July 18, 2024

Bio Publications Previous Columns Mexico Canadian Articles Stories of the Old West Home

Selected Story

A History of Mexico in 2000 Words

by Maggie Van Ostrand

A History of Mexico in 2000 Words
by Maggie Van Ostrand

Twenty-eight thousand years ago B.C., Mexico was discovered by hunters looking for a recipe for Sopa Azteca. A resourceful lot, they created corn by combining two types of grasses. These seekers of good eats eventually morphed into the splendor of the Olmec civilization.

By 8000 B.C., corn had evolved enough to think about creating pre-Columbian burritos and submitting the ingredients to Julia Child for culinary analysis.

In 2300 B.C., the Olmecs invented pottery to put the corn in, making them the first agro-industrial giant, even before Martha Stewart came along to teach them how to shuck.

Between 1800 and 1500 B.C., the Olmecs became the Donald Trumps of the day when they invented real estate by distributing their power into chiefdoms. The Olmecs are remembered for constructing massive earthen mounds called "condominiums," sculpting colossal basalt heads and building large and prosperous cities that existed for hundreds of years. They were also renowned politicians, lobbying their agricultural, industrial, and theological beliefs right into the Mayan civilization.

By 300 B.C., as the Olmec declined, the Mayans rose to prominence, contributing mightily to astronomy, medicine, and writing. The Mayans were also gifted mathematicians who independently developed the concept of zero, and astronomers who deduced that a solar year was slightly more than 365 days. An even more important discovery, both culturally and gastronomically, was made about 600 B.C. -- chocolate. ¡Olé molé!

About 200 B.C., rose a great city and the religious center of Mesoamerica --Teotihuacan. It was dominated by two enormous pyramids which the Aztecs called the "Pyramid of the Sun" and the "Pyramid of the Moon." Teotihuacan had an enormous influence over the Maya civilization in politics, art, and economics. It had a population of 100,000, and the inhabitants were as enthusiastic as Chicagoans about architectural achievements. It was here Frank Lloyd Wright purportedly apprenticed.

Teotihuacan's cultural impact lasted nearly a millennium, to 950 A.D. Between 250 and 650 A.D., the Maya civilization flourished intellectually, built elaborate cities and made further advancements in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, theology, writing and science, influencing Gallileo, Einstein, and Erma Bombeck.

Along came the Toltecs in 700 A.D., fusing their proud desert heritage with all that had gone before. Their empire reached south to Central America and north to the Anasazi tribe in what is now the Southwestern United States. Today these same states are where U.S. citizens illegally enter Mexico.

Eventually, the Toltec civilization declined, giving rise to the Aztec/Mexica. With cunning political maneuvers and ferocious fighting, the Aztec/Mexica pulled off a rags-to-riches story becoming rulers of Mexico in about 1400 A.D. Some say Karl Rove was responsible, but that rumor has never been confirmed. 300,000 Aztec/Mexica presided over a wealthy empire of about 10 million people, where the poor paid tribute. Today, we call these tributes "income tax."

Mandatory education for all males regardless of class was required by the Aztec/Mexica, though there was no mandatory busing. There were two types of schools: one for military and practical studies (telpochcalli), and one for advanced learning in writing, astronomy, statesmanship and theology (calmecac). There were no fraternity houses available for John Belushi to moon the Aztecs.

By 1519, Tenochtitlan, the capital, was the largest city in the world, populated by 500,000, compared to London's paltry 80,000. Their legal system was a tad harsh, most crimes being punishable by death in an effort to keep the prison population to a minimum. Atop the pyramids, even before Thomas Edison invented the movie camera, the Aztecs had daily matinees featuring still-beating hearts ripped out of thousands of accused criminals even Johnnie Cochran could not save.

Then some extremely discourteous Spaniards came to conquer. They sat astride fire-breathing horses, which confounded the Aztecs who had not seen horses before. Because it appeared to them as though the Spanish soldiers were growing out of the horses' backs, they deduced that the soldiers must have been sent by the gods. This conclusion gave rise to the term "¡Aye Caramba!" which is still in use today.

