Mexican history is, in a word, impossible. This is a way-too-short look at a knotted, intricate, fascinating story.
Following it becomes a convoluted exercise, following series of native dynasties, revolutions, economic collapses, land rights’ struggles and keeping straight all the crazy presidents. One guy was president and exiled four times – he also presided over a funeral for his leg.
One aspect of the nation’s history that differs from American history, say, is rather than a severe separation, there became a tight fusion of the native people and the invading Europeans. Finding it difficult to subject the people militarily, the Spanish chose to assimilate the natives through religion and social coercion. The effect is still seen today in the faces of the folks that live here – from willowy Continental-looking characteristics to dark native features of ancient tribes; and a palette of mixes in between.
There have been people here for 13,000 years, and about 3000 years ago, the big men on campus were the Olmecs. These are the folks that made those giant carvings of big round heads with thick lips. They ruled over the eastern part of the country and developed ritual bloodletting, writing and ballgames – several ancient rubber balls have been recovered from Olmec sites.
Concurrently, Mayan society flourished out in the Yucatan. The Maya developed a complete writing system, mathematics, astronomy, architecture, artwork and many advances in social structure. The descendants of this amazing culture still survive in a swath from the Yucatan through Belize, Honduras, Guatemala to El Salvador.
It’s a mystery how the Olmecs disappeared, but the next ascendant tribe were the Mixtecs – who ultimately became known as the Aztecs. The legend is one of their nomadic kings was told by a god he would see an eagle eating a snake perched on a nopal cactus, this would be the sign that his people would find their home. Apparently he witnessed this graphic occurrence on an island in ancient Lake Texcoco, and Mexico-Tenochtitlan was founded. Today the site is Mexico City, and the picture of the king’s vision appears on the national flag, one of the most intricate flags of all nations.
‘Mexico’ derives from the Nahuatl word for ‘place of the Mixtecs,’ and funnily, the country gets its name from the city. Spanish invaders flip-flopped between calling the area ‘New Spain’ and ‘Mexico,’ because of the ruling city. There was never an official place called ‘New Spain,’ and there are references to this being ‘Mexican Territory’ as far back as 1590.
The Aztecs were legendary leaders of the New World. Though their immediate empire spread across most of central Mexico, there is evidence of trade from as far north as Wyoming and as south as Panama. The Aztecs built majestic pyramids, temples, causeways, markets – the population of Tenochtitlan passed 200,000. The Aztecs cast their cultural shadow across Mexico affecting a population of more than five million.
Then Hernan Cortes happened. The first of the many vicious conquistadors, Cortes came to Tenochtitlan at the same time as an Aztec religious prophecy was to be fulfilled. He was at first greeted as a god; but soon turned out to be a devil. Moctezuma II (notice it’s not ‘Montezuma,’ the song gets it wrong) lavished golden gifts on the Spanish leaders. Rather than create a friendship it aroused a voracious avarice, and soon Aztecs were getting massacred.
During this dark time for the Aztecs, Cuahtemoc became king at age 25. His name translates to ‘pouncing eagle,’ but with his city besieged and his people dying of foreign-borne smallpox, he went against his nature and attempted negotiation. The invaders were led to sources of gold.
It wasn’t enough.
Literally holding Cuahtemoc’s feet to the fire of broiling stones, the soldiers tortured, and ultimately assassinated, him in their lust for gold and desire to impress the King of Castile.
After a brutal siege, Cortes destroyed Tenochtitlan and conquered Mexico.
When silver was found in central Mexico, around the mid 1500s, more soldiers came and atrocities between the natives and the invaders were rampant. Right behind the soldiers came the priests, and a universal campaign to convert the Indians to Catholics began. Today Mexico is one of the most devout Catholic nations on earth.
The silver ran out, Napoleon kicked Spain’s butt back home, and Spanish influence waned. As the Stones sang ‘the time was right for fightin’ in the streets,’ and the Mexican War for Independence began right here in San Miguel de Allende. Get that story here.
