Southward from its 1,500 mile long border with the United States lies the Estados Unidos Mexicanos. A country with slightly more than 750,000 square miles in area, Mexico has a vast array of mineral resources, limited agricultural land, and a rapidly growing population. These factors are the basis for many of the country’s present problems as well as opportunities for future development. The nation is struggling to modernize its economy. With more than 80 million people in the mid-1980s, Mexico’s overall population density exceeds 110 per square mile. More than half of its inhabitants live in the country’s central core, while the arid north and the tropical south are sparsely settled.
The stereotype of Mexico is that it is a country with a population consisting mainly of subsistence farmers has little validity. Petroleum and tourism dominate the economy, and industrialization is increasing in many parts of the nation. Internal migration from the countryside has caused urban centers to grow dramatically: more than two thirds of all Mexicans now live in cities. Mexico City, with a metropolitan area population of approximately 16 million people, is the largest city in the world. While still low by United States standards, the nation’s gross national product per capita rose significantly during the 1970s. Despite impressive social and economic gains, since 1981 Mexico has been wracked by severe inflation and an enormous foreign debt brought on in large part by precipitous declines in the value of petroleum products.
Geologically, Mexico is located in one of the Earth’s most dynamic areas. It is a part of the “Ring of Fire,” a region around the Pacific Ocean highlighted by active volcanism and frequent seismic activity. Within the context of plate tectonics, a theory developed to explain the creation of major landform features around the world, Mexico is situated on the western, or leading, edge of the huge North American Plate. Its interaction with the Pacific, Cocos, and Caribbean plates has given rise over geologic time to the Earth-building processes that created most of Mexico. Towering peaks, like Citlaltepetl at some 18,000 feet, are extremely young in geologic terms and are examples of the volcanic forces that built much of central Mexico. The spectacular eruption of the volcano Chinchon in 1981 was more powerful than that of Mount St. Helens in the United States a year earlier and led to widespread devastation.
Much of the complexity found in southern Mexico’s physiography is related to the interaction of three tectonic plates. Such interaction creates regions that are often highly unstable, producing numerous and severe Earth movements. A 1985 quake, with an epicenter off the coast of Acapulco, caused billions of dollars in damage nationwide, destroyed hundreds of buildings in Mexico City, and killed several thousand people. It is on this often unstable and dynamically active physical environment that the Mexican people must build their nation.
The plateau can be subdivided into two major sections. The Mesa del Norte begins near the international border and ends around San Luis Potosi. In this arid lower part of the plateau, interior drainage predominates with few permanent streams. On its west side the mesa is flanked by the largely volcanic Sierra Madre Occidental, with an average height of 8,000 to 9,000 feet (2,400 to 2,700 meters). It has been highly dissected by westward-flowing streams that eroded a series of deep barrancas, or canyons. The most spectacular of these is the Barranca del Cobre, Mexico’s equivalent of the Grand Canyon. The Sierra Madre Oriental, a range of folded mountains formed of shale and limestone, is on the east side of the mesa. With average elevations similar to those of the Sierra Madre Occidental, these dissected highlands have peaks that reach 13,000 feet.
The Mesa Central stretches from San Luis Potosi to the volcanic axis south of Mexico City. Formed largely by volcanic action, the general plateau surface of this mesa is higher, moister, and generally flatter than the Mesa del Norte. The Mesa Central is divided into a series of fairly flat intermountain basins separated by eroded volcanic peaks. These basins are generally quite fertile and have been the most densely populated portions of Mexico for several hundred years. The largest valleys such as those of Mexico City, Puebla, and Guadalajara rarely exceed 100 square miles in area, while many others are quite small. The traditional breadbasket of the country, the Bajio of Guanajuato, is located in the northern part of the mesa. Many of the basins were sites of major lakes, like those formerly located around Mexico City that were drained to facilitate European settlement. The weak, structurally unstable soils that remain have caused numerous buildings to shift on their foundations and over many years to slowly sink into the ground. The volcanic axis with such spectacular snowcapped peaks as Popocatepetl at 17,887 feet, Ixtaccihuatl at 17,342 feet, and Toluca at 15,000 feet forms the southern boundary of the Mexican Plateau.
