BRIEF HISTORY OF MEXICO
Throughout the centuries, Mexico has been home to great historical events. There have been Indians, Spaniards, Creoles and mestizos; laymen and religious; conservatives, liberals, revolutionaries...This is a historical overview, from the most remote times to the present day. Enjoy.
The time of the hunters
Fourteen thousand years ago a new migration from Siberia entered the American continent. Better equipped for hunting, these groups manufactured large spearheads capable of piercing the hard skin of mammoths and mastodons. Testimonies of the presence of these hunters are the large spearheads, baptized with the names of Folsom, Clovis, Plainview, and Lerma, which have been found in numerous places of the Mexican Republic.
Their way of life was nomadic, and although it was based on the capture of animals, they also collected fruits, herbs, insects, and seeds that they ground into mortars and stone metates. Traces of campsites on the banks of rivers, springs, and lagoons suggest that they completed their diet with fish and small aquatic animals. The era of the hunters ended when large mammals became extinct, partly due to climate changes and partly due to the action of man.
The origins of agriculture in Mexico
The domestication of plants in the New World was not a discovery; agriculture was the result of adaptation between man and some plant species over millennia. When the great mammals of the Pleistocene disappeared, the ancient hunters began to collect a greater quantity of herbs, fruits, and seeds, according to the seasons.
They chose the plants that yielded the juiciest fruits, the largest ears of grain, and the most food, and they began to take care of them. After thousands of years of selection, the plants could no longer reproduce without the help of man, who could not survive without them either. The ear of the teosinte became the ear of the corn, the flesh of the pumpkin became more abundant, the amaranth and the bean also changed. These four species of plants became the food base of the indigenous cultures of Mexico.
The first villages
Once man began to depend on cultivated plants, he left the nomadic life and settled near his milpas. To protect himself, he built houses with trunks, branches, and reeds, and covered them with roofs of palm or grass. To store water and cook the food he made pots, bowls, and plates from clay. This is how the first communities emerged. The villages of three thousand years ago were made up of a few houses; many had a courtyard and wells to store grain and corn.
When a person died, he was buried near or under his house along with ceramic pots, clay figurines, ornaments, food, and anything else that might be useful in the afterlife. They knew the movements of the stars and the seasons of the year, they knew when the rains began and when they had to sow. Then they made feasts and ceremonies so that the crops would be abundant.
THE ORIGINS OF MESOAMERICA
There are only six known places in the world where civilization originated. In Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and India, cities grew up on the banks of great rivers; in Mesoamerica and the Andes, they were founded in mountainous regions. Mesoamerica extended from Sinaloa and Zacatecas in Mexico to Central America. It is a complex and mountainous area where all climates and landscapes occur, so the variety of resources is enormous. In addition, the valleys with fertile land and abundant water are numerous and supported a large number of people. The different regions of Mesoamerica exchanged their typical products; thus, the contact between the different cultures facilitated the diffusion of ideas and discoveries.
As a result, all the peoples of Mesoamerica shared similar beliefs and customs about religion, politics, and the organization of society. For millennia, American man had to overcome great difficulties in order to reach civilization. Forty thousand years ago, in the Ice Age, a man crossed the Bering Strait and colonized the American continent. The retreat of the glaciations gave rise to a new climate with a rainy season and a dry season, so human groups had to adapt: they based their diet on fruits, herbs, and seeds, selected the most productive plants and finally managed to domesticate them. In order to survive, a man built his houses near his plantations; thus the first villages arose, in which pottery, commerce, community life, politics, and religion developed.
First traces of man in Mexico
The first men to arrive on the American continent came from North Asia. They crossed the Bering Strait 40,000 years ago when the sea level dropped and a land bridge was formed between Alaska and Siberia. Walking inland, some groups reached what is now Mexico. We know little about the way of life of these early settlers: they organized themselves into small groups and roamed continuously in search of food.
They made instruments of stone, bone, and wood with which they captured and cut up animals; from them, they used the meat and skin. Few traces of these ancient inhabitants have been discovered in Mexico: only a few instruments in San Luis Potosi, in Puebla and in the valley of Mexico. An important discovery made near Mexico City was a bone with cuts and perforations known as the Sacro de Tequixquiac, which is one of the first works of art on the American continent.
The Olmec Culture (1200-400 BC)
By 1200 B.C., some villages had grown into towns with more than a thousand inhabitants. In these villages, the first specialists emerged, people who were engaged only in a few trades: some made earthenware vessels or instruments of basalt and obsidian, others made ornaments from shells and fine stones that they exchanged for objects brought from afar, such as jade from Guatemala or obsidian from Hidalgo. With the Olmec artisans and merchants, the arts and techniques flourished.
In Tabasco and Veracruz, they sculpted enormous stone heads and carved exquisite jade and serpentine figurines. In Guerrero they built temples and stone tombs adorned with sculptures; in Oaxaca, they made mirrors with hematite crystals, and in central Mexico, they made ceramic pieces of great artistic value. The Olmec culture, known as the "mother culture", laid the foundations of the great civilizations of Mesoamerica.
