Did native Mexicans prefer Spanish rulers to the Aztecs?

Did native Mexicans prefer Spanish rulers to the Aztecs?

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In his letter to Charles V, Hernan Cortes states that "it was only necessary to threaten to return them [the natives] to their native masters in order to make them serve the Spaniards very willingly." (source: "The Encomienda in New Spain: The Beginning of Spanish Mexico", pp. 61).

Is there evidence (other than Cortes' own view, which is obviously biased) to suggest that some Native Americans did in fact prefer Spanish rulers?

You need to distinguish their opinion of the Spanish prior to the defeat of the Aztecs and after. When the Spanish first arrived, they had guns and horses but were small in number. The native americans had yet to suffer the full depravities of not only the Spanish but also the deadly diseases to come, and they were strong both in population numbers and in military prowess; they considered themselves allied to Cortes, not under his rule. That was certainly a better position than being under the Aztecs' heels. I suspect your quote comes from this period.

Indeed, it took Cortes a fair bit of campaigning (and a major near defeat) to secure military victory over the Aztecs. It helped that he had help in the form of reinforcements, indian allies, and smallpox. Eventually he defeated the Aztecs, banished them from Tenochtitlan, destroyed the temples, and rebuilt it into Mexico City.

With Mexico City as their base, the Spanish essentially just inserted themselves into the power structure the Aztecs had created and occupied. This worked because the "Aztec empire" was not a unified empire in the sense of say the Roman empire, but was more like a loose feudal collection of city states that cooperated out of fear of retribution; the Aztecs weren't "rulers" of these polities any more than the Chicago mafia were "employers" of the shopkeepers they shook down or the police they bribed. So, the Spanish conquistadors could simply break a few legs and become the new boss, same as the old boss. In fact even after Cortes, fighting ("pacification") continued for 60 years.

The Spanish colonists recognized the indigenous nobility, with privileges, education, and even titles. So in a lot of places, the powers that had been, continued to be, and life went on as before. Even the infamous Spanish slavery was essentially a continuation of long established forced labor practices, just taken up a few notches. This was justified with the belief that the Spanish were providing protection and Christian education to the natives.

As well, we should probably distinguish between the different groups of Native Americans, they weren't all the same. We can imagine that groups that fought WITH the Spanish were treated better than ones that fought against them. But regardless, all bets were off if silver mines were discovered near you; the Spanish tapped tribes pretty intently to work their mines.

So, did some Native Americans prefer Spanish rulers to the Aztecs? If you were in the nobility, had supported Cortes in battle, and didn't have any silver deposits near you, the Spanish probably weren't too bad. Maybe you'd get to learn to read.

For a lot of Native Americans, though, life under the Spanish was not much different than under the Aztecs. A lot less human sacrifice, a lot more forced labor, and plenty of smallpox.

Two words: "Human Sacrifice":

Because the objective of Aztec warfare was to capture victims alive for human sacrifice, battle tactics were designed primarily to injure the enemy rather than kill him. After towns were conquered their inhabitants were no longer candidates for human sacrifice, only liable to regular tribute. Slaves also could be used for human sacrifice, but only if the slave was considered lazy and had been resold three times.

Aztecs did that, Spanish did not.

PS. No, the Spanish were no fluffy little bunnies handing out sweets. However, in general, they did not kill for no good reason those who served them, unlike the Aztecs.

I think a bit of context might help. The natives Cortes is talking about had been subject tribes of the Aztecs who took the opprotunity to rise against them and to ally themselves with the Spanish.

What Cortes was doing, then, was browbeating his allies into submission by the threat of turning them over to their erstwhile masters. A somewhat underhanded technique, of course.

This has nothing to do, as far as I can tell, with the comparative advantages of Spanish or Aztec rule, just a bit of power play on Cortes's part.

There was one group of Native Americans in Mexico, the Tlaxcala, who allied with the Spanish against the "Aztec" cities of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. The Tlaxcala formed the backbone (other than the Spanish) of the anti-Aztec coalition.

When Cortes was in retreat, the Aztecs asked the Tlaxcalans to "turn over" Cortes to them. One of the younger chiefs agreed, but he was vetoed (and later killed) by his elders.

After they defeated the Aztecs together, the Tlaxcalans were allowed by the Spanish to participate in the conquest of Guatemala, and were generally treated by them as "favored" Native Americans compared to the defeated Aztecs. But the losses they suffered supporting the Spanish (and from diseases, etc.) caused them to die out.

For the Tlaxcalans, at least, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

Aztec culture to the time of the Spanish conquest

At the time of the Spanish conquest the dominant people of Meso-America were the Aztec. This description is based primarily on written documents from the 16th century but also includes some archaeological data. The literature, both published and unpublished, of the 16th century is enormous and takes in all aspects of Aztec culture. Much of it covers the period within a few decades after the conquest, and it is uncertain how much change had occurred because of the introduction of Spanish culture. Some Aztec institutions, such as the military orders, were immediately abolished by the Spaniards and the sources, therefore, give only the barest outline of their organization. This information, however, combined with archaeological data, gives a fairly detailed picture of Aztec culture at the time of the Spanish conquest. The sources can be classified by content and purpose into five categories, each of which is described below.


The Olmecs are thought to be one of the oldest major civilizations in Mexico their presence in the region dates back to before 1000 BC. The Olmecs relied heavily on agriculture and were the first to introduce ritual bloodletting. We still don't know how Olmec society was structured, but it is believed to have been hierarchical. One clue that led to this theory are the huge stone heads they left behind (measuring 4 to 11 feet tall), which are believed to represent the heads of Olmec rulers. Much is still unknown about the Olmecs, such as what led to their decline around 400 BC. The Olmec people and culture did not completely disappear many other tribes incorporated aspects of the Olmec culture into their own including the Aztecs more than 1000 years later.