On the east and west sides of the plateau lie that country’s coastal lowlands. The Gulf Coastal Plain extends from the Texas border to the Yucatan peninsula, a distance of some 900 miles. Characterized by lagoons and low-lying swampy areas, the triangular northern portion is more than 100 miles wide near the border and tapers rapidly toward the south. Inland toward the abrupt escarpment of the Sierra Madre Oriental is a series of gently undulating plains dotted by occasional hills and low mountains. Near Tampico an extension of the Sierra Madre Occidental reaches the sea and interrupts the plain’s continuity. To the south of Tampico it is narrow and irregular. In several places low hills and isolated volcanic peaks meet the sea and subdivide the plain. It widens at the northern end of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and then encompasses the limestone formations that underlie the Yucatan peninsula.
The Rio Balsas and its tributaries drain the Balsas Depression as well as much of the southern portion of the Mesa Central. Dammed where it crosses the Sierra Madre del Sur, the Balsas is a major source of hydroelectric power. Farther south the Grijalva is the main river system. It drains a large part of the Chiapas Highlands. Dammed in two places, the Grijalva has created a pair of huge man-made lakes. The Rio Papaloapan, which enters the Gulf of Mexico south of Veracruz, was dammed in the 1960s in a project modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority. The project’s aim was to control flooding along the previously swampy coastal plain and to provide for new agricultural production.
In the north an arid climate and interior drainage limit the size and number of rivers. By far the major river in this part of the nation is the Rio Grande in the, which forms the international border. Because both the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Sierra Madre Oriental originate close to the coastal margins, streams on the west and east coasts are short and steep. Along the Pacific Lowlands the Rios Yaqui, Fuerte, and Hunaya have been dammed, and they support major irrigated acreages. Baja California and the Yucatan peninsula are essentially devoid of permanent streams.
Because of its topographic diversity and large range in latitude, Mexico has a wide array of climatic conditions, often occurring in very short distances. More than half of Mexico lies south of the Tropic of Cancer. Within the tropics, temperature variations from season to season are small, often less than 10 F between the warmest and coldest months of the year. In these areas winter is defined as the rainiest rather than coldest months. The climate also changes significantly with increases in elevation.
From sea level to just above 2,000 feet is the tierra caliente with uniformly high temperatures. Acapulco, for example, has an average daily temperature of approximately 80 F, with the warmest month averaging 83 F and the coldest about 78 F. The tierra templada extends from 2,000 feet to about 6,000 feet. At an elevation of 4,500 feet, Jalapa has an average daily temperature of 63.6 F with a yearly range of 9 F. Tierra fria is situated from about 6,000 to 11,000 feet. Pachuca, at just under 8,000 feet, has an average annual temperature of 58 F and a yearly range of just 10 F. Above the tierra fria are the paramos, or alpine pastures, while the tierra helada, or permanent snow line in central Mexico, is found at roughly 14,000 feet.
The natural wildlife of northern Mexico was severely affected by the introduction of cattle, sheep, and goats more than 400 years ago. While rabbits and snakes abound in the deserts and steppes, such larger animals as deer and mountain lions are found only in isolated or mountainous areas. Massive flocks of ducks and geese migrate into the northern part of the Sierra Madre Occidental to winter. A millennium of human habitation has brought about the virtual elimination of much of the natural fauna throughout the Mesa Central and parts of the Southern Highlands, especially the Oaxaca Valley. In contrast the rain forests of the Gulf Coast and Chiapas and the degraded rain forests of the Pacific coast still provide a largely undisturbed habitat for many animals from monkeys to parrots to jaguars.
Mexico’s population comprises a wide variety of racial and ethnic groups. At the time of European arrival in the early 1500s, the country was inhabited by numerous Amerind civilizations. The “Indians” are thought to have migrated into the New World from Asia some 40,000 to 60,000 years earlier by crossing a former land bridge in what is now the Bering Straits.
