Mexico City History

Tenochtitlán

Mexico City's humble origins can be found in the murky mud and reeds of Lake Texcoco, where the Aztecs, also known as the Mexica, wandered some 400 years before settling in 1325. Little more than
chichimec
(barbarian) hunters, these early Aztecs were regarded with disdain by neighbouring tribes. But in less than 200 years, the Aztecs would have forged one of the most formidable empires in Mesoamerica - a vast military enterprise overseen by their resplendent capital, Tenochtitlán.

But neither the Aztecs nor their Nauhatl-speaking neighbours were the first to settle on the lake; simple hunter-gatherers arrived and evolved here from around 30,000 BC. The first great regional city, Teotihuacán, did not arise for many millennia later, around AD 100, and it would dominate the valley of Mexico until its fall in the eighth century, when the militaristic Toltecs rose to the fore. The Toltecs constructed the city of Tula some 60 km north of present-day Mexico City, but after centuries of dominance they too fell into ruin around AD 1200. Fortunately, the concept of the city-state lived on. Waves of migrants poured into the area and constructed urban centres on the lake shores. The Aztecs were some of the last to arrive on the scene.

The Aztecs traced their lineage to Aztlán, a small island on a lake that some reckon to be present-day Mexcaltitlán in Nayarit state. Spurred by their gods, the war-like Huitzilopochtli chief among them, they departed the homeland in the ninth century. For years they drifted, first through Michoacán, then into the Valley of Mexico, where they soon fell into conflict with local groups. Briefly, they acted as hired warriors for the Culhuacán, but then alienated themselves with their bloodthirsty practices. For centuries more they wandered around the shores of Lake Texcoco, settling here and there, then moving on. Finally, their gods delivered them to the chosen place, as prophesied, where they would behold an eagle perched upon a cactus and devouring a snake. This was to be their new home, the birthplace of Tenochtitlán and, later, Mexico City.

Piece by piece they built their empire, reclaiming fertile mud from the lake bed, constructing floating gardens, cultivating crops, hunting local game and trading resources for bricks and stones. The first temples were built, which would later evolve into great sacred precincts. The population boomed and culture flourished. Meanwhile, god Huitzopochtli's insatiable thirst for human blood led the Aztecs to conquer tribe after neighbouring tribe. Then, after a formidable alliance was struck with neighbouring Texcoco and Tlacopan, forging the so-called 'triple alliance', Tenochtitlán became the most powerful political force in Central Mexico. By the time of the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519, the Aztec capital was vast, occupying a jewel-like island on lake Texcoco and supporting a population of 250,000 inhabitants. It shone with temples and towers, grand markets, schools, libraries and palaces. No longer the simple Chichimec warriors, the Aztecs had evolved into a complex and cultured society where war, poetry and religion were central. But soon, all this would be reduced to dust, as Cortés and his army laid siege to the burgeoning civilization.

Capital of New Spain

After Cortés razed Tenochtitlán, he set about building the capital of New Spain - an administrative centre from which the crown's newly acquired New World territories could be governed. Basing himself in Coyoacán, his first steps were to fortify important buildings and strategic thoroughfares. Subsequently he laid the major roads and plazas in a grid pattern that closely matched the design scheme of the original Aztec city. The vast majority of indigenous inhabitants had been killed by disease, but survivors were quickly enlisted as slave labour. Temples were demolished and their bricks utilized to build new religious structures, often directly on top, thus preserving their symbolic power. He constructed palaces for himself and his fellow conquistadors and, initially, the city centre was the sole preserve of the Spaniards.

Like most colonial enterprises, the early days of the capital were rife with corruption and intrigue. Cortés was soon edged out of power and replaced by an exceptionally brutal
audiencia
, headed by Guzmán, who was specifically appointed by Emperor Carlos V of Spain. After two years of plunder, he was replaced with a new council in 1530, and then, in 1535, by the first viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza. In the subsequent decades a silver boom propelled new wealth into the city and Mendoza was able to initiate many grandiose building schemes and renovations. By the end of the century some 250 European mansions had been constructed, which would later earn the capital the nickname 'City of Palaces'. Throughout the 17th century, the construction continued unabated until engineers suddenly realized the city was sinking into the lake bed. Floods inundated the capital, most notably in 1629, when it was submerged for five whole years and business was conducted in boats and canoes. Subsequently the lake area was drained but, even today, many historic buildings suffer dangerous levels of subsidence.

