Veracruz, City of

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Veracruz, City of

The principal seaport of Mexico is located 265 miles southeast of Mexico City on the Gulf Coast. This city has been Mexico's major center of foreign commerce and primary source of commercial revenue since the Spanish conquest.

On Good Friday, 22 April 1519, Hernán Cortés landed his Spanish expedition on the small island of San Juan De Ulúa, near the present city of Veracruz, and established the first base of operations for his conquest of the Aztec civilization. The Spaniards found the coastal plain inhabited by Totonac Indians, who had established their administrative center at Zempoala, 25 miles to the north. The first settlement, which Cortés named Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, was established several miles to the north, where ships could anchor more easily. The Spanish conquistador immediately appointed town councilmen, who in turn named him captain of the expedition with full military authority. Veracruz thus became the first municipality in the Spanish colony of New Spain (Mexico).

In 1599 the Spanish viceroy ordered the settlement of Veracruz to be moved next to the port itself so the storehouses and treasury would be adjacent to the ships. During the colonial period Veracruz flourished as the only official Gulf port of New Spain and the major link between the colony and Cádiz (Spain). Its customhouses provided the primary source of revenue for colonial government. Needless to say, its wealth attracted numerous foreign privateers. John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake plundered the town in 1568, while the French corsairs left the town, with its 6,000 inhabitants, in ruins in 1683. These foreign incursions prompted the Spaniards to build massive fortifications, which culminated with the erection of the Fortress of Santiago and the island fortress San Juan de Ulúa to protect the harbor.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the city of Veracruz continued to remain Mexico's window to the world and the "treasury of the republic," but these attributes took on new meaning as rival political factions battled for control of its revenues. Although Veracruz and its environs could boast a population of only 14,340 at the time of independence in 1821, its commercial importance was second only to that of Mexico City. By mid-century at least three-quarters of Mexico's exports and imports passed through the port. Every major British, French, and German commercial house in Mexico City maintained a branch office in Veracruz. Travelers described the city's population as dominated by Africans and mulattoes. Despite the frightening reports of yellow fever epidemics, ravaging hurricanes (nortes), and the lack of potable drinking water, Veracruz was still considered a tempting financial prize to Europeans. The French ordered the occupation of the port in 1838 to secure the repayment of defaulted French loans. In 1847 the U.S. forces under General Winfield Scott opted for an amphibious landing to the south of the city so as to launch a devastating bombardment of the city from the rear. When the French intervened again in 1861, they seized Veracruz's customhouses to cover Mexico's outstanding debts.

Liberal as well as Conservative rebel leaders were no less eager to fill their coffers with Veracruz revenues and to launch their revolts from a port that provided a perfect escape should their rebellions fail. Veracruzano Antonio López de Santa Anna announ-ced his rebellion against Emperor Agustín Iturbide there in 1823. Liberal leader Benito Juárez found refuge from the merciless attacks of the Conservative armies long enough to establish his capital there between 1858 to 1860.

Veracruz was decimated by these continual occupations and sieges, but it underwent an astounding revival in the late nineteenth century. President Porfirio Díaz set about to increase foreign trade by encouraging foreign investors to modernize docks, dikes, and wharves and construct a potable water system. The completion of two railroad lines to the capital vastly improved living conditions and contributed to a dramatic rise in its population from 16,000 in 1877 to 53,000 in 1910.

During the Revolution of 1910, Veracruz once again played a critical role as a major source of income for the central government as well as for rival revolutionary factions. The United States likewise recognized its strategic importance when it seized the customhouses in April 1914 to cripple the government of Victoriano Huerta. Venustiano Carranza's forces took possession of the port immediately after the U.S. occupation and made it their capital from November 1914 until August 1915, while repelling the armies of Francisco "Pancho" Villa and Emiliano Zapata. During his stay in Veracruz, Carranza issued important decrees concerning agrarian and labor reforms which won him the much-needed support of the Mexican lower classes. The city emerged as a key center of organized labor during the Revolution as longshoremen, railroad workers, tradesmen, and tenants formed militant anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist unions.

Veracruz port facilities have undergone several rehabilitation programs since 1940 to improve unloading equipment and warehouse facilities and to reconstruct the waterfront. By 2005 the city and metropolitan area had grown into a prosperous commercial and industrial center with over 700,000 inhabitants. Its shipments include such items as petroleum, fruits, molasses, rum, coffee, tobacco, and chicle. As a manufacturing center, it produces chemicals, cement, flour, tobacco products, soap, candles, liquor, tiles, footwear, and chocolate. Despite its hot, muggy climate, its slow pace of life attracts tourists for its picturesque colonial Plaza of the Constitution, abundant seafood, and vivacious jarocho (Veracrucian) music. The song "La Bamba" has probably brought more fame to this city than its beaches. The city hosts an annual Afro-Caribbean festival in July, which spotlights the city's links with Caribbean culture. Its inhabitants also take pride in its renowned Carnaval celebration, the largest in Mexico.

See alsoCarranza, Venustiano; Cortés, Hernán.


Manuel B. Trens, Historia de la H. Ciudad de Veracruz y de su ayuntamiento (1955).

Robert Quirk, An Affair of Honor (1962).

Carmen Blázquez Domínguez, Veracruz liberal, 1858–1860 (1986).

Berta Ulloa, Veracruz, capital de la nación, 1914–1915 (1986).

Alfred H. Siemens, Between the Summit and the Sea (1990).

Michael C. Meyer and William L. Sherman, The Course of Mexican History, 4th ed. (1991).

Additional Bibliography

Antuñano Maurer, Alejandro de. Veracruz: Primer puerto del continente. México: ICA, 1996.

Contreras Cruz, Carlos, and Claudia Patricia Pardo Hernández. De Veracruz a Puebla: Un itinerario histórico entre la colonia y el porfiriato. San Juan Mixcoac, México: Instituto Mora, 1999.

                              Heather Fowler-Salamini