By far the greatest number of people lived in the Mesa Central. Most were under the general rule of the Aztec Empire, but a great many separate cultural groups thrived in the region, among them speakers of Tarastec, Otomi, and Nahuatl. Outside the Mesa Central were numerous other cultural groups such as the Maya of the Yucatan and the Mixtecs and Zapotecs of Oaxaca. Highly organized civilizations had occupied various regions of Mexico for at least 2,000 years prior to European discovery. The Aztec cities of the Mesa Central were marvels of architectural design, irrigation technology, and social organization. Spectacular Mayan ruins in the Yucatan evidence widespread urbanization and intense agricultural productivity dating from well before the Christian Era.
Over the last four centuries descendants of Indians and Europeans, sometimes called mestizos, have become the dominant group in Mexico. Today they account for at least two thirds and perhaps three fourths of the total population.
While Indians are still said to represent nearly a quarter of the population, in 1980 there were only slightly more than 5 million people who spoke an Indian language and just over 1 million who spoke only an Indian language. There are more than 50 Indian languages spoken in the country. Entirely European-descended people, including many who immigrated during the last half century, account for about 10 percent of all Mexicans.
One of the more dynamic aspects of Mexico’s demography is its rapid rate of population increase. At present the nation’s population is growing at a rate of 2.6 percent annually. This is about 50 percent higher than the world average and almost four times the rate of the United States. This growth rate, however, represents a recent slowing in natural increase. From 1960 to 1980 Mexico averaged about 3.0 percent annually. This reflects the greatly improved health-care standards introduced since 1940. These changes allowed a significant lowering of the death rate, especially infant mortality. The more recent decline in the growth rate results from increasing urbanization, higher educational levels, and a lessened dependence on child labor.
In 1910 Mexico had a population of about 15 million, and by 1940 the number had increased to only 20 million. In 1960 there were more than 34 million people and by 1970 more than 58 million. The 1980 population surpassed 66 million, and at the end of 1986 it was estimated that it surpassed 80 million. Such rapid growth has severely taxed the ability of the Mexican Republic to provide basic social services and economic opportunities for its citizens. It is estimated that Mexico will have 113 million people by the year 2000. Traditionally the government has opposed limiting population growth. This position has been somewhat modified since the late 1970s with continuing high growth rates and recurring economic difficulties.
More than 50 percent of all Mexicans live on the Mesa Central, which accounts for only 15 percent of the national territory. Mexico City’s urban area has about 18 percent of the population. Parts of the Gulf Coastal Plain and the Southern Highlands, especially the Oaxaca Valley, are relatively densely settled, but southern Baja California, much of the Yucatan peninsula, and large parts of the Chiapas Highlands are sparsely populated.
Although Spanish speakers form the bulk of the population throughout most of the country, there are several areas where Indian speakers still dominate. Mayan speakers are the majority cultural group in the rural Yucatan. In the Chiapas Highlands and the Southern Highlands, especially the Oaxaca Valley and more remote parts of the Sierra Madre del Sur, Indian communities abound, and enclaves of Indians are still significant in isolated mountain areas on the eastern margin of the Mesa Central.
The movement of people within the nation’s borders has drastically altered the distribution of Mexico’s population. Massive migrations of peasants from rural areas and small towns to cities began in the 1950s, resulting in an estimated 70 percent of Mexicans now living in cities. This represents a substantial proportional decline in rural population, which accounted for 50 percent in 1960. In 1987 roughly half of the country’s residents lived in cities with 50,000 inhabitants or more. As a group, Mexican cities have grown at a rate of more than 5 percent a year since the 1960s.
In addition to internal migration, the number of individuals who have emigrated from Mexico to the United States illegally has grown sharply since the 1970s. Estimates are highly inaccurate and vary drastically, but it is believed that somewhere between 4 and 8 million Mexicans relocated illegally to the United States between 1970 and 1985. An increasing number of highly qualified technicians and professionals have found their way northward causing a “brain drain” for Mexico.