La Venta (900-400 BC)
With the Olmecs came the emergence of ceremonial centers. La Venta, established on a swampy island near the mouth of the Tonala River in Tabasco, was one of the main towns in Mesoamerica 2,500 years ago. At its highest point, a huge conical pyramid more than 30 meters high was built; large earthen platforms, terraces, and plazas decorated with colored clay were constructed around it.
All the buildings were oriented from south to north along a central axis; in the grounds near the axis, the ancient inhabitants buried enormous offerings of fine stones, basalt sculptures, and jade and serpentine figurines. In La Venta, a sandy place, there was no stone; from the Sierra de los Tuxtlas, tens of kilometers away, they transported enormous blocks of basalt, with which they sculpted steles, altars or thrones, and the famous colossal heads, which perhaps represented some ruler.
Cuicuilco (400 BC-1 AD)
In the villages where priests, rulers, and artisans lived, large temples were built, which we commonly call pyramids, to worship the gods and large squares where people from the neighboring villages would come to celebrate the festivities and exchange products. Cuicuilco was one of the most important centers of central Mexico; in its time, it dominated the southern part of the valley of Mexico, then a region of lakes, forests, and farmland.
In the center of the site a circular temple was erected almost 20 meters high; around it were terraces and stone altars and on the banks of the town lived the peasants with their milpas. Because of the size of the buildings, it is believed that thousands of people lived in Cuicuilco. In its last years, it came into conflict with the other great power of the valley of Mexico, Teotihuacan, but the eruption of the Xitle volcano put an end to the rivalries: it destroyed Cuicuilco by covering it with lava and ashes.
Palenque (400-800 AD)
Ancient Mayan city located in the middle of the Chiapas jungle. Its first ruler was Bahlum Kuk I, who originated the first Palenque dynasty around 430 A.D. In its time of splendor, the city had tens of thousands of inhabitants organized in a rigid social pyramid: at the top were the ruler and his closest relatives; then, the noble families composed of priests, warriors, and scribes; below, craftsmen, musicians and potters, and at the base, peasants and slaves who with their work supported the rest of the population.
The kingdom of Palenque had constant battles with its neighbors. Sometimes it was necessary to make alliances through marriages between the children of the caciques or rulers. Palenque lost its power after 800 AD, and although the city retained part of its population, no new monuments were erected. It was soon abandoned.
The Tajin (300?-1100 AD)
Named after Tajín, the god of lightning among the Totonac peoples, this city dominated northern Veracruz between 300 and 1100 AD. The site is located among hills modified by terraces and large stone walls. In the ceremonial center of the city, pyramids decorated with frets, niches, stone cornices, and sculptures were erected; the most famous construction is the Pyramid of the Niches, which had a niche for each day of the year (365).
Its ball game courts are famous -more than eleven- decorated with reliefs where sacrificed players appear. The architecture and artistic style of this city extended between the Huasteca and the Puebla mountains, suggesting its dominance over a region with varied natural resources that sold to towns in central Mexico and the Mayan area. El Tajín survived several centuries after the collapse of Teotihuacan and the Mayan cities before being abandoned.
Pacal (603-683 AD)
He is the most famous of the Palenque rulers; his name means shield. Son of Kan Bahlum Mó and Zak Kuk. He was a member of the highest nobility. He was considered a divine being, and his mother, the First Mother, who gave birth to the gods of creation. He ascended from the age of 12 to the government of the city, although his mother held the reins of power while he was alive.
Pacal was a great architect and excellent artist; during his reign, the temple of the Count and the Forgotten Temple were built, and the palace where he lived with family and servants was enlarged. His greatest work was his tomb: the Temple of the Inscriptions. It consisted of a stone sarcophagus inside a crypt to which he descended from the top of the temple. Pacal lived almost eighty years; he had two sons who later became rulers of Palenque: Chan Bahlum and Kan Xul.
THE FIRST CIVILIZATIONS OF MEXICO
The history of pre-Hispanic Mexico has been divided into three major periods: the pre-Classic, the Classic and the Post-Classic. The pre-classical or formative period lasted from 1600 B.C. until the beginning of our era; at that time people living in villages and towns began to build the first temples to worship their gods. The Classic period (1 to 900 AD) was the time of the first cities, during which hieroglyphic writing, markets, palaces, armies, and public administration appeared; then religion and the arts flourished throughout Mesoamerica.
Tikal, Copán, Palenque, Calakmul and many other cities arose in the middle of the Mayan jungles; their monuments reflect the history of their rulers: their birth, their ascent to the throne, their marriages and their warrior feats. In central Mexico, the great metropolis of Teotihuacan dominated without rivals. Priests, warriors, artisans, and merchants were the basis of their power. In the Gulf of Mexico, in places like El Tajín, Remojadas and others, a particular culture developed that was known for its smiling little clay faces and strange sculptures representing yokes, palms, and axes.
In Oaxaca, Monte Alban was the most powerful site in the region; its conquests extended throughout the state and it even had colonies of artisans in the very city of Teotihuacan. Between 700 and 900 A.D., the classical world collapsed: Teotihuacan was abandoned and the Mayan cities were swallowed up by the jungle. The survivors of the ancient cities reorganized, created new kingdoms and conquered new empires. This second era of splendor, known as the post-classic era, was interrupted by the arrival of the Spanish.
