Mexico City is located in a valley that was inhabited by several indigenous groups from 100 to 900 A.D. These tribes were related to the Toltecas, who established Tula in approximately 850 A.D. in the modern-day state of Hidalgo. When the Toltecas declined in power and influence, the Acolhula, Chichimeca and Tepenaca cultures rose up in their place.
Teotihuacán was founded in 1325 A.D. by the Mexicas. Its development fulfilled one of their ancient prophecies: The Mexicas believed that their god would show them where to build a great city by providing a sign, an eagle eating a snake while perched atop a cactus. When the Mexicas (who would later be known as the Aztecs) saw the vision come true on an island in Lake Texcoco, they decided to build a city there.
The Aztecs were fierce warriors who eventually dominated other tribes throughout the region. They took what was once a small natural island in the Lake Texcoco and expanded it by hand to create their home and fortress, the beautiful Tenochtitlán. Their civilization, like their city, eventually became the largest and most powerful in pre-Columbian America.
Skilled warriors, the Aztecs dominated all of Mesoamerica during this era, making some allies but even more enemies. When Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés made it clear in 1519 that he intended to conquer the area, many local chieftains seized the opportunity to liberate themselves from Aztec rule and joined his army.When Cortés and his allies arrived in the area, Moctezuma II believed that the Spaniard was (or was related to) the god Quetzalcóatl, whose return had been prophesied. Moctezuma sent gifts to the Spanish, hoping they would depart and spare his city. Undaunted, Cortés marched his army to the city and entered it. Not wishing to offend a god, Moctezuma welcomed Cortés and his soldiers into the city and extended every courtesy. After enjoying the king’s hospitality for several weeks, Cortés suddenly ordered that the emperor be placed under house arrest, intending to use him to gain leverage with the Aztecs. For months after, Moctezuma continued to appease his captors, losing most of his subjects’ respect in the process. In 1520, Cortés and his troops conquered the Teotihuacán. The Spanish then built Mexico City on the ruins of the once great city.
During the colonial period (1535-1821), Mexico City was one of the most important cities in the Americas. Although the native Indians needed work permits to enter the Spanish-dominated city, the population inevitably intermingled and created the Mestizo class, mixed-blood citizens who eventually became a political force. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the caste system prevailed in Mexico City, separating the population into complex ethnic divisions including the Mestizos, Criollos and Coyotes. The Catholic Church had great influence in the city, and religious orders like the Franciscans, Marists and Jesuits established convents and missions throughout Mexico.
The Spanish Crown’s power relied on the support and loyalty of New Spain’s aristocracy. Political power remained in the hands of the Spaniards born in Spain, but by the 18th century, the Criollo class (descendants of the Spanish who were born in the Americas) had grown in number and social power. The struggle for recognition and favor among the various classes drew attention to the country’s political corruption and helped spark the independence movement.
The catalyst for Mexico’s independence was a Catholic priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, who made the first public cry for rebellion in Dolores, Hidalgo, in 1810. Hidalgo had begun attending meetings of educated criollos who were agitating for a large-scale uprising of mestizos and indigenous peasants. Discontent with Spanish rule was spreading rapidly throughout the country. When rumors of military intervention by the Spanish began, the priest decided it was time to act. Parishioners who came to hear mass on Sunday, September 16, 1810, instead heard a call to arms.
Sparked by the energy of the grassroots rebellion, militant revolutionary armies quickly formed under the leadership of men like Guadalupe Victoria and Vicente Guerreroboth. The War of Independence lasted 11 years. In 1821, the last Viceroy of New Spain, Juan O’Donoju, signed the Plan of Iguala, which granted Mexico independence.
When Mexico’s Distrito Federal (Federal District, also known as Mexico D.F.) was created in 1824, it originally encompassed Mexico City and several other municipalities. As Mexico City grew, it became one large urban area. In 1928, all other municipalities within the Distrito Federal were abolished except Mexico City, making it by default the country’s Distrito Federal. In 1993, the 44th Article of the Constitution of Mexico officially declared Mexico City and the Distrito Federal to be a single entity.
In 1846, after two decades of peace, Mexico City was invaded by the United States during the Mexican-American War. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war in 1848, Mexico was forced to cede a wide swath of its northern territory to the United States. Today, that territory makes up the U.S. states of New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, California and portions of Utah and Wyoming. Mexico was also forced to recognize the independence of Texas.
On July 17, 1861, Mexican President Benito Juárez suspended all interest payments to Spain, France and Britain, who launched a combined assault on Veracruz in January 1862. When Britain and Spain withdrew their forces, the French took control of the country. Supported by Mexican conservatives and by French Emperor Napoleon III, Maximiliano de Hamburgo arrived in 1864 to rule Mexico. His policies were more liberal than expected, but he soon lost Mexican support and was assassinated on June 19, 1867, when the liberal government of Benito Juárez regained Mexico’s leadership of the country.