Aztecs fought savagely with stones, arrows and javelins against Spanish firearms, cannon and aid from indigenous allies, angry and resentful about paying tributes. Still, it took seven bloody months for the Spanish to win. Those vanquished Aztecs who did not die in battle died from imported smallpox. This cleared the way for Cortes who, when he realized he couldn't pronounce Tenochtitlan, became so enraged, he leveled the entire area and renamed it Mexico City.

Out of the rubble, Phoenix-like, arose a cultural mix of Spanish conquerors and native women, allegedly taken as a measure against revolt by natives. Truth is that the women were so pretty and compliant, the conquerers found them irresistible and produced a cornucopia of children called "mestizo." Others were called José, Pablo and Maria.

The colonial period lasted from 1521 to 1810, when Mexico was known as Nueva España, stretching from the Caribbean to Costa Rica to today's southwestern U.S.

Europeans dominated politics and economy in colonial Mexico, with Mestizos second, and native peoples coming in third. Many natives were unemployed, since Mexico did not yet have any Wal-Marts.

In 1810, Napoleon I put his brother on the Spanish throne, causing a bit of a flap. Liberales wanted a democratic Mexico, and conservadores wanted Mexico ruled by a Bourbon king who'd keep the status quo for rich landowners. Bicker, bicker, bicker. The liberales and the conservadores, however, agreed on one thing: Mexico had to cut loose from Spain.

Enter Miguel Hidaldo who, on September 16th, fought back and cried, "Down with the Bourbons, down with Napoleon, down with pastries and paella! We want tequila and tortillas." Everybody and his brother fought ferociously for eleven years and at last, in 1821, independence from Spain was won. Castanets were exchanged for clarinets, and all street names were changed to Avenida 16 Septiembre.

Agustín de Iturbide, a former Spanish general who switched sides more often than John Kerry, had fought for Mexican independence, and then proclaimed himself emperor. Now the people had to revolt all over again and overthrow that guy, which they finally did in 1823 with the establishment of the United Mexican States.

The next year, Guadalupe Victoria became the first president of the new country and, no, he wasn't gay. His real name was Félix Fernández; he chose his new names to give thanks to both Our Lady of Guadalupé for her protection, and Victoria for victory.

Different presidents came and went, including three who ruled simultaneously as a triumvirate in 1829, and there was instability throughout most of the 19th Century. U.M.S. lost many of its northern territories, thanks to the greedy dictator, Santa Anna, who sold off much land for personal profit. It is thought that former U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew followed Santa Anna's example when he secretly sold off portions of public lands in the Rocky Mountains.

We now come to the Mexican-American War (1846-48) which was started for two reasons: (1) U.S. believed it had a God-given right to expand it borders "from sea to shining sea." This belief was given a catchy title by political strategists - "Manifest Destiny." This is called pre-wash spin. Never mind that it was unjust to the Mexicans and the Native Americans. That doesn't count. (2) Santa Anna, a prisoner of war at the time, signed the Treaty of Velasco giving Texas the independence it sought. The U.S loves to sign treaties; honoring them is another story.

The infamous Battle of Chapultepec took place in September 1847. The U.S. Army began an artillery barrage lead by George Pickett, who gained fame during the U.S. Civil War, against Chapultepec Castle. There was great loss of life on both sides, and eventually Mexican General Nicolás Bravo was forced to withdraw and the U.S. forces succeeded in taking Chapultepec Hill. By September 15 the U.S. invaders were in control of Mexico City. Manifest Destiny? Why not call it by its t name -- Violent Expansion.

During the battle, six Mexican military cadets refused to fall back when General Bravo finally ordered retreat, and fought to the death against superior U.S. forces. One by one they fell, fighting for their country. When only one boy remained, with US forces about to kill him, he grabbed the Mexican flag, wrapped it around himself and jumped off the castle point. There is a monument in the Forest of Chapultepec in Mexico City recognizing this tremendous courage. The cadets are eulogized in Mexican history as the Los Niños Héroes, the "Boy Heroes."