Cultures of Western Mexico (Classical period)
Some of the most original cultures of ancient Mexico emerged in western Mexico. They did not build large cities or build stone monuments; in Jalisco, Colima and Nayarit, remains of villages have been found whose houses surrounded a circular plaza with a small pyramid in the center. Their tombs had a large well or pit several meters deep and one or more side rooms where the bodies were placed along with various objects.
Of these, the most interesting are the hollow clay figures representing dogs, parrots, armadillos, women carrying their children, chiefs walking in palanquins, warriors, water carriers, musicians, houses with everything and inhabitants and even village scenes with characters dancing in a square, around a temple, where several musicians play. This cultural complex contains some of the most complete testimonies about daily life left by any indigenous people.
Teotihuacan (500 BC-750 AD)
It was the first great city of ancient Mexico, the capital of a kingdom that dominated most of the current center of the country. Its influence reached places as far away as Guatemala or Jalisco. According to an Aztec legend, in Teotihuacan, they met the gods to create the sun, the moon and the movement of the stars. The metropolis was clearly planned. In the middle, the great religious buildings: the pyramids of the Sun and of the Moon, the temple of Quetzalcoatl and road of the Dead; around these buildings, were the priests' palaces and the rulers, who served over a hundred thousand people.
Outside the center, the city was divided into four sectors, where craftsmen, warriors lived, peasants, merchants, and common people. The houses were made of stone and adobe; they all had a central courtyard and drainage. After more than seven centuries of domination Teotihuacan, the city was destroyed and abandoned.
Monte Alban (500 B.C.-A.D. 700)
Capital of the Zapotecs for over 1,200 years, the ancient city of Monte Alban was founded on top of a mountain; its inhabitants are believed to have come from the valley of Oaxaca. Around a huge plaza, covering some six hectares, they built temples and stone palaces. The rooms of the nobles had a central courtyard and an underground family crypt. They buried their dead next to large ceramic urns representing their gods. It is believed that they worshipped more than thirty different gods.
Their oldest building is the temple of the Dancers; in it, there are more than three hundred sculptures that possibly represent prisoners captured by the city. In front of this building, there is a construction with hieroglyphic tombstones that indicate their domination over about forty towns. On Monte Alban itself, although belonging to a later culture, tomb 7 was found, famous for the gold, turquoise, and rock crystal jewels found there.
Murals of Bonampak (786 A.D.)
The city of the painted walls, Bonampak, was the capital of a small Mayan kingdom located in the middle of the Lacandon jungle. Here, a temple with three completely painted enclosures was discovered with the representations of a battle and the sacrifice of the defeated. They are the largest murals in the Mayan world known to date. With them, the ruler Chaan Muan (sky-blue Muan) celebrated the victory against a neighboring kingdom in 786 AD, and the appointment of his son as heir to the throne.
The scenes are invaluable for understanding Mayan society, since before the discovery it was thought that the cities were part of a peaceful empire dedicated to observing the stars and calculating the passage of time, while today we know that each city was the head of a kingdom in constant conflict with its neighbors. The murals also show that women participated in Bonampak's government.
Cacaxtla (ca. 850 A.D.)
South of Tlaxcala, populated since ancient times, is a region of fertile valleys and rugged hills. The city of Cacaxtla grew up there, and its name derives from the word cacaxtli, the bag or crate used by merchants on their journeys. It was a commercial center that connected various regions of Mesoamerica. On the neighboring hill of Xochitécatl, enormous pyramids were built; on its slopes, wide terraces, and in the center of the city, a magnificent palace decorated with large murals.
The paintings of Cacaxtla are the best preserved of ancient Mexico; because of their style, more similar to Mayan art than to that of central Mexico, it is believed that the painters were from southern Veracruz or Tabasco. They represent the conquests of Cacaxtla, as well as merchants, mythological beings and battles between an eagle and tiger knights, whose purpose was to capture prisoners for sacrifice. Perhaps that was the origin of the flowery wars between the Aztecs and the Tlaxcalans.
Xochicalco (550?-1000 AD)
In Nahuatl, Xochicalco means "in the house of flowers". This city was the head of a kingdom that dominated western Morelos after the abandonment of Teotihuacan. Located on a hill, it was one of the first fortified towns in central Mexico: terraces, walls, moats, and caves defended it from invaders. Its temples, its ball games, its underground chambers -where the passage of the sun was measured- and its palaces indicate that Xochicalco was also an important ceremonial center, where priests and rulers discussed religious problems.
The main temple is decorated with reliefs referring to the cult of Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent); the hieroglyphs denote contact with Oaxaca, Veracruz and the Mayan area. Xochicalco had its period of splendor from 700 to 1000 AD; its power declined perhaps due to the presence of rival kingdoms, such as the Toltec or the Matlatzinca.
Tula (700-1180 AD)
In the indigenous narratives, Tula is described as a place of enormous wealth where science and the arts flourished. Archaeological findings tell us another story: Tula was an important city, but smaller than Teotihuacan or Cholula, and instead of images of wise men, scenes related to war abound. However, it built a vast empire in central Mexico.
In Tula, there are the great corridors and patios surrounded by columns, the images of eagles and jaguars devouring human hearts, the reclining sculptures known as Chac Mool, the scenes of warriors in procession, the walls of snakes or coatepantli. Many of these Toltec innovations were adopted by the Maya, the Tarascans, and the Mexicas. During the reign of Huémac, droughts and rebellions weakened the city, which soon after fell into the hands of the Chichimecas.
