The central square in Mexico City, the capital of Mexico, is called the Zócalo or the Plaza of the Constitution. If you stand in the centre of the Zócalo and look around you, you will not only see wonderful buildings, but can also look back over hundreds of years of history. The flag of Mexico flies in the centre of the Zócalo. It shows an eagle with a snake in its mouth, sitting on a cactus. This image comes from the mythology of the Aztecs, the founders of Mexico City. In fact, the Zócalo is built on top of the main square of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital. In the north of the square are the remains of the Teocalli—the main temple of Tenochtitlán. Next to the Teocalli is a grand cathedral, built in 1525 by the Spanish conquerors of the Aztec Empire.
CORTÉS AND THE AZTECS
The Aztecs called themselves the Mexica—this is where the name Mexico comes from. They ruled an empire that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The climate of Mexico can be harsh, but the Aztecs were skilled farmers. They created floating gardens, called “chinampas”. These can still be seen at a place called Xochimilco, which means “the place where flowers grow” in Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs. The food provided by the chinampas made it possible for the Aztecs to settle in great cities.
When the Spanish adventurer Hernán Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlán in 1519 its population was similar in size to that of London. Cortés and his fellow “conquistadors” (conquerors) allied with the enemies of the Aztecs and defeated them. Tenochtitlán was destroyed and a new city, the capital of a Spanish colony, was built in its place.
The Spanish colony was given the name New Spain. The new Spanish rulers divided the land into grants called encomiendas. This gave them power over the native people, who worked the land. The Spanish also worked hard to convert the native people to Christianity, though many remained faithful to their traditional religions. The mixture of Christianity and traditional religion has given Mexican culture its unique character.
THE FIGHT FOR INDEPENDENCE
The descendants of the Spanish settlers, called Criollos, began to resent the power that Spain had over the colony. When Spain fell into a long war with Napoleon at the beginning of the 19th century they seized their chance to claim their independence. In 1810 a priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla led a revolt calling for independence and for more respect for Native Americans. Although his rising was defeated, the day it started—September 16—is celebrated as Mexico’s day of independence. Mexico eventually won its full independence in 1821.
WAR WITH THE UNITED STATES
The new country soon found itself involved in a long conflict with its powerful neighbour to the north, the United States. In 1836 Texas, which was then part of Mexico, declared its independence. The Mexican army intervened to crush the independence movement, but suffered a terrible defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto. Mexico’s president, Antonio López de Santa Anna, was captured and forced to accept the loss of Texas. The two countries went to war again in 1846. This time Mexico lost around half of its territory. The new US territory became the states of California, Arizona and New Mexico.
THE MEXICAN REVOLUTION
During the 19th century power and wealth in Mexico was limited to a small number of landowners. Under the rule of Porfirio Díaz, foreign companies were allowed to take over large parts of the Mexican economy and some Mexicans became worried that their country’s independence was under threat. Wealth and influence were restored to the Catholic Church, and land owned by Native American communities was taken over by rich landlords. The anger that many Mexicans felt burst out in 1910, the year that the Mexican Revolution began. The Revolution defeated Díaz and his allies, but it remained divided between those who wanted only a political revolution, to guarantee Mexican independence and democracy, and those who wanted a social revolution, with widespread redistribution of land to poor farmers. A long and complex war broke out between the different factions. Some of the objectives of the Revolution, for example land reform and nationalization (this is when an industry is owned by the government and not by private individuals), were achieved in the 1930s.
CREATING A MODERN DEMOCRACY
Mexico’s leaders have attempted to develop the country’s economy, but this has not been easy. The country has borrowed large sums of money that it has been unable to pay back. In 1994 the country joined NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), with the United States and Canada. This opened the Mexican economy to competition, and some Mexicans were worried that this would harm small farms and businesses. Recently Mexico has become a more democratic country. In 2000 the biggest political party, called the Institutional Revolutionary Party, lost power for the first time since 1929.