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Modern Day Mexico

Mexico is the largest Spanish-speaking country and the second-largest Roman Catholic nation in the world. It extends from the 14th to the 32d parallel north of the equator in southern North America. Brazil and Argentina are the only Latin American countries that exceed it in area. The United States borders Mexico on the north, while Guatemala and Belize are found on the southeast, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea on the east, and the Pacific Ocean on the west and south. The country's name is taken from the Mexica, one of seven Nahuatl tribes that inhabit the central region of the country.

Political strife, anarchy and war marked the next half century. This period brought war with the United States in 1846 and the loss of what is now Texas, followed in 1848 by the cession of lands included in the present U.S. states of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Texas, and California. In the late 1800s, dictator Porfirio DIAZ brought a long period of stability and development by foreign interests. The 1910 Revolution signaled the beginning of a period of dramatic social change that led to the creation of the Constitution of 1917, which remains in force. President Lazaro CARDENAS achieved widespread land reform and nationalization of the country's basic industries in the l930s. Although Mexican industry expanded substantially between 1940 and l980, rapid population growth prevented millions of Mexicans from escaping the chains of poverty. After 1980 a recessionary world economy slowed progress.


Mexico is mostly mountainous. The volcano Orizaba, located near Puebla in a chain of mountains called the Transverse Volcanic Sierra, is Mexico's highest mountain, with an elevation of 5,747 m (18,855 ft). This sierra extends east-west across Mexico to the north of Mexico City, the country's capital, and includes the spectacular volcanoes POPOCATEPETL (5,452 m/17,887 ft), IXTACIHUATL (5,386 m/17,671 ft) and PARICUTIN (2,774 m/9,101 ft), the last born only in 1943.


The two main mountain ranges to the north of Mexico City run north and south; they are southward continuations of the Rocky Mountains. These are the Sierra Madre Occidental in the west, with elevations exceeding 3,300 m (10,000 ft) and the Sierra Madre Oriental in the east, which rises to more than 4,000 m (13,000 ft). The Mexican Plateau, covering over 40% of the country's area, sits between them. This tableland increases in elevation as one moves southward; the farther south, the cooler and rainier it becomes. The Sierra Zacatecas divides the Mexican Plateau into the dry, sparely settled Northern Mesa and the lake-dotted, densely populated Central Mesa. Coastal plains border the mountains along the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific coasts. The BAJA CALIFORNIA peninsula is separated from the mainland by the Gulf of California.

Mountains along the southern Pacific coast are dominated by east-west trend lines; they are structurally related to landforms in Central America and the West Indies. These mountains are interrupted by the down-faulted lowland of the Isthmus of TEHUANTEPEC, Mexico's narrowest point. They include the rounded, worn, and ancient rocks of the Southern Sierra Madre, which descend steeply to the Pacific coast between Cape Corrientes and the Gulf of Tehuantepec. The isolated Balsas River Basin separates the volcanic zone from the Southern Sierra Madre.

In the east the YUCATAN PENINSULA is a low limestone platform that projects northward into the Gulf of Mexico. In the southeast, between the Yucatan Peninsula and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the principal landforms are the Tabasco Plain, along the Gulf of Mexico; the Chiapas Highlands, which reach elevations of more than 2,85O m (9,385 ft); the Chiapas Valley; the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, an eastward continuation of the Southern Sierra Madre; and a narrow coastal plain along the Pacific Ocean.


Mexico's most fertile soils are alluvial; they develop mainly in river valleys and along the Gulf and Pacific coastal plains. Lacustrine soils are formed on the dry beds of ancient lakes; they are common in the Bajio de Guanajuato and other basins and are also very fertile. Soils of volcanic origin are likewise generally productive. Arid soils, deficient in humus and often highly alkaline, are found in dry areas of the northern Mexican Plateau, in the Sonoran Desert, in Baja California, and in the northern Yucatan Peninsula. Rendzina soils, found in warm and humid areas underlain by limestone, dominate the northern Gulf coast plain, parts of the Balsas River Basin, and the southern Yucatan Peninsula.