THE AGE OF EMPIRES
No one knows for sure what caused the fall of Teotihuacan or the collapse of the ancient Mayan cities, but the fact is that after 900 A.D. the Mesoamerican world began to reorganize itself under new rules. It was a time of general instability; small cities emerged that became powerful for some time, then disappeared when they were conquered by new kingdoms.
The populations then located themselves in places of easy defense, they built moats and walls around their houses and temples, and on top of the mountains, they erected fortresses. From Yucatan to Sinaloa, images of warriors associated with the cult of Quetzalcoatl-Kukulkan appeared; processions of soldiers and battles adorned the palaces of Tula, Chichén-Itzá, and Cacaxtla, and representations of human sacrifice became more common. A new warrior ideology spread everywhere.
According to it, war and sacrifice were necessary to keep the sun in its daily fight against the forces of darkness and night, while the eagle and tiger knights fought relentlessly to ensure the movement of the stars. In those difficult times, the empires that would later dominate much of Mesoamerica, the Toltec, Tarasco, and Aztec, were forged; in their proud capitals the arts - such as goldsmithing and codex painting - flourished and schools were established in which history, religion, warrior arts, singing and public administration were taught. Meanwhile, the conquered peoples worked the land and paid tribute to maintain the splendor of the new metropolises.
Ce-ácatl Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl
Quetzalcoatl was one of the most complex gods of pre-Hispanic Mexico. He is a hero who creates the world with the body of mother earth, he is the one who steals the bones from the kingdom of the dead and sprinkles them with his blood to give life to human beings, he is the one who steals the corn to give it to men. It is the wind that sweeps the earth preparing the arrival of Tlaloc, it is the morning star, the companion of the sun in its struggle against the forces of the night.
But the god Quetzalcoatl is also a man, a priest named Ce-acatl Topiltzin, who was conceived by his mother when he swallowed a precious stone. During his reign, he taught the Toltecs the hidden secrets of heaven and earth. It was said that he was a chaste man full of virtues. But his rival, the witch-god Tezcaltlipoca, deceived him and got him drunk, killed his followers and sowed discord. Ce-acatl Topiltzin, disgraced, fled to the sea, from where he promised to return to retrieve what was his.
Chichen Itza (900-1200 AD)
In the middle of the Yucatan Peninsula emerged the last great Mayan city, whose name means "in the well of the itzaes." Around 987 A.D., when almost all the Mayan cities were already uninhabited, was conquered by the Itzá invaders. These new people introduced Toltec ideas into the Yucatan: the cult Kukulkan, the Mayan version of Quetzalcoatl, the warrior's government, the use of metal, the altars of skulls called tzompantli.
The fusion of elements of Toltec culture with Mayan culture is notorious in important buildings in this city: the largest ball game in Mesoamerica, the Observatory, the altar of the Cenote Sagrado and the Castillo, a huge calendar pyramid with four stairs and 365 steps, one for each day of the year. In 1194 Chichén Itzá came into conflict with Izamal, one of its rival cities. Hunac Ceel, the ruler of Mayapán and ally of Izamal, managed to beat the itzaes.
Mitla (1100?-1465 AD)
Mictlan was the name that the Nahuas gave to the kingdom of the dead. It is believed that the Aztec conquerors named the capital of the Mixtec kingdom in the Oaxaca Valley, present-day Mitla. Unlike other pre-Hispanic cities, no great pyramids are found there, but some of the most elegant palaces of ancient Mexico were built there. The building of the columns is the most sumptuous and best-preserved construction.
Its walls were decorated with fretwork and other designs made with tens of thousands of cut and embedded stones. Apparently this building was painted red, the color of death, blood, and sacrifice. The ancient indigenous peoples gave their blood to the gods to feed them and ensure their protection, in compensation for the sacrifice of the gods, who with their blood gave life to men in the origin of the world.
Tzintzuntzan (1400-1522 AD)
When Tariácuri unified under his command all the peoples of central Michoacán, he chose three capitals for each of his sons: Hiquingare was given Patzcuaro; Hiripan, Ihuatzio, and Tangaxoan, Tzintzuntzan, whose name means "place of hummingbirds". The son of Tangaxoan unified the three heads and made his city the center of the Purepecha Empire; his domains occupied about 80 thousand km2.
The Purepecha were warriors, farmers, and fishermen. Their Aztec rivals called their kingdom Michuacan, "place of fish", after the great lake of Patzcuaro located in the heart of the empire. The armies of the cazonci, the king, conquered numerous villages that tribute wood, salt, copper and food to the capital. Its almost 30,000 inhabitants lived off what the lake and the farmland produced. The Purepecha temples were called yácatas, their base was T-shaped and a circular chapel was built on it.
Tulum (1250-1521 A.D.)
After the fall of Chichen Itza, the second decline of the Maya began: the ruling families were divided; constant wars brought famine, disease, and death; ancient wisdom was lost when the priests died. Only a few powerful cities survived inland. On the coasts, the power of the merchants of Acalan and Xicalango brought forth populations along the trade route that linked Honduras with Veracruz around the Yucatan peninsula.
