Understanding Mexico

A deeper look at the face of Mexico

Whenever people visit my hometown of Puebla, I enjoy asking them if the country met their expectations. It almost never does. I’ve heard some people say they expected small desert towns with someone playing guitar in the shade of a cactus, but Puebla is a modern city with over three million people. It sits at one and a half miles in the air and has a cool climate of around seventy degrees. Even then, the visitor would only be partly wrong, because their expectations could surely be met in other parts of Mexico. Some might picture the sky-blue beaches of Cancun, but others smell the oily water of Veracruz. Some might think of the vicious attitude of drug cartels, while others remember the passionate spirit for the World Cup. Whatever the case, all of these perceptions are not ever going to fully encompass every part of Mexico. Mexico’s history has been filled with an ever-changing and diverse population and government. Because of these two factors, Mexico has struggled to find a stable identity from which to act on past and present problems.

The Changing Face of Mexicans

Before the Spanish conquest, Mexico was home to millions of people who worshipped different gods, spoke different languages, and lived in very different lands. After the invasion, the Spanish ruled their territory by a “standard European dual organization of the time in the form of a civil organization into provinces and districts and an ecclesiastical one into dioceses and parishes.”¹  In other words, the different peoples, with their various cultures and religions, got lumped together as one group. The Spanish categorized them all with the term macehuales. Along with these drastic political changes came the deadly European diseases that were responsible for reducing the native population by 97%, from 25 million to 750 thousand.²  The native population never recovered, and entire cultures were eradicated. By the 18th century, most of Mexico’s inhabitants were mestizos (mixed blood) or of European descent. Mexico was now filled with a brand new group of people living under a new government.

Since then, Mexicans have been fiercely proud of their “otherness.” They try to distinguish themselves from the native Indians and from Europeans. For example, today, the term indio is considered offensive and Mexico continues to celebrate its independence from Spain. Yet, at the same time, Spanish is the most common language and Catholicism the most common religion. Although Mexico claimed its independence from Spain in the early 1800s, it did not become the country we know today until after the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. During those decades the Revolution dragged on, overthrowing leader after leader, leaving the country and the people divided and confused. It took the second world war for the country to feel united again. In 1942, all the living ex-presidents of Mexico gathered on a single stage in Mexico City’s Plaza del Zócalo “to demonstrate national unity.”³ Since then, Mexico has been more politically stabilized, with the majority of its elections going to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Rebellion in Mexico

Despite the political stability in recent times, Mexico continues to face rebellion. In 1994, the Zapatistas began to take control of Chiapas territory and declare war on the Mexican government. They are a group of indigenous militants who feel they have been oppressed by the government both economically and socially. Unlike the top-down revolutions of Mexico’s past, the Zapatista characterized themselves as “a rebellion, not a revolution.”⁴  They focused on building an autonomous community from the bottom up in Chiapas. Everything from education to trade regulation would be decided by those indigenous communities. They have been a controversial movement for almost 30 years, with some dismissing them as guerrilla insurgents while others sympathize with their cause. In the end, their struggle is a modern piece of evidence that the old question of Mexican identity has never fully been answered.

Between the chain of revolutions in the past and the makings of one in the present, Mexico has constantly wrestled with itself in an internal struggle between different peoples, cultures, languages, and religions. Imagine, then, how difficult it would be for an outsider to approach Mexico with a comprehensive picture of it. I used to find it funny how different people’s expectations were of Mexico. But now, from what I’ve learned, I can see that while they were wrong, they were never completely wrong. Even my own experience of growing up in Puebla is only a sliver of what life in Mexico means to people. My research and experiences have allowed me to see how hard it is to pinpoint Mexico. So now I know, whether from the inside or the outside, Mexico’s complicated history and people will always need a second look.

¹Woodrow Borah, Discontinuity and Continuity in Mexican History (Pacific Historical Review, 1979) 10-11.
²Woodrow, 11.
³Martin Lahiff, The Other Side: a Fence Away (Xlibris, 2013) 175.
⁴Richard Stahler-Sholk, The Zapatista Social Movement: Innovation and Sustainability (2010) 270.


Borah, Woodrow. “Discontinuity and Continuity in Mexican History.” Pacific Historical Review 48, no. 1 (1979): 1-25. Accessed March 6, 2020. doi:10.2307/3638935.

Lahiff, Martin. The Other Side: a Fence Away. United States: Xlibris, 2013.

Stahler-Sholk, Richard. “The Zapatista Social Movement: Innovation and Sustainability.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 35, no. 3 (2010): 269-90