and several smaller parties.

For the first time in history, Mexico City residents elected their mayor (previously a political appointment made by the President ) . The landslide winner was Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas. Cárdenas is a former PRI Governor from Michoacán State. Since the late 1980’s he has been a leader of the PRD party, a PRI rival.

Mexico is one of the most fertile regions of the world for exploration into human cultural evolution. Over 3,000 years of achievement have left an indelible mark on Mexico, punctuating the country with astonishing examples of human ingenuity and perseverance.

Perhaps no country on earth showcases its ancient treasures as attractively as does Mexico. There are more than 13,000 known archaeological sites, of which only a small percentage have been fully excavated and studied. Dozens of sites have been meticulously restored and are easily accessible to visitors. Others lie buried or ensconced by dense tropical jungle, providing visitors with more adventurous, "Indiana Jones"-type experiences.

By any measure, the native achievements of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic societies are remarkable. Common features of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican culture Included:

* Truncated, stepped pyramids made of carved stone
* Ball courts
* Steam baths
* Elaborate burial chambers
* Hieroglyphic writing
* Positional numeration and advanced mathematics
* Intricate books folded screen-style (or "codices")
* Use a solar year of 18 months, each with 20 days (plus five days at the end of each year , totaling 365 days)
* Use of 52-years century
* Highly developed astrological knowledge
* Masterful artistic expressions in pottery, stone carving , weaving and painting

These traits define a truly advanced culture, capable of producing writing, great works of art, complex mathematics, calendrics and monumental architecture.

Mexico’s pre-Hispanic societies were constantly menaced by natural phenomena : earthquakes, famine, droughts, floods, volcanic eruptions. These conditions conspired to give the people of Mexico a unique view of creation and life. Religion became the manifestation of each society’s desire to give order and reason to natural occurrences otherwise unexplainable.

Religion in turn, spawned evocative and wondrous expressions in art and architecture that were developed to exalt the natural world.

A rich pantheon of gods was created to serve as guides in every phase of life. This collection of holy beings was crowded with deities for every function, from the rising of the sun to the appearance of certain planets, to planting and sowing , to birth and death. All created things were explained or rationalized by strict obedience to religious dogma.

These societies were largely theocratic in structure. Authority rested with an elite class of high-priest rulers. Nonetheless, strong family and kinship bonds constituted the basis of most cultures, as holds true even today.

THE PRE-COLUMBIAN cultures of Mexico are generally broken into the following three periods:

PRE-CLASSIC Dating from 2000 B.C. TO 200 A.D.
Here the main patterns of Mexican civilization were formulated, including stone architecture, technology

(weaving, pottery, stone and woodcarving ), social differentiation, hieroglyphic writing, calendrics and the establishment of trade and interregional commercial dealings.

Thanks to improved agricultural methods, rapid population growth was possible, as rural villages turned into towns. Ceremonial centers began to emerge which also served as trade and commercial centers.

The best examples of this period are found at the sites of San Lorenzo, La Venta, Tres Zapotes (State of Veracruz and Cuicuilco (Mexico City).

CLASSIC Dating from 200 to 900 A.D.
This period witnessed a transition from formative rural cultures towards more urbanized centers of innovation and political influence. This was a period of monumental architecture, advanced urban planing, and awesome intellectual achievement.

It was also the "golden age" for artistic expressions. Well-organized trade patterns and a highly stratified, theocratic society gave rulers large empires from which to extract resources and labor.

The best examples of this period are found at the sites of Teotihuacán , Cholula (Central Plateau), El Tajin (State of Veracruz), Monte Alban (Oaxaca), Tikal (Guatemala), Palenque, Bonampak (Chiapas), Dzibilchaltún, Labná, Kabah, Sayil, Chichén Itzá, Uxmal (Yucatán Peninsula), and Xochicalco (State of Morelos).

POST-CLASSIC Dating from 900 to 1521 A.D.
The Period was marked by the evolution of many societies from theocratic to militaristic rule. There were great changes in several important ceremonial centers (Cholula, Chichén Itzá, Tenochtitlán), some of which ceased to exist , while others flourished. As some cities fell into decline, there were new centers nearby that rose to take their places.

This period was dominated by the great Azteca Empire, and a resurgence of the Mayan civilization near Chichén Itzá and Uxmal.

The best examples of this period are found at the sites of Tula (State of Hidalgo), Tenayuca and Tenochtitlán

(Central Plateau), Yagul and Mitla (Oaxaca), Chichén Itzá, Tulum and Cobá (Yucatán Peninsula).

CUITLALICUE, the sky goddess, gave birth to a flint knife, which so shocked her other children, the stars, that they threw it out of the heavens. The knife fell to the earth and broke into thousands of pieces, each one turning into a god . Needing someone to serve them, the gods asked their mother for permission to create man. Cuitlalicue instructed them to get bones from underworld and to give them life by letting blood upon them. But in stealing the bones, one of the gods fell and broke all the bones into pieces of many sizes. This is why some men were created tall, some short.

  • An explanation of the appearance of man on earth, 16th Century Aztec chronicle.

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