Tulum was perhaps the largest of these coastal towns. Located on a cliff, it controlled the passage of large canoes called acales that transported goods. Its temples could be seen from a long distance from the sea and it is likely that the first Spanish expeditions sighted this site, which they called The Great Cairo.
Tlacaélel was the builder of Mexica greatness: he turned a small town subdued by the Tepanecans of Azcapotzalco into the largest empire in Mesoamerica. In 1426 Maxtlatl, the Tepanese king, had killed Chimalpopoca and threatened to annihilate all the Aztecs. Tlacaelel then convinced Itzcoatl and Nezahualcoyotl that it was necessary to fight him; two years later they conquered Azcapotzalco.
Thus was created the Triple Alliance between the cities of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan (Tacuba). Tlacaélel never wanted to be king, but he was so respected that it was said that he was the one who actually commanded; by his orders, the old indigenous books were burned and a new history was created where it was said that the Aztecs were the chosen ones of Huitzilopochtli to dominate the world.
Cholula (¿?-1545 AD)
Cholula is perhaps the longest-lasting city in the New World: already in the first centuries of our era, there was an important ceremonial center there whose temples showed the influence of Teotihuacan. Over the centuries the main temple became the largest and most voluminous building in the world. Since Cholula was on the trade routes that linked central Mexico with Oaxaca and Veracruz, Teotihuacan and Aztec vessels as well as Mixtec and Totonac ceramics can be found there.
During the post-classical period, it was the capital of an independent kingdom where Olmeca-Xicalanca groups from the Gulf of Mexico dominated, but in the end, faced with the expansion of the Aztecs, they preferred to join them. Fearful of an ambush, Hernán Cortés killed many Indians as he passed through this city allied with the Mexicas.
THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLES AT THE ARRIVAL OF THE SPANIARDS
When the conquistadors entered ancient Tenochtitlan, they were so astonished that they thought they were seeing visions. In the middle of a lagoon a city had been built, larger than any contemporary city in Europe, enormous temples were built on the water as if in a great mirage.
Moctezuma, the Mexica ruler, had millions of subjects at his service and from his vast domains came the most varied products to the great market of Tlatelolco, perhaps the largest in the world at the time. Temples, canals, roads, palaces, and gardens embellished the Aztec capital. In the territory of Mesoamerica lived many peoples with different languages and customs: Mayas, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Huastecos, Totonacos, Tlaxcaltecas, Chiapas, etc., organized in hundreds of small kingdoms that comprised only a capital city and some smaller populations.
The indigenous peoples created an original civilization that achieved great advances in medicine, mathematics, engineering, arts, and astronomy. Behind the wealth and splendor were constant wars, sacrifices of prisoners, and the latent hatred of the subjugated peoples who, conquered and subdued by the great warrior empires, were eager to shake off the yoke that had been imposed on them. Also, the independent lordships suffered the constant harassment of the Aztec armies. When the Spaniards arrived, several indigenous kingdoms had the same idea in mind as the conquistadors: to defeat Tenochtitlan, their main enemy.
In 1978, workers in Mexico City discovered a large carved stone representing a woman with her arms, head, and legs separated from her body. It was Coyolxauhqui, "the one with the bell mask. According to an Aztec myth, Coatlicue, the mother of the gods, was on the hill of Coatepec when a ball of feathers entered her womb and knocked her up.
When her daughter Coyolxauhqui (the moon) and her brothers, the Centzon Huitznahua (the stars), heard the news, they were so angry that they tried to kill her as soon as she gave birth; when they were about to attack her, Huitzilopochtli was born. Shining like the sun, she dressed in the insignia of a warrior and decapitated her sister; then she chased her 400 brothers to death. Coyolxauhqui lies quartered at the foot of the Great Temple, just as she was defeated on the sacred mountain of Coatepec.
Tenochtitlan (1325-1521 A.D.)
"As long as the world exists, the fame and glory of Mexico-Tenochtitlan will last," boasted the proud Aztecs of their great capital. In the "city of Tenoch" more than one hundred thousand people lived in the middle of a lagoon, four enormous roads connected it with the mainland, a large dam prevented flooding and several aqueducts supplied it with fresh water.
The streets had stone sidewalks and canals through which circulated countless canoes loaded with flowers and fruits grown in floating gardens that we still call chinampas. There were large palaces, schools, artisans' workshops, the largest market in the world and even a zoo. In 1521 Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Mexica empire, was defeated and destroyed by the Spanish armies and their indigenous allies; three years later, only ruins remained of the proud city.
Moctezuma Xocoyotzin (1466-1520)
Moctezuma was the most powerful ruler in the indigenous world: his domains extended from Guatemala to southern Tamaulipas. Son of Axayácatl, he acceded to the throne in 1502, conquered Atlixco and launched military campaigns against Tlaxcalans and Mixtecs. He expanded the buildings of the ceremonial center of the Templo Mayor, including his own palace.
Deeply religious, upon learning of the arrival of the Spaniards to Veracruz he believed that the ancient god Quetzalcoatl was returning to claim his domain. Although he tried to prevent Cortés' armies from approaching Tenochtitlan, his indecision was the cause of his death and the defeat of the Aztec empire. It is said that when the city of Tenochtitlan rebelled against the Spaniards, Moctezuma was stoned to death while trying to calm his subjects.
