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POPULATION : 108.7 million
LANGUAGE : Spanish; over 30 Amerindian languages
RELIGION : Roman Catholicism (with Amerindian elements); various Protestant sects


Mexico was the home of several native American civilizations before the arrival of the Spanish in 1519. The Maya, Olmecs, Toltecs, and Aztecs built cities and pyramids. Under Spanish rule these peoples were converted to Christianity, and European customs were added to the indigenous way of life.

Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821 but lost the northern half of its territory to the United States in 1818. The dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz was overthrown in a revolution that adopted a new, progressive constitution in 1917. In 1929 Plutarco Elias Calles created a hegemonic party the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (PNR National Revolutionary Party), which would eventually be renamed the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI Institutional Revolutionary Party) that controlled both the presidency and both houses of Congress until 2000.

In the early 1920s, in the aftermath of military struggles, Mexico was a fragmented country where regional power holders contested national authority, creating political instability. The newly-formed PNR sought to bring together these disparate local powers in order to solidify the electoral strength that regional elites had in their territories. In an effort to achieve national consolidation, the PNR incorporated into its ranks revolutionary as well as conservative power holders in exchange for local autonomy. Consequently, the party of the revolutionary regime became the dominant political organization in the country and the primary dispenser of official patronage.

When Lázaro Cárdenas came to power in 1934, he brought together workers and peasants in an effort to consolidate new sources of power. Besides nationalizing the petroleum industry, giving the Mexican government a monopoly in the exploration, production, refining, and distribution of oil and natural gas, Cárdenas carried out far-reaching labor and land reforms, and supported organizations of peasants and workers. The party took its current name, PRI, in 1946, at the same time that the Mexican Congress gave it the capacity to cancel the registration of the opposition and to control the Federal Electoral Commission. Thus, besides the hegemonic status that the PRI already enjoyed in the countryside, the new electoral rules gave it the power to constrain its rivals and manipulate the electoral results.

The PRI achieved political hegemony thanks to the instau-ration of a model of development that subordinates democracy to political stability. In this way, development depended on the endurance of economic growth and political stability, which in turn provided resources to maintain electoral support.

After focusing public investment on the rural sector for more than three decades, the government shifted its center of attention in the 1960s toward expanding the nation's industrial capacity. During this period, known as Stabilizing Development, Mexico averaged an annual economic growth rate of 6.8%. Import-substitution industrialization generated rapid growth in urban areas and a demographic explosion Mexico's population more than doubled in less than thirty years, from 16 million in the mid-1930s to 34 million in 1960 which resulted in massive urban migration.

However, the development model began to wane with the first signs of growing fiscal imbalance. Mexico's public-sector deficit rose sharply from 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 1970 to 7% by 1976, which forced the government to resort to massive external borrowing. The oil discoveries in the mid-1970s made Mexico eligible for large foreign credits that help finance 32% of public sector spending in 1971. Six years later, half of the public budget was being funded with foreign loans. When incoming President de la Madrid took office in 1982 Mexico's public-sector deficit amounted to 18% of GDP, nearly every state enterprise except the public oil company PEMEX was unprofitable, and both production and economic growth were stagnant.

The pro-business and free-market platform during the 1980s led not only to a general impoverishment of the population, but also caused an intra-party split between the populist wing dominated by the old-school politicians led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, and the politically inexperienced pro-neoliberalism technocrats, headed by the former Budget and Planning minister and presidential candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. The left-wing Partido Revolucionario Democratico (PRD Revolutionary Democratic Party) was created in 1989 and shared the opposition with the center-right Partido de Accion National (PAN National Action Party).

The transition to democracy in Mexico began in 2000, when for the first time a candidate from the opposition won the presidency, ending 71 years of one-party rule by the PRI. Vicente Fox, candidate of the PAN, won the election, but left office with a mixed record on necessary reforms. In 2006, after a partial recount of votes, Felipe Calderón was declared the winner of the presidential election, having edged out Manuel Lopez Obrador from the PRD.


Mexico lies between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, south of the United States and west of Guatemala and Belize. Most of the country is a highland plateau with little rainfall for most of the year. The plateau is enclosed by two mountain chains running the length of the country, the Sierra Madre Oriental to the east and Sierra Madre Occidental to the west. The summit of the highest peak, Orizaba, reaches 5,639 m (18,502 ft) above sea level. There is tropical rain forest in parts of the South and the Gulf coast. Mexico reaches its narrowest point at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, then widens to the east, where it includes the Yucatán Peninsula.

