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Sierra Madre Oriental, current social issues, cultural homogeneity, Sierra Madre Occidental, mestizos

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Mexico, in full United Mexican States (Spanish Estados Unidos Mexicanos), federal republic in North America. Mexico is the fifth largest country in the Western Hemisphere and is rich in natural resources such as petroleum and natural gas. Mexico’s efforts to develop and modernize its economy—one of the 15 largest in the world—have been slowed by the nation’s rugged terrain, limited farmland, a rapidly growing population, and a series of economic crises. The nation’s capital, Mexico City, is one of the largest cities in the world. In Latin America, only Brazil has a larger population than Mexico.

Mexico is bordered by the United States on the north, the Pacific Ocean on the west, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea on the east, and Guatemala and Belize on the south. It is characterized by an extraordinary diversity in topography and climate and is crossed by two major mountain chains, the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Sierra Madre Oriental. The high central plateau between these two mountain ranges historically funneled most of the human population toward the center of this region. Mexico features volcanic peaks, snow-capped mountains, tropical rain forests, and internationally famous beaches. Mexico City is an enormous metropolitan area and dominates the rest of the country’s culture, economy, and politics. Nearly one-fifth of the nation’s population lives in the immediate vicinity of the capital. Mexico City is also a central hub for Mexico’s transportation network—including railroads, highways, and airlines.

Mexico and the United States share a border that is 3,100 km (1,900 mi) long, much of which is formed by the Rio Grande, a major river known as the Rio Bravo in Mexico. This international border is the longest in the world between an economically developing country and one with a highly developed, industrialized economy. This proximity has influenced Mexico’s internal and external migration patterns, prompting several million Mexicans to move north to the border region or to the United States itself. It has also affected the culture of both Mexico and the United States, fostering the development of a number of communities along the border that mix the cultures of both nations. Mexico covers an area of 1,964,382 sq km (758,452 sq mi).

The people of Mexico reflect the country’s rich history. The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the early 16th century soon led to widespread intermarriage and racial mixing between Spaniards and Native Americans. As late as the early 19th century, Native Americans accounted for nearly two-thirds of the population in the region. During that century, however, the racial composition of the country began to change from one that featured distinct European (Spanish) and indigenous populations, to one made up largely of mestizos—people of mixed Spanish and Native American descent. By the end of the 19th century, mestizos, who were discriminated against during three centuries of Spanish colonization, had become the largest population group in Mexico. Mestizos now account for about 60 percent of Mexicans.

During the colonial era, many Native Americans and mestizos adopted the Spanish language and were converted to Roman Catholicism, the religion of the Spanish colonizers. This has provided the country with a greater religious and cultural homogeneity than might have been present otherwise. The vast majority of Mexicans, about 90 percent, are Catholic and speak Spanish. Nearly 8 percent of Mexicans continue to speak one of many Native American languages, the most common of which is Nahuatl. In recent years, Mexicans have moved in large numbers from rural to urban settings; in 2005, 76 percent of Mexicans resided in urban areas, with half of those citizens living in cities of 100,000 or more.

Mexico has a rich heritage in art and architecture and is recognized internationally for the contributions of its 20th-century mural artists, who created murals that reflected not only Mexico’s history and culture, but also its current social issues. Mexico’s blend of indigenous and European influences has affected many of its traditions and much of its culture. This ethnic heritage has contributed to the development of notable musical styles, folk art, and cuisine, all of which are also now found throughout the United States.

Mexico’s economic achievements are many, but the country continues to face many obstacles as it tries to further develop its economy. Political instability prevented significant economic growth for much of the 19th century. The Mexican Revolution, a major social upheaval in the second decade of the 20th century, further delayed Mexico’s economic expansion. Since World War II (1939-1945), the country has moved away from an agrarian-based economy; its economy now relies heavily on light manufacturing and exports. The country’s enormous petroleum reserves rank it among the top ten countries in the world. Mexico is a major exporter of crude oil and remains one of the top producers and exporters of silver, a mineral resource that has been important since colonial times. Although petroleum dominated the economy in the 1960s and 1970s, recent governments have encouraged economic diversification. Manufacturing, tourism, and assembly industries in northern Mexico are now important sectors of the economy. Mexico’s economy is also of major importance to the United States, not only because of formal links through economic agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but also because Mexico is one of the largest trading partners of the United States. In turn, Mexico’s largest trading partner is the United States.