Cempoala (1400-1521 AD)
Located in the center of Veracruz, it was the last capital of the Totonacs and the first indigenous city visited by the Spaniards. Ancient Cempoala stretched along the Actopan River; thousands of inhabitants gathered around various ceremonial enclosures surrounded by walls, which enclosed large squares, palaces, and pyramids built with river stone and covered with colorful stucco.
When Cortés arrived in Cempoala, the city was under the rule of Tenochtitlan, to whom he paid tribute. Chicomecóatl, the ruler of Cempoala known as the "fat cacique", allied himself with the Spaniards, and provided them with people to fight the Mexica armies. Near this city, Cortés had his ships sunk to prevent his soldiers from returning to Cuba.
Christopher Columbus (¿1436?-1506)
The place of his birth is disputed; most attribute his origin to Genoa, others to Mallorca, Navarra or Galicia. For centuries it was thought that the earth was flat, but the sailor Christopher Columbus believed that it was round and that if he sailed westward over the Atlantic Ocean, he would reach India, the land of gold and spices. He presented his project to the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, who agreed to help him in his enterprise in spite of the fact that the resources of the Crown were engaged in the fight against the Moors.
With his three caravels: the Santa María, the Pinta and the Niña, Columbus left the port of Palos on August 3, 1492, and on October 12 he arrived at an island that he called San Salvador. Columbus made four voyages to what is now America and discovered new islands such as Cuba and Santo Domingo, which he called Hispaniola. He died in Valladolid, Spain.
Hernando de Magallanes (1470-1521)
Fernando or Hernando de Magallanes was a bold and determined man who, with the help of Charles I of Spain, left the port of Sanlúcar in 1519 in search of the land of spices. He was in command of five ships and 259 men. Three months later he reached the coast of Brazil and continued south, rounding the continent. He discovered the strait now called Magellan and, on crossing it, reached the Pacific Ocean, thus named by him.
After thousands of difficulties, hunger, thirst, loss of ships, men and desertions, he reached the Philippine Islands, where, for helping the chieftain of the island of Mactan against a rival king, he was killed. He was not able to sail around the world, as he had intended, but this adventure was brought to a close by one of his captains, Sebastian Elcano, after three years at sea.
Amerigo Vespucci (1451?-1512)
Amerigo Vespucci was born in Florence, Italy. According to his own account, he arrived in Spain as a mature man, a sailor, and an experienced cosmographer. He left Cadiz in 1499 accompanied by Alonso Ojeda. For a year he travelled around the islands discovered by Columbus and then returned to Spain to settle in Seville, where he lived until his death. He took part in several expeditions to the American continent.
The adventures of his travels were published and widely disseminated in Europe, so that his name became more famous than that of the true discoverer. It was he, and not Columbus, who realized that the lands discovered were not the Indies but a "new world" hitherto unknown. The European cartographers, who knew the works of Americo, baptized our continent with his name.
EUROPEAN GEOGRAPHICAL EXPLORATIONS
The fall of Constantinople into Turkish hands cut off the trade routes between Asia and Europe. Not wanting to do without silks, porcelain, spices and other goods brought from the Indies - as the regions of South-East Asia were called at the time - the Europeans set out in search of new routes. The kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula, with coasts in the Atlantic Ocean, were the cradle of the main discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries: Portuguese navigators explored the coasts of Africa until they reached India.
Meanwhile, the Spanish ventured west, and in their search for the Indies, they crossed vast oceans and discovered a continent. After several decades of exploration, new routes were established to travel to South Asia, but the magnitude of the discoveries made along the way overshadowed the initial objective; the Portuguese turned to the lucrative business of slave trafficking and Spain became a world power that possessed enormous territories. The geographical discoveries meant much more than economic benefits.
More important was the expansion of human knowledge. The world tour by Hernando de Magallanes and Sebastian Elcano demonstrated the roundness of the land, the territories and oceans discovered doubled the extension of the world known to Europeans until then. Plants and animals whose existence was unknown enriched the food and facilitated the work of millions of people in both the old continent and the New World.
The Catholic Kings
Ferdinand of Aragon (1452-1516) and Isabella of Castile (1451-1504), rulers of Spain. He was King of Aragon; she was Queen of Castile. With their marriage in 1469, a nation was consolidated where Ferdinand's skill was combined with Isabella's intelligence and tact. Together they dedicated their greatest efforts to the fight against the Arabs who had invaded the peninsula 800 years earlier.
Because of their success in expelling the Moors from Granada and their religious zeal they were called the Catholic Kings. They dominated some regions of North Africa and conquered the Canary Islands. They are recognized for the support they gave to Christopher Columbus, who with their help discovered in 1492 some lands that later on would be called America.
Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1517)
Spanish explorer, born in Jerez de los Caballeros and died in Acla (Portobelo), Panama. It was established on Hispaniola and became a farmer, but then, leaving everything behind, he went underground with Enciso, recently appointed governor of Darien, in today's Panama. Balboa intrigued and solicited the colonists against Enciso. Taking advantage of the confusion became the leader of Santa Maria Antigua.