While 60% of the population is Mestizo (European and Amerindian descent), between 15% and 30% are believed to be full-blood Amerindians. In addition, roughly 9% of the population is unmixed European, predominately of Spanish descent. Small black, mixed-black, and Asian groups comprise the rest of the population.


Even though there is no constitutional official language at the federal level in Mexico, Spanish is spoken by 93% of the population. The General Law of Linguistic Rights of the Indigenous Peoples considers Spanish as a national language, alongside the almost 60 different indigenous languages spoken by 7% of the population throughout the country. The largest of the indigenous languages is Náhuatl, followed by Mayan, Zapotec, Otomí, and Mixtec.


Mexican folk customs derive from beliefs and practices dating back well before the European discovery of America. One of these is herbal medicine. Particularly in Indian communities, curanderos function as healers and diviners who communicate with nature gods and spirits. Among them are persons seen as sorcerers or witches and credited with similar powers, including the ability to cast or dispel the evil eye (superstition derived from Spain) and to perform certain magic rites to help a person win or retain a loved one.

A wealth of major feasts (fiestas), although commemorating Christian saints, also parallels the worship of Indian gods dating back to the pre-European past. The saints are credited with the supernatural powers traditionally attributed to the gods. In Indian communities, confradías (brotherhoods) are charged with organizing and financing the annual cycle of fiestas. These events break the monotony of daily life with their bright costumes and ornaments and their traditional dances and music. Traditional masks represent animals, spirits, and religious or mythical figures. Alcohol and hallucinogenic drugs play a role in these observances, as they do in healing and divining.


Because of the early adoption of Roman Catholicism among the population, and despite the official anti-clericalism of the PRI regime, today 90% of Mexicans identify with this faith. However, just as early Christianity retained many beliefs and customs of pagan Greece and Rome, Mexican Catholicism includes folklore and practices of the pre-European period. The church credits the Virgin of Guadalupe, identified with the Virgin Mary, with miraculously appearing to an Indian soon after the Spanish conquest (and close to the shrine of an Aztec earth goddess). The Virgin of Guadalupe was proclaimed patron saint of Mexico in 1737. Similarly, many other Christian saints are identified with gods and goddesses of the Indian past.

About 6% of the population is Protestant. Evangelical Christian groups, including Baptists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists, generally financed and staffed by Americans, have had particular success in southeastern Mexico, especially among Indian communities.


Holy Week, commemorating the events leading up to and including the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, is of overriding importance. It was once commemorated in many outdoor processions and Passion plays, only a few of which remain. United States influence has brought with it Christmas trees (sometimes even in churches), Santa Claus, and gift giving on Christmas Day. This has overshadowed the traditional Hispanic observance of Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, commemorating the journey of the Magi (the Three Kings). Preceding Christmas are the colorful posadas, nightly celebrations that begin December 16.

November 2, the Day of the Dead, is a holiday during which people visit the graves of their loved ones and leave behind fruits and flowers. At the evening meal a table is traditionally set with food and drink for the departed. Also typically Mexican is the annual commemoration, on December 12, of the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe in 1531. The Basilica of Guadalupe, in Mexico City, attracts many pilgrims on that day, some, if able, climb its steps on their knees, and Indian groups play music and perform dances outside the cathedral.

Among secular (nonreligious) holidays, the most important is the celebration of national independence on September 16. The president of Mexico heralds this event on the evening before with the grito (cry or shout) given by Father Miguel Hidalgo, the priest who, in the name of the Mexican people, proclaimed independence from Spain in 1810. The birthday of Benito Juárez, March 21, is another national holiday. A Zapotec Indian, Juárez was president of Mexico from 1861 to 1872.


Purification by water goes back to the Indian past, so infant baptism is practiced even in Indian communities where the other Christian sacraments are not observed. Most Mexican children also are confirmed. In small towns among well-off families, young couples are still chaperoned on dates, and a suitor must court his future in-laws as well as his intended bride. In Indian communities, marriages may still be arranged and sealed with an exchange of gifts.

Most Mexicans marry young. Because of the separation of church and state, only civil marriages are legally valid, but more than 70% of all couples also marry in church. Many poor couples live together however, without benefit of clergy or legal license.