The climate of Central Mexico has average temperatures of 65-74 deg. F. It is moderated by elevation of area. The annual precipitation is 38 in. The soil type is volcanic - very productive for maize and beans, which are the main crops. Resources of the area include flora, fauna, minerals, mines, gold and silver.

Mexico's climate is hot and humid in the southern coastal areas but becomes increasingly arid toward the north. Temperatures decrease with increasing altitude. One of the most important features of Mexico's climate is the pronounced seasonality it experiences in rainfall distribution. The rainy season comes during the warmer half of the year, from May through October; during those months moist winds blow onto the land from the adjoining oceans and are forced to rise up over mountainous areas, creating OROGRAPHIC PRECIPITATION. Tropical cyclones add to summer rainfall. In the cooler half of the year, when the world's wind belts shift southward, the Bermuda Subtropical High dominates the climate of most of Mexico and brings clear skies with almost no precipitation.

The wettest areas, where rainfall varies between 1,000 and 3,100 mm (45-120 in) each year, are located south of the 22nd parallel and include the mountainous, windward slopes of southern and central Mexico. Drier conditions prevail in the north. The driest areas on the Mexican Plateau receive less than 3O5 mm (12 in) of precipitation a year.

Temperatures decrease with increasing altitude, giving Mexico several altitudinal temperature zones. The hottest lands (tierra caliente) are along the coastal plains, in the Balsas River Basin, and in the Chiapas Valley. Tropical crops and irrigated vegetables are common in these areas. Temperate (tierra templada) to cool (tierra fria) conditions are common over most of the Mexican Plateau. In Mexico City, which is situated at an altitude of 2,240 m (7,350 ft), July temperatures range from a low of 12 deg C (54 deg F) to a high of 23 deg C (73 deg F). High mountain slopes experience even colder temperatures.


Subject to tsunamis along the Pacific coast and destructive earthquakes in the center and south; natural water resources scarce and polluted in north, inaccessible and poor quality in center and extreme southeast; deforestation; erosion widespread; desertification; serious air pollution in Mexico City and urban centers along US-Mexico border


The major rivers flowing to the Pacific are the Colorado, which empties into the northern end of the Gulf of California; the 724-km/450-mi-long) Balsas; and the 927-km/576-mi-long) Lerma-Santiago river system (the longest in Mexico), whose headwaters are diverted for use by Mexico City. The valley within which Mexico City is situated is a basin of interior drainage, and its major rivers evaporate, disappear underground, or flow into lakes. The nation's capital suffers from chronic water shortages.

Vegetation and Animal Life

Mexico is divided by a major biogeographic regional boundary: the imaginary line that separates the temperate and tropical floral and faunal zones. This contributes to Mexico's great biological diversity. Rain-forest vegetation predominates in the states of southeastern Mexico, especially southwestern CAMPECHE, northeastern CHIAPAS, northern TABASCO, southeastern VERACRUZ, and in the southern and eastern regions of the Yucatan Peninsula. Annual rainfall exceeds 2,000 mm (80 in) in these places. Coniferous and oak-tree forests predominate in humid areas at higher elevations, including the Sierra Madre Oriental, the Sierra Madre Occidental, the Sierra Madre del Sur, the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, the Transverse Volcanic Sierra, and the uplands of northern Baja California. Tropical savanna dominates much of the Yucatan Peninsula and some parts of the Pacific and Gulf coastal plains. Thorny desert thickets and dry grasslands can be found in dry areas of the Mexican Plateau, northeastern and northwestern parts of the country, and in Baja California. Mangrove swamps are common in low, muddy areas along the Gulf and Pacific coasts south of the Tropic of Cancer.

Widely distributed fauna include deer, coyote, rabbits, skunks, badgers, pumas, bears, snakes, and many species of birds. The tropical areas are inhabited by armadillos, iguanas, tapirs, monkeys, macaws, parrots, crocodiles, and snakes.