In 1855, a Moderate president, Ignacio Comonfort, was elected in hopes of straddling the differences between Liberales and Conservadores. The new constitution limited the formidable powers of the Roman Catholic Church, which promptly excommunicated Comonfort under their Bad Boy Act. This led to the War of Reform (1857-1861). The Liberales eventually won, and the great Liberal president Benito Juárez moved his administration to Mexico City.

This didn't sit well with the Conservadores; they helped bring in Maximilian of Hapsburg, who was married to Bette Davis. The Army of France joined in to get at the rich silver mines in northwest Mexico. Despite having a world-class army, the French lost the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Thanks to the French Army, we celebrate Cinco de Mayo. It was time to exchange cabernet for Corona.

Even after the French Army went home in defeat, Maximilian refused to leave, coining the expression, "Hell no, we won't go." President Benito Juárez, not one to take no for an answer, whacked Maximilian, restored the republic, and did a lot of other good stuff. He confiscated the vast landholdings of the Catholic church which had been lording it over half the country, established civil marriages, separated church and state, and decreed that the only grounds for divorce are marriage. The country expressed its gratitude by putting his picture on the 20 peso note.

Enter General Porfirio Díaz, a rebel at heart, who became president and managed to remain in that lofty position from 1876-1911. Can you imagine what it took to stay president for more than 30 years? Even FDR couldn't manage that. This prosperous period in Mexican history is called Porfiriato. Some people got rich, others lived in abject poverty. Democracy was suppressed, and those who disagreed with Díaz' policies were dealt with brutally. When asked by a reporter "What is the reason for such violence?" President Díaz famously replied, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

At the age of 80, when he had eliminated all competitors for his job, Díaz decided to run for another term. However, he hadn't reckoned on Francisco I. Madero's sombrero being tossed into the ring. Predictably, Madero was arrested, effectively putting a damper on his campaign -- the poor man only managed to get a few hundred votes against Díaz' nearly unanimous reelection. The air still crackles with arguments over whether or not the thousands of chads hanging off voter ballots were at the bottom of this fraud.

Using the cell phone in his jail, Modero called for the Mexican people to mobilize and fight against Díaz' government and this time, he got the support he needed. The populace had soured on Díaz because, if they had to have such an old president, why couldn't they have Ronald Reagan? It was time to revolt.

The Mexican Revolution gave birth to great men like Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, Pascual Orozco, and Venustiano Carranza. For all time, Zapata and Villa would be remembered by their real names: Marlon Brando and Antonio Banderas.

Like a Baskin-Robbins ice cream cone, Díaz knew when he was licked and fled to France, dying a natural death in exile in 1915. The same cannot be said for Modero, Carranza, Zapata and Villa, and many others, who were all assassinated.

In 1929, the National Mexican Party (PNM) was formed; it would later be known as the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and would rule for a total of 71 consecutive years -- the rest of the century. Everyone in the PRI would henceforth be known as The Centurions.

In 1934, President Lázaro Cárdenas del Rio came to power and transformed Mexico by nationalizing the oil and electrical industries, creating the National Polytechnic Institute, implementing land reform, starting free textbooks for children and other national advancements. Cárdenas, who punished dissidents by deporting them to the U.S.A., was unique in that he was the sole politician worldwide who refused bribes.

Cárdenas’ successor, Manuel Ávila Camacho, created a favorable climate for international investment, but he favored landowners, froze wages, and suppressed strikes. His successor, Miguel Alemán Valdéz went even further to protect wealthy landowners. Note that Mexico has no more of a class system than the United States of America.

As a result of national discontent, the presidential candidate of the National Action Party (PAN), Harvard graduate Vicente Fox Quesada, won the federal election on July 2, 2000 (coincidentally his birthday), thereby becoming Mexico's 62nd president.

Although many of Mexico's past presidents have looked down upon the people, it is much easier for Vicente Fox. He's six feet four inches tall.


©2013 Maggie Van Ostrand, all rights reserved.