In the second article of its Constitution, Mexico is defined as a "pluricultural" nation in recognition of the diverse ethnic groups that constitute it and where the indigenous peoples [9] are the original foundation. [10]

The number of indigenous Mexicans is judged using the political criteria found in the 2nd article of the Mexican constitution. The Mexican census does not report racial-ethnicity but only the cultural-ethnicity of indigenous communities that preserve their indigenous languages, traditions, beliefs and cultures. [4]

The category of indigena (indigenous) can be defined narrowly according to linguistic criteria including only persons that speak one of Mexico's 89 indigenous languages, this is the categorization used by the National Mexican Institute of Statistics. It can also be defined broadly to include all persons who self identify as having an indigenous cultural background, whether or not they speak the language of the indigenous group they identify with. This means that the percentage of the Mexican population defined as "indigenous" varies according to the definition applied cultural activists have referred to the usage of the narrow definition of the term for census purposes as "statistical genocide". [11] [12]

The indigenous peoples in Mexico have the right of free determination under the second article of the constitution. According to this article the indigenous peoples are granted:

  • the right to decide the internal forms of social, economic, political, and cultural organization
  • the right to apply their own normative systems of regulation as long as human rights and gender equality are respected
  • the right to preserve and enrich their languages and cultures
  • the right to elect representatives before the municipal council where their territories are located

among other rights. Also, the Law of Linguistic Rights of the Indigenous Languages recognizes 89 indigenous languages as "national languages", which have the same validity as Spanish in all territories where they are spoken. [13] According to the National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Data Processing (INEGI), approximately 5.4% of the population speaks an indigenous language – that is, approximately half of those identified as indigenous. [14] The recognition of indigenous languages and the protection of indigenous cultures is granted not only to the ethnic groups indigenous to modern-day Mexican territory but also to other North American indigenous groups that migrated to Mexico from the United States [15] in the nineteenth century and those who immigrated from Guatemala in the 1980s. [16]

Pre-Columbian civilizations Edit

The prehispanic civilizations of what now is known as Mexico are usually divided in two regions: Mesoamerica, in reference to the cultural area where several complex civilizations developed before the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century, and Aridoamerica (or simply "The North") [17] in reference to the arid region north of the Tropic of Cancer where few civilizations developed and was mostly inhabited by nomadic or semi-nomadic groups. [ citation needed ] Despite the conditions however, it is argued that the Mogollon culture and Peoples successfully established population centers at Casas Grandes and Cuarenta Casas in a vast territory that encompassed northern Chihuahua state and parts of Arizona and New Mexico in the United States.

Mesoamerica was densely populated by diverse indigenous ethnic groups [17] [ page needed ] [18] which, although sharing common cultural characteristics, spoke different languages and developed unique civilizations.

One of the most influential civilizations that developed in Mesoamerica was the Olmec civilization, sometimes referred to as the "Mother Culture of Mesoamerica". [18] The later civilization in Teotihuacán reached its peak around 600 AD, when the city became the sixth largest city in the world, [18] whose cultural and theological systems influenced the Toltec and Aztec civilizations in later centuries. Evidence has been found on the existence of multiracial communities or neighborhoods in Teotihuacan (and other large urban areas like Tenochtitlan). [19] [20]

The Maya civilization, though also influenced by other Mesoamerican civilizations, developed a vast cultural region in south-east Mexico and northern Central America, while the Zapotec and Mixtec culture dominated the valley of Oaxaca, and the Purépecha in western Mexico.

Trade Edit

There is common academic agreement that significant systems of trading existed between the cultures of Mesoamerica, Aridoamerica and the American Southwest, and the architectural remains and artifacts share a commonality of knowledge attributed to this trade network. The routes stretched far into Mesoamerica and reached as far north to ancient communities that included such population centers in the United States such as at Snaketown, [21] Chaco Canyon, and Ridge Ruin near Flagstaff (considered some of the finest artifacts ever located).

Colonial era Edit

By the time of the arrival of the Spanish in central Mexico, many of the diverse ethnic civilizations (with the notable exception of the Tlaxcaltecs and the Purépecha Kingdom of Michoacán) were loosely joined under the Aztec Empire, the last Nahua civilization to flourish in Central Mexico. The capital of the empire, Tenochtitlan, became one of the largest urban centers in the world, with an estimated population of 350,000 inhabitants. [17] [ page needed ]

During the conquest of the Aztec Empire, the Spanish conquistadors, vastly outnumbered by indigenous peoples, made alliance with other ethnic groups in the Aztec Empire, including the Tlaxcaltecs. [17] [ page needed ] This strategy was found to be very effective as the Aztecs had a very bad reputation in the region for cannibalism and other inhumane practices and native alliances were crucial to the Spanish victory. After a few decades, the Spanish consolidated their rule in what became the viceroyalty of New Spain through the Valladolid Debate. The crown recognized the indigenous nobility in Mesoamerica as nobles, freed indigenous slaves, and kept the existing basic structure of indigenous city-states. Indigenous communities were incorporated as communities under Spanish rule and with the indigenous power structure largely intact. [22] However, the viceroys and indigenous people both resisted to gain more freedom for themselves.

As part of the Spanish incorporation of indigenous into the colonial system, the friars taught indigenous scribes to write their languages in Latin letters so that there are huge corpus of colonial-era documentation in the Nahuatl language, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Yucatec Maya as well as others. Such a written tradition likely took hold because there was an existing tradition of pictorial writing found in many indigenous codices. Scholars have utilized the colonial-era alphabetic documentation in what is currently called the New Philology to illuminate the colonial experience of Mesoamerican peoples from their own viewpoints. [23]

Since Mesoamerican peoples had an existing requirement of labor duty and tribute in the pre-conquest era, Spaniards who were awarded the labor and tribute of particular communities in encomienda could benefit financially. Indigenous officials in their communities were involved in maintaining this system. There was a precipitous decline in indigenous populations due to the spread of European diseases previously unknown in the New World. Pandemics wrought havoc, but indigenous communities recovered with fewer members. [17] [ page needed ] [24] [25]

With contact between indigenous populations, Spaniards, Africans (many of which were slaves), and starting in the late sixteenth century, Asian slaves (chinos) brought as goods the trade via the Manila Galleon there was intermingling of the groups, with mixed-race castas, particularly mestizos, becoming a component of Spanish cities and to a lesser extent indigenous communities. The Spanish legal structure formally separated what they called the república de indios (the republic of Indians) from the república de españoles (republic of Spaniards), the latter of which encompassed all those in the Hispanic sphere: Spaniards, Africans, and mixed-race castas. Although in many ways indigenous peoples were marginalized in the colonial system, [26] the paternalistic structure of colonial rule supported the continued existence and structure of indigenous communities. The Spanish crown recognized the existing ruling group, gave protection to the land holdings of indigenous communities, and communities' and individuals had access to the Spanish legal system. [24] [25] [27] In practice in central Mexico this meant that until the nineteenth-century liberal reform that eliminated the corporate status of indigenous communities, indigenous communities had a protected status.

