Editor: This short history of Mexico was written in 1980 for gringos because gringos are not taught anything about the real history of our close neighbor to the south in our classrooms. And this account stops at the Revoluccion.
Most North Americans don’t know too much of the history of our southern neighbor, even though our nation has been deeply involved in its internal affairs. This involvement over the last 150 years has led to the domination of Mexico’s economy by North American capitalists. To understand this relationship, and to understand why undocumented workers migrate north, we must trace Mexico’s history and highlight the role of the United States. Doing this, we counter the distortions and out-right lies that U.S. schools teach North Americans about Mexico.
Long before the European colonialists landed on the shores, native civilizations flourished in the Americas, building large cities, establishing trade and industry, exhibiting high levels of science, technology and art.
By the time Cortes arrived in 1521 to seize land and riches for Spain, the Aztecs ruled over a highly complex society in Central Mexico. Employing the old method of ‘divide and rule’, the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and other peoples throughout Central America through a series of bloody wars. The Spanish consolidated their colonial holdings over the next 300 years.
By 1600 the population of an estimated 25 million had been reduced to only some 2 and 1/2 million by famine, overwork and European diseases.
Unlike the English, and later the Anglo-Americans, however, the Spanish did intermarry with the native peoples. Thus a new race, a new people was born—the Mestizo. By 1800, mestizos and Indians made up 80% of” the population of what was then “New Spain.”
The Spanish extracted wealth from their colony through mining and large-scale farming and ranching. The Spanish monarchy was financed for years by the gold and silver coming in from Mexico. In fact, all of Europe benefited from the plunder of the Mexican colony. Indian laborers were forced to give up their communal lands and were collected on haciendas, the large ranches where they were subjected to debt peonage and slave-like hardships.
Left with a fraction of the poorest land, and at the bottom of the new social structure, the Indians rebelled against the Spanish continually.
Far from Mexico City, on the far-away coast of California, Spain used the system of church missions to colonize the area near the coast and the rest of their holdings in the north. This colonization meant the enslavement of thousands of native peoples to perform the labor of the farms and ranches. Many Indians died of this brutal exploitation as the missions were nothing more than early forms of concentration camps. Those Indian tribes that survived had the least contact with the Spanish missions.
Finally, a weakened Spanish hold on the country was broken. In 1810, the Grito de Dolores was proclaimed — calling for an end to Indian slavery and a return of lands to their rightful owners. Under the leadership of Miguel Hidalgo and Jose Morelos, two enlightened parish priests who are today regarded as the fathers of independence, a mass popular rebellion broke out. It was nominally in favor of independence, but it was fueled by popular hatred against the European elite that governed the society. The elite were willing to accept the support of the mass movement, but they were not in favor of any reforms which would undermine their class power. They executed Hidalgo and Morelos, but they finally did win independence from Spain in 1821. Thus the nation of Mexico was born.
Twice the size that it is now, the new nation included much of Central America, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and parts of Colorado and Oklahoma.
The war of Independence, although ridding the country of the Spanish crown, failed to dismantle the class structure that existed. For the masses, economic exploitation continued. The powerful church, the military and the Hacienda lords, moving in to fill the vacuum, amassed great wealth for themselves over the following decades. More importantly, the new rulers opened Mexico to further exploitation by the colonial powers of France and Britain, and to the expanding country to the north—the United States.
The weak central government, however, did not or could not prevent foreign control of the economy. In addition, there was also a threat to the land and territory of Mexico developing.
The Yankees Come
Up in the north, Yankee settlers appeared in the early 1800s. At first a trickle, then a flood, they began pushing southeast and west, leaving behind them a genocidal trail of broken treaties with Indian nations and an economy based on Black slave labor. It was a time of booming expansion and a period of struggle between the slave south and the industrialized north.
Fueled by feelings of white, national chauvinism and desires for land, and propelled by the ideology of Manifest Destiny, the settlers and their country eyed Mexico greedily. At first with Mexico’s permission, but later as illegal aliens, Anglo immigrants moved into northern Mexico and began staking claims. This surge was mainly in Texas, where the new immigrants attempted to expand the southern plantation economy by bringing in African slaves.