Independence was rocky and it was a full century before Mexico could find its political legs. Lopez de Santa Anna – pretty boy, nouveau riche wannabe, selfish demagogue, forced his way to the presidency on four different occasions. Americans know him as the guy that crushed the Alamo. Mexicans know him as the guy that lost his leg in a battle – so it, the leg, got a military funeral.
The United States was the next aggressor to lust after Mexican stuff, and stole Texas. Allowing thousands of non-Hispanic families to secretly cross the border into Mexican Texas, the American government moved swiftly to have these new residents vote themselves into a republic. This is why Santa Anna was at the Alamo in the first place, Mexico wanted its land back. Eventually, the nation of Texas got itself admitted to the United States as a state. The whole thing took about fifteen years. The War of American Intervention lasted only two years, but it defined today’s Texas-Mexico border, it is referenced in the Marines’ Hymn where they misspell Moctezuma, and it introduced Ulysses S. Grant to Robert E. Lee.
Finally rid of the Gringos, a relentless civil war followed. Miraculously, the great Benito Juarez was elected president following the tenets of the Mexican Constitution he helped create. Similar to Abraham Lincoln, Juarez came from a humble background and is a national symbol today for visionary ideas. Juarez was a liberal and fought for an open democracy, rights for downtrodden groups, economic reform, and stripping the Church of its political influence.
Then another annoying greedhead showed up – France. They sought to collect debts owed to itself, England and, of course, Spain. Juarez basically told them ‘Y’all took enough from us, we ain’t paying a centavo.’ So, aggressive Napoleon III dispatched French troops, under the guise of repo-men. At first it looked good, the underdog Mexican army won at the Battle of Puebla! This took place on May 5, 1862. Today Cinco de Mayo is a minor holiday in Mexico, but is heartily celebrated at college campuses and sports bars across the United States.
The tide turned against Mexico, and France finally wedged in deluded Maximilian and his loopy wife Carlota as emperor and empress of Mexico. This, predictably, did not go well. The Americans didn’t want any Frenchies on their borders, and they interfered as much as they could. In an attempt to remove resistance, Maximilian executed thousands of Juarez supporters. Finally it all fell apart for the interlopers: his wife – monomaniacal, paranoid, depressed – went back to Europe never to return, and Maximilian faced a firing squad.
Juarez went back to power. (We told you this stuff was impossible.) But after his death the government came under the control of Porfirio Diaz … for the next 35 years. There is still a raging discussion in Mexico about the Diaz era – on the one hand he pushed Mexico into the modern age, wanting his country .to be seen on a par with European countries. He built schools, hospitals, bridges and encouraged a European-style art architecture scene, One of the side effects was he brought beer to Mexico with modern-sounding names like XX (as in Twentieth Century), or old Europe sounding like Bohemia or Corona (a king’s crown).
On the other hand, Diaz was in the back pockets of many American and other big businesses, he allowed child labor, and he could be a vicious despot to combat those who spoke against him.
With a few hiccups, some extremely ugly, Mexico, as a nation has progressed into one of the great world nations. In 1938 President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized all the oil in Mexico, creating Pemex, the national oil company. The world went ballistic, but Mexico secured a stable income stream from its own resources. The economic news has been mixed, but it seems to be more good than bad for the nation because of it.
In 1968 Mexico City, at the time the largest city in the world, hosted the Summer Olympics. It signalled Mexico as a nation that could sit at the table with the big boys. It must be noted that ten days before the Olympics opened, Mexico City police opened fire on 10,000 student protesters, killing hundreds. Yet another occasion where Mexican history mixes social change and blood.
Today, Mexico suffers internationally from bad press because of the insidious drug cartel wars. The reality on the ground, however, is that these incursions are very localized, and despite the vicious stories, day-to-day life in virtually all of la Republica is safe and quiet. Additionally the atrocities don’t often occur near where travelers would go. In the tourist-y areas, security is a premium. In revered places like San Miguel de Allende there is a relaxed, comfortable vibe that makes it a dreamland for the visitor.
The Mexican struggle for, and commitment to, freedom has been a bloody, passionate trail for centuries. With such community-wide life lessons, the citizens here possess an inner peace, a mystical satisfaction in their hearts that is obvious to any visitor. Viva Mexico!