A Little History of Mexico
There are 20 million people living in Mexico City. Or is it 28. Well, what’s an extra 8 million when you are talking those numbers. Nearby is Popocatepetl, at 5,452 m (17,887 ft) the second tallest mountain in Mexico (the tallest is Pico de Orizaba at 5,760 m or 18,898 ft). But Popo is better known for it’s major eruptions 5,000, 2,150, and 1,200 years ago. It’s been letting off steam, gas, and small eruptions since 1994. So if that thing goes like Mt St Helens, there are a fair few people in it’s path.
Then I take the metro to the anthropology museum. It’s pretty big and has displays on all the different states and peoples of Mexico, plus the origins of people in the Americas. The main information boards are in English but the rest in Spanish. If you wanted to read everything it would take you forever, but I've long since given up reading all the info in a museum. But I was amused to read one sign that described a carving of 40,000 rabbits, which is apparently the behaviour one regresses to after drinking too much tequila. It took me about three hours to get through the museum. The Mayan room was shut, kind of disappointing, since that is the most interesting culture aside from the Aztecs (whom they referred to as the Mexica, I didn’t realize they were the same thing as the Aztecs till a day later and I had wondered why they left out the Aztecs from their displays….). I later learnt that some priceless articles had been stolen from the Mayan rooms a few years ago, inside jobs planned by museum staff, and the rooms have been closed ever since. In fact many pieces have been stolen from the museums and are in the hands of rich Mexican private collectors.
The first people arrived in Mexico around 20,000 to 25,000 years ago. The Olmecs formed the first organized culture during the Pre-Classic period spanning from 1400 BC to 300 AD, and are credited with developing the first measurements of time. They also created the first permanent religious sites in the Americas, wrote with hieroglyphics, and developed a 365 day calendar. With increasing trade and pilgrimages to their holy sites, the Olmecs began to integrate the customs of new peoples and so their influence declined. The Zapotecs and later the Mixtecs (who mixed with the Zapotecs, no doubt hence the name) rose to prominence during the Classic period from 200 BC to 900 AD. They formed powerful empires and their culture reached the peak of arts and sciences. They built the military fortress at Monte Alban, which we would see later on our tour.
The abandoned fortress at Monte Alban
Teotihuacán, with a peak population of 200,000 people by 600 AD and the sixth largest city in the world at that time, is considered the most important site in all of Mexico, and was contemporary with Monte Alban. Teotihuacá dramatically collapsed for unknown reasons around 600 AD, at which time the Mayan people were reaching their peak, with up to 14 million citizens forming urban centres ranging from the Yucatan down through Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize. Like all of the previous cultures, the Mayans adapted the ideas and skills of their predecessors and the people they came into contact with. Their culture also mysteriously collapsed in 900 AD. The cultural standards raised during the classic period, particularly by the Mayans, were never to be reached again. The post classic period followed, from 900 to 1519 AD, dominated by more militant and aggressive societies, beginning with the Toltecs and Huastecs, who engaged in extensive animal and human sacrifices and made displays of skulls and heads. Unified dynasties were on the decline and from them rose independent states. The Aztecs were the most efficient of the military forces and conquered more and more independent states, absorbing their cultures and traditions. By the late 1400’s the Aztecs were the most powerful culture in Mexico. The last leader was Motecuhzoma who lived to be only 18 years old, and died in 1520.
Avenida de Muertos, or street of the dead, at the abandoned city of Teotihuacán
Later I asked our leader why we in the US refer to him as Montezuma, and she said she presumed it was because his real name was difficult for us to pronounce. Motecuhzoma was in power when Hernan Cortez and the Spanish conquistadores arrived in 1518, and part of the reason why the Spaniards were so quick to defeat the Aztecs was because the Aztecs believed the bearded, white skinned, blonde, and blue eyed Spaniards to be the legendary return of their god Quetzalcoatl, arriving from the east to destroy the Mexicans. The Spanish discovered this superstition and manipulated the Indian’s fears to their advantage. Hernan Cortez was commissioned to explore and conquer Mexico, and he advanced on the Aztec capital from the east and destroyed all the buildings within a few weeks, using rifles, horses, armour, the support of the Tlaxcalans, traditional rivals of the Aztecs, and the deliberate spread of smallpox to gain his victory.
During the time of Henry VIII, Mexico City was larger than the City of London (I mentioned this fact to an Englishman at work and he said, yeah, well all Mexico City was back then was a bunch of tack-o stands!! Note: no one else on the planet knows how to pronounce the word taco except for people from the Americas). The Colonial period followed, with disease and harsh treatment in the mines and farms reducing the indigenous population from 25 million in 1519 to one million by 1650. Mexican independence from Spain was spurred by increased taxes imposed by Spain on Mexico to meet the economic losses Spain had suffered in the wars in Europe following the French revolution. Miguel Hidalgo called for independence in the town of Dolores on October 16, 1810; his supporters seized several towns but he was captured and beheaded in 1821. Hidalgo’s downfall was due to the lack of support by the Creoles, white Spaniards born in Mexico filling most of the colonial administration positions, who feared they would be persecuted if independence succeeded. But a military revolt in Spain in 1820 forced King Ferdinand VII to adopt a constitution, and the ensuing disorder in the Spanish military meant that Spain was unable to provide soldiers to prevent further uprisings in Mexico, and so were forced to recognize Mexican independence.
One of the most famous Mexican leaders during the early stages of independence was General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who was president 11 times between 1833 and 1855. He was a little eccentric and decorated his house in European fashions, insisted on being referred to as His Most Serene Highness, and had his presence announced by 21 gun salutes. He lost his leg in 1838 but had it interred in 1842 and paraded through the capitol, and placed in an urn during an official government ceremony. Earlier, Santa Anna led forces into Texas for the Battle of the Alamo, killing Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. Sam Houston defeated and captured Santa Anna a few weeks later, forcing him to sign a treaty granting freedom to Texas, formerly a Mexican territory. Santa Anna renounced the treaty upon his release, provoking the American-Mexican war of 1846, which resulted in the surrender of 55% of Mexican territory to the US, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Texas. Six years later Santa Anna regained the presidency and sold another parcel of land to the US before he was overthrown.
From here on the presidency went back and forth between different factions, including Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz, who encouraged economic growth with foreign investment. But elections were rigged and political repression was rife, leading to the Mexican revolution from 1910 to 1917, during which nearly two million Mexicans lost their lives, or 1 in 8 of the population. Famous leaders of the Mexican revolution include Pascual Orozco, Emiliano Zapata, Venustiano Carranza, and Pancho Villa, with Carranza eventually gaining office at the end of the revolution. His successor, Calles, formed the PNR (later renamed the PRI) in 1929, which has controlled the Mexican government since the election of Fox, a former Coca Cola executive, in July 2000. So there you go, a small history of Mexico. I have the feeling that I borrowed heavily from my guidebook while writing these notes years ago, so credit goes to the Mexican travel book writers of the world!