Mexico's early civilizations remain a source of pride to modern Mexicans. The pyramids of Teotihuacán, north of Mexico City, attest to the extraordinary achievement of a society that flourished around the same time as the Roman Empire then mysteriously disappeared. The legacy of the great Maya civilisation continues to reverberate amongst its descendants on the Yucatán Peninsula and in southeast Mexico. These and other great civilizations had developed before the Aztecs established their empire at Tenochtitlán, the predecessor of modern Mexico City. The Maya, above all, asserted their hegemony over central Mexico and beyond, through present-day Central America.
When the Spanish arrived on Mexico's Gulf Coast in 1517, the Aztec Empire was in disarray and widely reviled by its far-flung subjects. This situation greatly facilitated the Spanish conquest of Mexico and within two years the European invaders had taken over the Aztec domains. Catholic missionaries arrived in the new Spanish colony to evangelize the masses of Indians. Thus were planted the seeds of the “mestizaje”, the blending of European and indigenous peoples and cultures that still characterizes the complex racial mix of today's Mexico.
The three centuries of Spanish rule that followed were primarily devoted to exploiting the colony's vast silver reserves and enslaving the populace to that end. The ensuing decades of political instability culminated in the regime of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1910), which modernised Mexico's industry and infrastructure while trampling on the civil and economic rights of most Mexicans. This state of affairs sparked the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), a devastating conflict that ushered in a version of democratic government with a single political party, the PRI, at the helm for the next seven decades.
Electoral reforms implemented by President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) facilitated the election of an opposition-party candidate, Vicente Fox, for the first time in the country's modern history. Fox’s party, PAN (Partido Accion Nacional), represented a broad platform of centrist, Catholic principles, which challenged PRI’s historic dominance
Mexico celebrated the bicentennial of its independence from Spain in 2010 but remained preoccupied by a vicious conflict against and between bands of drug cartels. The tough stance advocated by President Felipe Calderón, and continued by his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, has taken an unprecedented human toll and sadly tarnished the country's international image.
Did you know?
• Contrary to popular belief, agave, the main ingredient of tequila, is not a cactus, but is a plant related to the lily.
• Mezcal, Mexico’s other agave-based spirit, usually includes an agave worm, which is eaten as a delicacy.
• Chapo Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, was once smuggled out of prison in a laundry cart. He was re-captured in 2016.