The dead are not customarily embalmed, and burial takes place 24 hours after death. Wakes are held, with the relatives and friends bringing food, drink, and other gifts to the bereaved.


Politeness and ceremoniousness are more important in Mexican life than in American. Even brief exchanges and questions call for an introductory buenos días (good day) or buenas tardes (good afternoon). Indirectness of speech is often employed so as not to lay or accept blame or give offense. Some government employees, including policemen, are poorly paid and sometimes will accept or even solicit the mordida ("bite" or bribe) as payment for minor infractions or to speed up or dispose of cumbersome paperwork.

Male friends are demonstrative; often they will embrace heartily on meeting and stroll arm in arm. Machismo is a male worldview that entails the practice of defending one's honor against any possible challenge to one's masculinity. Carried to violent extremes, this often results in the abuse of women.

In contrast with Americans, Mexicans set little store on punctuality. In fact, arriving on time when invited to dinner or a party is considered rude. Nor is it considered unusual for invited guests not to arrive at all and offer no explanation later. Mañana, although literally "tomorrow," may refer to any indefinite future time. Business hours often fluctuate. Public offices, churches, and museums may close for two hours in the early afternoon, when the temperature is highest, the traditional siesta time.


Before 2000, most peasants and many workers in Mexico did not earn even the meager legal minimum wage and were unable to feed or house their families decently. Open sewers and contaminated drinking water were common and a menace to health. However, after the first democratic government, the percentage of the population in extreme poverty decreased from 24.2% to 17.6% in 2004.

In addition to the macroeconomic stability pursued by the Fox and Calderón administrations (which has been singled out as the main cause of the reduction in poverty and the increase in purchasing power of the middle class), poverty has been further reduced by remittances from Mexican citizens working in the United States, which reaches $20 billion per year and is the second largest source of foreign income after oil exports.

Ongoing economic concerns include low real wages, under-employment for a large segment of the population, inequitable income distribution, and drug-related violence.


"Family values" are alive and well in Mexico, where widespread poverty forces households to stay together for economic as well as social reasons. The household in many cases includes grandparents, aunts, and uncles as well as parents and children. Married children and their spouses also remain part of this unit until they can afford to set up their own households. Well-to-do fathers may build houses for their married children on the parents' property. Family groups may gather together for birthdays, saints' days, and other holidays. On Sundays they often go on excursions together. Whether they live under the same roof or not, Mexicans maintain strong bonds with their relatives in order to help each other in various ways, including helping unemployed relations find work. The large number of family businesses is especially important to this form of assistance.

Family solidarity extends even beyond blood ties. Compadrazgo, or godparent-hood plays a very important part in Mexican life. One study of a Mexico City shantytown found 18 different occasions for involving godparents in celebrations, including not only the Catholic sacraments but even the graduation of a family member from school or the first cutting of a child's hair. In return for his or her aid, a godparent expects loyalty, trust, affection, and respect from the child and parents.

Among middle-class and well-to-do Mexicans, servants also form part of the family unit. Even arrimados (renters or "permanent guests") may belong.


The more traditional forms of women's dress include a wraparound skirt, sometimes flounced and embroidered; the huipil, a sleeveless garment with holes for the head and arms; and the quechquemitl, an upper outer garment with an opening for the head only. The rebozo is a shawl used for carrying babies. Among Indian women these are everyday articles of clothing, elaborately colored and patterned and distinctive for every ethnic group, or even for each village. Upper-class Mexican women may sometimes wear a traditional Spanish costume topped with a fringed and embroidered silk shawl and a tortoiseshell or ivory comb. The china poblana costume consists of a richly embroidered white blouse and black shawl, a flounced and spangled red-and-green skirt, high-heeled colored slippers, bracelets, earrings, strings of beads, and ribbons or flowers in the hair.

The peasant's traditional pajama-like trousers and tunic of unbleached cotton, serape (functioning as both a blanket and a cloak), sandals, and wide sombrero have given way to jeans, shirt, shoes or boots, and a straw cowboy-type hat. Sweaters or a leather jacket now ward off the chill. Indian men seldom wear traditional dress except on special occasions. Mariachi musicians can be seen in the traditional Spanish horseman's charro costume. This includes a dark suit of suede or velvet, braided in gold or silver embroidery, a flowing red silk necktie, a bright serape, boots and spurs, and an embroidered felt sombrero.


