For the couple thousand years before the first Spanish conquistadors landed in what we now call Mexico and declared it property of their King, vast and vibrant empires such as those of the Olmecs, the Maya and the Aztecs ruled in successive waves. (Check out this possible timeline.) When the Spanish explorer Francisco Hernández de Córdoba arrived in 1519 some indigenous Mexicans welcomed him, others were wary. (If you were an Aztec in 1519 living in the capital Tenochtitlan under the rule of Montezuma II and you met a Spanish man named Hernán Cortés in a dark alley you were wise to be wary.)
Wary or not, the Spanish defeated all indigenous armies, quickly absorbed the existing population into their empire, imposed an indentured-servitude-style system known as “encomienda,” brought Spanish language, culture and religion to the land, and ruled “New Spain” for three hundred years. An unlikely coalition of surviving indigenous people, the increasing population of indigenous/Spanish “mestizos,” and conservative Mexican landowners who objected to the comparatively liberal policies of France’s Napoleon I (who had conquered Spain in 1802, installing his brother to the Spanish throne), eventually earned the nation its independence in 1821. Many Mexican governments rose and fell over the next hundred years, leading to the general instability that made Mexico vulnerable to strengthening powers like the United States, which captured a substantial portion of Mexico’s land in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, and even to France which invaded in 1861 and ruled until 1867. In the 1910s the Mexican population, following leaders such as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, overthrew the ruling Spanish landowners and declared Mexico a land for all its people. The revolutionary political party, eventually called the Partido Revoluionario Institucioinal (PRI), then effectively installed a system of one party rule. PRI dominance lasted for the next 70 years. In the year 2000 Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) finally broke the PRI political monopoly and became president. Since then, Mexico has faced some challenging times, especially in recent years (the 2008 global recession, the 2009 swine flu epidemic, terrifying drug trade violence…).
On 1 January 1994, Mexico joined the United States and Canada in “free trade” by signing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — like it or not. (Or, like the Zapatistas in Chiapas, really not.) This arrangement has softened trade borders, even while the issue of the physical Mexico/U.S. border and who is allowed to legally cross it continues to be contentious (to say the least). With several million Mexicans living in the U.S., legally documented or not, and problems on each side of the border flowing so freely to the other (the 2008 global recession, the 2009 swine flu epidemic, current and increasing drug trade violence), the futures of the United States and Mexico are inextricably, though not always comfortably, bound.