History and Culture
historical attractions - from the ancient ruins of the Olmecs, Maya, and
Aztec, to the train routes used by the brash and legendary Pancho Villa
- rank second only to the beaches of Cancun - and Alcapulco as the prime
reason people come. The reason for this is simple: the tale of Mexico's
past, accompanied by an overwhelming amount of physical remains, is as
romantic, blood-curling, dramatic, and complex as it gets.
Somewhere around 1000 BC, the first of Mexico's ancient civilizations, the Olmecs,
established themselves in what are now the states of Veracruz and Tabasco. They
worshipped a jaguar God, built cities, constructed massive stone
head carvings, and spread throughout central and southern Mexico until their
civilization mysteriously vanished around 400 BC. Though the Olmecs left behind
relatively few artifacts, their influence on later cultures was profound. In
their wake came the Teotihuacan, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs of Monte Alban, the
Maya of Yucatan, the Toltecs, Aztecs, and dozens of smaller, citied groups. To
balance the spiritual and earthly realms and appease their pantheons of gods, many
of these civilizations practiced human sacrifice, a fact that often overshadows
their great achievements in the realms of mathematics, astronomy, architecture,
textile weaving, art, and pottery. The Maya, for example, were so advanced in
mathematics and astronomy that their calendar was the world's most accurate until
this century. They could also predict solar and lunar eclipses.
None of Mexico's pre-Columbian civilizations is more storied, however, than
the Aztecs. Though it is arguable that other civilizations in Mexico achieved
artistic and scientific feats, none advanced as quickly or ruled as much territory.
Prior to the 15th century, the Aztecs were a marginal tribe living on the edge
of Lake Texcoco, the site of present day Mexico City. By 1473, after subjugating
neighboring tribes, they ruled the largest empire Mexico had ever seen. Their
capital of Tenochtitlan, set in the lake, was a picturesque city of pyramids,
mile-long floating roads, aquaducts, animated marketplaces, and one hundred thousand
residents. Leading a highly codified government was an all-powerful emperor who
exacted taxes from the conquered and distributed land to his people, especially
the warriors. When the Spanish adventurer Hernan Cortez arrived in 1519, the
rich city was a vision perfectly meshed to his thirst for conquest.
The Conquest of New Spain, a great and tragic history, begins in April of
a Cortes lands in Veracruz, about 200 miles from the Aztec capital. Cortes had
a singular mission: defeat the Aztecs and take their gold. To do so, he had less
than 400 soldiers, 16 horses, 14 pieces of artillery, 11 ships, plenty of guns
and ammunition, and cajones. His first act upon landing was to burn all but one
of his ships - he wanted no turning back. That he was able to defeat an empire
with just a few hundred men seems nothing short of miraculous, but some of el
conquistador's success, however, can be attributed to plain and simple luck.
According to an Aztec myth, the white-faced Quetzacuatl - their most important
god - had long ago fled to the east, but would one day return. When the Aztec
ruler, Moctezuma II, beheld Cortes and his light-skinned men upon their arrival in
Tenochtitlan, he believed them to be emissaries of the great Quetzacuatl himself.
The opportunistic Cortes, coached by Malinche - a Spanish-speaking Indian who
had become his lover back at the coast - did not attempt to correct him. Cortes
returned the emperor's hospitality by taking him hostage. A compliant Moctezuma
ordered his people to stand down, and by the time the Aztecs began to resist
Cortes had already brought in reinforcements from the coast. The Aztecs disowned
their cooperative, captive emperor, who died a prisoner in his own palace. When
the Aztecs finally laid siege to the palace, Cortes and his men snuck away
in the middle of the night and ran for the coast. On the way, over half his force
was killed by the pursuing army, but the survivors returned with thousands of
Indian allies to conquer the city a year later.
Mexico, with its fertile plains and great mineral wealth, was the crown jewel
of Spain's colonies. It was heavily taxed, ruled directly from Spain, and permitted
no autonomy. The Spanish monarchs distributed land to settlers in the form of
encomiendas (the predecessor to the hacienda), which were worked by Indian slaves that the settler's
were charged to protect and convert to Christianity. A caste system developed:
there were Espanoles (Spaniards born in Spain), criollos (Mexican-born, but with
Spanish blood), mestizos (Spanish and Indian), and finally the indigenes, the
Indians. Because of their forced dependence on the hacienda owners, and no resistance
to European ailments, the Indians were riddled with debt and disease long after
Spain abolished slavery in 1548.
If the seeds of Mexican independence had not already been planted in the
they were planted when Napoleon conquered Spain in 1808 When the French conqueror
placed his brother on the Spanish throne, Mexico's elite began to talk of self-rule.
The man who turned talk into action was a Catholic priest named Father Miguel
de Hidalgo y Costilla, who led an armed rebellion in 1810. Though he was
eventually captured and executed, Hidalgo's leadership began a war of independence
that culminated on September 27, 1821, when the rebel leader Vicente Guerrero
and the royalist Agustin de Iturbide signed the Treaty of Cordoba. Unfortunately,
with independence Mexico's troubles were just beginning.