The staple of Mexican food is corn, supplemented by beans, squash, and chilies, or chili peppers. Cornmeal is patted into a thin pancake called a tortilla, which encloses any of a great variety of fillings to form a soft sandwich-like taco. (The crisp-fried American taco is known as a tostado). Fried in chili sauce, the taco becomes an enchilada. The tamale is cornmeal dough wrapped around a filling of meat and chilies, then wrapped in paper, cornhusks, or banana leaves for cooking. Tacos made with a tortilla of wheat flour are called burritos. Mole is a rich chili sauce that sometimes contains chocolate, which is native to Mexico. Mole poblano, traditionally the national dish, consists of turkey (a native bird) topped with a spicy mole.


Mexico has made improvements in education since the 1990s. In 2004, the literacy rate was at 91% and the youth literacy rate (ages 15–24) was 96%, ranking Mexico 24th in the world accordingly to UNESCO. Primary and secondary education is free and mandatory, and different bilingual education programs and free textbooks in more than a dozen indigenous languages have been introduced throughout the country. In addition, Mexico established a distance-learning system known as telesecudaria through satellite communications to reach otherwise inaccessible small rural and indigenous communities. In 2007 there were approximately one million telesecundaria students in the country.

The largest and most prestigious public university in Mexico is the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM National Autonomous University of Mexico) founded in 1551. Three Nobel laureates and most of Mexico's modern-day presidents are among its former students. UNAM conducts 50% of Mexico's scientific research and has a presence all across the country with satellite campuses and research centers. UNAM is the highest ranked Spanish-speaking university in the world.


Mexico's rich cultural life draws on both its Spanish and its Indian heritage. This is most evident in the visual arts. Pre-Conquest temple and palace wall paintings were recalled in the 20th-century murals of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Siquieros, and Juan O'Gorman, which were crowded with stylized figures and themes. Oil paintings by Rivera, his wife Frida Kahlo, Rufino Tamayo, and others are admired for their vibrant color. In architecture, Mexican stone carvers carried on a pre-Conquest tradition in the elaborate 18th-century decorative style known as churrigueresque. O'Gorman and Luis Barragán deftly combined pre-Conquest, colonial, and folk forms and traditional building materials with modern structural design in their architecture.

Traditional Indian music is chiefly limited to festive rituals and dances, with drums and flutes as the main instruments. Stringed instruments, including the most popular one in Mexico—the guitar—came from Spain. In mariachi music, these instruments are combined with trumpets. The marimba (similar to the xylophone) dominates in southern Mexico. Traditional song forms are the corrido, derived from old Spanish ballads; the canción, romantic and sentimental; and the ranchera, a Mexican style of country-and-western music. Composer Carlos Chávez drew on such forms in his music.

The Ballet Folklórico mounts productions of traditional dance, which incorporates both Indian and Spanish motifs. Best-known of these is the jarabe tapatío ("Mexican hat dance"), performed in charro and china poblana costume. Dating back to pre-Conquest times are the conchero dances, which honor the four winds, and the pascolas, or deer dances.

The love poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is still read, and the plays of Juan Ruiz de Alarcón are still performed. Noted Mexican writers of the 20th century include the poet and essayist Octavio Paz and the novelists Mariano Azuela, Carlos Fuentes, and Juan Rulfo.

Another cultural asset in Mexico is the cinema industry. During the Golden Era in the 1940s and 1950s Mexico had a huge film industry comparable to Hollywood of those years. Mexican films were exported and exhibited in all of Latin America and Europe. Maria Candelaria (1944) by Emilio Fernández, was one of the first films awarded a Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Famous actors and actresses from this period include María Félix, Pedro Infante, Dolores del Río, Jorge Negrete, and the comedian Cantinflas. More recently, films such as Como agua para chocolate (1992), Amores Perros (2000), Y tu mamá también (2001), Pan's Labyrinth (2006), and Babel (2006) have been successful in creating universal stories about contemporary subjects, and have been internationally recognized.


Workers constituted a relatively small share of the total population, in part because of the population's relative youth (38% were below the minimum working age of 14 in 2000). Agriculture, forestry, and fishing employed some 18% of the economically active population in 2003, industry 24%, and services 58%. About half of all manufacturing workers were employed in small and medium-size enterprises. Partly because of high unemployment in the formal labor sector, the number of informal-sector workers swelled during the 1980s and early 1990s.

