Created | Updated Jun 7, 2011
With a land area of 762,000 square miles (1,973,000 square km), Mexico lies at the southern end of North America. The population is 103 million (2002 estimate), nearly half of whom live in the central plateau containing the capital, Mexico City. Over 90% of the people are Catholic and the official language is Spanish. The country is a constitutional republic which has been led by President Vicente Fox since 2000. The economy is largely oil-based, and the unit of currency is the peso.
Mexico is bordered by the USA in the north, and Guatemala and Belize in the south. It lies between the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the Gulf of Mexico to the east. Mexico straddles three time zones, and is six to eight hours behind GMT (BST during the summer months).
The greater part of the country consists of a great highland plateau over 3,000 ft above sea level. The north of this plateau is desert, or semi-desert, and is sparsely populated. However, the coastal zone to the north-west is a major agricultural producer of maize (which originated in Mexico), wheat, cotton, beans, rice, and other commercial crops.
The south of the plateau is where nearly half of Mexico's population lives, in a belt running from Guadalajara in the west, through Mexico City to Veracruz on the east coast. The area is crossed by a range of spectacular snow-capped volcanic mountains, including Mexico's three highest peaks - Pico de Orizaba (18,696 ft), Popocatépetl (17,887 ft) and Ixtaccíhuatl (17,373 ft), which dominate the landscape to the east of Mexico City.
To the south of Veracruz, either side of the isthmus of Tehuantepec (Mexico's narrow 'waist'), lies a belt of dense tropical jungle. The region is agricultural, with both commercial and subsistence farming. Sugar cane and coffee are important crops as well as maize.
To the east of the central plateau lie the flat coastal plains of the Gulf Coast (including the Yucatan peninsula), which receive about 75% of Mexico's rainfall. Mexico's oil and sulphur industries are centred on the Gulf Coast. To the north of this zone is Monterrey, Mexico's second commercial centre, with a population of approximately three million.
In the far north-western corner of Mexico lies the gateway to the thinly populated peninsula of Baja California, a finger of land 800 miles long, separated from the rest of Mexico by the Gulf of California. The unspoilt beauty of this region, with its exotic desert scenery, impressive mountains and valleys, and extensive coastline, makes it a popular tourist destination.
Mexico is a signatory of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which, since 1993, has reduced or eliminated tariffs and other obstacles to trade between the USA, Mexico and Canada. The USA absorbs most of Mexico's exports, and Mexico is currently the USA's second largest export market, after Canada.
Cross-border trade and technology transfer has been boosted further by the rapid growth within Mexico of the so-called 'Maquiladoras'. These are operations that manufacture or assemble goods for export. They are typically owned by foreign companies wishing to take advantage of relatively cheap Mexican labour rates and special Customs regimes.
The remains of the ancient cities of Teotihuacan, Monte Alban, Chichen Itza, and others, testify to a highly-organised pre-Columbian society, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, and down into what is now Guatemala. The achievements of this period included written language, grand and beautiful architecture and sculpture, an advanced level of mathematics and astronomy, and an accurate calendar. The stepped pyramids found all over southern Mexico date from this time. On a more homely note, so does the use of chocolate as a drink.
The Aztec empire was at the height of its power when Hernando Cortes landed at Veracruz in 1519 with less than 600 men. In 1521 the empire fell, and Mexico City became the centre of Spanish colonial power in Central America, as well as the silver capital of the world.
Spain held Mexico until a series of wars from 1810 to 1821 gained Mexico its independence. In 1847 it was forced to cede half its territory to the USA (present day California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Utah and Western Colorado).
Until the 1930s Mexico had more than its share of heroes, coups, revolutions and civil wars. The execution by firing squad of Archduke Maximilian of Habsburg, installed by the French in an attempt to establish an empire in Mexico from 1864 to 1867, inspired no fewer than five paintings by Manet, and scores of romanticised literary accounts.
Even more romantic were the revolutionary figures of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, the most important popular leaders of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917), which put an end to the thirty-one year dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. The name of Zapata is synonymous with land reform (or expropriation), of which he was a passionate advocate. He was killed in an ambush in 1919, but his influence endures today.