Taking advantage of the weak central government in Mexico City, the settler colonialists agitated for separation and began skirmishing with Mexican troops. This blew-up into a war, as Mexico feared, and quite rightly so, that the Texans and the U.S. secretly desired to take over the whole country. We are taught that the Alamo was a heroic defense by freedom-loving fighters. The opposite is more true, for those who resisted the Mexican army were mainly mercenaries, Indian-killers and slave-owners attempting to illegally seize Mexican land.
The result: a large portion of Mexico in 1836 separated and became the Anglo colony of Texas. This was the opening salvo of war between Mexico and the United States.
In 1846, desiring to expand the territory of the U.S. in the interests of the slave owners, President Polk declared war on Mexico, and ordered an invasion by U.S. troops. The North Americans drove towards the capital in campaign long remembered for its savage and brutal treatment of Mexicans by U.S. troops. These included instances where Anglo soldiers scalped and murdered captured prisoners of war.
General Winfield Scott invaded and bombed Vera Cruz, turning the city into a burning inferno, killing countless civilians. Scott refused to let up on his bombardment to allow women, children and non-Mexicans to evacuate.
The San Diego Skirmish and the Saint Patrick’s Brigade
San Diego witnessed a relatively minor skirmish in the San Pasqual Valley. There, mounted Mexican lancers routed U.S. troops under the command of the famous Indian-killer Kit Carson as they tried to make their way to San Diego. Forced to retreat, they slaughtered and ate their mules, and were finally relieved by reinforcements from town. A monument now stands commemorating this innocuous defeat.
Further south in Mexico, the U.S. army captured Mexico City militarily in 1847 and forced the Mexican government at gunpoint to give up half its territory. Thus, in the space of a few years, the U.S. annexed Texas and the entire northwest of Mexico. Till this day, Mexican students are taught that this territory was illegally seized by the gringos and is only held temporarily.
During the fighting in Mexico, 150 Irish American soldiers, disgusted with the intense anti-Catholic feelings of the other North Americans, deserted and joined to fight on the Mexican side— forming the Saint Patrick’s Brigade. However, they too were defeated and captured. Fifty were executed, the rest whipped and branded.
Back in the U.S. there was opposition to this expansionism, including the anti-slavery abolition movement. Henry Thoreau went to jail for refusing to pay the war tax, and Abraham Lincoln, as a Congressman, challenged Folk’s policy as well as his sanity.
In order to legitimize the U.S. seizure of half the nation, Mexico was forced to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The treaty contained provisions ensuring the civil and property rights of the 75,000 Mexicans who remained in the territory now controlled by the U.S. But like treaties the U.S. signed with Native peoples, it became little more than a scrap of paper.
In the wake of the defeat, a power struggle between certain sectors of the ruling class burst into the forefront of Mexico’s political arena.
Up to then, the state and the Church basically operated together. A strong, conservative social force even today in Latin America, the Church was much stronger back then. Church lands accounted for almost one quarter of the national wealth. This wealth and influence was used to block any social progress, the Church was allied with other conservative forced: landlords, merchants, monarchists and the< militarists.
Liberal forces, led by Benito Juarez, the first and only Indian to gain the Presidency, wished to dismantle the old semi-feudal economic structure. Only after a bloody civil war in 1857 was a new constitution written that enacted some reforms and secularized the Church’s property.
During this period, monarchists in Mexico and France allied themselves and attempted to impose their ruler on the country, an Austrian aristocrat connected to the old Spanish crown named Maxamillian. But he too was toppled by the Juarez forces.
Mexico’s main problem, though, the inequitable distribution of land, was not dealt with. This meant that the campesinos, the peasantry, the great majority, saw little gains for themselves. Juarez opened up Church lands for sale, mainly to rich Yankees who bought up much of the large landholdings for cattle ranches in the states of Sonora and Chihuahua, and bought up the sugar refineries and hemp plantations in the south.
The reforming liberals ultimately agreed with the conservatives by allowing the hacienda system to remain intact, and by continuing the suppression of the indigenous peoples. As a result, the pattern of repression and exploitation and grass-roots rebellion was not broken. Juarez in reality had opened up the country to capitalist development, and allowed the United Sates to increase its efforts to take over Mexico’s economy. Juarez’s reforms actually did more to set up the coming Diaz dictatorship by building up the central government, than in distributing land to the poor.
Cathedral of Mexico photo from Wikipedia Commons