Although the crown recognized the political structures and the ruling elites in the civil sphere, in the religious sphere indigenous men were banned from the Christian priesthood, following an early Franciscan experiment that included fray Bernardino de Sahagún at the Colegio de Santa Cruz Tlatelolco to train such a group. Mendicants of the Franciscan, Dominican, and Augustinian orders initially evangelized indigenous in their own communities in what is often called the "spiritual conquest". [28] Later on the northern frontiers where nomadic indigenous groups had no fixed settlements, the Spanish created missions and settled indigenous populations in these complexes. The Jesuits were prominent in this enterprise until their expulsion from Spanish America in 1767. Catholicism with particular local aspects was the only permissible religion in the colonial era.

Indigenous Land Edit

During the early colonial era in central Mexico, Spaniards were more interested in having access to indigenous labor than in ownership of land. The institution of the encomienda, a crown grant of the labor of particular indigenous communities to individuals was a key element of the imposition of Spanish rule, with the land tenure of indigenous communities continuing largely in its preconquest form. The Spanish crown initially kept intact the indigenous sociopolitical system of local rulers and land tenure, with the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire eliminating the superstructure of rule, replacing it with Spanish. [29] [30] The crown had several concerns about the encomienda. First was that the holders of encomiendas, called encomenderos were becoming too powerful, essentially a seigneurial group that might challenge crown power (as shown in the conspiracy by conqueror Hernán Cortés's legitimate son and heir). Second was that the encomenderos were monopolizing indigenous labor to the exclusion of newly arriving Spaniards. And third, the crown was concerned about the damage to the indigenous vassals of the crown and their communities by the institution. Through the New Laws of 1542, the crown sought to phase out the encomienda and replace it with another crown mechanism of forced indigenous labor, known as the repartimiento. Indigenous labor was no longer monopolized by a small group of privileged encomienda holders, but rather labor was apportioned to a larger group of Spaniards. Natives performed low-paid or underpaid labor for a certain number of weeks or months on Spanish enterprises. [31]

The land of indigenous peoples is used for material reasons as well as spiritual reasons. Religious, cultural, social, spiritual, and other events relating to their identity are also tied to the land. [32] Indigenous people use collective property so that the aforementioned services that the land provides are available to the entire community and future generations. [32] This was a stark contrast to the viewpoints of colonists that saw the land purely in an economic way where land could be transferred between individuals. [32] Once the land of the indigenous people and therefore their livelihood was taken from them, they became dependent on those that had land and power. [32] Additionally, the spiritual services that the land provided were no longer available and caused a deterioration of indigenous groups and cultures. [32]

Colonial-era racial categories Edit

The Spanish legal system divided racial groups into two basic categories, the República de Españoles, consisting of all non-indigenous, but initially Spaniards and black Africans, and the República de Indios. Offspring of Spaniards and indigenous people were typically also considered Spaniards.

The degree to which racial category labels had legal and social consequences has been subject to academic debate since the idea of a "caste system" was first developed by Ángel Rosenblat and Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán in the 1940s. Both historians popularized the notion that racial status was a key organizing principle of Spanish colonial rule. However, recent academic studies have widely challenged this notion, considering it a flawed an ideologically-based reinterpretations of the colonial period. [33] [34]

When Mexico gained independence in 1821, the casta designations were eliminated as a legal structure, but racial divides remained. White Mexicans argued about what the solution was to the Indian Problem, that is indigenous who continued to live in communities and were not integrated politically or socially as citizens of the new republic. [35] The Mexican constitution of 1824 has several articles pertaining to indigenous peoples.

Independence to the Mexican Revolution Edit

The insurgency against the Spanish Empire was a decade-long struggle ending in 1821, in which indigenous peoples participated for their own motivations. [36] When New Spain became independent, the new country was named after its capital city, Mexico City. The new flag of the country had at its center a symbol of the Aztecs, an eagle perched on a nopal cactus. Mexico declared the abolition of black slavery in 1829 and the equality of all citizens under the law. Indigenous communities continued to have rights as corporations to maintain land holdings until the liberal Reforma. Some indigenous individuals integrated into the Mexican society, like Benito Juárez of Zapotec ethnicity, the first indigenous president of a country in the New World. [37] As a political liberal, however, Juárez supported the removal of protections of indigenous community corporate land holding.

In the arid North of Mexico, indigenous peoples, such as the Comanche and Apache, who had acquired the horse, were able to wage successful warfare against the Mexican state. The Comanche controlled considerable territory, called the Comancheria. [38] The Yaqui also had a long tradition of resistance, with the late nineteenth-century leader Cajemé being prominent. The Mayo joined their Yaqui neighbors in rebellion after 1867.

In Yucatán, Mayas waged a protracted war against local Mexican control in the Caste War of Yucatán, which was most intensely fought in 1847, but lasted until 1901. [39]

20th century Edit

The greatest change came about as a result of the Mexican Revolution, a violent social and cultural movement that defined 20th century Mexico. The Revolution produced a national sentiment that the indigenous peoples were the foundation of Mexican society. Several prominent artists promoted the "Indigenous Sentiment" (sentimiento indigenista) of the country, including Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera. Throughout the twentieth century, the government established bilingual education in certain indigenous communities and published free bilingual textbooks. [40] Some states of the federation appropriated an indigenous inheritance in order to reinforce their identity. [41]

In spite of the official recognition of the indigenous peoples, the economic underdevelopment of the communities, accentuated by the crises of the 1980s and 1990s, has not allowed for the social and cultural development of most indigenous communities. [42] Thousands of indigenous Mexicans have emigrated to urban centers in Mexico as well as in the United States. In Los Angeles, for example, the Mexican government has established electronic access to some of the consular services provided in Spanish as well as Zapotec and Mixe. [43] Some of the Maya peoples of Chiapas have revolted, demanding better social and economic opportunities, requests voiced by the EZLN. [ citation needed ]

The Chiapas conflict of 1994 led to collaboration between the Mexican government and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, an indigenous political group. [44] This large movement generated international media attention and united many indigenous groups. [45] In 1996 the San Andrés Larráinzar Accords were negotiated between the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and the Mexican government. [44] The San Andres accords were the first time that indigenous rights were acknowledged by the Mexican government. [44]

The government has made certain legislative changes to promote the development of the rural and indigenous communities and the preservation and promotion of their languages. The second article of the Constitution was modified to grant them the right of self-determination and requires state governments to promote and ensure the economic development of the indigenous communities as well as the preservation of their languages and traditions.

Constitutional Edit

The Spanish crown had legal protections of indigenous as individuals as well as their communities, including establishing a separate General Indian Court. [46] The mid-nineteenth century liberal reform removed those, so that there was equality of individuals before Mexican law. [47] The creation of a national identity not linked to racial or ethnic identity was an aim of Mexican liberalism.

