Visitors flock to Mexico to visit two ancient Aztec sites–the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon, as well as the state’s famous twin volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Iztacíhuatl. Although formally distinct, the Federal District and Greater Mexico City constitute one of the most populated cities in the world. The state’s economic activities–manufacturing, mining, tourism and the cultivation of staple crops–represent 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.
Beginning as early as 5,000 B.C., the central valley of Mexico was home to several different civilizations, notably the Olmecs and Toltecs. The Olmecs, often considered the mother culture of later Mesoamerican civilizations, flourished from 1200 to 400 B.C. They were renowned for their distinctive sculpture carved from jade and basalt. Hieroglyphs dating to the 9th through the 7th centuries B.C. suggest that the Olmecs may have been the first American civilization to develop writing.
The Toltec name means “master builder” or “craftsman.” This indigenous tribe lived in central Mexico between the 10th and 12th century A.D., constructing major cities at Tula (in the modern state of Hidalgo) and Teotihuacán (in the state of Mexico). Toltec architecture often incorporated large sculptures of warriors meant to intimidate their enemies.
Teotihuacán, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of Mexico City, was built between 100 and 600 A.D. by an unknown civilization. Although the area had been long inhabited, it was only in the 2nd century that this group began to acquire the economic resources and social structure that would enable them to construct the city. Teotihuacán soon grew into one of Mesoamerica’s most powerful cultural, commercial and religious centers. At its height, the population may have numbered 250,000, making it one of the world’s largest cities at the time. The massive Pyramid of the Sun, which stands 75 meters (246 feet) tall and dominates the heart of the city, served both religious and astronomical purposes. The civilization’s decline in the 7th century may have resulted from an alliance among the nearby city-states of Cholula (in today’s Puebla), Xochicalco (in Morelos) and Cacaxtla (in Tlaxcala) rising up against Teotihuacán to diminish its influence.
Around the 13th century, several Náhuatl-speaking tribes, led by the Mexica, migrated from the north and entered the Valley of Mexico, establishing what would become the Aztec Empire. According to legend, the Aztecs believed they were destined to settle at the spot where they saw an eagle sitting atop a cactus eating a snake; witnessing this scene on a small island in Lake Texcoco, they built the city of Tenochtitlán where Mexico City stands today. Joining with Tlacopan on the lake’s western shore and Texcoco to the east to create a triple alliance, they soon dominated all of central and southern Mexico. Teotihuacán, once a great commercial city, became a religious center under the Aztecs.
In 1519, the explorer Hernán Cortés set out to conquer Mexico on behalf of Spain. Since the Aztecs were the region’s dominant civilization, they immediately became the conquistador’s chief adversary. Before attacking the Aztecs’ capital city, however, Cortés made allies of many smaller tribes in the region, including the Tlaxcalans. The Valley of Mexico was the scene of many conflicts, such as the battle of Otumba in 1520, one of the first Spanish victories in the war. In early 1521, Cortés and his native allies besieged the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán; after a long and intense battle, the Aztecs surrendered on August 13, and the Spanish colony of Nueva España (New Spain) was founded on Tenochtitlán’s ruins. Some Aztecs were enslaved and the rest exiled, forbidden to live in the same city as the Spaniards.
Spaniards who fought in the war were rewarded with haciendas throughout the state of Mexico. The haciendas were large tracts of land that provided income to the landholders at the expense of the indigenous people, who were reduced to virtual slavery. In the state of Mexico, haciendas produced primarily sugar, corn and cattle. Between European-born diseases and harsh treatment by the landholders, the area’s native population dwindled from 2,000,000 at the time of the conquest to approximately 200,000 a century later.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the mining of precious metals began to increase in the southern part of the state around Sultepec, Temascaltepec and Zacualpan. Missions were also established during this time, with representatives of the Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian and Jesuit orders working to convert the indigenous population to Roman Catholicism.
