A History of Mexico for Gringos

by on September 16, 2020 · 12 comments

in California, History, San Diego

Detail of Diego Rivera’s famous painting of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec City-state

By Frank Gormlie

Most gringos don’t know too much of the history of Mexico – our southern neighbor – even though Mexico is so much part of the culture of Southern California. U.S. public schools don’t really teach about its history. For instance, September 16 is  Mexican Independence Day – the commemoration of the defeat of the Spanish colonialists – akin to our July 4th – when Americans defeated British colonialists and their German mercenaries.

This then is an attempt to bring Mexican history to our readers –  it covers Mexico’s story through the Revolution.

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.

Jose Morelos and Miguel Hidalgo – Fathers of Mexican independence.

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 Mexico 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 white supremacy, 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 out 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. To this day, Mexicans honor the memory of the San Patricio Brigade.

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 then-Congressman Abraham Lincoln, opposed Polk’s policy.

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 forces: landlords, merchants, monarchists and the militarists.

Benito Juarez.

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.

The Stage Is Set for Revolution

The liberal reform movement in Mexico during the middle of the 19th century was lead by Benito Juarez, the first and only Indian to gain the Presidency of Mexico. The reformers wished to dismantle the old semi-feudal economic structure, where the masses of peasants worked on large estates. But the conservative forces of society, the Church, large rancho owners, merchants, militarists, and opportunists who wanted to re-establish the Crown, violently resisted Juarez’s reform efforts.

This brought about a bloody civil war in 1857. The liberal forces did win the war, and in victory they wrote a new constitution that enacted some reforms. But, significantly, the new constitution did secularize the Church’s property.This was significant because back then Church lands accounted for almost one quarter of the national wealth.

Cinco de Mayo

The one thing gringos do know about Mexico is Cinco de Mayo – the 5th of May. Despite it being marketed as a day to get drunk, it actually is a celebration of the defeat of of monarchists by the Juarez forces. Monarchists in Mexico and France had allied themselves and had imposed their ruler on the country – an Austrian aristocrat named Maximilian who was connected to the old Spanish crown. For a short period of time, he ruled Mexico City but not much else. He was toppled in what some derisively call la guerra de las pastales – the war of the pastries.

Joaquin Murieta

In order to continue the rule of elites, the reform-minded liberals ultimately developed an agreement with the conservative forces and allowed the hacienda system to remain intact. This required the continued suppression of the indigenous peoples. As a result, the pattern of repression and exploitation and grass-roots rebellion was not broken. Juarez, as history looks at him, had opened up the country to capitalist development, and had 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.

Colonialism in the North

Up north in the territory seized in the war by the United States, thousands of Mexicans continued to live their lives, but now under the domination of another nation and a foreign government. But many Mexicans did not quietly accept the lynchings and murders, the theft of their land and resources, and the loss of civil rights. Many resisted throughout the 1800’s with the use of arms.

One such hero of resistance to the new system of colonization was Joaquin Murieta, a miner who had come to California to make a living. Anglos killed his wife, beat and robbed him, driving him – and many other Mexicans – out of the mines. Joaquin fought back, and like a 19th century Robin Hood, stole from the richer Anglos and gave to the poor Mexicans.

The mythical figure of Zorro, popularized by Walt Disney, had his origins during this period. The son of the last Mexican governor of California, Pio Pico, led raids and ambushes, not against fat Sgt. Garcia, but against Yankee settlers from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara.

In Texas, Juan Cortina also fought back against who were perceived as the Yankee invaders. With an armed organization and an ideology of liberation, he waged guerrilla warfare for nearly 20 years.

Las Gorras Blancas, a New Mexico secret organization of the poor against the rich, also resisted the encroaching settlers and the new capitalists. They proclaimed, “Our purpose is to protect the rights and interests of the people in general and especially those of the helpless classes…”

Powerful cattle barons in Texas set up the Texas Rangers as a terrorist force to maintain control in the areas where Mexicans were the majority. Glorified in movies and TV, The Texas Rangers were little more than armed colonial mercenaries, leading a reign of terror against Mexicans. Hangings and torture were their methods.

Over the years, using the machinery of the legal process and the knots of the lynch rope, Anglo settlers came to completely control the economic, political and social life of the new territories—despite the guarantees to Mexicans spelled out in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hudalgo.

Dominated economically and socially, Mexicans suffered the loss of their land, their political rights, their culture, their language and customs. This was colonialism. The Mexican people became the colonized and the Anglo-American settlers became the colonizers.