In the late twentieth century there has been a push for indigenous rights and a recognition of indigenous cultural identity. According to the constitutional reform of 2001, the following rights of indigenous peoples are recognized: [48]

  • acknowledgement as indigenous communities, right to self-ascription, and the application of their own regulatory systems
  • preservation of their cultural identity, land, consultation and participation
  • access to the jurisdiction to the state and to development
  • recognition of indigenous peoples and communities as subject of public law
  • self-determination and self-autonomy for the advancement of indigenous communities
  • administer own forms of communication and media

The second article of the constitution of Mexico recognizes and enforces the right of indigenous peoples and communities to self-determination and therefore their autonomy to:

V. Preserve and improve their habitat as well as preserve the integrity of their lands in accordance with this constitution. VI. Be entitled to the estate and land property modalities established by this constitution and its derived legislation, to all private property rights and communal property rights as well as to use and enjoy in a preferential way all the natural resources located at the places which the communities live in, except those defined as strategic areas according to the constitution. The communities shall be authorized to associate with each other in order to achieve such goals. [49]

Under the Mexican government, some indigenous people had land rights under ejido and agrarian communities. [50] Under ejidos, indigenous communities have usufruct rights of the land. Indigenous communities choose to do this when they do not have the legal evidence to claim the land. In 1992, shifts were made to the economic structure and ejidos could now be partitioned and sold. For this to happen, the PROCEDE program was established. The PROCEDE program surveyed, mapped, and verified the ejido lands. This privatization of land undermined the economic base of the indigenous communities much like the taking of their land during colonization. [50]

Linguistic Edit

The history of linguistic rights in Mexico began when Spanish first made contact with Indigenous Languages during the colonial period. [44] During the early sixteenth century mestizaje, mixing of races of culture, led to mixing of languages as well. [44] The Spanish Crown proclaimed Spanish to be the language of the empire indigenous languages were used during conversion of individuals to Catholicism. [44] Because of this, indigenous languages were more widespread than Spanish from 1523 to 1581. [44] During the late sixteenth century, the status of Spanish language increased. [44]

By the seventeenth century, the elite minority were Spanish speakers. [44] After independence in 1821 there was a shift to Spanish to legitimize the Mexican Spanish created by the Mexican criollos. [44] Since then, indigenous tongues were discriminated against and seen as not modern. [51] The nineteenth century brought with it programs to provide bilingual education at primary levels where they would eventually transition to Spanish only education. [44] Linguistic uniformity was sought out to strengthen national identity. This left indigenous languages out of power structures. [44]

The Chiapas conflict of 1994 led to collaboration between the Mexican government and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, an indigenous political group. [44] In 1996 the San Andrés Larráinzar Accords were negotiated between the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and the Mexican government. [44] The San Andres accords were the first time that indigenous rights were acknowledged by the Mexican government. [44] The San Andres Accords did not explicitly state language but language was involved in matters involving culture and education. [44]

In 2001, the constitution of Mexico was changed to acknowledge indigenous peoples and grant them protection. The second article of the constitution of Mexico recognizes and enforces the right of indigenous peoples and communities to self-determination and therefore their autonomy to:

In 2003, the General Law of Linguistic Rights of the Indigenous Peoples explicitly stated the protection of individual and collective linguistic rights of indigenous peoples. [52] The final section also sanctioned the creation of a National Institute for Indigenous Languages (INALI) whose purpose is to promote the growth of indigenous languages in Mexico. [52]

There has been a lack of enforcement of the law. For example, the General Law on Linguistic Rights of Indigenous People guarantees the right to a trial in the language of indigenous peoples with someone who understands their culture. [52] According to the National Human Rights Commission (Mexico), Mexico has not abided by this law. [51] Examples of this include Jacinta Francisca Marcial, an indigenous woman who was imprisoned for kidnapping in 2006. [51] After three years and the assistance of Amnesty International she was released for lack of evidence. [51]

Additionally, the General Law on Linguistics also guarantees bilingual and intercultural education. [52] People commonly complain that teachers do not know the indigenous language or do not prioritize teaching the indigenous language. [51] In fact, some studies argue that formal education has decreased the prevalence of indigenous languages. [51]

Some parents do not teach their children their indigenous language and some children refuse to learn their indigenous language for fear that they will be discriminated against. Scholars argue that there needs to be a social change to elevate the status of indigenous languages in order for the law to be withheld so that indigenous languages are protected. [51]

Negative Effect: Destruction of the Empire

After three months of fighting, Cortes defeated the capital city of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan. The emperor Cuauhtémoc was taken prisoner and executed later that same year, and Cortes became the ruler of the expansive empire. The surviving Aztecs were highly susceptible to European diseases previously unknown to their culture, such as smallpox and typhus. In 1521, smallpox decimated the population of Tenochtitlan. Two following epidemics killed 75 percent of the remaining population, according to the New World Encyclopedia. Surviving Aztecs were not allowed to learn of their native culture and were forced to read and write in Spanish. Many elements of Aztec culture were lost forever.


Over 60 indigenous languages are recognized as native languages of Mexico, in addition to Spanish. Some of these include Nahuatl, Yucatec, Tzotzil, Mixtec, Zapotec, Otomi, Huichol, and Totonac.

When Spanish friars came to Mexico, they taught the indigenous tribes how to write their languages using Latin letters. This led to a large amount of written documentation about native peoples in their indigenous languages.

In the 20th century, the government encouraged bilingual education and the publication of bilingual textbooks in an effort to preserve indigenous languages. In 2003, the National Institute for Indigenous Languages was formed to promote the preservation and growth of these languages.

© Yavidaxiu - Map of the Indigenous Mexican Languages

500 Years Later, The Spanish Conquest Of Mexico Is Still Being Debated

An artistic rendering of the retreat of Hernán Cortés from Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, in 1520. The Spanish conquistador led an expedition to present-day Mexico, landing in 1519. Although the Spanish forces numbered some 500 men, they managed to capture Aztec Emperor Montezuma II. The city later revolted, forcing Cortés and his men to retreat. Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images hide caption

An artistic rendering of the retreat of Hernán Cortés from Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, in 1520. The Spanish conquistador led an expedition to present-day Mexico, landing in 1519. Although the Spanish forces numbered some 500 men, they managed to capture Aztec Emperor Montezuma II. The city later revolted, forcing Cortés and his men to retreat.

Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Five-hundred years ago, two men met and changed much of the world forever.

About 500 Spanish conquistadors — ragged from skirmishes, a massacre of an Indigenous village and a hike between massive volcanoes — couldn't believe what they saw: an elegant island city in a land that Europeans didn't know existed until a few years before.

"It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before," wrote conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo.

