Journey Through Our Heritage Mexico

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Journey Through Our Heritage


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  • Mexico before conquest

  • After conquest

  • Mexican Independence

Mexico before conquest:

Before the arrival of the Spanish, Mexico was a populous region with a long history of civilizations that were prosperous and accomplished in art, culture, technology and medicine.

Different indigenous groups lived throughout what is now known as Mexico. One well known group was the Aztecs who were conquered by the Spanish after 1519. Before this time, during the 15th and 16th centuries, the Aztecs were the predominant group of Mexico. The Aztecs are actually named Mexica (me-shee-ka) and lived in Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). It was the most thriving city in the world at that time. Their city was built on an island in Lake Texcoco, where they had canals that ran between chinampas (floating gardens) allowing the transportation of resources for the city. The chinampas were extremely complex ecological systems that used above-surface gardens and also allowed sub-surface fishing.

Although Aztecs were the predominant group, there were other important indigenous groups that also lived in Mexico. The Olmecs were one of the earliest civilizations from the southern part of Mexico. They are mainly known for making massive stone heads. Toltecs were another indigenous group that was influential. They created the Mesoamerican ball-game. This was a complex game where players had to pass a rubber ball through a hoop along a wall. The winner would be showered with praise and gratitude from the crowd, the loser on the other hand would be sacrificed. Another important indigenous group is the Maya who were advanced in writing and astronomy. The Maya still reside in the southern region of Mexico today where they maintain their ancient traditions.

After conquest:

In 1519, the arrival of Hernán Cortés (a Spanish Conquistador) and his men to Tenochtitlan brought about a radical changed in Mexico and by the fall of 1521 the Aztec empire was in ruins. The last Aztec emperor to rule before Mexico became New Spain was Cuauhtémoc. From the ruins of Tenochtitlan, Mexico City was built. The encomiendas system was created where the native lands were taken from the indigenous people and given to the conquistadores. These encomiendas also allowed Spanish soldiers to have indigenous people work for them as slaves in order to run their estates. Indigenous people were also converted to Catholicism and stripped of their culture. When the indigenous peoples resisted they were brutally punished.

For many years the indigenous people resisted converting to the Spanish religion of Catholicism. They were finally won over when according to legend Juan Diego, a simple indigenous peasant, saw a vision of the Virgen de Guadalupe on December 9, 1531. The legend states, that while Juan Diego was on the hill in the dessert of Tepeyac near Mexico City, the lady told him to build a church exactly on the spot where they were standing. He told the local bishop, who asked for some proof. He went back and saw the vision again. Juan Diego told the lady that the bishop wanted proof, and she said "bring the roses behind you." When he looked behind, he saw a bunch of roses growing. He cut the roses, placed them in his poncho and returned to the bishop. When he arrived to the bishop, he said he had brought proof and when he opened his poncho, instead of roses there was a picture of the Virgin. She was accepted as the incarnation of the Aztec goddess, Tonantzin, by the indigenous peoples.

Today, the icon of La Virgen is displayed in the Basilica of Guadalupe nearby, one of the most visited Catholic shrines in the world. The Virgin of Guadalupe is Mexico's most popular religious and cultural image, given the titles "Queen of Mexico", "Empress of the Americas", and "Patroness of the Americas". This incident signified a new beginning for believers of both the Catholic and indigenous religions. It was a sign that the two belief systems could coincide peacefully as the indigenous people were able to accept a religion where their own goddess played a significant role.

Although, this is an example of how the indigenous peoples and New Spain came together to form a positive icon, not all examples of the emersion of these two cultures is positive. For example a caste system was put into place by New Spain. Depending on how much Spanish blood a person had, they were assigned a caste. This ensured that pure blooded Spanish had more rights than those of mixed races. There were four levels to the caste system: the Gachupines, the Creoles, the Mestizos, and the Caboclas. The highest class was the royal class, these people were Spanish born, and they were called the Gachupines. Spanish who were born in Mexico were considered Creoles (Criollos), they did not have a royal standing and were the second level of the caste system. People who born in Mexico and were a mixture of Spanish and indigenous were considered Mestizos, they were the third level of the caste system. In the fourth and lowest part of the caste system, were the Caboclas. The Caboclas were a mixture of white, African, and Indian blood. The caste system was a clear example of how race determined class in Mexico after Spanish ruled. Fortunately, the mixed people and indigenous people did not believe in this system and fought to abolish the injustice. This led to the spur of the Mexican Independence.