The history of Mexico revolves around the mixing of numerous cultural, ethnic, and political influences. These include contributions from several major indigenous civilizations, Spanish influences from the period of colonial rule, and a significant African heritage resulting from the slave trade of the early colonial era. Mexico’s postindependence period was characterized by violence and civil war, including European intervention and a long domestic dictatorship. The latter led to the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920)—the most important event in 20th-century Mexican history. This revolution influenced Mexican culture and politics for decades to come.

Mexico’s political system emerged from this era and has provided political continuity from 1929 to the present, a record achieved by few other governments. Its political system is dominated by a strong president and executive branch, to the detriment of the judicial and legislative arms of government. Throughout most of the 20th century, the government was controlled by a single party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which dominated national elective offices. In 2000, however, the PRI lost the presidency for the first time since the party was formed in 1929.


For younger readers

Heinrichs, Ann. Mexico. Children's Press, 1997. For readers in grades 4 to 8.

Hunter, Amy N. The History of Mexico. Mason Crest, 2002. For readers in grades 5 to 8.

Lewis, Elizabeth. Mexican Art and Culture. Raintree, 2004. For readers in grades 5 to 8.

Nardo, Don. The Mexican-American War. Lucent, 1999. For middle school and high school readers.

Parker, Edward. The Changing Face of Mexico. Raintree, 2002. For readers in grades 5 to 10.

Reilly, Mary J. Mexico. 2nd ed. Marshall Cavendish, 2002. For readers in grades 5 to 8.


Burr, Claudia. Broken Shields. Groundwood, 1997. An account of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in Mexico; for younger readers.

Diaz del Castillo, Bernal. The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1517-1521. Da Capo, 1996. A classic work; originally published in 1956.

Krauze, Enrique. Mexico: Biography of Power. HarperCollins, 1997. A history of the making of modern Mexico; covers 1810 to 1996.

MacLachlan, Colin M., and William H. Beezley. El Gran Pueblo: A History of Greater Mexico. 2nd ed. Prentice Hall, 1999. Examination of the cultural, political, and economic changes experienced by the people of Mexico since independence.

Meyer, Michael C., and William H. Beezley, eds. The Oxford History of Mexico. Oxford University Press, 2000. An illustrated chronicle covering Mexico's history from explorer HernA?n CortA©s to the singer Selena.

Meyer, Michael C., and William L. Sherman. The Course of Mexican History. 6th ed. Oxford University Press, 1999. A wide-ranging survey of Mexican history.

Prescott, William H. The History of the Conquest of Mexico. Random House, 1998. A sweeping epic of Hernan Cortes's subjugation of the Aztec people.

Suchlicki, Jaime. Mexico: From Montezuma to NAFTA, Chiapas, and Beyond. Brassey's 1996. Reprint Transaction, 2000. A history that brings out the complexities of Mexico's development as a nation.

Werner, Michael S. Encyclopedia of Mexico: History, Society, and Culture. 2 vols. Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997. Multidisciplinary reference work with more than 500 entries.

Werner, Michael S., ed. Encyclopedia of Mexico: History, Society and Culture. 2 vols. Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997. More than 500 entries from historians.


Camp, Roderic Ai, B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Professor of Government, Claremont Mckenna College. Author of Politics in Mexico: the Decline of Authoritarianism, Crossing Swords: Politics and Religion in Mexico, and other books.

MacLachlan, Colin, A.B., M.A., Ph.D. Professor, Department of History, Tulane University. Coauthor of A History of Latin America. Author of Spain’s Empire in the New World: The Role of Ideas in Institutional and Social Change.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation.

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