A Brief History of Mexico

Mexican history is fascinating but very confusing. Did the Aztecs take over from the Toltecs or the Maya, and who did Madero really assassinate, Carranza or Obregón or neither one? To make telling the bad guys from the good guys easier, just note which historical figures have city streets, dams and schools named after them–and which don’t (Cortés and Porfirio Díaz, among others).

1200-500 b.c.: The rise and decline of the Olmecs.

a.d. 300-900: The rise and fall of the Mayas.

a.d. 1000: Fall of the Toltecs.

1325: Founding of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) by the Aztecs.

1440-1469: Reign of Emperor Moctezuma I, accompanied by much human sacrifice.

1519: Cortés lands near Veracruz and is mistaken for the returned god Quetzalcoatl. Moctezuma II tries to buy him off, but the Spaniards join his enemies and attack.

1521: Cortés captures the Emperor, lays siege to Tenochtitlán and Moctezuma II is killed. Cuauhtemoc takes over, surrenders and is killed. The pillage and Conquest begin. (Semi-official holiday observed on August 13.)

1521-1650: The Conquistadores replace human sacrifice with Christianity, the Inquisition, smallpox and slavery. Five percent survive and are put to work in the newly discovered silver mines.

1650-1800: Consolidation of Spanish control, including expansion into California, Texas and the Southwest. Jesuit order expelled. Spain gradually loses power in Europe.

1810: September 16, Father Hidalgo utters El Grito,* the cry for independence. The “Father of Mexico” calls for an end to slavery and pulque taxes and is killed a year later. Father Morelos continues the fight. (National holiday.)

1815: Morelos is captured and killed. (September 30, his birthday, is an unofficial holiday.)

1821: Mexico wins independence, but General Iturbide declares himself Emperor, for which arrogance he is killed in 1824.

1824: Guadalupe Victoria becomes the first elected president, but his term is followed by years of revolt, civil war and rapidly changing governments.

1836-1848: Texas revolts; the U.S. declares war and takes half of Mexico at one gulp. Texans will never again be trusted in Mexico. The Caste War of Yucatán erupts, but on the eve of victory the Mayas withdraw from a siege of Mérida to plant their corn crops.

1857: A constitution is proclaimed. (National holiday on February 5.)

1859: Benito Juárez, a full-blooded Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca, becomes president and initiates widespread liberal reforms. European forces invade the country to collect unpaid bills.

1862: May 5. The French are defeated at Puebla, but still manage to take over the capital. Juárez escapes north, to the border (national holiday).

1864: Maximilian, brother of the Emperor of Austria, is declared Emperor of Mexico by the French. Juárez attacks.

1867: Mexico’s last Emperor is captured and executed.

1867-1910: General Porfirio Díaz (Don Porfirio) controls the presidency for 35 years, creating a corrupt dictatorship. Mexico’s resources are sold to the highest foreign bidder. Opposition is violently suppressed. Massive land grabs from the peasantry, forced labor camps, wage slavery and wholesale murder prepare the country for revolt.

1910-1911: Pay close attention; this is where the real confusion begins. Madero revolts in the north and is joined by Pancho Villa. Zapata rises in the south. Díaz is exiled. Madero becomes president, but Zapata distrusts him and continues to lead peasant uprisings against the rich. (November 20 is a national holiday honoring the Revolution.)

1913: Madero is executed by Huerta in a move supported by the U.S. Ambassador (quickly recalled to Washington for his sins). Carranza rises against Huerta, as do Villa and Obregón (who all distrust each other).

1914-1915: Obregón ousts the dictator Huerta. Carranza occupies Mexico City, but is forced out by Zapata and Villa, who then decide to go home instead of taking over. Obregón reoccupies the capital, and then attacks Pancho Villa and defeats him. Zapata grabs the capital while Obregón is occupied with Villa, but goes home to the state of Morelos once again and is there attacked by Obregón. (Have you got that?)

1917: Another constitution is signed. Carranza is elected President and assassinated, to be replaced by the hard-to-beat Obregón.

1919: Zapata is betrayed and murdered (presumably on Obregón’s orders).

1920: Pancho Villa gives up, but is allowed freedom and later murdered (Obregón again?).

1925-1930: The bloody Cristero War between Church-led peasants and the central government erupts. Obregón’s sins catch up with him: He is assassinated.

1930-1937: Things finally begin to settle down.

1938: President Cárdenas shocks the world by daring to nationalize the foreign-dominated oil industry. This occasion is now almost a religious holiday, especially since the discovery of vast new oil fields. The Mexican equivalent of the Boston Tea Party.

1946-1952: Miguel Aleman is President and begins programs to increase national productivity.

1968: Hundreds of demonstrating students are massacred in Mexico City by the Army and professional goon squads on the eve of the Olympic Games.

1970-1976: President Echeverria cripples the economy. The peso is devalued amid rumors of a military takeover.

1976-1982: Portillo is elected President and institutes economic reforms. When Mexico discovers great reserves of oil and gas, the U.S. suddenly develops a craving for tortillas and new amigos.

1982-1988: Falling prices pull the plug on Mexico’s oil dreams as Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado inherits a crippling external debt. Inflation soars as the value of the peso tumbles.

1988-1994: Economic recovery is hailed. The “Mexican Miracle” embraces techo-capitalism, mass tourism and McDonald’s hamburgers. Mexico bets its future on the North American Free Trade Agreement–and impoverished Mayan peasants rebel after 500 years of servitude.

1994-1998: Mexico’s foundations are rocked by political assassinations, billion-dollar embezzlements and revelations that “narco-políticos” may control the country. President Zedillo vows that the long-ruling PRI party will win again, even if they have to do it honestly.

2000-2006: Promising change in every aspect of Mexican law and government, PAN candidate Vicente Fox vanquishes the long-ruling PRI “dinosaurs.” Fox’s victory stuns even his own supporters. Mexico struggles to transform itself into a true nation of laws.

2006-2012: Mexico’s unstable political landscape continues to seek democratic equilibrium with Enrique Calderon as a second PAN president. Meanwhile, leftists drift toward the center, centrists edge toward the right, and the right simply backs up and hunkers down.

2012-2018: Thanks to an aggressive but unpopular anti-narco campaign, outgoing president Calderon puts PAN’s succession hopes in serious doubt. PAN, PRI or PRD in 2012? It’s anyone’s guess.

2020: Mexico City swells to 40 million souls and sinks beneath their weight into the ooze of Lake Texcoco, thus fulfilling the mayor’s promise to solve smog and traffic problems.

Excerpted from The People’s Guide to Mexico