Mexico has abundant petroleum resources along the Gulf coastal plain. The Reforma field of Chiapas and Tabasco states, developed since 1972, and offshore in the Gulf of Campeche, where deposits were discovered in 1978 and 1981, have made Mexico the fifth-leading exporter of oil in the world. More gas and oil fields were found in 1984, bringing Mexico's proven oil reserves to almost 66 billion barrels in 1992. Natural gas, sulfur, and salt are found with the petroleum deposits. Other minerals of commercial importance are coal and iron ore. Mexico is also the world's leading exporter of silver and an important producer of gold, copper, lead, manganese, zinc, mercury, fluorite, and salt.

Because Mexico has so much arid territory and terrain in slope, lands suitable for farming are only about 15% of the total area while lands for grazing make up about 38%. Forests cover 25% of the land. Fish are abundant in waters off both coasts. The government in the mid-1980s worked to increase greatly the exploitation of marine resources. Many hydroelectric power sites are located along the steep edge of the Mexican Plateau.


The Mexican government has not collected or officially recorded racial data since 1921; for that reason precise data about the ethnic composition of the population are not available. About 51% of the Mexican people are mestizos (see MESTIZO), a racial category resulting from the intermarriage of European Caucasians and Native Americans. Roughly 33% are Native Americans, 15% Caucasians, and 1% fall into other categories. The federal government uses the primary language spoken as the basis for identifying ethnic groups. In the 1990 census, 91% of the people reported that Spanish was their primary language. The most widely spoken languages other than Spanish are: Nahuatl, used in east central Mexico; Maya, primarily in the Yucatan; Zapotec and Mixtec, spoken in OAXACA state; and Otomi, spoken near Mexico City and in parts of PUEBLA and Veracruz states. In 1990 over 6.3 million Mexicans spoke one of the dialects of these languages.


An estimated 93% of the population are Roman Catholics, 3% are Protestants, and 3% identify themselves as nonreligious; Jews number about 100,000. Freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed. Church and state are strictly separated, partly because of a strong anti-clerical tradition.


From only about 15 million persons in 1910, Mexico's population grew to 34 million in 1960, more than 69 million in 1980, and 91,987,000 in 1992. With an annual rate of natural increase of 2.2%, the population is projected to grow to 109,480,000 by the year 2000. The rate of natural increase has declined since the early 1970s because of a vigorous family-planning program backed by the Mexican government. Although birth rates have declined, they are still high. Because of these established demographic trends, Mexico has a very young population; over half of the people are under 20 years of age.

The most densely populated areas are found in the south central part of the country, mostly at altitudes above 1,000 m (3,280 ft). This central core was heavily populated even before the arrival of the Spaniards. The most sparsely populated areas are the states of Baja California Sur, plus Campeche and QUINTANA ROO on the Yucatan Peninsula. Migration from rural to urban areas proceeded at a rapid pace during the last half of the 20th century. Mexico is now a highly urbanized country, with 71% of the people living in cities and towns.

MEXICO CITY is the nation's largest city as well as the capital. So many people have moved into the metropolitan area that it has become the world's largest city, with a population of 22.2 million in 1990. Netzahualcoyotl is Mexico City's biggest suburb. Mexico's second-largest city is GUADALAJARA. Other large cities, ranked by population size, are MONTERREY, PUEBLA, LEON, CIUDAD JUAREZ, CULIACAN, MEXICALI, TIJUANA, MERIDA, and ACAPULCO.

Education and Health

Intensive adult education programs were begun in the 1970s to decrease illiteracy. Today, the literacy rate is 87%. Most of the young people between 6 and 14 years old attend a 6-year, free, compulsory elementary-school program. About 8 million students are enrolled in secondary schools and colleges; of these, many attend regional technological institutes where training emphasizes skills needed for national development. Only about 5% attend institutions of higher learning, such as the National Autonomous University of Mexico (see MEXICO, NATIONAL AUTONOMOUS UNIVERSITY OF) or the National Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1936.

