Mexico has a long and storied history spanning thousands of years. From its ancient civilizations like the Olmecs, Mayas, Aztecs and others, to the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, Mexico has seen many major events that have shaped its culture and society. In this 5000 word article, we will explore some of the most important events in Mexico’s history.
The earliest major civilization in Mexico was the Olmec civilization, which thrived from around 1500 BCE to 400 BCE in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico. The Olmecs are often considered the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica, as they laid many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed. Their achievements included monumental stone sculpture, jade carving, and early writing and calendar systems. Major Olmec sites include San Lorenzo, La Venta and Tres Zapotes.
After the decline of the Olmecs, the Mayan civilization became dominant in the Yucatán Peninsula and parts of Central America from around 250 BCE to 900 CE. Known for their hieroglyphic writing, mathematics, calendar systems and exquisite art, the Maya built spectacular stone cities including Chichen Itza, Palenque, Tikal, Copan and Uxmal. A combination of deforestation, drought and increased warfare led to the collapse of the classic Mayan civilization around 900 CE.
In central Mexico, the city of Teotihuacan was the center of an influential civilization from around 100 BCE to 600 CE. With monumental pyramids and temples like the Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan was one of the largest cities in the pre-Columbian Americas. Its economic and cultural influence spread far across Mesoamerica. The cause of Teotihuacan’s collapse around 600 CE is still debated, but may have involved internal uprising or outside invasion.
In 1325 CE, the Mexica people founded the city of Tenochtitlan on an island in Lake Texcoco, located in the Valley of Mexico. Over the next century, the Mexica formed the Aztec Empire by conquering neighboring cities and demanding tribute. By the early 16th century, the Aztec Empire spanned most of central and southern Mexico. It was a sophisticated civilization with complex political, economic and social systems.
At its height, Tenochtitlan was one of the world’s largest cities, with over 200,000 inhabitants. The Aztecs built causeways, aqueducts, monumental pyramids topped by temples, and implanted ‘chinampas’ for agriculture in the lake. Aztec religion was centered on worship of various gods like Huitzilopochtli, Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl, and involved human sacrifice.
Major accomplishments of the Aztecs included their calendar, writing, mathematics, stunning art and featherwork. The Aztec language, Nahuatl, was the dominant language in central Mexico and used by the Spanish for communication.
The Spanish Conquest
In 1519, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived on the Gulf coast of Mexico with about 500 men. He made alliances with some indigenous groups who were subject to Aztec rule. Then in 1521, Cortés led the Spanish and their indigenous allies to defeat the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan after a long siege and fierce fighting.
The Spanish conquest was aided by their superior weapons including guns, steel swords, horses and attack dogs. They also inadvertently introduced deadly European diseases like smallpox which decimated the indigenous population.
The fall of Tenochtitlan marked the end of the Aztec Empire. Mexico became part of the Spanish Empire and remained under Spanish rule for 300 years. Indigenous populations declined drastically after the conquest due to disease, warfare and exploitation. The conquest began an era of colonization that profoundly shaped modern Mexican culture and society.
After conquering the Aztec Empire, the Spanish established the Viceroyalty of New Spain which ruled over Mexico and other parts of Central and North America. Mexico City was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan and became the capital of New Spain. The Spanish extracted vast wealth from Mexico’s minerals and agriculture, especially silver. Mexico provided Spain with more revenue than any other colony.
The Spanish imposed Catholicism, the Spanish language and culture on the indigenous people. Millions were converted, often forcibly, to Christianity. The mixing of Spanish and indigenous peoples led to a new mestizo culture. Extraordinary churches and monasteries like the Templo Mayor and cathedral of Mexico City were constructed during the colonial era.
To govern their new territories, the Spanish implemented the encomienda system which granted colonists indigenous labor and tribute. Abuses led this to be replaced by the repartimiento system of forced indigenous labor. Indigenous peoples were displaced from their lands and often forced to work in mines and plantations under horrific conditions.
Spanish-born elite, known as peninsulares, dominated colonial society. Below them were criollos, people of Spanish ancestry born in Mexico. Mestizos and indigenous people formed the lower classes. Social mobility was limited in the racial caste system.
In 1810, priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla launched the Mexican War of Independence with his famous Grito de Dolores speech. After over a decade of fighting between rebels and royalist forces, Mexico finally achieved independence in 1821.
Early Independent Mexico
In 1821, rebels led by Agustín de Iturbide and Vicente Guerrero defeated the Spanish and secured Mexico’s independence. Iturbide briefly ruled as Emperor of Mexico before being overthrown. The new republic adopted a constitution in 1824 creating Mexico as a federal republic.