Mexican War of Independence

On September 16th, 1810 the Mexican War of Independence began between the people of Mexico and the Spanish colonial authorities. This movement was led by Mexican-born Spaniards, Mestizos and Amerindians who sought independence from Spain. It was an idealistic peasants' rebellion against their colonial masters, but ended as an unlikely alliance between Mexican ex-royalists and Mexican guerrilla insurgents. Important notes to highlight within the Mexican War of Independence include: The Grito de Dolores ("Cry of Dolores"), Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, and José María Morelos, and Iturbide. The Grito de Dolores ("Cry of Dolores") also known as El Grito de la Independencia ("Cry of Independence"), uttered from the small town of Dolores, near Guanajuato is the event that marks the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence. It is the most important national holiday observed in Mexico.

Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla or simply Miguel Hidalgo was a Mexican catholic priest who was credited with instigating the rebellion. He was a member of a group of educated Criollos in Querétaro, Michoacan. Hidalgo had a notorious reputation for gambling, fornicating, having children out of wedlock and not believing in Hell. Most seriously, he encouraged his parishioners to illegally grow vines and olives. He strongly believed the Spanish government and their mistreatment of the Mexicans was reason to revolt and form an independent nation. Hidalgo was captured on 21 March 1811, and executed on 30 July. Although he was unsuccessful in his original aim, Hidalgo's efforts were followed by those of José María Morelos and Agustín de Iturbide who brought down the colonial governments of Spain in Mexico in 1821. Hidalgo is considered the Father of the Nation of Mexico.


Mexican Revolution

After Mexico gained their independence from Spain things were very hard for the new nation. By 1861 the country was in debt to many foreign powers including Spain, England and France. The president Benito H. Juarez, a Zapotec Indian by blood, declared a suspension on paying off this debt. The French came to collect regardless and were defeated in May 5, 1862 at the Battle of Puebla. But then returned to occupy Mexico for a number of years from 1864-1867. When the French finally returned control of the government to the Mexican people Benito Juarez was once again president until his death in 1872. His once ally and friend Porfirio Díaz went on to become president of Mexico. Diaz was in power in Mexico from 1876 to 1911, a total of 35 years. During that time, Mexico modernized, adding plantations, industry, mines and transportation infrastructure. Impoverished Mexicans suffered greatly, however, and conditions for the most destitute were terribly cruel. The gap between rich and poor widened greatly under Díaz, and this disparity was one of the causes of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).

In 1910, Díaz erred in declaring that the upcoming election would be fair and honest. Francisco I. Madero, son of a wealthy family, took him at his word and began a campaign. When it became clear that Madero would win, Díaz panicked and began clamping down. Madero was jailed for a time, and eventually fled to exile in the United States. Even though Díaz “won” the election, Madero had showed the world that the power of the dictator was waning. Madero declared himself the true President of Mexico, and the Mexican Revolution was born. Before the end of 1910, regional leaders such as Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, and Pascual Orozco had united behind Madero, and by May of 1911 Díaz was forced to flee Mexico. He died in Paris in 1915, at the age of 85.The revolution was successful in getting rid of Porfirio Diaz, and since the revolution no president has governed for longer than the prescribed six years in office.

There are three major political parties in Mexico: the PRD ( Partido de la Revolucion Democratica), the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucionalizado - the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party) political party however maintained the presidency from the time of the revolution until Vicente Fox of PAN (Partido de Accion Nacional - National Action Party) was elected president in 2000.


States of Mexico and Tribal Affiliations

1. Baja California (Kumeyaay)

2. Baja California Sur (Pericu)

3. Sonora (Yaqui)

4. Chihuahua (Tarahumara)

5. Coahuila (Kickapoo)

6. Nuevo Leon

7. Tamaulipas

8. Durango (Acaxee)

9. Sinaloa (Cahita)

10. Nayarit (Cora & Huichol)

11. Zacatecas (Guachichiles)

12. San Luis Potosi

13. Jalisco (Toltecs)

14. Guanajuato (Chichimecas)

15. Aguascalientes

16. Colima (Olmec)

17. Queretaro

18. Tlaxcala

19. Hidalgo (Tepehua)

20. Veracruz

21. Mexico

22. Michoacán (Purhepecha) 27. Chiapas (Chol &Carrizos)

23. Morelos (Tepaneca) 28. Tabasco

24. Puebla (Nahua & Totonacs) 29. Campeche

25. Guerrero 30. Yucatan (Mayan)

26. Oaxaca (Zapotecs) 31. Quintana Roo

Tribes of Mexico

Kumeyaay-The traditional Kumeyaay territory originally extended from around Escondido in California to the northern part of the present day municipio of Ensenada.

Pericu-By the end of the 18th century the Pericu had vanished, mostly dispatched by the new diseases introduced by outsiders.

Yaqui-The Yaqui are a Native American tribe who originally lived in the valley of the Río Yaqui in the northern Mexican state of Sonora and throughout the Sonoran Desert region.

Tarahumara-The actual name Tarahumara was what the first Spanish called these Native American people.