Since 1931, when the first Social Security Law was passed, health conditions in Mexico have improved dramatically under the aegis of the Mexican Institute of Social Security (IMSS). Life expectancy has steadily increased in the decades since 1930, and the number of medical specialists has risen markedly. Mexico now has about one physician for every 1,200 people.

The Arts

Mexico's most famous writers are Mariano AZUELA, Carlos FUENTES, Octavio PAZ, and Agustin YANEZ. Noted Mexican poets include Amado Neo and Manuel Gutierrez Najera. Modern Mexican art dates from the Revolution of 1910 and is expressed in the work of such famous artists as Jose Clemente OROZCO, Diego RIVERA, David Alfaro SIQUEIROS, Rufino TAMAYO, and Juan O'GORMAN. Their murals and mosaics, which often contain social and political criticism, decorate many of Mexico's modern buildings. Carlos CHAVEZ and Silvestre Revueltas are two outstanding composers. Mexican music is rich and varied. Its influence has extended far beyond the borders of the country. Regional folk arts, a legacy of Mexico's ancient native cultures, also flourish. Mexico has an influential film industry. The Churubusco studios in Mexico City produce a steady flow of movies shown widely in Spanish-speaking countries. The television industry is also expanding rapidly.


Overview: Mexico's economy is a mixture of state-owned industrial facilities (notably oil), private manufacturing and services, and both large-scale and traditional agriculture. In the 1980s, Mexico experienced severe economic difficulties: the nation accumulated large external debts as world petroleum prices fell; rapid population growth outstripped the domestic food supply; and inflation, unemployment, and pressures to emigrate became more acute. Growth in national output, however, has recovered, rising from 1.4% in 1988 to 4% in 1990 and 3.6% in 1991 and coming in at 2.6% in 1992. The US is Mexico's major trading partner, accounting for almost three-quarters of its exports and imports. After petroleum, border assembly plants and tourism are the largest earners of foreign exchange. The government, in consultation than two-thirds of its state-owned companies (parastatals), including banks. In 1991-92 the government conducted negotiations with the US and Canada on a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was still being discussed by the three countries in early 1993. In January 1993, Mexico replaced its old peso with a new peso, at the rate of 1,000 old to 1 new peso. Notwithstanding the palpable improvements in economic performance in the early 1990s, Mexico faces substantial problems for the remainder of the decade - e.g., rapid population growth, unemployment, and serious pollution, particularly in Mexico City.

Mining and subsistence farming, the predominant economic activities during the Spanish colonial period, remain important today. However, silver is now less important than petroleum, natural gas, and other industrial minerals, and commercial agriculture has been actively promoted by government-sponsored programs of agrarian reform, irrigation, and road construction. Manufacturing grew rapidly after 1940. Today, however, services such as tourism, banking, and advertising are the dominant and fastest-growing sector of the economy, contributing 56% of the gross national product (GNP). Tourism, which has been officially encouraged, is Mexico's second-largest earner of foreign exchange, after oil. The country earned more than $4.8 billion from tourism and more than $10 billion from oil exports in 1989.

Nevertheless, a recessionary world economy and depressed oil markets contributed to an economic crisis that started in the early 1980s and persisted. Following multiple devaluations of the peso, the nation faced bankruptcy. Whereas a U. S. dollar bought 23 pesos in 1980, it bought well over 3,000 in 1992. Inflation exceeded 150% in 1987. Real income plunged in the 1980s. An estimated 40% of the workforce was unemployed or underemployed in 1990. The government imposed a broad austerity program to stimulate the economy, taking such measures as the privatization of more than 1,000 companies. The country began emerging from its economic tailspin in 1991.


Because of the recent growth of service industries, a declining percentage of the economically active population is engaged in manufacturing. Principal iron and steel centers are located at Monterrey and Monclova, close to the Sabinas coalfield, and at Lazaro Cardenas, near the mouth of the Balsas River. The two largest government-owned steel mills were put up for sale in 1991. Most other industries are attracted to the densely populated urban areas in and around Mexico City, Guadalajara, Orizaba, and Puebla. Besides steel, the main industries are food processing, petroleum refining, the manufacture of petrochemicals, synthetic fibers, textiles, fertilizers, paper, and pharmaceuticals, and automobile assembly.