Mexico has made great efforts to improve educational and health opportunities for its people. Despite a rapidly growing population and an increasingly large number of school-age children, gains are being made in many areas. As in most Third World countries, social infrastructure is much more available in cities than in the countryside, but national programs have sought to provide primary schools and basic health-care centers to all rural areas.
Within the hierarchy of Mexican urban places, Mexico City is the political, economic, social, educational, and industrial capital of the nation. The metropolis covers a solidly built-up urbanized area of some 15 by 20 miles. Despite its already enormous population, Mexico City gains more than 350,000 people per year. By the end of the century the city’s population could easily exceed 25 million.
The famous Aztec pyramids of Teotihuacan are located northeast of the city, and the floating gardens of Xochimilco are in the southeast. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, many of them peasants, make annual pilgrimages to the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is a holy site for the country’s Roman Catholics.
Through the years Mexican writers and artists have received worldwide acclaim for their creativity and innovation. Within the nation both folk and classical traditions are strong. The country’s most renowned writers have gained their reputations by dealing with questions of universal significance, as did Samuel Ramos. Octavio Paz is the foremost poet of Latin America. Carlos Fuentes is honored throughout the world, Gustavo Sainz is a leader in Spanish-language literature, and Juan Jose Arreola’s fantasies are widely admired. Among dramatists Rodolfo Usigli was extremely influential during his lifetime, but more recently Luisa Josefina Hernandez and Emilio Carballido have made significant contributions to Mexican drama.
In economic terms Mexico is a developing nation. With a 1986 gross domestic product of approximately United States $2,300 per capita, the country has a long way to progress before it can provide its people with living standards similar to the more developed nations. But even this modest figure represents a major improvement in a relatively short period of time. In constant 1982 dollars Mexico’s GDP per capita has increased from about $1,100 in 1960. Given the steady and rapid population growth rate, the nation’s economic growth has been impressive. Between 1960 and 1980 the GDP grew at an average annual rate of 6.8 percent. To illustrate the effect of petroleum prices on Mexican economic growth, in 1981 the GDP increased by 7.9 percent. In 1982, the year of the price collapse, GDP growth fell to -0.5 percent.
Largely because of the diversity of its physical environment, Mexico produces a wide array of agricultural products in different parts of its national territory. Despite the fact that farming and ranching have been the basic economic activities throughout its history, Mexico has a very limited amount of good agricultural land. Much of the country is too arid or too mountainous for crops or grazing. Irrigation is required in many areas to bring the land into any kind of production. It is estimated that no more than 20 percent of the nation can be classified as potentially arable. Normally only from 10 to 12 percent of the country’s area is planted to crops annually, and because of weather conditions only half of that is harvested. Only 20 percent of the cropland in production is irrigated.
The most fertile soils and the largest areas of agricultural land are located in the Mesa Central, where a dense farming population has been present for at least 1,000 years. Aridity in the north and dense tropical vegetation in much of the south have hampered the spread of agriculture to these areas. Ranching has been extended into many areas considered marginal for crops.
Slightly less than a fifth of Mexico’s national territory is forested. It is estimated that nearly two thirds of the country was covered by forests in the mid-1500s, but indiscriminate exploitation decimated the resource. While conservation methods are now practiced in some of the pine forests in the north, the uprooting of rain forest continues elsewhere.
Metallic minerals have been a significant part of the economy throughout the nation’s history. Silver was long the most valuable product mined, and Mexico was the world’s leading producer until about 1970. The major mining area during the colonial period was the Silver Belt, a region that extended from Zacatecas and Guanajuato in the northern part of the Mesa Central into Chihuahua on the Mesa del Norte. San Luis Potosi was an eastern outpost. The Silver Belt is still the primary region of mineral production, but the focus is now on industrial rather than precious minerals.
exico’s nearly 5,500 miles (8,850 kilometers) of coastline is richly endowed with marine resources. Seafood products do not form a major part of the Mexican diet despite attempts to increase it, so the nation’s fishing industry has not yet been developed to its potential. Commercial exploitation of ocean products has occurred only since the 1940s.