After falling sharply during the 1940s, real wages began to recover in the mid-1950s and continued to rise until the late 1970s, when the government responded to growing fiscal pressures by shifting resources away from the peasantry and the public sector. The government used its control of employment opportunities and the labor union movement to hold down wages throughout the 1980s in an effort to reduce inflation. This meant that the average worker's purchasing power in 1993 was only 65% of its 1982 level. Moreover, the difference between minimum wages and average wages in the country has increased between 1995 and 2007. While in 1995 the minimum wage represented 43% of average salaries, in 2007 minimum wages accounted for less the one third of average wages.

With half its population under 30 years of age, Mexico is scrambling to find enough jobs for the young people who enter the labor force each year. Migration to the United States helps to relieve the unemployment problem. As of 2006 there were an estimated 6.57 million undocumented Mexicans living in the United States.


Fútbol (soccer) is by far the most popular sport in Mexico. The top professional teams, including Guadalajara and the Américas team of Mexico City, draw as many as 100,000 spectators to their matches. In addition, there is a professional baseball league, and some Mexican players, such as Fernando Valenzuela and Vinnie Castilla, have made it to the major leagues. American television has raised the profile of both basketball and American football in Mexico. Other sports include golf, tennis, swimming, and bicycling. Bullfighting or charreria is the national sport and very popular, with about 35 arenas in Mexico. Plaza México in Mexico City is the largest bullring in the world, which seats 55,000 people.


Television now dominates popular culture, with telenovelas (soap operas) and variety shows. Overwhelmed by American imports, Mexico's older song forms have been giving way to rock 'n roll, international-style pop, and even Spanish-language rap. Because so many Mexicans have had little schooling, comic books and magazine-style fotonovelas are more common reading material than newspapers and books.


The most important form of folk painting is the retablo, a devotional depiction, on canvas, of a miraculous event. It is offered to a saint in gratitude for favors conferred and hung in a church. Other works of art include murals and yarn and bark paintings. Folk sculptures, continuing a pre-Columbian tradition, include masks, papier-mâché skeletons and other grotesque figures, and candle-bearing trees of life made of clay.

The variety of Mexican handicrafts is almost endless. Silver objects include bracelets, rings, necklaces, and earrings. Milagros, charms offered to saints in church, may be made of silver, copper, or tin. Objects are also carved in onyx, jade, and other types of stone. There are many regional styles of pottery. The making of hand-blown glass, tile making, leather work, and lacquering are other crafts. Weaving in cotton and other plant fibers on hand looms is thousands of years old; wool was added after the Spanish conquest. Embroidery employs floral, bird, and animal imagery. Toys of all kinds are produced.

The piñata, usually made of papier-mâché or lightweight cardboard, is gaily decorated in many fantastic forms and holds candy. Blindfolded children break it open with a stick at birthday and other celebrations.


Although human rights violations, electoral fraud, repression of the labor movement, and the abuse of indigenous and rural peoples have almost been eradicated since the return to democracy in 2000, Mexico still faces acute problems regarding public health and environmental safety. However, the most serious social dilemma is related to drug trafficking and violence in the northern provinces where the power of the state is weak. Drug cartels often go on killing sprees and the government has had to send the army in to control the situation.


In Mexico, inequalities between men and women represent a source of conflict in the family and the community and a handicap for social and economic development. Stereotyped notions of gender roles exacerbate the gender inequity. Women and girls still carry out most domestic tasks, for which they do not receive any income. Poor services (water and sanitation, electricity) and rural isolation particularly affect women. Men's problems also have negative repercussions on women— such as drug abuse, alcoholism, and violence associated with high rates of male unemployment.

In order to tackle gender inequity, Mexico launched in 2001 its Gender Equity Project or Generosidad, which is aimed to address the consequences of gender roles on both sexes and to consider the linkages between the genders rather than focusing solely on women. In addition, the federal Congress passed a gender quota law in 2002, which requires at least 30% of all candidates for all political parties to be women. This law was applied for the first time in the 2003 mid-term elections, in which women won 23% of the seats, up 7 percentage points from the 2000 election. These results catapulted Mexico up in the world ranking of women in legislative office from number 55 to number 29.


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—revised by C. Vergara

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