The growth of "maquiladora" (literally, corn-ration, meaning sweatshop-wage) factories in cities along the U. S. border is a recent development. The Border Industries Program, begun in 1965, has led to the creation of more than 1,000 manufacturing plants in border cities, such as Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana. These firms can import raw materials duty-free from the United States and assemble them with cheap labor into such products as appliances, which they export back to the United States, paying taxes only on the value added.


Petroleum, the production of which was nationalized in 1938 and is now controlled by the government agency PEMEX (Petroleos Mexicanos), is Mexico's principal mineral resource and leading export. Mexico mines more iron ore than it does any other metallic mineral; the biggest iron mines are found in the state of Durango and near the mouth of the Balsas River. The tonnage of salt production almost matches that of iron ore; most of the salt is made in evaporation ponds on the eastern shore of Baja California. Mexico's other minerals include silver (about 15% of the world's production), lead, and zinc; these are mostly produced from the old colonial mining centers of GUANAJUATO (city), LA PAZ, PACHUCA, SAN LUIS POTOSI (city), TAXCO, ZACATECAS (city), and Parral. Copper, worked at Cananea in the northwest and near Santa Rosalia on the Baja California peninsula is exported mostly to Arizona for smelting. Since l956 sulfur has been extracted from deep beneath the ground near Jaltipan in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.


In 1988, Mexico produced an estimated 110.8 billion kW h of electricity. About three-quarters was generated in thermoelectric plants fueled by coal, petroleum, and natural gas; the other one-quarter was produced in hydroelectric plants located on the steep southern and eastern edges of the Mexican Plateau. Over half of all electricity is produced in this densely populated and industrialized zone, and distribution to other areas is limited.

Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing

About a quarter of the economically active population is employed in agriculture, forestry, or fishing. Most are subsistence farmers producing small amounts of maize, beans, and squash, while sometimes raising a goat, some chickens, or a pig. Maize is Mexico's leading crop, with production approaching 10 million metric tons each year. Much is used for making tortillas, an important food for most Mexican people. One major region of commercial farming is concentrated in irrigated districts of the arid north, where cotton, wheat and sorghum are the chief crops; tomatoes and melons are specialty crops along the Mayo, Yaqui, and Fuerte rivers. Other important commercial crops include sugarcane (grown in Veracruz, Sinaloa and Morelos); rice (a specialty of Morelos); coffee (concentrated in Chiapas and Veracruz); cacao, tobacco and vanilla (mostly in Veracruz); plus pineapples, bananas and coconuts (in tropical rainy lowlands).

Cattle raising, an important colonial activity, is concentrated in the semiarid north; sheep are raised in drier parts of the Mexican Plateau and goats in more rugged sections. Since the 1910 Revolution many large estates (haciendas) and ranches have been broken up and distributed as small holdings (ejidos) to landless farm workers. However, President Carlos SALINAS DE GORTARI proposed in 1991 to dismantle the ejido system, replacing it with larger private landholdings and a more effective rural credit system, as a means of stimulating farm productivity.

The forest industry is as yet small. The principal trees cut are pine, oak and tropical hardwoods; about 80% of cut wood is used for lumber, and about 20% for pulpwood. A significant amount of Mexico's tropical rain-forest has been destroyed since 1970. Fishing is a similarly underdeveloped but potentially profitable industry. Fish plays a minor role in Mexican diets, and most of the catch is exported. The most valuable catches are shrimp from the Gulf of California, Campeche Bay, and Gulf of Tehuantepec; tuna and sardines, taken from the Pacific Ocean off Baja California; as well as groupers, snappers, pompano, and other tropical fish from the Gulf of Mexico.