The date was Nov. 8, 1519. Bernal's leader, Hernán Cortés, walked them down a causeway leading into the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, and was greeted by this land's most powerful man: Emperor Montezuma II. (Montezuma was Mexica, but the term Aztec is often used to denote the triple alliance of civilizations that made up his empire.)

According to Cortés, Montezuma immediately recognized the divine right of the Spanish and the Catholic Church to rule these lands and he surrendered his empire.

But according to historian Matthew Restall, author of the book When Montezuma Met Cortés, this is simply wrong.

"The more that I thought about [the surrender], the more I decided it just didn't quite make sense," he tells NPR. "But then what really got me interested was this question, 'If it's a lie, how has it lasted for 500 years?' "

The meeting of Montezuma and Cortés — in what today is Mexico City — and the true story of the conquest that followed it still weigh heavily in Mexico half a millennium later.

Twice this year, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has publicly asked the Spanish crown to apologize for atrocities against native people.

"We have not forgotten this issue and continue believing they should offer an apology for the invasion," he said during a news briefing in October. So far, Spain has rejected that request.

The story of the Spanish conquest, as it has been commonly understood for 500 years, goes like this: Montezuma surrendered his empire to Cortés. Cortés and his men entered Tenochtitlán and lived there peacefully for months until rebellious Aztecs attacked them. Montezuma was killed by friendly fire. The surviving conquistadors escaped the city and later returned with Spanish reinforcements. They bravely laid siege to Tenochtitlán for months and finally captured it on Aug. 13, 1521, with the Spanish taking their rightful place as leaders of the land we now know as Mexico. Conquest accomplished.

"History is messy, and this story tidies up all of that mess and turns the messy, unpleasant war that took place 500 years ago into a nice, tidy dramatic narrative that has a hero [Cortés] and antihero [Montezuma] and has some kind of climactic, glorious ending," says Restall.

In When Montezuma Met Cortés, Restall revises this story. He ditches the word "conquest" and instead refers to the time as the Spanish-Aztec war. He says Cortés was a "mediocrity" with little personal impact on the unfolding of events and refocuses on complex territorial battles between the Aztecs and their rivals. The Tlaxcallan Empire, which allied with the Spanish, was the driving force, outnumbering conquistadors 50-to-1 during the war with the Aztecs. Smallpox and a betrayal from an Aztec ally dealt the final blow. The wondrous island city fell, but it would take years for the Spanish to establish control in New Spain.

The messy history of the Spanish and Aztecs is still strikingly visible in the center of Mexico City. Right next to the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral (a centuries-long expansion of the first Spanish church built here, in the 1520s) sit the remains of the Aztec Templo Mayor, or Great Temple, buried beneath the city surface.

Archaeologists have made key discoveries about the Aztecs at the Great Temple site in Mexico City. Eduardo Verdugo/AP hide caption

The Mysterious Doña Marina, the Most Important Woman in Mexican History

She is known by many names, La Malinche, Doña Marina, Malinalli, Malintzin and disparagingly as La Chingada. Although many of the details of her life have been lost or embellished over time, history casts her alternatively in the role of savior, villain, lover, betrayer, evangelist, helper, and the mother of a new race. So, who exactly was Doña Marina and what role did she play in the history of Mexico?

The woman later known by her Spanish name Doña Marina was born sometime at the end of the 15 th Century or the beginning of the 16 th Century. Her given name was Malinalli, and she was named for the 12 th day of the ancient Mesoamerican calendar. According to firsthand accounts published by Bernal Diaz, one of the Spanish conquistadors who arrived with Cortez and who knew Marina, she was from a minor noble family in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in south-central Mexico. Marina was most likely not a native speaker of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire, but knew it fluently because it was the lingua franca of the region and known by many non-Aztec groups who were either subjugated by the Aztec Empire or who interacted with the Aztecs through trade. Most of what we know about Marina’s early life comes from Diaz’s written accounts, recorded almost 40 years after the Conquest in a book titled La historia verdadera de la conquista de Nueva España. In English, this translates to “The true history of the conquest of New Spain.” When Marina was a young girl her father, who was the Cacique of Paynala, died and her mother remarried. With her new husband Marina’s mother had a son. The mother wanted her son to inherit the family’s status and wealth and had a plan to send Marina away. When she was in her early teens, Marina’s mother sold her to traders in the market city of Xicalango and told everyone that Marina had died. In Xicalango Marina was sold off to a Maya lord who ruled Potonchán, a small kingdom located in the present Mexican state of Tabasco. When Marina was brought to Potonchán she served in the household of the noble lord, and after a short time she became fluent in the local Chontal Maya language. Up until that point, Marina was fluent in at least 3 languages: the native language of her town of birth, the Aztec language Nahuatl, and Chontal Maya.

While Marina served in the house of the Chontal Maya ruler, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was taking part in the conquest of the island of Cuba. While Cortés served the Spanish king in Cuba he heard stories of a mythical land to the west and about a mighty empire whose capital stood on an island in the middle of a lake. Cortés was determined to locate this city and take over the empire and in 1518 he left Cuba with over 500 ambitious Spaniards to undertake this grand scheme. His expedition landed on Mexico’s gulf coast and the Spaniards made contact with the local Maya-speaking people. In the course of the expedition’s journey down the coast, to their surprise Cortés and his men encountered a 30-year-old Spanish priest named Jeronimo de Aguilar who had been shipwrecked on the Mexican coast in 1511 and had lived among the Maya ever since. As a consequence of living among the coastal Maya for almost 7 years, Aguilar knew their language and proved invaluable to Cortés because he could translate for the expedition, at least in that region. Cortés used Aguilar to help form alliances and make deals with the locals. It was soon after meeting up with Aguilar that Doña Marina came back into the picture. In March of 1518, the Spanish arrived in the Maya kingdom of Potonchan where Marina served in the royal court. The Maya decided to fight the Spanish and lost. As part of their reparations the Maya gave the Spanish food, turquoise, jade objects and 20 young women, and Marina was among the group. The women were baptized by the two priests on the expedition and this is when Malinalli became Doña Marina. Marina was then given to one of Cortés’ friends Alonso Hernández Portocarrero.

