Tlaxcala, Mexico’s smallest state, was once home to the ancient Olmeca–Xicalanca civilization. Tlaxcala is home to three famous bullrings. The most popular is the Jorge “El Ranchero” Aguilar plaza, built in the 18th century in the heart of Tlaxcala City. Today it’s known for its farms and textiles. Tlaxcala has a long and rich history of cultural diversity. Today, modern industries are bringing new prosperity to the inhabitants, but they are also threatening the region’s unique customs and traditions.
Archaeological evidence reveals the presence of human life in Tlaxcala as early as 10,000 B.C., when nomadic hunters and gatherers roamed the region. The first people to settle the land, however, were the Quinametin, who were later displaced by the Olmec-Xicalanca, a tribe related to the Mayans. The Olmec-Xicalanca built the city of Cacaxtla around 700 A.D. Dominating the city’s center was a high natural platform that offered a solid defensive position with commanding views of the surrounding area; the platform rose to a height of 24 meters (80 feet) and was 183 meters (600 feet) long. The city’s main religious and civic buildings were located on this platform.
Cacaxtla’s civilization declined at the beginning of the 10th century, opening the way for the Teo-Chichimecas to take control of the region. The Teo-Chichimecas, in turn, were defeated by the Tlaxcaltecas in the middle of the 14th century. Beginning with the construction of Tepecticpac in 1348, the Tlaxcaltecas founded a small but powerful empire in the region that now bears their name. Skilled fighters, the Tlaxcaltecas followed the god of war and hunting, Camaxtli. Their military prowess enabled them to collect taxes from those they conquered; it also enabled them to resist the Aztecs–one of the few tribes to do so.
In 1519 the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés fought and subdued the Tlaxcaltecas. Aware of their rivalry with the Aztecs, Cortés then persuaded them to join an alliance against the Aztec empire, centered at Tenochtitlán to the west. In exchange for their support, he promised not to levy taxes on them or confiscate their land. In 1521 the alliance succeeded, firmly establishing Spanish control of central Mexico. Afterward, the Tlaxcaltecas continued to aid the Spaniards, fighting against other indigenous tribes and settling the newly conquered territories.
During most of the 16th century, the Spanish respected the agreement made between Cortés and the Tlaxcaltecas. As the century drew to a close, however, new Spanish authorities began to collect taxes and occupy their land. Sporadic insurrections occurred during the 17th and 18th centuries, but the Spaniards prevailed.
When Mexico began its war for independence from Spain in 1810, Tlaxcala was home to an active pro-independence group, but forces loyal to the Spanish crown controlled the region throughout the conflict. After the Treaty of Córdoba secured Mexico’s independence in 1821, Tlaxcala was incorporated into the new nation.
During the tumultuous early years of Mexican independence, Tlaxcala’s official status changed several times. Because of its small size and limited economic production, critics argued that the region should not be a separate state. In 1823 the neighboring state of Puebla attempted unsuccessfully to annex Tlaxcala. From 1836 until 1847 Tlaxcala belonged to the Department of Mexico. In May 1847 the region became an independent territory again, until it finally achieved statehood in 1857.
Mexico’s 19th century was characterized by political and social instability, and Tlaxcala’s proximity to the nation’s capital caused it to feel the effects directly. Conflicts between federalists and centralists, and later between conservatives and liberals, hindered the state’s economic development and subjected it to various military confrontations. The presidency of Benito Juárez that began in 1867 initiated a period of stability that helped Tlaxcala emerge as a commercial center specializing in textiles.
Soon after, Porfirio Díaz, who ruled Mexico from 1877 to 1880 and from 1884 to 1911, ordered the construction of a railroad from Mexico City to Veracruz. The rail line stretched across Tlaxcala, bringing economic benefits to the cities on the route. Many haciendas and ranches saw profits soar as the railway reduced their costs for transporting corn, beans and cattle.
Despite the improvements Díaz made in the country’s infrastructure, opposition escalated as his increasingly autocratic presidency extended over three decades. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 quickly brought an end to the Díaz era, but peasant uprisings and battles among various factions lasted until 1917. Unlike many other states, however, Tlaxcala was largely unaffected by the military conflict and made a relatively smooth transition to peace. During the rest of the 20th century, this small but densely populated state continued to develop its commerce in textiles and other goods.
