Mexico's historical attractions are one of the prime reasons tourists flock to the country, and its natural beauty is nothing to scoff at either!

With a rich cultural heritage spanning back to the Maya, Olmecs, and the Aztecs, Mexico is the focal point for anyone looking to study New World civilizations.

Additionally, its history is intriguing, with its ancient mystical ruins coupled with its unique mix of Pre-Colombian and colonial Spanish architecture.

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Pre-Colombian History

The first Pre-Colombian civilizations in Mexico, the Olmecs, sprung up around 1000 BC, in what is now present-day Veracruz and Tabasco.

They spread out through the breadth of central and southern Mexico – creating many busy cities and imprinting intricate carvings as an ode to their deity – until the civilization disappeared mysteriously around 400 BC.

Although the Olmecs left behind relatively few ruins, their impact on forthcoming civilizations was immense. Many new cultures followed them, including:

  • Mata
  • Aztecs
  • Toltecs

Their combined history has given present-day Mexico a vibrant cultural imprint, inspiring several top Mexican musicians and celebrities.

On the downside, human sacrifice was a routine practice for numerous cultures in ancient Mexico cultures.

Striking a balance between the spiritual and the natural world was the goal, as it was meant to appease the collection of gods worshipped by these cultures.

The flag of Mexico displays stripes of green, white and red, and an eagle emblem. The Mexican flag is a depiction of its natural flora and fauna and its rich history. Although Hollywood depicts the country as barren and arid, Mexican movies are a more authentic representation
Mexican celebrities are famous all over Spanish-speaking Latin America and are seen as trendsetters in the same way America is seen in the English-speaking world. Mexican movies are also translated to different languages all over the world (Source: Unsplash)

In contrast to some of their primitive rituals, they were also responsible for some remarkable achievements evident in Mexican pop culture. These include:

  • Astronomy
  • Art
  • Architecture
  • Mathematics
  • Textile

Some civilizations, like the Mayans, still boast having the most accurate calendars in the ancient world and were able to predict solar and lunar eclipses centuries before modern astronomical tools could.

Furthermore, this ancient love for astronomy makes its way into many top Mexican movies as a plot device.

The Aztec civilization also beats all other cultures of the new world with its widespread territorial expanse.

Although other civilizations might trump the Aztecs with some of their artistic and scientific achievements, none come close to the glory of the Aztec civilization in its heyday.

Before the 15th century, the Aztecs were a relatively obscure tribe living near present-day Mexico City. Near the end of the century, they had subjugated their surrounding tribes and created an empire.

Their capital was situated in Tenochtitlan, a bustling city set inside a lake, with pyramids, aqueducts, floating roads, and over a hundred thousand residents.

At the helm of the affairs was an emperor who taxed the population and had a warrior class serving below him.

Spanish Arrival

The Spanish adventurer Hernan Cortes was mesmerized by the city and its wealth when he first landed in 1519, proving to be a landmark moment in Mexican history, reenacted countless times in popular Mexican movies.

What followed was the Conquest of New Spain, a period of great tragedy and suffering, beginning in April 1519, when Cortes landed at Veracruz.

He had one specific goal in mind: to defeat the Aztecs and plunder their gold. Cortes had at his disposal 400 soldiers, 14 pieces of artillery, 11 ships, and 14 horses.

It's pretty remarkable what he was able to accomplish with such meager resources.

However, he was driven by ambition and greed for wealth. Upon disembarking, he burned all but one of his ships, eliminating any option of turning back.

Although his ultimate ambition was to be credited, some of his accolades can be attributed to plain luck.

A landmark photo of Chichen Itza in Mexico. Aztec and Mayan pyramids are uniquely different from the conventional pyramids of Egypt, with a terraced step-like structure that is recognizable for its unique form
If you watch Mexican movies regularly, you must be aware of the unique customs and traditions of the country, such as Cinco de Mayo and Day of the Dead, as they are referenced quite often (Source: Unsplash)

The Aztecs had a popular myth about their most important god, a white-faced Quetzacuatl, returning to their land after fleeing to the east.

The reigning emperor, Moctezuma II, wrongly assumed Cortes and his Caucasian army men to be emissaries of this god when they reached the capital Tenochtitlan.

With this knowledge and the guidance of his Spanish-speaking lover, Malinche, he deceived the emperor and took him hostage.

Moctezuma ordered his subjects to stand down, and by the time the Aztecs started fighting back, Cortes had already called in for reinforcements. The Aztecs proceeded to disown their ineffective emperor, who died as a prisoner.

By the time the Aztecs managed to recapture their palace, Cortes' army had already escaped to the coast. The following year, they returned with a vengeance and conquered the city with several Indian allies by their side.

Mexico was the jewel and the most important colony of the Spanish empire. Its rich fertile land and tremendous mineral wealth were kept on a tight leash by the Spanish, taxed heavily, and given almost no autonomy.

The Spanish then distributed the conquered lands among settlers from their mainland, who employed Indian slaves to work on their properties.

In this ensuing tradition, a caste system developed (Most powerful being 1, and least powerful being 4):

  1. Spaniards
  2. Criollos: Spanish people born on Mexican soil
  3. Mestizos: A mix of Spanish and Indian parentage
  4. Indians

This racial hierarchy is one of the ugly sides of Spanish colonial rule and is visible even in the best Mexican TV shows with the leading actors being white.