On November 29, 1876, Porfirio Díaz appointed himself president. He served one term and ushered in his hand-picked successor, Manuel González, whose presidency was marked by corruption and official incompetence. Díaz was then re-elected and saw to it that the constitution was amended to allow two terms in office with unlimited re-elections. A cunning and manipulative politician, Díaz maintained power for the next 36 years through violence, election fraud and repression, even assassination, of his opponents.
By 1910, the citizenry had lost patience with Díaz’s self-serving leadership and unwillingness to recognize minority rights. On November 20 of that year, Francisco Madero issued the Plan de San Luis Potosí, which declared the Díaz regime illegal and initiated a revolution against the president. Forces led by Francisco Villa, Emiliano Zapata and Venustiano Carranza supported Madero’s bid for the presidency, and Díaz reluctantly agreed to step aside in 1911. Political turmoil and power exchanges continued for over a decade, ending with the establishment of the Partido Nacional Revolucionario party (today’s PRI), which ushered in a period of stability for Mexico City and the rest of the country that lasted until 2000.
Mexico City Today
Today, Mexico City is the political, economic and social hub of Mexico and the largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere. The city’s nominal gross domestic product per capita is $17,696, the highest of any city in Latin America. However, the distribution of the wealth is extremely uneven, and a full 15 percent of the city’s residents live in poverty.
Labor unions for taxi drivers, telephone workers and electrical workers are very strong in Mexico City. Many of these unions are linked to the PRI political party, but recently, some unions have begun shifting their loyalty towards the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution), which has ruled the city since 1997.
Some of Mexico City’s best-known neighborhoods are the artsy Coyoacan (home of the Frida Kahlo Museum), the upscale Santa Fe (including the Bosques de las Lomas area), the old fashioned Xochimilco (Mexico’s Little Venice) and the elegant Polanco.
The main square in Mexico City, La Plaza de la Constitución, is also called El Zócalo. The Catedral Metropolitana, located north of El Zócalo, is one of the largest cathedrals in the Western Hemisphere. Constructed in the Spanish Baroque style, it features a pair of 58-meter (190-foot) tall neoclassical towers that hold 18 bells.
The Templo MayorThe Great Pyramid, Templo Mayor, was the main temple in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City). Hérnan Cortés destroyed most of the pyramid during his conquest in 1521, but some pieces of the ancient temple have been unearthed and restored to their former splendor for visitors.
Castle of Chapultepec
The Castillo de Chapultepec (Castle of Chapultepec) was built atop Chapultepec Hill, which is situated in the middle of the city’s Chapultepec Park and rises 2,325 meters (7,350 feet) above sea level. The building has served several purposes during its history: military academy; imperial and presidential residence; and observatory and museum. The only castle in North America once occupied by sovereigns, it currently houses the Mexican National Museum of History.
Xochimilco–Mexico’s Little Venice–is known for its extended series of canals, all that remains of the ancient Lake Xochimilco. The 1940 film Maria Candelaria established the area’s romantic reputation as a place where people travel in colorful trajineras (Xochimilco boats) covered with flowers.
Museums & Art
Among the city’s wide array of museums is the National Museum of Anthropology, located within Chapultepec Park. The museum contains significant anthropological finds from across the country, such as the Stone of the Sun (commonly known as the Aztec Calendar) and the 16th-century Aztec statue of Xochipilli. Built in the 17th century, the Museo Rufino Tamayo contains magnificent pre-Columbian art exhibits that were donated by Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo.
- Mexico City’s seal represents its noble heritage (the castle) flanked by forces of the Spanish empire (lions on both sides of the castle). The lions are standing on bridges that span the lagoon upon which the city was built. Around the seal are cactus leaves, signifying the cactus fields surrounding Mexico City.
- In 2005, Greater Mexico City had a population of 19.2 million, making it the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere and the second largest in the world after Tokyo.
- During the Aztec period, Mexico City (then Mexico-Tenochtitlán) was initially built over a lake, the Lago de Texcoco. Aztecs built an artificial island by dumping soil into the lagoon. Later, the Spaniards erected a second Mexico City atop the ruins of Tenochtitlán. Today, Mexico’s Cathedral is sinking at a rate of 38-51 centimeters (15-20 inches) a year.
- Mexico City uses the Sistema de Transporte Colectivo Metro, an extensive metro system that was opened in 1969. The city is also constructing a suburban rail system.
- The Hoy No Circula program (known in English as One Day Without a Car) mandates that only vehicles with certain end numbers on their license plates are allowed to drive on certain days in an attempt to cut down on pollution and traffic congestion. However, many locals avoid this law by buying multiple license plates. As they are responsible for less pollution, newer models of cars do not have to observe the law.
- Mexico City is home to the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Established in 1551, UNAM is one of Mexico’s oldest, most prestigious and largest public universities.
- At over 13 acres in area, the Zócalo in Mexico City is Latin America’s largest main square. At the center flies the Mexican flag, which is surrounded by the Cathedral (north), the national palace (east), the local Mexico City government offices (south) and assorted hotels and commercial businesses (west).
- Xochimilco, an area of Mexico City known locally as Little Venice, offers boat rides through canals that feature floating gardens.