Before the Spanish
Mexico was occupied by a large number of Indian groups with very
different social and economic systems. In general the tribes in the north
were relatively small groups of hunters and gatherers who roamed
large areas of sparsely vegetated deserts and dry lands. These people
are often called the Chichimecs, though they were a mixture of several
cultural groups who spoke different languages.
In the rest of the country the natives were agriculturists, which helped
to support the more dense populations. Some of these tribes were the
Maya of the Yucatan, Totonac, Huastec, Otomi, Mixtecs, Zapotecs,
Tlaxcalans, Tarascans, and Aztecs. Some of these groups made
advanced civilizations with fancy buildings and temples used for
religious, political, and commercial purposes. The Mayan cities of
Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Palenque, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan,
Tzintzuntzan of the Tarastec, and Monte Alban of the Zapotecs are a
By 1100 AD the Toltecs had taken over a lot of central and southern
Mexico and had built their capital at Tula in the Mesa Central. They
also built the city of Teotihuacan kind of by present-day Mexico City.

At about the same time, the Zapotecs had control of the Oaxaca
Valley and parts of the Southern Highlands. The cities they built at
Mitla and Monte Alban are still here today, though they were taken
over by the Mixtecs prior to the arrival of the Spanish.
When the Spanish came to central Mexico, the Aztecs controlled most
of the central part of Mexico through a state payment system that got
taxes and stopped them from being able to act independently from
conquered tribal groups. The Aztecs moved into the central part of
Mexico from the north and accomplished a tribal story by establishing
a city where an eagle with a snake in its beak rested on a cactus. This
became the national symbol for Mexico and was put on the country’s
flag and seal. The Aztecs started the city of Tenochtitlan in about the
early 1300s, and then it became the capital of their empire. The
Tlaxcalans in the east, the Tarascans on the west, and the Chichimecs
in the north were outside the Aztec Empire and they would sometimes
have wars with them. The nation’s name comes from the Aztecs’ war
Spanish Conquest
From when Hernando Cortez took over until 1821, Mexico was a
colony of Spain. Cortez first came into the Valley of Mexico on the
Mesa Central in 1519 after marching over land from Veracruz, the
town he had started on the coastal plains. With less than 200 soldiers
and a few horses, the first take-over of the Aztecs was possible only
with the help that came from the big Indian armies that Cortez put
together from some of the Aztecs’ enemies. After a short first success
at Tenochtitlan, the Spanish were driven from the city on the Noche
Triste or, Sad Night but came back in 1521 and destroyed the city
and strongly defeated the Aztecs. Within a short time the rest of
central and southern Mexico and much of Central America were
conquered from Mexico City.
The Spanish took over the Indian lands and gave it all out among
themselves. During the early contact with Indians, millions died from
European diseases like measles and smallpox, because the natives had
no cure for them. Central Mexico did not get its original population
numbers until around 1900.
Along with other Spanish colonies in the New World, Mexico fought
for and gained its independence in the early 1800s. On Sept. 16,
1810, in the town of Dolores Hidalgo, the priest Miguel Hidalgo y
Costilla rang his church’s bells and got the local Indians to “recover
from the hated Spaniards the land stolen from your forefathers . . .”
This is now celebrated as Mexican Independence Day. Padre Hidalgo
was hanged in July 1811.

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Hidalgo was succeeded by Jose Maria Morelos, another priest who
was a better leader than his Padre Hidalgo was. Morelos made a
national government, which on Nov. 6, 1812, declared that Mexico
was to be independent from Spain. Morelos was executed by a
Spanish firing squad in 1815, but his army, led by Vicente Guerrero,
continued fighting until 1821. Because of weaknesses and the
coruption of government in Spain, the revolution army gained strength.

Agustin de Iturbide, an officer from the Spanish, joined forces with
Guerrero and made the Plan of Iguala, which provided for Mexico’s
independence under a monarchy government called the Mexican
Empire. Iturbide was crowned emperor of Mexico in July 1822, and
the newly formed empire lasted less than a year. Iturbide was exiled
from the country but returned and was executed.
General Antonio Lopez from Santa Anna then came out as the
strongest government leader for about 30 years. Santa Anna was
president of Mexico when Texas revolted and during the
Mexican-American War of 1846.


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