Despite the mountainous terrain most parts of Mexico are now well served by a network of modern highways. Mexico has the most paved highways of any nation in Latin America. The road system focuses on Mexico City, the nation's cultural and economic hub, and includes among its major axes the 1,189-km-long (739-mi) PAN AMERICAN HIGHWAY to Nuevo Laredo, the 1,979-km-long (1,230-mi) Central Highway to Ciudad Juarez, and the Pacific Coast Highway. The nationally owned rail network is well-maintained, carrying millions of passengers and millions of tons of freight each year. The airport at Mexico City is by far the busiest in the nation. It offers both national and international flights, as do many other commercial airports, which number over 50. Air services now carry many more passengers than the railroads. Veracruz is Mexico's chief general cargo port. Coatzacoalcos, also on the Gulf Coast, is the nation's tonnage leader (if salt from ports on Baja California are not counted). Ciudad del Carmen and Tampico are other important Gulf ports. Mazatlan, Guaymas, Manzanillo, Lazaro Cardenas, and Salina Cruz stand out on the Pacific coast.


Mexico had an unfavorable balance of trade in 1990, with imports exceeding exports in value by more than $3 billion. Important export commodities are petroleum, metal products, machinery, industrial vehicles, chemicals, silver and other minerals, cotton, and foodstuffs. Imports include metal products, machinery, industrial vehicles, chemicals, consumer goods and capital goods. Trade with the United States accounts for more than two-thirds of all imports and exports; other major trading partners are the nations of the European Community and Japan. Negotiations with the United States on a free-trade agreement began in 1991.


Of the more than 5O major daily newspapers published in Mexico, about 30% are headquartered in the Mexico City area. Well over 100 television stations are now broadcasting, as are several hundred radio stations.

Highly developed system with extensive microwave radio relay links; privatized in December 1990; connected into Central America Microwave System; 6,410,000 telephones; broadcast stations - 679 AM, no FM, 238 TV, 22 shortwave; 120 domestic satellite terminals; earth stations - 4 Atlantic Ocean INTELSAT and 1 Pacific Ocean INTELSAT

Government Mexico's present constitution was adopted in 1917 and in much-amended form provides for a division of powers between the central government and the 31 states and the federal district (Mexico City). The president is elected by popular vote and is limited to one 6-year term. Despite the limit, the president has tremendous executive power. Mexico has a bicameral National Congress, composed of a Chamber of Deputies, with 500 members, and a Senate, with two senators from each state and the federal district. Judicial powers are vested in the Supreme Court of Justice. The Institutional Revolutionary party (see PRI) has dominated national politics since 1930.

Political parties and leaders: (recognized parties) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Fernando Ortiz Arana; National Action Party (PAN), Carlos CASTILLO; Popular Socialist Party (PPS), Indalecio SAYAGO Herrera; Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), Roberto ROBLES Garnica; Cardenist Front for the National Reconstruction Party (PFCRN), Rafael AGUILAR Talamantes; Authentic Party of the Mexican Revolution (PARM), Carlos Enrique CANTU Rosas; Democratic Forum Party (PFD), Pablo Emilio MADERO; Mexican Ecologist Party (PEM), Jorge GONZALEZ Torres

Other political or pressure groups: Roman Catholic Church; Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM); Confederation of Industrial Chambers (CONCAMIN); Confederation of National Chambers of Commerce (CONCANACO); National Peasant Confederation (CNC); Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT); Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC); Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM); Confederation of Employers of the Mexican Republic (COPARMEX); National Chamber of Transformation Industries (CANACINTRA); Coordinator for Foreign Trade Business Organizations (COECE); Federation of Unions Provding Goods and Services (FESEBES)

National holiday: Independence Day, 16 September (1810).


Three equal vertical bands of green (hoist side), white, and red; the coat of arms (an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its beak) is centered in the white band.

Administrative divisions

31 states (estados, singular - estado) and 1 federal district* (distrito federal); Aguascalientes, Baja California, Baja Morelos, Nayarit, Nuevo Leon, Oaxaca, Puebla, Queretaro, Quintana Roo, San Luis Potosi, Sinaloa, Sonora, Tabasco, Tamaulipas, Tlaxcala, Veracruz, Yucatan, Zacatecas

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