Marina showed her worth once the Spanish left the territories of the Maya-speaking people. Emperor Montezuma the Second, having heard of the arrival of the strangers from the east, sent emissaries to try to reason with Cortés and to at least find out his intentions. The emissaries met up with the Spanish Expedition on the fringes of the Aztec empire in a town where Cortés set up an encampment. The emissaries only spoke Nahuatl, a native language that Father Aguilar was unfamiliar with. Cortés was discouraged because Aguilar was of no use and there was no way for them to communicate. During the initial meeting with the Aztecs and amid the frustration, according to the firsthand accounts of Bernal Diaz, this is when Marina stepped in, and answered the questions of the emissaries and pointed to Cortés. Cortés was surprised that Marina knew Nahuatl and he devised a way to communicate with the Aztecs: Cortés would communicate in Spanish to Father Aguilar, Father Aguilar would speak to Marina in Chontal Maya, and Marina would speak to the Aztecs in their native language of Nahuatl. When the Aztecs would speak, the process would be reversed. This way, Cortés, through Marina, was able to communicate with many native groups on his march toward the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Along the way they gathered intelligence from these groups and were thus better prepared to face Montezuma and the weight of his empire.

In the fall of 1519 the Spanish arrived at the independent Kingdom of Tlaxcala, just east of the Aztec homeland. The Tlaxcalans had fiercely resisted Aztec incursions into their territories and were some of the few independent kingdoms in central Mexico that held out against the armies of Montezuma. They greeted the Spanish with suspicion but through Marina, Cortés made a deal with the Tlaxcalan king not only to spare his men but to join him on his march to the Aztec capital. To the Tlaxcalans, Cortés represented an opportunity to crush their enemies once and for all and to rid Mesoamerica of the Aztec hegemony. When the expedition left the Tlaxcalan kingdom they had thousands of more soldiers in their ranks. This was a turning point in the Conquest of Mexico. It is unclear what would have happened in this situation without the help of Marina, who, after being with the expedition for over a year and a half, had mastered Spanish and could translate directly the wishes of Cortés.

While in Tlaxcala, Marina acquired one of her other names, “Malintzin”, which may translate loosely to “noble captive,” a reference to Marina’s noble birth and the fact that she was given to the Spanish as tribute in a war. The Spanish on the expedition could not pronounce the Nahuatl Malintzin and called Marina “Malinche”, sometimes using the definite article in Spanish “la” in front of her name. This is why Doña Marina is often referred to as “La Malinche” or in English texts, “The Malinche.”

From Tlaxcala, the Spanish expedition moved to Cholula. Here again Marina’s role was pivotal. Cholula was part of the Aztec Empire and didn’t trust the Tlaxcalans Cortés was traveling with. Cortés told the Cholulans, however, that he was traveling to Tenochtitlan on an official state visit to see Emperor Montezuma and needed quarter in the town as a favor to their overlord. The Cholulans reluctantly agreed. While there, Marina made friends with local women and soon found out about a plot that the Cholulan army was planning to attack the Spanish unsuspectedly. Marina told Cortés and the Spanish quickly attacked the Cholulans, killing thousands and disabling their army. Their path to the Aztec capital was now clear.

The initial arrival at the Aztec capital was peaceful. On November 8, 1519 Cortés, followed by thousands, marched on the causeway across Lake Texcoco connecting Tenochtitlan to the mainland. In the middle of the causeway, Cortés was met by Montezuma and his entourage. Gifts were exchanged and to were pleasantries, with Marina as the go-between. The emperor invited the Spanish to enter the city, the Tlaxcalan warriors and all other non-Spaniards – with the exception of Marina – were told to stay on the mainland. Marina would serve a vital role in the ensuing two weeks, during which time the Spanish were received as honored guests.

It’s important to note how Marina completely broke the standards of behavior of Mesoamerican women at the time. Women in the Aztec Empire were prohibited from speaking in public places, especially at public events. Anyone surrounding the Aztec Emperor was required to look away from him. Marina, however, boldly spoke directly to Montezuma on Cortés’ behalf and always conducted herself in a noble way, according to Spanish and native observers. All would agree that she had a powerful, commanding presence which served to enhance her physical beauty. At one point, now a devout Christian, Marina even spoke fearlessly to Montezuma about converting to Christianity, telling him that the gods he worshipped were evil. This was definitely a bold woman.

The weeks of talks and deal-making did not yield what Cortés wanted and he had Montezuma taken prisoner. It was Marina who informed the emperor that he was to be taken captive. For six months Montezuma was in custody, a prisoner in his own land. Many people who were dissatisfied with Montezuma’s rule were indifferent to his imprisonment. During that time, however, the relations between the Spanish and the Aztecs slowly deteriorated. When Cortés was away from the city and when he Aztecs were having a nighttime celebration to honor one of their main gods, Huitzilipochtli, Cortés lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado, attacked the celebrants, mistaking the fiesta for the beginnings of an armed insurrection against Spanish rule. Hundreds of unarmed nobles were killed and soon after, when Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs were furious and began their open rebellion against the Spaniards. Some accounts say that Montezuma was hauled out of captivity and stoned to death by his own people, other accounts say that Cortés had Montezuma killed.

Right after Montezuma’s death, on the night of June 30, 1520, the Spanish retreated and fled Tenochtitlan. Hundreds of Spaniards and possibly over a thousand Tlaxcalans were killed as a full force of Aztecs attacked the invaders on the causeway and on the mainland. The night in history is known in Spanish as “La noche triste,” “the sad night.” Marina survived the battles by hiding under a bridge. She regrouped with Cortés and his forces. Nearly a year later, and with more help from surrounding tribes, the Spanish re-entered Tenochtitlan and completely subdued the Aztec capital. Marina was there at the side of Cortés to translate for the formal surrender on August 13, 1521.

During the whole time of the expedition, Marina became closer to Cortés. Remember, Marina was “given” to the man named Portocarrero, but Cortés had sent him back to Spain half way through the expedition. After Portocarrero’s departure, Cortés took Marina as his mistress and they remained together for 4 years. After the fall of Tenochtitlan and after the new city of Mexico was built on its ruins, Marina lived with Cortés and gave birth to his first son, Martín, in May of 1522. Martín Cortés was the first publicly acknowledged person of mestizo, or mixed-race, heritage in Mexican history. This is the reason why Marina is sometimes referred to as “The Mother of Mexico.”

Marina took one last journey with Cortés to the Maya area of Honduras in 1524. Because Cortés had a legal wife in Cuba, Marina was free to marry, and on this 1524 trip she married a man named Juan Xaramillo de Salvatierra. On the journey to Honduras the expedition stopped at Marina’s birth town where she was able to visit family members. Instead of staying in this town she opted to continue the journey with the Spaniards to Central America. While there are no records of the rest of the life of Marina, there is a lot of speculation as to what happened to her. It is certain that after the Honduras expedition she never saw Cortés again because he returned to Spain soon after. There are various legends about the rest of her life, including that she died tragically of strangulation or that she died a very old woman. In any event, there are no records of her existence after the Honduras trip, save a brief mentioning of her still being alive in a text dated 1550 recently found in Spain.