For almost a century, the new country would be wracked by marked by almost
incessant fighting. One of the first Mexican presidents, the former rebel
Ana, is sourly credited with losing half his country to the United States
after a two-year war that ended in 1848. Santa Ana was eventually exiled and
succeeded by Ignacio Comonfort, who abdicated the presidency in favor of one of
Mexico's best-loved leaders, a mestizo from the state of Oaxaca ("Wah-ha-ka")
named Benito Juarez.. Juarez liberalized the constitution and instituted land-reform, infuriating
the wealthy conservative class and setting off a bloody conflict known as the
War of Reform, which lasted from 1858 to 1861. Juarez's forces were victorious,
but by the time the war was over Mexico's coffers were dry and it was defaulting
on its foreign debt payments. France, a major lender, and saw this as a perfect
excuse to invade. Napoleon III sent in the archduke of Austria, Maximilian, who
quickly took most of the country. After a dogged resistance, Juarez finally retook
Mexico City in 1867 and Maximilian was executed. To the archduke's credit,
much of his defeat was caused by his own conscience and love for Mexico: during
his rule, he passionately instituted a series of progressive reforms that
enraged the conservatives and caused Napoleon to abandon him.
In 1871, a mestizo named Porfirio Diaz ran against Juarez for president and
defeated. A sore loser, he decided to overthrow the government and succeeded
five years later. His iron-fisted rule, which lasted almost 40 years, became known
as the Porfiriato. During his reign, Diaz sold off much of Mexico's industries
to foreigners and routinely suppressed his opponents with brutal force. He was
ultimately challenged by hacienda owner Francisco I. Madero in his famous
book The Presidential Succession of 1910. Diaz ordered Madero arrested, but the
latter fled to the US and returned to win the presidency in 1910, backed by the
legendary Emiliano Zapata, who was leading a revolt against Diaz in the South.
But Madero's presidency was short lived; Madero's own military commander, Victoriano
Huerta, assassinated him with the help of the US embassador, and in the tremendously
bloody war that ensued, Huerta's forces were pitted against a formidable alliance
led by men whose names are now legend: Venustiano Carranza, General Alvaro Obregon,
Emiliano Zapata, and the infamous Pancho Villa in the north. The Mexican Revolution,
among the bloodiest internal conflicts in world history, was on.
Once Huerta was defeated, Carranza assumed the presidency, but this was only
the beginning. Villa and Zapata, refusing to recognize him, drove he and Obregon
from the capital. While the armies of the north and south held wild fiestas in
the capital, Carranza and Obregon retreated to Veracruz, where they quickly reassembled
and then retook the capital when Villa and Zapata failed to organize a
government. Obregon later annihilated Villa's cavalry in Celaya, and Villa would
never again be so powerful. Carranza held power until the next elections, when
it became clear that the popular Obregon would defeat him. Falling into the now
well-worn trap of wanting to hold power for too long, Carranza tried to stage
a coup, but Obregon escaped and his forces returned to chase and kill Carranza
as he fled along the old escape route to Veracruz. Meanwhile, in a last-ditch
attempt to pull the United States into a conflict against Carranza, Villa invaded
several US border towns and killed some inhabitants. After an unsuccessful pursuit
by US forces, Villa finally hung up his pistoles and became a farmer in Parral.
He was assassinated in 1923 when his car was ambushed. His brother in the south,
Zapata, was also killed in 1919 after he was lured into a trap by a government
soldier. When it was all over, the only man left alive, Obregon, was president.
Mexico's post-revolution history is marked by the tenacity of a single political
party, the Partido Revolucionario Institutional, or PRI. The party was founded
by Plutarco Elias Calles, who took over as president when Obregon was assassinated
(quite possibly by a Calles plot) in 1928. But the party's most loved president
was General Lazaro Cardenas in 1934. Cardenas instituted widespread land reform,
strengthened unions, and nationalized the petroleum industry. PRI candidates, who are hand-picked
by the president, have held power since - but not always peacefully. Election
fraud has been endemic (although recent elections indicate this is changing).
In 1968, the government violently suppressed a student protest in Mexico city,
killing hundreds. The last 30 years have seen a heavily fluctuating economy,
an influx of refugees from Central America, and inveterate government corruption
(much of it linked to the illicit drug-trade). Though the North American Free
Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has provided economic hope to some, it has also helped
spur Indian guerillas in Chiapas to rebel against what they see as an uncaring
government. Many Mexicans put their hope in 1994 PRI candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio,
only to have them dashed when he was assassinated the same year in Tijuana. The
current political atmosphere in Mexico is, however, optimistic. Indications are
that the PRI is willing share power with the opposition. In 1997, for the first
time in history, Mexico City elected a mayor who was not a PRI candidate. Traditionally,
the mayoral seat of Mexico City is the second most powerful office in the nation,
and the citizens of the Districto Federal could not have elected a more ironic
man: he is Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the son of the PRI's beloved Lazaro Cardenas.
He ran against his father's party, and won.
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