Mexico has rich shrimping grounds in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Gulf of California, and along the southern Pacific coast. The gulf coast from Tampico to the United States border and from Veracruz to Campeche has been fished commercially since the 1940s, producing about 25,000 tons of shrimp in 1984. The Gulf of California shrimping grounds were not exploited on a large scale until the late 1950s but are now the most productive. More than 40,000 tons of shrimp were taken there in 1984, with another 10,000 tons landed in the far south.
Petroleum is Mexico’s primary economic asset. Nearly 70 percent of the nation’s foreign-exchange earnings are derived from the sale of oil and natural gas, the overwhelming majority of which is exported to the United States. Petroleum is seen as the commodity capable of creating enough resources to bring about significant changes in the country’s social and economic systems. Oil money will be used to create jobs, improve infrastructure, and finance social programs. Oil revenues could lead to the modernization of Mexico.
exico is the most industrialized country in Latin America after Brazil. A disproportionate share of manufacturing is located in the Mexico City metropolitan area largely because of its huge market and superior infrastructure. Its impressive array of manufacturing includes everything from agricultural processing to automotive assemblage and electronics to iron and steel production. Most of the country’s industrial jobs are located in this urban area, acting as a magnet to migrants from throughout Mexico.
Because of its physical diversity and economic status, Mexico has had a difficult time creating an integrated transportation network. Although it was one of the first in Latin America to develop railway lines, the nation is joined together by an extensive but inefficient state-owned railway system.
Major rail routes extend outward from the Mexico City hub along the west coast to Mexicali, through the Central Plateau to El Paso and Laredo, via the Gulf Coastal Plain to the Yucatan peninsula, and south to Oaxaca. Rail traffic, both for passengers and freight, is slow and unreliable.
Tourism is a growth industry in Mexico. The country attracted visitors, especially from the United States, for many years, but in relatively limited numbers. Historically these tourists came to visit Mexico City and surrounding colonial towns in the Mesa Central and to see the archaeological ruins at Tenochtitlan and Tulum. More adventurous tourists went to the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan or to the Indian-dominated Oaxaca Valley. People later discovered Mexico’s beaches, and the government invested heavily in this sector of the economy.
Before the Spanish arrival in 1519, Mexico was occupied by a large number of Indian groups with very different social and economic systems. In general the tribes in the arid north were relatively small groups of hunters and gatherers who roamed extensive areas of sparsely vegetated deserts and steppes. These people are often referred to as Chichimecs, though they were a mixture of several linguistically distinctive cultural groups.
In the rest of the country the natives were agriculturalists, which allowed the support of dense populations. Among these were the Maya of the Yucatan, Totonac, Huastec, Otomi, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Tlaxcalans, Tarascans, and Aztecs. A number of these groups developed high civilizations with elaborate urban centers used for religious, political, and commercial purposes. The Mayan cities of Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Palenque, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, Tzintzuntzan of the Tarastec, and Monte Alban of the Zapotecs are examples.
By AD 1100 the Toltecs had conquered much of central and southern Mexico and had established their capital at Tula in the Mesa Central. They also built the city of Teotihuacan near present-day Mexico City. At about the same time, the Zapotecs controlled the Oaxaca Valley and parts of the Southern Highlands. The cities they built at Mitla and Monte Alban remain, though they were taken over by the Mixtecs prior to the arrival of the Spanish.
When the Spanish arrived in central Mexico, the Aztecs controlled most of the Mesa Central through a state tribute system that extracted taxes and political servility from conquered tribal groups. The Aztecs migrated into the Mesa Central from the north and fulfilled a tribal prophesy by establishing a city where an eagle with a snake in its beak rested on a cactus. This became the national symbol of Mexico and adorns the country’s flag and official seal. The Aztecs founded the city of Tenochtitlan in the early 1300s, and it became the capital of their empire. The Tlaxcalans to the east, the Tarascans on the west, and the Chichimecs in the north were outside the Aztec domain and frequently warred with them. The nation’s name derives from the Aztecs’ war god, Mexitli.