Mexico is bordered by the United States to the north and Guatemala and Belize to the south. Although it is the largest and northernmost country of the Central American isthmus, it is today widely considered part of North America. The geography of Mexico is diverse, with a tropical southern region and coastal lowlands, more temperate central highlands, and an arid desert of the north and west. Mexico City is the largest metropolitan area in the world and has increasingly been the site of migration for many indigenous and rural workers in search of better opportunities.
Mexico has been inhabited for at least 11,000 years. Beginning centuries before the European conquest, a sequence of major indigenous civilizations flourished in the region, culminating with the militarily powerful Aztec empire, which arose in the early fifteenth century. Spanish colonization began in 1519 with the explorations and campaigns of Hernán Cortés. The Spanish conquerors quickly ascertained that the Aztec empire was not a monolithic entity and that some subjugated nations could be turned to the Spanish side. Large numbers of indigenous troops supported his decisive attack on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Cortés brought a number of enslaved Africans among his servants and military. They became the first of approximately 200,000 slaves from Africa to arrive in Mexico during the colonial period. Veracruz was arguably the most important slave port in the Americas throughout sixteenth century.
Spanish colonialism had many different impacts on the pre-existing societies after the conquest. Forcible conversion to Christianity was the rule. Diseases previously unknown in the Americas, against which the indigenous population had no immunity, resulted in millions of deaths. The Spanish colonial authorities relocated indigenous communities into fewer, larger towns where they could be more effectively controlled, and on to the least fertile lands. The Europeans themselves took possession of the rich soils that had provided bountiful and reliable harvests of maize, beans and squash for the indigenous communities.
With the participation of creolized Africans and indigenous people, Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821. The establishment of a republic in 1824 was followed by a period of political instability, and war with Britain, France and the US. Mexico ceded much of its territory to the US after the war of 1846. Stability was regained in 1876 under the dictator Porfirio Díaz. The following decades witnessed significant growth in Mexico’s economy and the consolidation of landownership in the form of huge haciendas (estates) in the hands of a small and wealthy Spanish-descended elite. Tricked into debt-bondage, large numbers of indigenous Mexicans worked on the haciendas as virtual slaves. Severe poverty was rampant among the indigenous peoples, African descendants and the majority of the mestizo population.
Main languages: Spanish (official), 62 indigenous languages
Main religions: Roman Catholicism, indigenous religions
Minority groups include 62 indigenous peoples totalling some 12 million (13%) and Afro-Mexicans 0.5–4.7 million (2000 Census, Mexican Statistics Bureau)
The overwhelming majority of the Mexican population is of mixed ancestry, with most people identifying as mestizo (mixed with indigenous and Spanish blood), and 13 per cent as indigenous. Official statistics had traditionally defined the indigenous population using criteria based on language, which many have argued greatly underestimates this increasingly urban population. However, indigenous peoples’ organizations were successful in pressuring the Mexican Statistics Bureau to include a broader set of criteria in the 2000 Census, including a question based on self-identification. The indigenous population is now estimated as over 12 million, about half of whom speak an indigenous language. The official data still does not recognize the presence of Mexico’s African descendant population, which is estimated between 474,000 and 4.7 million. The majority of Afro-Mexicans live in the state of Veracruz or along the Pacific coastal region of the southern states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, otherwise known as the Costa Chica.
The exploitation and impoverishment of the rural and urban masses, combined with a lack of democracy, led to the revolution of 1910–20. Among other reforms, the subsequent constitution of 1917 revised landownership and drafted a labour code. Indigenous rights were ignored. Established in the wake of these events, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) maintained until very recently a monopoly on political power, despite accusations of electoral irregularities.
A concerted effort to industrialize and modernize Mexico’s infrastructure took place from the later 1940s onwards. The establishment of ejidos – communal peasant farms on state-owned land – through the expropriation of large capitalist farms was a central project of the government of President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40). However, subsequent administrations favoured capital-intensive export agriculture and neglected the ejido sector, where most of the country’s corn producers, including the majority of indigenous farmers, were concentrated. This led to a loss of self-sufficiency in basic grains and greater reliance on imports in the 1970s.
Economic crisis was temporarily overcome in the second half of the 1970s, when large oilfields were discovered and high world prices for oil allowed the government to increase revenue and attract massive foreign loans. The oil-debt boom came to an abrupt end in 1982 as a result of the simultaneous fall in oil prices and rising interest rates of international creditor banks. A period of austerity and economic restructuring followed, culminating in 1994 with Mexico’s decision to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In direct opposition to this agreement, in January 1994, the National Zapatista Liberation Army (EZLN or Zapatistas) staged an armed rebellion. This pan-indigenous and rural peoples’ movement, which gained international attention and support, demanded land reform, autonomy and collective rights for indigenous peoples.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Tel: + 52 5 559 8413
Asociación México Negro
Centro de Derechos Humanos ‘Fray Francisco de Vitoria OP’
Tel: + 52 5 658 9000
Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos
Tel: + 52 55 5564 2582
Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos (CNDH)
(National Human Rights Commission)
Tel: + 55 5681 8125, 5490 7400
Comisión Nacional Para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas
Frente Independiente de Pueblos Indios
Ojarasca (journal of indigenous affairs)
Sources and further reading
Aguirre Beltrán, G., La población negra de México: estudio etnohistorica, Xalapa, Universidad Veracruzana, 1989.
Bonfil Batalla, G., México profundo: una civilización negada, México, Grijalbo, 1990.
Castillo, R.A.H. et al., La experiencia de refugio en Chiapas: nuevas relaciones en la frontera sur mexicana, Academia Mexicana de Derechos Humanos, Centros de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, Consejería en Proyectos para Refugiados Latinoamericanos, OXFAM and UNRISD, n.d.
Collier, G. with Lowery Quaratiello, E., Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas, Oakland, CA, Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1994.
Germeten, N. von, Black Blood Brothers: Confraternities and Social Mobility for Afro-Mexicans, Gainesville, FL, University Press of Florida, 2006.
Hernandez Cuevas, M.P., African Mexicans and the Discourse on Modern Nation, Lanham, MD, University Press of America, 2004.
Jordan, P.R., Poblaciones indígenas de América Latina y el Caribe, México City, FAO and Inter-American Indigenous Institute, 1990.
Lloyd, J.-D. and Pérez Rosales, L. (eds), Paisajes rebeldes: una larga noche de rebelión indígena, México City, Universidad Iberoamericana, 1995.
MacLeod, M.J. and Wasserstrom, R. (eds), Spaniards and Indians in Southeastern Mesoamerica, Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
Mejia Píñeros, M.C. and Sarmiento Silva, S., La lucha indígena: un reto a la ortodoxia, México City, Siglo XXI Editores and Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales, UNAM, 1987.
Muhammad, J.S., ‘Mexico’, in MRG (ed.), No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today, London, MRG, 1995; and in MRG (ed.), Afro-Central Americans, London, MRG, 1996.
Palmer, C.A., Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico, 1570–1650, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1976.
Washbrook, S. (eds), Rural Chiapas Ten Years after the Zapatista Uprising, London, Routledge, 2006.