The early years of independence were marked by political instability and power struggles between liberals and conservatives. From 1846-1848, Mexico lost half its territory to the U.S. in the Mexican-American War. Mexico descended into civil war between liberals and conservatives from 1858 to 1861.
In 1861, Benito Juárez became president and led major reforms such as separating church and state, enhancing religious freedom, and improving education. His liberal government was opposed by conservatives and the Catholic Church.
France, seeking to collect debts and gain territory, invaded Mexico in 1862. Napoleon III installed Maximilian Hapsburg as Emperor of Mexico. But his imperial rule was toppled by Juárez and his forces by 1867, in a victory for Mexican sovereignty. Juárez remains an iconic hero in Mexican history.
Porfiriato – The Reign of Porfirio Díaz
General Porfirio Díaz ruled Mexico with an iron fist as president from 1876 to 1880 and 1884 to 1911, a period known as the Porfiriato. Under Díaz, Mexico experienced political stability and major economic growth, but at the cost of democracy.
Díaz modernized Mexico’s infrastructure, telecommunications and transportation with new railroads, but foreign investors exploited the country’s mineral wealth. Wealth became concentrated in a few hands while most Mexicans remained in poverty.
The Porfiriato gave rise to the Mexican Revolution in 1910. After rigged elections gave Díaz another term, reformers like Francisco Madero launched an uprising against his dictatorship. Díaz was eventually forced into exile, ending his 35-year regime.
The Mexican Revolution
The Mexican Revolution was a massive civil war from 1910-1920 that radically transformed Mexican society and government. What began as an uprising against Díaz’s dictatorship erupted into complex factional fighting between rebel leaders like Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata and Venustiano Carranza.
Over 2 million Mexicans died during the war. Peasants and indigenous groups fought for land reform and workers demanded rights. The 1917 constitution enshrined many revolutionary ideals like land redistribution, labor rights and secular education.
In the 1920s, one-party rule was established with the creation of the forerunner of the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI. Though the violence ended, the PRI would dominate Mexican politics for decades afterwards. The revolution remains a pivotal moment in Mexico’s development as a modern nation.
The PRI Regime
In the wake of the revolution, the Party of the Mexican Revolution was formed, later morphing into the PRI in 1946. This party went on to rule Mexico as an effective one-party state from 1929 until 2000. Backed by the military and bureaucracy, the PRI controlled every aspect of political life, rigging elections and suppressing dissent.
Presidents like Lázaro Cárdenas, Miguel Alemán Valdés and Adolfo López Mateos oversaw rapid industrialization and economic growth under the PRI, especially from the 1940s to 1970s. Major infrastructure projects were completed. But inequality, repression and corruption were rampant.
By the 1960s, dissident movements began emerging, culminating in the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre where security forces killed dozens of student protestors. Economic instability in the 1970s undermined PRI dominance. In 2000, Vicente Fox of the National Action Party was elected president, finally ending PRI one-party rule.
Democratization since 2000 has ushered in a new and still unfolding era in Mexico’s history. Political power is now divided between competing parties and transferred peacefully through elections, though significant problems with corruption and cartel violence remain.
In 2018, Andrés Manuel López Obrador or AMLO was elected president, bringing the leftist National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) party to power. He has expanded social programs for the poor, ruled with a strong paternalistic style, and adopted controversial policies like austerity and fossil fuel dependence.
Economically, Mexico has pursued neoliberal reforms like privatization and free trade pacts, most notably NAFTA and the new USMCA deal with the U.S. and Canada. Its economy is now the second largest in Latin America. However, inequality remains high and poverty widespread, especially in rural areas.
Rising drug trafficking and organized crime fueled by cartels like Los Zetas have led to staggering violence, destabilizing the country. Over 300,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s drug wars since 2006. The cartels threaten Mexico’s national security, though the new National Guard is attempting to restore order.
Looking ahead, Mexico faces major challenges with crime, corruption and inequality. But its people carry on strong traditions in culture, family, art and food. Mexico remains proud of its indigenous heritage and revolutionary spirit while shaping its democratic future.
Mexico’s storied past, from its ancient civilizations like the Aztecs and Mayas to the Spanish conquest and revolution, has shaped its diverse culture and society. Major events like the rise and fall of the Aztec Empire, Mexican independence from Spain, the Porfiriato regime and Mexican Revolution transformed the country.
Mexico continues to evolve, maintaining its identity while developing as an economic power and democracy. Though it faces major problems today like crime and inequality, Mexico’s rich history provides lessons as the nation charts its future course. This 5000 word article summarized some of the key events and eras that define Mexico’s historic and ongoing journey.