Tlaxcala’s main crops are corn, alfalfa, squash, lettuce, barley, wheat, potatoes, lima beans and maguey cactus. Corn, the most important nutritional element of the region’s cooking, is raised in every municipality. Barley is also widely cultivated and then sold to large breweries in Veracruz and the Federal District. Maguey, used to make fermented beverages, is grown primarily in the municipalities of Calpulalpan, Tlaxco and Altzayanca.
About 28 percent of the state’s economy derives from the manufacture of textiles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, machinery, automotive parts, handicrafts and other goods. The textile industry is concentrated around Santa Ana Chiauhtempan, producing threads, fabrics and finished clothing. Additional textile facilities are located in Xicotencatl, Xiloxoxotla, Ixtacuixtla and Calpulalpan.
The castle on Tlaxcala’s coat of arms represents the state’s grandeur and power, and the red background symbolizes courage. Above the castle, a standard bears an eagle, signifying vigilance. On either side, a green palm suggests victory. At the top, the Spanish royal family is represented by two crowns and the letters I, K and F. The K in the center stands for Karolus, the Latin name of King Carlos V. The letter I stands for his mother, Juana de Castilla, while the F stands for his son, Felipe. The skulls and crossbones beneath the shield honor those who died during the Spanish Conquest.
Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Náhuatl Indians called the territory Tlaxcallan, a word derived from Tlaxcalli, which means corn tortilla or corn bread, a staple of the inhabitants’ diet.
Covering just 4,061 square kilometers (1,568 square miles), Tlaxcala is Mexico’s smallest state.
The highest peak in Tlaxcala is the extinct volcano La Malinche. The Náhuatl named it Matlalcueyetl, which means woman with the blue skirt.
The state’s most popular bullring, named after a famous bullfighter, is the Jorge “El Ranchero” Aguilar plaza; the 18th-century building is located in the historic center of Tlaxcala. The largest bullring in the state is the Monumental Bullring of Apizaco. Huamantla’s bullring, La Taurina, offers the added attraction of a bullfighting museum.
Tlaxcala’s carnival starts each year on the Friday before Ash Wednesday. The traditional quema del mal humor (burning of bad moods) opens the festivities with a procession for a paper puppet in a coffin, representing bad moods. The puppet is then burned, along with dark pieces of paper symbolizing anger and sadness.
Xochiquetzalli, the Náhuatl goddess of fertility, is honored with a celebration every spring in the town of Huamantla. Alfombras de flores, or carpets of flowers, are arrayed in the central plaza. The carpets are made from thousands of flowers woven together, forming patterns as large as 30 square meters (320 square feet).
The first Saturday after August 15, the state celebrates La Huamantlada, the running of the bulls similar to the tradition in Pamplona, Spain. Around noon, 12 angry bulls are set free on the streets, and hundreds of participants spend the next two hours running in front of them.
The well-preserved architecture of Tlaxcala City introduces visitors to the diverse cultures that have contributed to the city’s history. The town’s historic center contains many examples of 16th-century buildings, such as the Government Palace, which houses Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin’s murals depicting ancient Tlaxcaltecan history. The towering parish church of San José stands out as an example of the Tlaxcaltecan-Baroque style. Other colonial buildings include the Alhóndiga (public granary) and Capilla Real de Indios (Royal Chapel of the Indians), constructed in the 17th century.
Sightseers also can choose from a number of museums and then relax at the Plaza de la Constitución, well-known for its restaurants and bars.
Impressive ruins of the Olmeca-Xicalanca civilization can be found at Cacaxtla, 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside of Tlaxcala City. The archaeological site is the most popular attraction in the area and features impressive murals on some of the buildings’ walls.
Tlaxcala is home to three famous bullrings. The most popular is the Jorge “El Ranchero” Aguilar plaza, built in the 18th century in the heart of Tlaxcala City. Huamantla’s bullring, La Taurina, seats up to 5,500 people and features a bullfighting museum. The third, La Monumental in Apizaco, displays a distinctive bronze sculpture honoring the brave Tlaxcalteca bulls.
One of the state’s most important venues for artistic expression, the Xicohtencatl Theater opened in 1873. The French-inspired architecture provides a beautiful backdrop for cultural events.