The Indians were disenfranchised because of the servitude enforced onto them by European settlers. They also fell victim to European diseases to which they had no natural immunity.

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Mexican Independence

Although sown during the Spanish conquistador rule, the seeds of Mexican independence finally bloomed when Napoleon laid siege to Spain in 1808.

When the Mexican elite heard of Napoleon placing his brother as the ruler of Spain, they began to think along similar lines of self-rule and overthrowing their Spanish overlords.

This came to fruition at the hands of a Catholic priest called Miguel de Hidalgo, who led a rebellion of armed men against the Spanish in 1810.

He was captured and executed, but this paved the way for a war of independence. The rebels led by Vicente Guerrero forced the royalists to sign the Treaty of Cordoba in 1821 and finally establish an independent rule.

Mexico's newly acquired independence did not spell an end to its woes, and the country was plagued by years of infighting for the next century.

In 1848, after a two-year war, the rebel general Santa Ana lost half of Mexico's territory to its northern neighbor, the United States.

He was disgraced and sent into exile, only to be succeeded by a short rule of Ignacio Comonfort, who abdicated in favor of Benito Juarez's mestizo.

This half-native, half-Spanish ruler became one of Mexico's most beloved leaders, instituting land reforms and liberalizing the constitution.

While these actions favored the masses, they angered the elite land-owning class, leading to a War of Reform from 1858 to 1861.

And even though Juarez proved to be a victor, this war had exhausted Mexico's treasury, with the country close to defaulting.

France was one of the major lenders to the country, and the French leader Napoleon III saw this as a perfect opportunity to invade the country.

Therefore, to expand his empire towards the Americas, Napolean sent in the archduke of Austria, Maximillian, who laid siege to most of Mexico.

After initial skirmishes, Juarez finally reclaimed Mexico City in 1867 and executed Maximillian, bringing back native rule to the country.

Towards the latter part of the 19th century, Juarez's rule was in its waning phase. One of his political opponents, Porfirio Diaz, did not take losing the election so well and overthrew the government by force.

The 40 years of his reign came to be known as the Porfiriato, a particularly devastating rule for Mexico. During this period, most of the industries were sold to foreigners, and opposition was brutally stifled.

And to end this madness, in 1910, one of his opponents, Francisco Madero, won the presidency in alliance with Emiliano Zapata, who was opposing Diaz from the south.

The Mexican Revolution

The years following these events proved to be among the bloodiest in Mexican and perhaps world history, with numerous contenders to the throne engaging in intrigues, murders, and revolts.

The revolution was monumental and is featured routinely as a reference point in the best Mexican movies of the early and mid-20th century

Madero's rule proved short-lived when his military commander, Victoriano Huerta, killed him in connivance with the US ambassador, spurring a bloody war.

Huerta and his men faced off against an alliance of leaders like Emiliano Zapata, Alvaro Obregon, and Pancho Villa, who came to be regarded as Mexican celebrities in their own right.

This period is ubiquitously known as The Mexican Revolution.

After Huerta's defeat, Carranza took the presidency, but Villa and Zapata refused to acknowledge him as the country's leader, driving him from the capital.

In the ensuing infighting, Carranza and Obregon retreated to Veracruz and attacked the capital again, defeating their opponents.

To further complicate the issue, Carranza and Obregon began fighting each other for power until Obregon's forces finally captured Carranza and killed him.

A field with large cactus plants and a brown hill during sunset. Mexican flora and fauna are distinct and regularly appear in postcards, souvenirs, and Mexican pop culture. Mexico is also a popular travel destination for this reason
Many of the American movies set in the Southwest, depicting the expansion to the West Coast, are usually filmed in the Chihuahua and Sonoran desert because of the similar locale; however, they portray the land differently from Mexican movies (Source: Unsplash)

During the latter years of the revolution, Villa tried invading some border towns along the US border. After reprisal from the US forces, he disappeared from the fields and lived life as a farmer in Parral.

Unfortunately, this proved to be short-lived as well, as he was killed in 1923 in an ambush. The sole survivor of the revolution was Obregon, who claimed the title of president.

Modern Mexico

With the end of the Mexican Revolution, Partido Revolucionario Institutional, or PRI, ruled the country for much of the 20th century.

This party was founded by Plutarco Elias Calles, who succeeded Obregon as president after his assassination in 1928.

The most beloved president from PRI was General Lazaro Cardenas, who took hold in 1934 and enacted land reform, nationalized the petroleum industry, and supported unions.

However, the PRI rule has not always been peaceful, with frequent allegations of electoral fraud, suppression of opposition, and a massive quelling of student protests in 1968, where many protesting students were killed.

The last 30 years have witnessed a fluctuating economy, endemic corruption, a violent drug trade, and an influx of Central American refugees.

Although the North American Free Trade Agreement has provided a trade cushion and economic leverage, Modern Mexico suffers from gang wars and armed rebellions.

The current atmosphere in the country is one of hope, with a non-PRI mayoral candidate winning the seat in the Mexico City mayor elections.

There is renewed optimism in the country, with the winds of change blowing across the political and social structure of the country.

Mexico's place is well cemented, with a growing economy and greater international cultural recognition.

Learn Mexican History With A Private Tutor

This crash course in Mexican history sheds light on some of the most critical events in the last 100 years of the country; however, there is a lot more that needs mentioning.

And if you have to prepare for a history final, you will need a lot more than just this article! Why not hire a private tutor?

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