Marina’s legacy lives on, mixing historical fact with myth, and full of pointed opinions as to her impact. Many people see her as a Judas figure, a traitor to the native peoples of Mesoamerica. There even exists a word in Spanish, malinchista, used to describe a disloyal or unfaithful person. Marina’s arrival in Tenochtitlan symbolizes the end of great indigenous civilizations of the Americas and she should never be forgiven for her betrayal. On the other hand, some see her as a liberator of the peoples who were living under the Aztec jackboot. With the Spanish arrival came the end of human sacrifice and the brutality of everyday life under the Aztecs. As a devout convert to Christianity, Marina is seen as an evangelist bringing a peaceful religion to a new people. Her closeness to Cortés is seen as a softening influence on the conquistador and many believe that with this influence the Conquest of Mexico was less brutal. As the mother of one of the first mixed-race children in the Americas Marina is seen as the mother of a new race, La Raza Cosmica, or the mestizo. Other modern interpretations see her as a scapegoat used to take the fall for whatever opinion one may have about the Conquest. It is generally agreed, though, that The Malinche was a woman caught in the middle, a person who used her intelligence and tact to the best of her ability when faced with difficult choices. We cannot know how she felt, as she left no written diary and no firsthand accounts of her exist outside of those brief passages written by Bernal Diaz. We can only guess what she was feeling as she saw the history of the New World unfold in front of her, a history that she played more than an active role in actually creating.

REFERENCES (This is not a formal bibliography):

The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico by Bernal Díaz del Castillo

Doña Marina, La Malinche by Ricardo Henren (in Spanish

Early Civilizations in the Americas: Biographies and Primary Sources by Sonia Benson

Published 4:00 am Saturday, January 18, 2020

By Heather McElhatton
MPR News/90.1

Camilla Townsend’s new book, “Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs,” documents the story of the Aztecs from an entirely new perspective, that of the Aztecs themselves. Townsend is a history professor at Rutgers University and the author of numerous historical books. She also happens to be an expert in the Nahuatl language of the ancient Aztecs.

“I wanted to write a book about Aztec history,” Townsend said, “because even though there are lots of books out there, and have been for many years, they’re all based on Spanish sources and give us a sense of the Aztecs as brutal people really, truly savages. In fact, they were not. They were human beings just like the rest of us.”

Townsend took ancient Aztec scripts, which had been collected and archived but never fully translated, and compiled selections in her book, “Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs.” The title is taken from the Aztec belief that the world has been made and remade five times, and that we are currently living under the “Fifth Sun,” which began a few thousand years ago.

Townsend explains almost every part of Aztec culture was rewritten by the Spaniards.They even assigned the name “Aztecs” to the Native peoples of the Mexican basin. Those Native peoples referred to themselves as the Mexica (meh-HEE-kah). She interchanges the names “Aztecs,” “Mexica” and “Nahuatl” in her book.

Five hundred years ago, the Aztecs were a group of nomadic farmers who built one of the greatest empires in history. Their capital city was called Tenochtitlan, and was built on an island in the middle of lake Texacoco, in modern-day Mexico City. The ancient Aztecs developed remarkable techniques of engineering and architecture to build causeways, palaces and pyramids. They expanded their empire and spread out across the great valley of Mexico, assimilating neighboring tribes and building transport routes to both coasts.

Townsend describes an advanced culture: “They had aqueducts bringing fresh water from across the lake on the shore. They had concerts in front of the temples where the Aztec kings lived. They had libraries of painted scrolls. It was a beautiful and impressive site.”

Then, in 1519, during the leadership of Moctezuma II, a Spanish conquistador named Hernán Cortés landed in the Gulf of Mexico with 500 men. They had advanced weaponry and the aid of conquered neighboring tribes when they ultimately attacked the Aztecs, which resulted in the empire’s annihilation.

After the conquest of the Aztecs, the Spaniards controlled history’s narrative. But now, thanks to Townsend’s translations, we have the Aztecs’ side of the story.

The Aztecs had a traditionally oral storytelling culture, but began to write their stories down after the Spanish friars arrived and taught them the Roman alphabet. The friars were trying to teach their indigenous students how to read the Bible, but their education also provided a way for the Aztecs to write their own histories.

One thing Townsend discovered in her research was that the Aztecs were a far more peaceful people than Spanish history has taught us. In fact, their side of the story is quite different from the Spanish version.

“There’s a widespread misconception that the Aztecs thought the Europeans were Gods,” Townsend said. “But this narrative was made up in the late 1500s by Franciscan friars. In older records, that are closer to the time of conquest, there’s no evidence of anything like that. They were not expecting a God to return. They did not think human beings could be Gods. There’s nothing in their stories that indicates they thought that.”

She found women in Aztec culture were powerful and children were revered.

“The Aztecs teach us that even in a warrior culture such as theirs, women in their world have equal voices. Women were not afraid to speak up. Women ran the markets. Women participated in telling stories and telling poetry. They were strong. One of the stories I found was about an Aztec princess who has been captured by her people’s enemies and was about to be sacrificed. She’s supposed to be terrified, or casting aspersions on her enemies. Those are the Aztecs we think we know. But in fact, she’s seeking desperately to hang on to her dignity, squaring her shoulders, trying to speak loudly and saying to the people around about, you can kill me now. But you cannot kill my people. My people’s children and their children’s children will still survive. And one day you will regret this war that you have made against us and treating me this way. I didn’t expect to find in their histories an Aztec woman sounding so plaintive and so proud, so dignified.”

Townsend said spects of Aztec culture are still alive today.

“There are literally more than a million speakers of the Aztec language in Mexico today,” she said. “In fact, some of them now live in the United States. But more than that, it isn’t just that their language survives, but beautiful aspects of their culture also survive. The idea that everyone’s point of view in a community is important, and that everyone’s point of view should be represented in history, still lives on in modern communities in Mexico. The idea that every part of a community should participate in carrying the weight of a public event, or public duties, so that no one group has to pay for everything, or do all the work. That idea is very much alive and in modern towns in Mexico. The idea that men and women are both important, that you need both for a happy world, and that their peaceful coexistence is central to the future. The idea that children are, of all people, the most important, and must be loved, and laughed with, is still very vibrant, very much alive in modern Mexican villages. So I think it is very true to say that Aztec culture does live on today.”

One of the most beautiful parts of the Aztec culture, according to Townsend, is that it was based on reciprocity and mutuality.