This period saw the emergence of a new social class, the criollos, who were Spaniards born in the Americas. Despite their wealth and Spanish ancestry, the criollos were prevented from holding important administrative positions, which were granted instead to people born in Spain. Consequently, when the war of independence broke out in 1810, many criollos in the state of Mexico supported the revolution financially and militarily, rallying around leaders José María Morelos and Vicente Guerrero. Significant battles were waged in the area and contributed to the movement’s final success in 1821, when Spain granted the country its independence. Under the Mexican Constitution of 1824, the state of Mexico became an official state, with General Melchor Muzquiz serving as the first governor.
After achieving independence, the entire country, including the state of Mexico, suffered continual political conflict between the liberals who wanted to implement social changes quickly and the conservatives who favored a slower pace. In 1846, though, tensions with the United States temporarily united the factions. The United States had recently admitted Texas to the Union and wanted to buy from Mexico a vast tract of land that now constitutes much of the western United States. Mexico, objecting to both actions, went to war. Although no major battles took place in the state of Mexico, U.S. and Mexican armies passed through it on the way to conflicts in Mexico City and Puebla. The United States won the war in 1848, and Mexico agreed to sell it land that became present-day California, Nevada and Utah as well as parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming.
In the early 1860s, Mexico’s financial difficulties induced liberal President Benito Juárez to suspend payments on its foreign debts, angering France. With the support of Mexican conservatives, the French invaded the country in 1862 and installed Maximilian of Habsburg as Emperor of Mexico in 1863. Maximilian reigned until 1867, when he was captured and executed by forces loyal to Juárez. With the liberal victory, a new constitution was drafted; Juárez resumed the presidency, and peace returned to the state of Mexico and the country.
In 1876 Porfírio Díaz assumed the presidency, which he controlled from 1877 to 1880 and from 1884 to 1911, an era that came to be known as the Porfiriato. Díaz concentrated the government’s resources on commercial development by building roads, bridges, railways and telegraph lines. The improved infrastructure greatly profited the owners of haciendas in the state of Mexico, making it easier for them to move their goods to market. The landless peasants, however, saw relatively little benefit, and their cause was taken up in 1910 by the leaders of the Mexican Revolution. The revolution removed Díaz from office in 1911, but infighting among rebel factions delayed the approval of a new constitution until 1917. The Constitution annexed part of the state of Mexico to create the Federal District, the seat of national government.
The new constitution of 1917 also placed political and economic restrictions on the Roman Catholic Church in response to claims that the church had abused its power. Supporters of the church launched the Cristero War of 1926-1929, a conflict that engaged the federal government and the neighboring state of Guanajuato, but left the state of Mexico relatively unaffected.
Political turmoil and power exchanges continued for over a decade, ending with the establishment of the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (Institutional Revolutionary Party), which ushered in a period of stability for Mexico City and the rest of the country that lasted until 2000.
Mexico State Today
Chief industries in the state include food processing, construction, motor vehicles, chemicals, textiles, paper, machinery and assembly industries, electric and electronic equipment and appliances. Companies such as Chrysler, Ford, Nissan, Hoechst, Pfizer and Motorola operate more than 20 industrial complexes throughout the state.
The pyramids at Teotihuacán have become an international tourist destination, thanks in part to the ancient city’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Visitors to the area’s parks, wildlife preserves and museums also provide significant state revenue.
Both large and small farms in the state grow a variety of fruits and staple crops, including mango, avocado, orange, plum, nuts, mamey (similar to an apricot), papaya, corn, wheat, alfalfa, maguey cactus, tomatoes and beans.