While Enciso was managing in Spain the dismissal of his former collaborator, Balboa, with only 90 men and many difficulties, he went through jungles and swamps until you can see, from the top of the Pacific Ocean, which he baptized with the name of the South Sea. After taking possession of this one in the name of the king, he returned to Darien. Enciso, who was already back as governor of Panama, tried him and had him publicly executed.
Francisco Hernández de Córdoba (1475-1526)
A Spanish explorer, he arrived in Cuba in 1511 accompanying Don Diego Colón, son of Christopher Columbus the discoverer, who hired him, like many other soldiers, to dominate the lands discovered by his father. When they heard about highly populated lands in the south of Cuba, they organized an expedition to capture Indians and then sell them. In Cuba, Governor Diego Velázquez gave them a ship and they bought two others with their money.
They went to sea with 110 men and a terrible storm threw them onto the beaches of the Yucatan, making them the first explorers to set foot in Mexican territory. As they sailed along the coast, they reached a town in Campeche where they were attacked and only allowed to stock up on water. In Champoton, Hernández de Córdoba was hit by an arrow; he died weeks later from the wound.
Juan de Grijalva (¿1489?-1527)
He was born in Segovia, Spain. At the age of 28, he arrived in Santo Domingo and from there moved to Cuba, where his uncle, Diego Velázquez, was governor. In 1518 he sailed from the island, taking 240 men of war and explorers onboard his four ships, including Pedro de Alvarado, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and Francisco de Montejo.
He arrived at the island of Cozumel and surrounded the Yucatan peninsula until the Términos lagoon, in the south of Campeche; he discovered the mouth of the Usumacinta river, which he named Grijalva, and explored the Papaloapan, which he called the Alvarado river; he disembarked near the current port of Veracruz and from there he observed the snowy peaks of the Pico de Orizaba. Back in Cuba, he was criticized for not establishing a Spanish colony in the new lands. He died in an indigenous attack in the current territory of Honduras.
Penultimate Aztec emperor. Son of Axayácatl and brother of Moctezuma II - although much younger and more courageous than the latter - he was Lord of Ixtapalapa and even organized expeditions against some hostile peoples. With the arrival of the Spaniards in Tenochtitlan, he was taken prisoner along with other nobles; he was later released on the condition that he would convince the Indians to submit.
Cuitláhuac did the opposite: he organized them to fight, he called the allied towns to join to fight the intruders and he took active part when these, during the so-called Sad Night, fled from Mexico-Tenochtitlan. When Moctezuma died, Cuitláhuac took his place as king of the Mexicas. His reign was brief because he fell victim to smallpox, a disease brought to America by the men of Narvaez.
Last Aztec king. Son of Ahuízotl, his name means "falling eagle". After Cuitláhuac's death, Cuauhtémoc organized the defense of Tenochtitlan, which the Spaniards had besieged with the support of the indigenous armies that were enemies of the Aztecs. The Mexicas commanded by Cuauhtémoc fought fiercely, but were defeated.
Their king gave himself up to the conquistadors, whom he asked to kill him with his own knife. A prisoner of Cortés, Cuauhtémoc remained isolated and guarded. When Don Hernán had to go to the Hibueras (today Honduras), he took him with him along with other members of the Mexica nobility. As he approached the town of Itzancanac, as he feared an uprising of Indians, Cortés decided to hang and behead Cuauhtémoc.
Pedro de Alvarado (1485-1541)
Originally from Badajoz, Spain. At the age of 25, he and five of his brothers left for Hispaniola (Santo Domingo) and from there to Cuba. On Juan de Grijalva's expedition, he explored the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Captain of Cortés' army, he collaborated in the conquest of Tenochtitlan. The Indians called him Tonatiuh (the sun god for the Aztecs) because of the color of his hair and beard.
In the massacres of Cholula and the Templo Mayor, he showed his cruelty and bloodthirsty spirit. From 1523 to 1526 he carried out the conquest of Guatemala and then embarked to Spain to reclaim the conquered territories. Confirmed as governor of Guatemala, in 1539 he returned to New Spain, where he organized an expedition to the Pacific coast. He was run over by a horse in a contest against the Indians of southern Zacatecas.
THE SPANISH MILITARY OCCUPATION
The voyages of the navigators were followed by the exploits of the conquerors, warriors moved as much by religious fervor as by the ambition of fame, power and wealth. Their purpose was to spread the Christian faith among the indigenous kingdoms, increase the number of subjects of the king of Spain, and obtain for themselves fame, resources, power and noble titles. With better weapons and warfare techniques than the native peoples of America, a few hundred soldiers managed to subdue millions of Indians.
In their favor was the audacity of captains like Pizarro and Cortés, and many times luck and skill saved them from dying at the hands of their enemies. In the conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the Spanish soldiers had two invaluable allies: the hatred that many people felt toward their Mexica oppressors and the infectious diseases unknown to the indigenous people were the Europeans' deadliest weapons. Against smallpox and measles, there was no defense possible, and these caused many more deaths than all the military actions put together.