Mexicanos were a colonized people in a land whose economy they had built. The skills in building adobe houses, in sheep-herding, in mining and irrigation farming that Anglos later employed were learned from Mexicanos. Virtually everything we credit the Anglo-cowboy with was taken from his Mexican counterpart, “el vaquero” including much of western slang. The labor of Mexican workers on the railroads, in the mines and in the fields laid the basis for the economy throughout what we now call the “southwest.”

The Revolution

Porfiro Diaz

By the latter part of the century, the Mexican government had been strengthened but not democratized. A new ruler came to power, a man so ruthless in dealing with his opponents and the Mexican people that even today he remains a symbol of despised despotism—Porfiro Diaz.

The powerful Diaz dictatorship lasted for 35 years and was only broken by the upheaval of the 1910 Revolution. Diaz tried to modernize Mexico with railroads and revived industries, but he did it from the top down, using the saber and bullet for persuasion. Opening wide the doors to the interior of the country to foreign powers, especially the U.S., Diaz allowed foreign investments to control mining, utilities, banking and commerce. The north became very strongly dominated by wealthy North Americans like William Randolph Hearst, who owned 6 million acres of land.

Other U.S. capitalists, with visions of colonial profits dancing in their heads, continued to buy up the country. By the time of the revolt, two-thirds of all U.S. foreign investments were in Mexico. This during a time that most of all rural families went landless, as Diaz had appropriated the Indian communal lands.

Once again rising up against tyranny, masses of campesinos confronted and struggled against Diaz and the entire capitalist system. The bloody revolt raged across the land, resulting in over a million deaths.

Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata with their compatriots in Mexico City.

Peasant leaders such as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa emerged to fight the federal government and its allies. In the state of Morelos, with a slogan of “land and liberty” Zapata began a revolutionary re-distribution of land to the poor, declaring that those who work the land should own it. Villa, meanwhile, led the rebellion in the north. Other revolutionaries in the Yucatan and up around the border called for a socialist Mexico. These included Flores and Enrique Magon, who operated out of Los Angeles.

The Mexican revolution was not just for men. Women played a very strong and significant role during the struggle, joining their men at the front and supporting them behind the lines. One woman general fought alongside the other revolutionaries: General Carmen Robles who led an armed brigade into battle.

Because U.S. businesses and investments became threatened by the revolt, the U.S. government once again intervened militarily in the internal affairs of Mexico. In a classic show of gunboat diplomacy, U.S. Marines landed and occupied Vera Cruz in 1914. Two years later, General Pershing invaded from the north in pursuit of the elusive Pancho Villa.

US Navy aviators had the very first aerial combat at Vera Cruz in 1914.

One part of history we are taught: that Pancho Villa’s forces attacked and burned sections of Columbus, New Mexico, killing a number of Anglos. He is painted as a bad guy. What we are not taught is that he carried out this attack in retaliation for the U.S. allowing the federales to travel through the U.S. to hit Villa on his northern flank.

Up here on the border, Tijuana witnessed its own combat 1911, when a small army aligned with Flores Magon – a Mexican anarchist who lived in LA – took over the town – and several smaller places along the border. It was an attempt to set up an independent socialist republic in Baja California. The Magon army included mercenaries, Indians, and members of the I.W.W. They were eventually overwhelmed by Mexican troops.

Through the bloody revolution – during which a million died – Mexico’s own emerging capitalist class allied with the U.S. government and Anglo businesses. The new Mexican elite’s army – led by General Huerta – consolidated their forces and engineered a coup against the moderate leader Francisco Madero. The Revolution was betrayed. To this day, people in Mexico spit whenever the name “General Huerta” is mentioned.

The more revolutionary insurgents were outmaneuvered; Zapata and Villa were both ambushed and assassinated, the Yucatan socialist movement was brutally smashed, and Magon was jailed by the U.S.

The fighting ceased and the forward motion of the Revolution was halted. Yet another constitution was written, this one with minimum wage laws, rights to unionize and strike and provisions for equal pay by sex and nationality. But throughout this turmoil, little of substance was gained by the campesinos and

Cathedral, Mexico City, c. 1900

urban workers. Poor Mexico, the saying goes, so far from god but so close to los estatos unidos.


{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

michael-leonard September 16, 2020 at 12:48 pm

actually NEITHER July 4 nor Sept 16 commemorates the “defeat” of anyone. both days are when the independence was proclaimed. then a war had to be fought.
the defeat in the American Revolutionary War was proclaimed by the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the Mexican in 1821.


