In high school my favorite subject was history, and when I started college, my intention was to become a history teacher. My advisor however said that history teachers were "a dime a dozen" and suggested that I also continue my study of Spanish. I had studied Spanish for four years in high school, enjoyed it, and had done very well in it. But it wasn't until I started taking classes in college that I really fell in love with the language. Within a year I had changed my major to Spanish, and history became my second area of certification. My point in bringing this up is that I am a history buff, and I firmly believe that to understand a country, one must understand its history.
So here is a very brief history of Mexico City...
Long before there was a Mexico City, there was the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. According to Aztec lore, the city was founded in 1325 when the nomadic tribe wandered into the valley where Mexico City is located today. (By the way, the Aztecs actually called themselves the Mexicas... hence the name of the country.) At that time a good portion of the valley was covered by a shallow lake. On an island in the lake the Mexicas settled and built a town which they called Tenochtitlán. The Mexicas were a warlike tribe. Soon they had dominated the other tribes in the valley, and in less than 2 centuries they controlled most of central Mexico. As the power of the Mexicas grew, Tenochtitlán grew in size and splendor. By the beginning of the 16th century it was the largest city in the Americas with a population of at least 200,000. Similar to Venice, the city was crisscrossed with canals. Causeways connected it to the mainland. The city center was dominated by the Templo Mayor, the main temple.
A mural in the Museum of Anthropology depicting Tenochtitlán at its height
A model in the Museum of Anthropology depicting the center of Tenochtitlán. The large building was the Templo Mayor.
In the heart of Mexico City, archaeologists have uncovered the foundations of the Templo Mayor.
In 1519, the Spanish adventurer, Hernán Cortés (we call him Cortez in English), arrived on the Gulf coast of Mexico with a small band of soldiers. Having heard of the great city of Tenochtitlán, they made the arduous journey inland. When they arrived they were awestruck by the city's magnificence. They wrote that it was more impressive than any of the cities of Europe at that time. The Spanish set out to conquer the mighty Mexica empire. The Mexicas put up a heroic defense, but in August of 1521 the city fell to the Spanish invaders. Sadly, Tenochtitlán was leveled to the ground. The stones from the temples and palaces were used to construct a new European-style city, Mexico City.
The Spanish ruled Mexico for three centuries. The colony was known as New Spain, and Mexico City was its capital. By the 1600's when the English settlements in North America were rustic towns, Mexico City was a bustling city with baroque churches, palaces, schools and even a university. Through the years, the marshy lake was largely drained until only a small remnant of it remains today. The heart of Mexico City, "el centro histórico", has the largest concentration of colonial buildings in the Americas.
Here are a few examples of colonial architecture in "el centro histórico"...
An altar in the Cathedral of Mexico
Ornate carvings on the Church of La Santísima Trinidad
The Iturbide Palace
By the beginning of the 19th century resentment toward Spanish colonial rule was growing. On September 16, 1810, the war for Mexico's independence began. The protracted struggle finally ended in 1821. Mexico became an independent nation, but wealth and power remained in the hands of the "criollos", the Mexicans of Spanish ancestry.
Throughout the 19th century the capital was at the center of the nation's tumultuous events. In 1848 at the end of the Mexican American War, the city was invaded and occupied by the United States army. In 1861 the country was invaded again, this time by the French under Napoleon III. The legal president, Benito Juárez, was forced to flee the city. Napoleon set up a puppet government with the Hapsburg prince Maximillian as emperor. Maximillian and his wife Carlota resided for a short time in imperial splendor at Chapultepec Castle. But resistance from the Mexican people and pressure from the United States forced the French to withdraw. Maximillian was defeated and executed, and in 1867, Juárez returned in triumph to Mexico City. Juárez, who was an indigenous Zapotec Indian, is regarded as the country's greatest hero. He sought to improve the lot of the underclass and to reform the economic and educational systems. However soon after the death of Juárez, General Porfirio Díaz became the dictator. During his more than thirty years of rule Mexico enjoyed a period of stability and economic growth, and the capital became a modern city. But the prosperity benefited mainly the upper class and the foreigners who invested in Mexican businesses and industries. Political opposition was crushed, and the poor were more downtrodden than ever.
In 1910, as the nation was celebrating the centennial of its independence, revolution erupted. Díaz was forced to go into exile. But without the dictator's iron grip, the country fell into years of chaos in which different factions fought each other. The Mexican Revolution brought about huge social and economic changes, but true democracy remained elusive. From 1920 until 2000 the country was ruled by one political party, PRI. Entrenched in power, PRI became more and more corrupt and self serving. Nevertheless, Mexico has continued to become more modern and industrialized. Although there is huge disparity between the "haves" and "have-nots", the middle class continues to grow.
Disaster struck Mexico City in 1985. An earthquake measuring over eight on the Richter scale killed 10,000 people. Many buildings were flattened, and it was years before all the rubble was cleared. The catastrophe revealed the corruption and inefficiency of the government.
Clamor for democratic reform grew throughout the late 20th century, and finally in the 2000 election, an opposition candidate, Vicente Fox, won the presidency. Fox, was the candidate of PAN, the conservative party. PAN won again in 2006. In 2012 PRI regained the presidency. Corruption and fraud are still a part of Mexican politics, but it seems that the country is moving toward democracy.
The population of Mexico City has mushroomed as people from poor rural areas flock to the city seeking economic opportunities. Millions settled in slums on the outskirts of the city. The metropolitan population is now at least 20 million, making it one of the biggest cities in the world. One fifth of the nation's population lives in the metropolitan area. Mexicans refer to their capital as "el monstruo" (the monster). Mexico City suffers from all the problems of big cities everywhere, but on a gargantuan scale. Traffic is horrendous, and air pollution has long been a serious problem. In 1992 the United Nations ranked Mexico City as the most polluted city in the world. Since then efforts have been made to reduce pollution. The air quality now is comparable to that of Los Angeles... much better than it was but still a problem.
In spite of its many problems, Mexico City is one of the world's great cities... a vibrant blend of the old and the new.
Some views of old and new in Mexico City...
The House of Tiles, a famous colonial landmark
The Torre Mayor, Latin America's tallest skyscraper
The Church of San Francisco