The conquest of Mexico meant the disappearance of the old pre-Hispanic lordships, but by no means, the total destruction of the old Mesoamerican civilization; the old indigenous kings and the new Spanish lords were related to each other, and within a new political order they governed their peoples alongside the Christian priests, messengers of a new religion that would be shared by all the inhabitants of New Spain
Hernán Cortés (1485-1547)
Captain and conqueror of Mexico, intelligent, daring and charismatic. He was born in Medellin, Spain. Very young he came to America and from the island of Cuba he left in command of an expedition to Mexico. In a place in Tabasco, he was given 20 maidens, among them the Malinche, who was his interpreter. He founded the Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz; he marched inland and fought against Tlaxcalan armies, which he made his allies. In Tenochtitlan, he was received by Moctezuma.
In 1521, after a year of fighting, Tenochtitlan was besieged and defeated; Cortés organized the new Mexican nation, created alliances with the indigenous lords and together with them made trips by sea to California and through the jungles to Honduras. He received the titles of Captain-General and Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca. Later he was called to Spain, where he died.
Nuño Beltrán by Guzman (¿?-¿1550?)
The conqueror of the New Galicia (what today is Jalisco, Nayarit, Aguascalientes, part of Zacatecas and Sinaloa) was born in Guadalajara de Castilla. He sat fame for the positions he held: governor of the Panuco and president of the first hearing, but his misconduct and cruelty to the Indians he made hateful and worthy of a process. To get rid of the trial marched to Sinaloa.
On his journey committed a multitude of outrages and injustices, such as the torment and death of the Tangaxoan hunter, king of the Tarascans. Guzmán is responsible for the foundation of San Miguel de Culiacán, in 1531, as well as the one in the village of Tepic; in 1532 he founded Guadalajara. Three years later, Nuño de Guzmán was dismissed and sent to Spain. He died in the prison of Valladolid.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1492?-1585?)
Spanish conqueror and chronicler, he owes his fame to the book he wrote: True History of the Conquest of New Spain. In it, he relates the first Spanish expeditions in Mexican territory and the warrior feats of the conquistadors that concluded with the defeat of Tenochtitlan. He was born in Medina del Campo.
When he was very young he embarked with Pedrarias Dávila towards America, and from Cuba, he enlisted as a soldier in the expedition of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba; back in Cuba, he enlisted again under the command of Hernán Cortés, with whom he shared the events of the conquest. After the conquest, he moved to Guatemala, where he wrote his famous book. There he died, already very old.
Francisco de Montejo (father, 1479-1553) (son, 1508-1565) (nephew, ¿1517?-1572?)
Family of conquerors. Francisco, called the Old Man, was born in Salamanca, Spain, in 1479. He came to Mexico on Cortés' expedition. On two occasions he went as his ambassador to the Spanish court. He returned from his second trip with the authorization to conquer the Yucatan Peninsula. In 1527, defeated by the Mayan Indians, he abandoned the conquest.
In a second expedition, he was helped by his son and his nephew, of the same name, who consummated the conquest of Yucatan by establishing alliances with the most powerful caciques. Francisco de Montejo el Viejo was put on trial as a resident and died in Spain, poor and abandoned. Francisco de Montejo el Mozo was governor of Yucatan, founded the city of Merida and died there. Francisco de Montejo, the nephew, founded the city of Valladolid in 1543.
Fray Toribio de Benavente (1491-1569)
Spanish missionary. He was one of the first twelve Franciscans to come to New Spain shortly after the fall of Tenochtitlan. Here he changed his name to Motolinia, which means poor and suffering. He learned the Nahuatl language and traveled throughout central and southern New Spain. He is credited with founding Puebla and writing a letter to Emperor Charles V on how to make Mexico a separate nation under the scepter of a Christian prince.
He is also credited with several works on the History of the Indians. He wrote in Nahuatl the Martyrdom of the Children of Tlaxcala. He was the guardian of half a dozen Franciscan convents, vice-commissioner and provincial of his order. He imposed mass baptism on the Indians, unlike Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, who advocated voluntary conversion. Both were great defenders of the Indians.
Fray Juan de Zumárraga (1468-1548)
Archbishop of Mexico. Born in Durango, Spain. Very young he entered the Franciscan order. He came to New Spain in 1528 with the position of protector of the Indians; he argued with the first hearers in favor of the natives. He was consecrated bishop of Mexico in 1534 and then archbishop in 1546. He introduced the printing press to the new country and founded the colleges of Tlatelolco and San Juan de Letrán and the Hospital of the Love of God.
He promoted the foundation of the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico and wrote several works: Breve y más compendiosa doctrina, Manual de adultos, Doctrina breve muy provechosa, Regla cristiana breve. He dedicated himself to the teaching of the Indians, whom he protected even at the cost of his life, but he was implacable with some idolaters.
Bro Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566)
A Dominican missionary and bishop, he was born in Seville, Spain. A lawyer from the University of Salamanca, he moved to Santo Domingo, an island discovered by Christopher Columbus three years earlier. He was an Indian encomendero in Cuba. Later, he entered the order of Santo Domingo. Established in Guatemala, he peacefully converted the Indians of the Vera Paz province.
In Spain, he managed to get the New Laws made, whose provisions favored the Indians and were contrary to the encomenderos. In 1544 he was consecrated bishop of Chiapas. Returned to Spain disputed with Don Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda defending the freedom and equality of the Indians with respect to the Spanish. He published a very brief account of the destruction of the Indies, the basis of the "black legend" invented by the envious nations of Spain.