Throughout the colonial era, Mexico City was a multi-cultural and highly racist milieu of indigenous, black, Spanish and
mestizo
peoples. Everyone co-existed in strict hierarchy with
gachupínes
(Spanish-born officials) occupying the social pinnacle. Directly beneath them were the
criollos
(Mexican-born peoples of Spanish descent). Many
criollo
families bought up aristocratic titles when the Bourbon monarchs of Spain sold them in the 18th century, and thus came to participate in the political institutions that were fashioning the city. However, the reality for many
criollos
and the remaining population was one of great poverty and struggle. By the turn of the 18th century,
criollos
and
mestizos
(those born of indigenous and Spanish lineage), vastly underprivileged and vastly outnumbering the
gapuchíne
elite, would demand nothing short of independence from Spain.

From Independence to Revolution

Throughout Mexico's struggle for independence, Mexico City remained a bastion of royalist support. It did not succumb to Hidalgo's famous
grito
or to his attack on the city in 1810, which he inexplicably halted with victory in sight. In 1819, rebellions broke out across Latin America and Mexico City's
gapuchínes
grew increasingly uncomfortable. They sought a modicum of stability in Colonial Agustín de Irtubide, son of a
gapuchíne
father and
crillo
mother. However, Irtubide became sympathetic to the Independence movement after meeting with rebel leader Vicente Guerrero. After cutting a deal, he marched on Mexico City in 1821 and was crowned emperor of the newly independent state in 1822. Two years later, a junta deposed Irtubide, executed him and established a federal republic - the United States of Mexico - with Mexico City as its capital.

In 1829, the last Spanish troops were expelled from the newly independent country. However, peace did not ensue. Instead, several decades of confused instability reigned whilst various conservative and liberal factions struggled for power. Through all this, General Santa Ana was a constant, if capricious and ultimately derisory, force. His 11 years dabbling in politics eventually concluded with the US-Mexican war, in which he shamefully ceded half of Mexico's territory. Zapotec liberal Benito Juárez took power from Santa Ana in 1855. In a move that enraged Mexico's conservatives, he instituted a set of reform laws that limited the power of a hideously bloated Catholic church, restricted its finances and confiscated its properties. Several notable convents and monasteries in Mexico City's downtown area were fully or partially demolished, or otherwise put to better use as factories or warehouses. Meanwhile, various groups squabbled for control of the city, until 1861, when Juárez was formally granted presidency.

In 1863, the French called on Mexico to repay its debts and, at the request of Mexican conservatives, installed the Austro-Hungarian archduke Maximilian as emperor. Inspired by the palaces of his European homeland, Maximilian settled into Chapultepec castle and made several regal additions to the city including the Paseo de la Reforma. His reign was short-lived, however, and after he lost support from the conservatives he was soon usurped by Beinto Juárez, who had him duly executed. Juárez reigned until 1872, when he died, and Porfirio Díaz took control.

Under the brutally capable regime of Porfirio Díaz, Mexico City experienced an unprecedented construction boom. The city limits, formerly defined by the
centro histórico
, were extended considerably. Swanky new neighbourhoods rose up in the areas west of Alameda, replete with French-style mansions, swathes of monuments and regal edifices. Inspired by European models of city-building, the dictator poured a fortune into the capital, invited scores of foreign investors and developed the infrastructure too, constructing plentiful new roads, schools, railroads and police stations. His dream was to present a progressive face to the world, but sadly, the capital's modernization was unmatched in the surrounding countryside, which continued to dwindle in poverty and oppression. Civil war erupted in 1911 and through 10 years of violence and bloodshed, Mexico City remained largely true to its conservative roots, despite changing hands several times.

In the aftermath of civil war, a nation searched for its identity. Great muralists like Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros were invited to adorn the city's buildings with their visions of the future. These works, imbued with the energy and inspirations of the newly forged society, are some of the capital's most endearing attractions. Meanwhile, resources were poured into education and infrastructure, and the city's population soon exceeded one million. In 1928, former president Alvaro Obregón was assassinated in a restaurant in San Angel and fears about the long-term success of the revolution led to the formation of the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (PNR), or National Revolutionary Party, in 1929. The PNR, after changing its name twice, became the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), or Institutional Revolutionary Party, and governed the country unchallenged for some 70 years. Meanwhile, during the 1930s, the capital's cultural fluorescence continued when President Lázaro Cárdenas invited political exiles from Europe, many of them artists and intellectuals, with León Trotsky among them.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
Products in this Region

Cancún & Yucatán Peninsula Handbook

Take a plunge off Mexico's Caribbean coastline and marvel at the coral and plants that have been...

Belize, Guatemala & Southern Mexico Handbook

Blessed with a tropical climate, abundant wildlife and a varied landscape, it's easy to understand...

Central America Handbook

The Central America isthmus is home to exuberant swathes of rainforest and a tapestry of cultures....
PDF Downloads

  No PDFs currently available

Digital Products

Available NOW!
Read more...