Heavy-handed anti-Catholic legislation embedded in the Constitution of 1917 (on the cessation of hostilities) eventually resulted in the 'Cristero' rebellion of 1926-1929, which provided the inspiration for Graham Greene's famous novel, The Power and the Glory. The outcome of the rebellion was a compromise; the laws, while mitigated, largely stayed in place, but the authorities (usually Catholics themselves) forebore from their strict implementation.
The modern presidency was created in 1929, and the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) controlled the office for over seven decades, until opposition candidate Vicente Fox won the 2000 presidential elections. The 1980s and 1990s saw economic reforms, stiff anti-corruption measures, and extensive social development programmes. Since 1994 the government has also had to cope with an avowedly Zapatista independence movement in the southern state of Chiapas.
Population, Language, Religion and Culture
With 103 million inhabitants, Mexico is the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world. The population is approximately 60% mestizo (Indian/Spanish mix), 30% Indian (of various groups), 8% white (mainly Spanish) and 2% mulatto (black/white mix). In Latin America only Brazil has more people (175 million). The area in and immediately around the capital, Mexico City, is estimated to contain about 20 million people, which probably makes it the biggest concentration of population in the world.
Although the official language is Spanish, approximately 8% of the population speaks a different native tongue. However, no single alternative language predominates. The most important American Indian language is Náhuatl, the Aztec language and its variants, which are spoken by 2.5 million people, followed by Mayan and its variants, which are spoken by 1.5 million people. Other significant language groups are Mixteco and Zapoteco (both spoken by about 0.7 million people). In total there are over 60 languages spoken in Mexico, and many dialects within those languages. Only India can claim more variety in this regard. English is widely spoken.
Mexico also has the world's second largest Catholic population (about 95 million), ranking after Brazil (140 million) and ahead of the USA (60 million). Mexico's most sacred Catholic shrine is at Guadalupe, where a poor Aztec Indian, Juan Diego, saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1531, ten years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Her image, according to popular belief, miraculously imprinted on his tilma (or poncho), is revered at the shrine, and is reproduced in prints all over Mexico (and elsewhere) as Our Lady of Guadalupe. The shrine is the second most-visited Catholic church in the world after St Peter's in Rome. Juan Diego was canonised (declared a Saint) by Pope John Paul II in 2002, at Guadalupe itself, in a ceremony watched by hundreds of thousands of people.
As well as being very friendly, Mexicans are typically easy-going. It is traditional in many parts of Mexico to observe the 'siesta' during early afternoon, the hottest part of the day, when shops and offices may be closed for two hours or more; but then they usually remain open later into the evening, until 8pm or even 10pm. The custom of the siesta is, however, becoming less prevalent.
The word 'mañana', literally meaning 'tomorrow', is an important one. It has a range of real meanings, including 'not now', 'maybe' or 'whenever'. Perhaps there is genuinely something more important that takes priority, typically a family gathering. There again, perhaps not. Whatever the reason behind it, 'mañana' is not simple procrastination, but more a sign of having one's priorities in the right order, and of not letting oneself be ruled by time.
Other aspects of the national character are revealed by the relaxed free-market attitudes to certain goods, such as fireworks and medicines, and the high importance attached to honour in business, where a handshake is often considered more important than a piece of paper, and to courtesy in general.
Mexican cuisine is colourful as well as spicy, and contains elements of native and Spanish cuisine. The most typical of all Mexican foods is the tortilla, which (unlike the Spanish variety) is a flatbread usually made from maize. Tortillas are used in the preparation of some other characteristic Mexican dishes, such as tacos and enchiladas.
The Aztecs also enjoyed tamales, which are steamed banana leaves stuffed with fish or meat. A more recent arrival, possibly originating in Peru or Ecuador, is ceviche, which consists of fresh fish marinated in lime juice served with many different possible types of salad, such as peppers, avocados, onions or herbs.
The Mexican Flag
The Mexican flag is a tricolour, consisting of three vertical stripes on a rectangular background. The stripes are coloured (left to right) green, white and red. In the centre of the middle (white) section is depicted the eagle of the Aztecs, devouring a serpent.
The day of the Mexican Flag (El Día de la Bandera) is celebrated on 24th February.