Kickapoo-the name "Kickapoo" means "Stands here and there".

Carrizos- known as the shoeless people, because they wore sandals instead of moccasins. Some Carrizo captives still live among the Kiowa.

Tepehua-The Tepehua is a small tribe of 1400, and is settled in Chicontepec.

Totonacs-They are one of the possible builders of the Pre-Columbian city of El Tajín, and further maintained quarters in Teotihuacán (a city which they claim to have built).

Huichol-The Huichol Indians of the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico are known for their beautifully intricate yarn paintings and bead work. (Also known for their medicine ceremonies)

Guachichiles-Their territory extended westward close to the city of Zacatecas. The name Guachichil - given to them by the Aztecs - meant "head colored red."

Acaxee-The Acaxee Indians lived in dispersed rancherías in the gorges and canyons of the Sierra Madre Occidental in northwestern Durango and eastern Sinaloa.

Toltecs-The Toltecs sported the familiar ball game played by many Central American cultures and may have sacrificed of the losers.

Olmec-The Olmec tribes are often regarded as the "mother" culture of Mexico and were known to eat dogs during their time.

Cahita-The Cahitas are a mild, sociable people, very industrious, endowed with great intelligence, and courageous.

Chichimecas-The Chichimeca peoples were in fact many different groups with varying ethnic and linguistic affiliations.

Purhepecha-The Purhepecha live in the lake and mountain regions of the State of Michoacán, they called themselves "p'urhépecha".

Tepanecs-The Tepanecs or Tepaneca are a Mesoamerican people who arrived in the Valley of Mexico in the late 12th or early 13th centuries

Zapotecs-They were credited with having developed both highly advanced forms of communication and technological capabilities beyond the norm for that time.

Nahual-an indigenous religious practitioner, identified by the Spanish as 'magicians'

Mayan-Building on the inherited inventions and ideas of earlier civilizations such as the Olmec, the Mayans developed astronomy, calendrical systems and hieroglyphic writing

Notable Indigenous Mexicans:
Cuauhtémoc, Benito Juárez
Comandante Ramona, Cajemé, María Sabina

Total population


Regions with significant populations



Nahuatl, Yucatec, Tzotzil, Mixtec, Zapotec, Otomi, Huichol, Totonac and other living 54 languages along the Mexican territory, as well as Spanish.


Christianity (Predominantly Roman Catholic, with an Amerindian religious element, including Aztec and Mayan religion.)

Definition of Indigenous Mexicans

The number of indigenous Mexicans is judged using the political criteria found in the 2nd article of the Mexican constitution. The Mexican census does not report racial-ethnicity but only the political-ethnicity of indigenous communities who hold political autonomy and preserve their indigenous languages, traditions, beliefs, and cultures.
Mexico, in the second article of its Constitution, is defined as a "pluricultural" nation in recognition of the diverse ethnic groups that constitute it, and in which the indigenous peoples are the original foundation. According to the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas or CDI in Spanish) and the INEGI (official census institute), there are 10.1 million indigenous people in Mexico, of many different ethnic groups, which constitute 9.8% of the population in the country.

The indigenous peoples in Mexico have the right of free determination under the second article of the constitution. According to this article the indigenous peoples are granted:

  • the right to decide the internal forms of social, economic, political and cultural organization;

  • the right to apply their own normative systems of regulation as long as human rights and gender equality are respected;

  • the right to preserve and enrich their languages and cultures;

  • the right to elect representatives before the municipal council in which their territories are located;

Also, the Law of Linguistic Rights of the Indigenous Languages recognizes 62 indigenous languages as "national languages" which have the same validity as Spanish in all territories in which they are spoken. According to the National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Data Processing (INEGI), approximately 5.4% of the population speaks an indigenous language – that is, approximately half of those identified as indigenous. The recognition of indigenous languages and the protection of indigenous cultures is granted not only to the ethnic groups indigenous to modern-day Mexican territory, but also to other North American indigenous groups that migrated to Mexico from the United States in the nineteenth century and those who immigrated from Guatemala in the 1980s.


According to the National Commission for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples (CDI) there are 9,854,301 indigenous people reported in Mexico in 2000, which constitute 9.54% of the population in the country. The CDI identifies 62 indigenous language groups in Mexico although certain languages have multiple dialects each of which is unique and may be mutually unintelligible. The majority of the indigenous population is concentrated in the central and southern states. According to the CDI, the states with the greatest percentage of indigenous population are:

  • Yucatán, 59%

  • Oaxaca, 48%

  • Quintana Roo, 39%

  • Chiapas, 28%

  • Campeche, 27%

  • Hidalgo, 24%

  • Puebla, 19%

  • Guerrero, 17%

  • San Luis Potosí, 15%

  • Veracruz, 15%

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