History of Mexico City

The city now known as Mexico City was founded by the Mexica, also called the Aztecs, in 1325. The old Mexica city is now referred to as Tenochtitlan. The Mexica were one of the last of the Nahuatl-speaking peoples who migrated to this part of the Valley of Mexico after the fall of the Toltec Empire. Their presence was resisted by the peoples who were already in the valley, but the Mexica were able to establish a city on a small island on the western side of Lake Texcoco. The Mexica themselves had a story about how their city was founded after being led to the island by their principal god, Huitzilopochtli. According to the story, the god indicated their new home with a sign, an eagle perched on a nopal cactus with a snake in its beak. Between 1325 and 1521, Tenochtitlan grew in size and strength, eventually dominating the other city-states around Lake Texcoco, and in the Valley of Mexico. When the Spaniards arrived, the Aztec Empire reached much of Mesoamerica, touching both the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean.

In 1519, the Spaniards under Hernan Cortes arrived in what is now Mexico. Cortes learned about the political problems of the Aztec Empire and was able to exploit them, enabling him to eventually conquer Tenochtitlan. The Spanish Conquest of Mexico was influenced by the timing of Cortes' arrival. The Aztec ruler, Moctezuma thought that Cortes was the god Quetzalcoatl, who was predicted to return to the land around the year that Cortes and his men appeared. While Cortes and Moctezuma initially treated each other with deference, friction between the Aztecs and the Spaniards soon erupted into violence. This culminated in the eventual siege and destruction of Tenochtitlan, and with it, the Aztec Empire.

The Spaniards rebuilt Tenochtitlan, renaming it Mexico City. They also rebuilt much of the infrastructure of the Aztec Empire, replacing themselves as rulers, with the Roman Catholic Church as the spiritual basis. This inhibited opposition by the natives to Spanish rule. The Spanish colonial city was built using much of the old Aztec layout and was about the same size. The colonial city steadily grew, but flooding was a constant problem. After the Great Flood of 1629, efforts had begun to drain and fill in the lake that surrounded the city. The lake's waters receded as the city continued growing throughout the colonial periods. Mexico City prospered due to trade with Spain, other Spanish colonies in the Americas, and for a time, even with the Philippines and other parts of Asia. Politically, the colony was ruled with a strong hand by the Spanish crown through a viceroy. Mexico City had a noble class, but the title of count, duke etc. only conferred social status, not political power. These titles required the families with title to build opulent residences. At times, this display of wealth bankrupted these families. The concentration of mansions and palaces in what is now the Mexico City historic center led Charles Joseph Latrobe to nickname the city, "The City of Palaces." Such need for pomp however, would lead to serious class rivalry, which led to violence during the Mexican War of Independence and after.

Post-independence, Mexico City was captured by U.S. forces during the Mexican-American War and saw violence during the Reform War and the French Intervention as well as the Mexican Revolution. At the beginning of the 20th century, the city's population stood at about 500,000. The city's history in the 20th and 21st centuries would be marked by explosive population growth and the problems that have accompanied it. The city center deteriorated. and the government had problems keeping up with basic services. Smog became a serious problem as the shanty towns evolved, formed by the poor of the country migrating to the city. Since the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which caused significant damange to the center of the city, efforts have been made to correct some of these problems.

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