Frank Gormlie September 17, 2020 at 10:15 am

Yes, true that – but we don’t celebrate the day the revolutionary war ended. We celebrate July 4th; same with Mexico – they don’t celebrate the end of their war either, they celebrate Sept. 16.


thoughtfulbear September 16, 2020 at 1:34 pm

A very good overview, setting in context a number of historical events we usually read or hear about separately. I especially liked the accompanying artwork selections.

Just recently saw an article that the old Lake Texcoco (which the conquistadores drained to build Mexico City on) – part of it, anyway – is being allowed to reclaim what had been intended to be a new modern airport for the capital. Instead, it will become a park. (I’ll try to find the link.) Don’t know if the Aztecs had a word for “karma” in their language, but this bit of news from the site of their old capital city just goes to show that what goes around, indeed, comes around!


thoughtfulbear September 16, 2020 at 1:39 pm

ADD: I found the link! Here it is:

(Glad to see my comment posted, too – thought for a bit I’d hit the wrong button. Whew!) :-)


Frank Gormlie September 16, 2020 at 9:14 pm

On September 16, Mexicans around the globe celebrate the anniversary of the country’s independence from Spain.


Frank Gormlie September 16, 2020 at 9:24 pm

The post was originally a two-parter and that’s why there’s some repetition. Sorry about that – I guess our proof-reader was at her real job.


Joni Halpern September 17, 2020 at 1:30 pm

Frank, thanks for such a succinct and informative summary.


Doug September 17, 2020 at 6:24 pm

Interesting article but biased and misleading. After all the history Mexico is still a poor country with about 50% poverty. Millions vote with their feet and go north for a better life. When the English arrived, they came to do business. But Spanish only wanted to plunder. Good luck getting back Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.


Frank Gormlie September 18, 2020 at 10:48 am

You’re damn right it’s biased! And properly so, as it was written (the core was written in 1979-80) to counter all the pap we’re given about Mexico and our cultural “heroes” like David Crockett, Kit Carson and Zorro. Yes, there’s some hyperbole and if rewritten, I’d edit some out. Many of the English who came were fleeing religious persecution, were poor or looking for their own gold and plunder and land.


michael September 18, 2020 at 10:11 am

A noble effort, Frank. Mostly accurate with a few errors. Putting all of Mexico’s complex history into so short an article is bound to have lapses. For example, The Pastry War occurred long before the appearance of Maximilian. For a clear timeline, please check Guns, Grit and Glory on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0846TCC5K?
The “Look Inside” feature can be accessed for free.
I did appreciate your mention of Lincoln’s objections in Congress to the US invasion of Mexico, and the valiant sacrifice of the San Patricios. Both are subjects on which I have written in-depth works: The Irish Soldiers of Mexico and Abraham Lincoln and Mexico. Thanks again, Frank, for the post. I enjoyed reading it.


Frank Gormlie September 18, 2020 at 10:51 am

Michael, thanks for the interest and historical corrections. You probably know about that history than I, and here is what your feature stated:

“France invaded Mexico in 1861 on the pretext of collecting past-due debts. Their armies overran the country as Napoleon III imposed a new emperor, Austrian nobleman Maximilian, upon Mexico. The United States, busy with its Civil War, couldn’t provide much help. But following the surrender of the Confederacy in 1865, ex-Union soldiers, including members of the US colored troops, volunteered to help Mexico fight the invaders. President Benito Juárez personally commissioned the American Legion of Honor, while Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, Matías Romero, raised millions of dollars by selling Mexican bonds. Using advanced weaponry from the US, the ragtag Mexican guerrilla army became a formidable military force by 1867. Follow the tale of valiant volunteers who fought for Mexico against all odds to help defeat the last empire of the Americas.”


Michael Hogan September 18, 2020 at 1:40 pm

Yes. The problem was that you conflated the time of Maximilian with the Pastry War. The “war of the pastries” as you term it was much earlier in 1838. Maximillian took over in the 1860s. Here is the relevant part.
“Complicating matters was a long-standing reparation due from the time of Pastry War of 1838-39. Ten years earlier, there had been an uprising in Mexico City and soldiers had looted a French bakery. The owner, a French citizen known only as Monsieur Remontel, asked the Mexican government to pay for his losses. He put the figure at 60,000 pesos. That figure equaled a Mexican laborer’s pay for 165 years. Naturally, the Mexican government found the sum absurd and refused to honor it. The baker appealed to the French government and King Louis Philippe I sided with the claimant and arbitrarily raised the amount owed to 600,000 francs. When the Mexican government refused to pay, the king sent the French fleet to collect.”


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