Sierra Madre (mountains)

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Sierra Madre

Sierra Madre, the principal mountain system of Mexico. It consists of the Sierra Madre Oriental, Sierra Madre Occidental, Sierra Madre del Sur, Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, and the Sierra Madre de Chiapas. The first four groups form the dissected edges of the vast central plateau of Mexico, while the Chiapas range lies east of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Extending the length of Mexico, from the United States to Guatemala, the mountains form a broad northwest-southeast arc. The average elevation of the range is 6,000 to 13,000 feet. Metals such as silver, gold, zinc, and iron first attracted Spanish settlers to the Sierra Madre, especially in the northern ranges. Although mining remained important, the exploitation of forest reserves and hydroelectric sites drew developers during the twentieth century. Throughout the Sierra Madre, isolated sections remain a refuge for small Amerindian groups maintaining their traditional ways of life.

The Occidental and Oriental mountains define the western and eastern edges of the central plateau and are similar in height. The Occidental range is volcanic and parallels the western coast of Mexico for 1,000 miles through the states of Chihuahua, Sonora, Sinaloa, Durango, and Nayarit. Vegetation on the steep lower slopes is poor, but the higher elevations contain some of the most important coniferous forest stands in the country. The deep canyons along the western slope support half a dozen major dams that provide water to the irrigated fields of Sonora and Sinaloa. Some agriculture exists within the intermontane valleys, but mining, especially of silver, has been the principal motive for settlement in the Sierra Madre Occidental.

The Sierra Madre Oriental is a series of elongated limestone ranges that parallel the Gulf of Mexico, crossing through Coahuila, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, and San Luis Potosí states. From the central plateau, the Oriental range appears as a small lip, but from the Gulf, the peaks form an impressive escarpment. During the colonial era, the Veracruz-Jalapa road that crossed the sierra was the principal artery between the coast and the central plateau. The southern tip of the 700-mile-long chain is crowned by 18,760-foot Mount Orizaba (Citlalté-petl), the highest mountain in Mexico.

The Sierra Madre del Sur extends from Mount Orizaba toward the Pacific coast, ending at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. This highly dissected upland area contains knife-edged ridges and steep valleys that cover Guerrero and Oaxaca states. Formed by ancient crystalline rock, the southern highlands average 7,000 feet in height and contain a few peaks over 10,000 feet. The eastern portion of this uplifted area is called the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca. Before the Conquest this area was inhabited by several important Indian groups, notably the Zapotecs and Mixtecs. Twentieth-century economic activities throughout the area have been limited to mining, forestry, coffee production, and subsistence farming.

The smaller Sierra Madre de Chiapas begins east of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, crosses the state of Chipas, and reaches into western Guatemala. It is mostly crystalline rock with some volcanic activity. This area does not seem to have been very populated during pre-Hispanic times and is still sparsely populated. Forestry and coffee are the most important activities in this isolated area.


David Henderson, "Land, Man, and Time," in Six Faces of Mexico, edited by Russell C. Ewing (1966), pp. 103-160.

Jorge L. Tamayo, Geografía moderna de México, 9th ed. (1980).

D. J. Fox, "Mexico," in Latin America: Geographical Perspectives, 2d ed., edited by Harold Blakemore and Clifford Smith (1983), pp. 25-76.

Robert C. West and John P. Augelli, Middle America: Its Lands and Peoples, 3d ed. (1989), pp. 24-31.

Additional Bibliography

Biggers, Jeff. In the Sierra Madre. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Cartron, Jean-Luc E. Biodiversity, Ecosystems, and Conservation in Northern Mexico. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Finerty, Catherine Palmer. In a Village far from Home: My Life among the Cora Indians of the Sierra Madre. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000.

Yetman, David. The Guajíros of the Sierra Madre: Hidden People of Northwestern Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.

                                          Marie D. Price

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Sierra Madre Mountain range in Mexico, from the US border to se Mexico and extending s into Guatemala. It comprises the Sierra Madre Occidental, Sierra Madre Oriental, Sierra Madre del Sur, and the sub-range Sierra Madre del Guatemala. The ranges enclose the central Mexican plateau, and have long been a barrier to ew travel. The main range is 2400km (1500mi) long and c.16–480km (10–300mi) wide. The highest peak is Orizaba (Giltaltepetl) at 5700m (18,700ft).

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