“Men and women needed each other, as did grown-ups and children. Different communities, different townships, all conceived of themselves as being important, but of others as being important as well. They always made sure that everybody was represented. They believed very much that society would function better if everybody had a say over their own future. It would never have occurred to the Aztecs to have a population of people who were always destined to be enslaved, because it was so important to them to feel that everybody had a stake in society and that everybody feels respected. There’s so much we can learn today from their culture.”

“Fifth Sun A New History of the Aztecs” is published by Oxford University Press.

Mexico — History and Culture

Mexico’s rich history spans over two millennia, in which time many great civilizations have risen and fallen. As the country came under Spanish rule, they struggled towards independence becoming the only nation ever to attempt invasion of the United States, and was eventually purged by revolution. Now, it stands strong as the second largest economy in Latin America.


Modern-day Mexico has been inhabited for about 23,000 years, according to archaeological evidence, and tribes began to settle in the area around 7,000 years ago, due to the high-quantity of beans and maize found growing in the region. Villages based around the cultivation of these vital food sources soon formed and civilizations grew. One of the earliest organized tribes was the Olmecs, who were centered around the Gulf Coast from around 1500 BCE. The cultural characteristics of this group spread throughout the country, and other tribes began to embrace and advance the group’s ideas, including the Maya.

From around 300 BCE, Mayan settlements began to spring up in areas from the northern Yucatan Peninsula to today’s Guatemala. The Mayan society evolved and the concept of the ahua, or king, emerged along with a hierarchy dominated by a designated elite. During this period of prosperity, the kingdoms’ populations numbered in the millions, and construction of great complexes began, the most impressive being the breathtaking capital of the rulers, Teotithuacan.

For centuries, the empire dominated the region however, it began to decline and eventually fell in the 8th century. It is debated whether the Toltecs, who became the next civilization to control the area, actually sacked Teotithuacan or their power-hungry leaders led to their own demise. The new clan constructed a new capital, named Tula, about 50 miles north of today’s Mexico City. While their reign was particularly influential on the culture of future civilizations, it didn’t last long, collapsing around the end of the 11th century.

A century of tribal squabbles and political struggles passed before the power vacuum was eventually filled by a tribe of vicious mercenaries known as the Aztecs. Arriving in the Valley of Mexico around 1248 from the deserts of Rio Grande, the nomads started to settle and began construction of what was to become the world’s biggest city, Tenochtitlan.

This city eventually became a city-state spanning most of modern-day Mexico. The Aztecs used the surrounding canals as causeways and routes to the shore. Although a number of raised gardens were constructed around the island, the city initially lacked the harvests to feed the population and as the empire grew, supplies had to be sourced from elsewhere.

The Aztecs were fiercely religious people, with blood offering an integral part of their belief. As a result, human sacrifice to the gods was commonplace, leading to endless wars with local tribes. By the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1519, the Aztec kingdom of Tenochtitlan was one of the world’s densest areas, with a population of around 1.5 million.

Although the Spanish had been in the Caribbean since Columbus’ arrival in 1492, it took 27 years for the first ‘exploration’ of the Aztec kingdom to be arranged in Mexico. From the colonized island of Cuba, Hernan Cortes and a team of 550 men set sail for the doomed kingdom. Traversing around the Yucatan Peninsula, a small fleet of only 11 ships landed in Tabasco and advanced inland, gaining a number of allies among the natives on the way.

By the time the Aztec king Moctezuma gave Cortes a showdown the conquistador had amassed 6,000 indigenous allies. Although the king had chance to trap the Spaniards while they stayed in Tenochtitlan, it was he who was captured. Almost a year passed until full-scale riots broke out between the locals and invaders, culminating in the death of Moctezuma, a temporary retreat of the conquistadors, and their eventual return with 900 soldiers and an estimated 10,000 native allies. Within months, the continent’s greatest city was raised, building by building.

The Spanish then went about consolidating power in their latest colony, which they named Nueve Espana (“New Spain”). The dilapidated city of Tenochtitlan was rebuilt, becoming what is now Mexico City, and expeditions were sent out to conquer the remainder of the Aztec empire. Within a few centuries, Mexico City evolved into a Spanish-style city with plazas, avenues, cathedrals, and grandiose buildings, with many wealthy Spaniards emigrating to enhance their fortune in the gold and silver mines.

However, by the 19th century, defeat in Spain at the hands of the French and discontent throughout Mexico’s upper classes due to soaring taxes ignited the sparks of rebellion. In late October, 1810, about 80,000 independent rebels defeated Spanish loyalists, but were unable to completely take control over the city, leading to more than a decade of fidgeting before independence was achieved.

Following independence, rule of the country passed back and forth from liberal and conservative parties. A recurring leader during this time, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna is famous for leading Mexico into the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 and losing a considerable amount of territory as a result. After a brief five-year spell of French occupation in the 1860’s, Mexico moved into an era of despotic stability and prosperity under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.

During his 35 years in power, Mexico was transformed from a one-city, backwater colony into a booming country built on foreign investment, increased industry, and political repression. However, during Santa Anna’s tenure, only small minorities accumulated wealth while the rest of the country suffered, eventually leading to the Mexican Revolution. Over the next decade, leaders and parties came and went, the fighting roared on, and an estimated 1.5 million Mexicans lost their lives.

The 1920’s saw peace restored and Mexico put on the path to recovery. Artists flourished in the liberal capitals, industry thrived, and Mexico City began its meteoric rise to become one of the Americas’ largest cities. The rural poor flocked to the thriving city throughout the 1970’s in search of work, creating slums and ungoverned neighborhoods on the outskirts of town. Today, the capital has an estimated 22 million inhabitants and its massive growth has brought with it some of the world’s worst traffic and pollution.


A significant part of Mexican culture since the pre-Colombian era, literature has thrived in this diverse nation. From the famous Mesoamerican poet Nezahualcoyotl to the colonial scribes of Juan Ruiz de Alacon and Juana Ines de la Cruz, and later Jose Vasconcelos, the country’s outstanding literature paints a picture of this colorful country’s past.

Music is at the center of Mexican society, with a wide range of genres found throughout the area. From the world-famous Mariachi bands present at all special occasions to some of the region’s top DJs performing at lively venues and clubs, it’s difficult to escape pulsating beats in this part of the world.

Art has played a major part in Mexican history since the sculptures and great monuments of the early civilizations, and tends to be connected to religion and worship. Indigenous and Spanish art heavily influenced the Mexican muralist and social realism movements of the 20th century.

Mexico has long been recognized for its high-quality cinema productions, stretching back to the post-WWII days when the country’s movie industry was comparable with Hollywood. In recent years, Mexican film has once again become prominent on the world stage, raising international interest once more.

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