Facts & Figures
- Capital: Toluca de Lerdo
- Major Cities (population): Ecatepec (1,1688,258) Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl (1,140,528) Naucalpan de Juárez (821,442) Toluca de Lerdo (747,512) Tlanepantla (683,808)
- Size/Area: 8,246 square miles
- Population: 14,007,495 (2005 Census)
- Year of Statehood: 1824
- The state’s coat of arms portrays four principles: liberty, work, culture and nation. Liberty is represented in the upper right by a cannon firing at the Battle of Monte de las Cruces, an early victory in Mexico’s war of independence. Work is depicted by the cornfields at the bottom, as well as a shovel and mining tools. Culture is symbolized by an indigenous priest kneeling next to the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán, by white crosses of the Roman Catholic faith and by a large open book. Finally, above the main shield, the country is represented by its national symbol, an eagle grasping a snake above a cactus. According to legend, the Aztec’s god Huitzilopochtli directed them to build their capital city, Tenochtitlán, at the place where they saw an eagle eating a snake; later, Mexico’s capital was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlán.
- The name Mexico is a Náhuatl term derived from the words metztli (moon), xictli (navel or center) and co (place). Mexico’s name, therefore, means — the place in the center of the Moon –and refers to the fact that the Aztecs built Tenochtitlán in the middle of the Lake of the Moon (later called Lake Texcoco).
- Teotihuacán means “the place where men become gods.” Located in the northeastern part of the state, this ceremonial city features the famous Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon.
- Residents of the state are called mexiquenses, while residents of the country are known as mexicanos. All mexiquenses are mexicanos, but not all mexicanos are mexiquenses.
- Mexico City occupies all of the Federal District, just as the U.S. capital, Washington, occupies all of the District of Columbia. The state of Mexico partially encircles the Federal District, and the history and culture of the two regions are closely linked.
- Most of the state’s citizens live within Greater Mexico City, the metropolitan area that surrounds the Federal District.
- The Izta-Popo National Park, which straddles the border between the states of Mexico and Puebla, is the home of two of Mexico’s most famous volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Iztacíhuatl. Popocatépetl (Náhuatl for “smoky mountain”) is an active volcano, erupting as recently as 2005. Iztacíhuatl (Náhuatl for “sleeping woman”) is dormant.
- Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th-century nun who lived in the state of Mexico, is remembered for her poetry and her outspoken support of women’s rights.
- Many areas in the state of Mexico, such as the Valley of Cuautitlán-Texcoco, lack natural water sources. To meet the demand, the government installed a 180-kilometer (110-mile) pipeline to carry water to Mexico from the Cutzamala Dam on the Balsas River.
- Every November millions of monarch butterflies fly from Canada to the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, a wooded preserve covering parts of Mexico state and Michoacán. Tourists arrive from around the world to see the butterflies in their winter retreat.
Teotihuacán, which means “place where men become gods” in the Aztec language, is located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of Mexico City. Built between 100 and 600 A.D., Teotihuacán was Mexico’s largest ancient city and one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of up to 250,000 at its zenith in the 6th century.
According to Náhuatl mythology, Teotihuacán was the place where the sun and the moon were created. The Pyramid of the Sun, 75 meters (246 feet) in height, is the second-tallest and most-visited pyramid in the country
The state of Mexico is home to nine national parks where visitors can enjoy mountain climbing, fishing, camping or horseback riding. In Nevado de Toluca National Park, a volcanic crater with two deep lakes offers recreational opportunities to hikers as well as scuba divers. Zoquiapan y Anexas National Park attracts both hummingbirds and birdwatchers. Sacramonte National Park, though small (113 acres), offers dramatic views of the Popocatépetl and Iztacíhuatl volcanoes.
The Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, located on the border between the states of Michoacán and Mexico, provides refuge to millions of monarch butterflies that migrate from North America to spend the winter in the wooded mountains.
Throughout the state, traditional markets sell indigenous goods such as woodwork, textiles, art and ceramics. Popular shopping destinations for tourists include Jilotepec, Atlamoculco and El Oro.
Libraries and Museums
The state of Mexico boasts 587 branches of the national library system and 74 museums. The capital city, Toluca, has museums devoted to watercolor paintings, modern art, science, botanical gardens, printing and anthropology.