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Essay/Term paper: Mexico

Essay, term paper, research paper:  World History

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Southward from its 1,500 mile long border with the United States lies
the Estados Unidos Mexicanos. A country with slightly more than 750,000 square
miles in area, Mexico has a vast array of mineral resources, limited
agricultural land, and a rapidly growing population. These factors are the basis
for many of the country's present problems as well as opportunities for future
development. The nation is struggling to modernize its economy. With more than
80 million people in the mid-1980s, Mexico's overall population density exceeds
110 per square mile. More than half of its inhabitants live in the country's
central core, while the arid north and the tropical south are sparsely settled.
The stereotype of Mexico is that it is a country with a population
consisting mainly of subsistence farmers has little validity. Petroleum and
tourism dominate the economy, and industrialization is increasing in many parts
of the nation. Internal migration from the countryside has caused urban centers
to grow dramatically: more than two thirds of all Mexicans now live in cities.
Mexico City, with a metropolitan area population of approximately 16 million
people, is the largest city in the world. While still low by United States
standards, the nation's gross national product per capita rose significantly
during the 1970s. Despite impressive social and economic gains, since 1981
Mexico has been wracked by severe inflation and an enormous foreign debt brought
on in large part by precipitous declines in the value of petroleum products.
Geologically, Mexico is located in one of the Earth's most dynamic areas.
It is a part of the "Ring of Fire," a region around the Pacific Ocean
highlighted by active volcanism and frequent seismic activity. Within the
context of plate tectonics, a theory developed to explain the creation of major
landform features around the world, Mexico is situated on the western, or
leading, edge of the huge North American Plate. Its interaction with the Pacific,
Cocos, and Caribbean plates has given rise over geologic time to the Earth-
building processes that created most of Mexico. Towering peaks, like
Citlaltepetl at some 18,000 feet, are extremely young in geologic terms and are
examples of the volcanic forces that built much of central Mexico. The
spectacular eruption of the volcano Chinchon in 1981 was more powerful than that
of Mount St. Helens in the United States a year earlier and led to widespread
Much of the complexity found in southern Mexico's physiography is
related to the interaction of three tectonic plates. Such interaction creates
regions that are often highly unstable, producing numerous and severe Earth
movements. A 1985 quake, with an epicenter off the coast of Acapulco, caused
billions of dollars in damage nationwide, destroyed hundreds of buildings in
Mexico City, and killed several thousand people. It is on this often unstable
and dynamically active physical environment that the Mexican people must build
their nation.
The plateau can be subdivided into two major sections. The Mesa del
Norte begins near the international border and ends around San Luis Potosi. In
this arid lower part of the plateau, interior drainage predominates with few
permanent streams. On its west side the mesa is flanked by the largely volcanic
Sierra Madre Occidental, with an average height of 8,000 to 9,000 feet (2,400 to
2,700 meters). It has been highly dissected by westward-flowing streams that
eroded a series of deep barrancas, or canyons. The most spectacular of these is
the Barranca del Cobre, Mexico's equivalent of the Grand Canyon. The Sierra
Madre Oriental, a range of folded mountains formed of shale and limestone, is on
the east side of the mesa. With average elevations similar to those of the
Sierra Madre Occidental, these dissected highlands have peaks that reach 13,000
The Mesa Central stretches from San Luis Potosi to the volcanic axis
south of Mexico City. Formed largely by volcanic action, the general plateau
surface of this mesa is higher, moister, and generally flatter than the Mesa del
Norte. The Mesa Central is divided into a series of fairly flat intermountain
basins separated by eroded volcanic peaks. These basins are generally quite
fertile and have been the most densely populated portions of Mexico for several
hundred years. The largest valleys such as those of Mexico City, Puebla, and
Guadalajara rarely exceed 100 square miles in area, while many others are quite
small. The traditional breadbasket of the country, the Bajio of Guanajuato, is
located in the northern part of the mesa. Many of the basins were sites of major
lakes, like those formerly located around Mexico City that were drained to
facilitate European settlement. The weak, structurally unstable soils that
remain have caused numerous buildings to shift on their foundations and over
many years to slowly sink into the ground. The volcanic axis with such
spectacular snowcapped peaks as Popocatepetl at 17,887 feet, Ixtaccihuatl at
17,342 feet, and Toluca at 15,000 feet forms the southern boundary of the
Mexican Plateau.
On the east and west sides of the plateau lie that country's coastal
lowlands. The Gulf Coastal Plain extends from the Texas border to the Yucatan
peninsula, a distance of some 900 miles. Characterized by lagoons and low-lying
swampy areas, the triangular northern portion is more than 100 miles wide near
the border and tapers rapidly toward the south. Inland toward the abrupt
escarpment of the Sierra Madre Oriental is a series of gently undulating plains
dotted by occasional hills and low mountains. Near Tampico an extension of the
Sierra Madre Occidental reaches the sea and interrupts the plain's continuity.
To the south of Tampico it is narrow and irregular. In several places low hills
and isolated volcanic peaks meet the sea and subdivide the plain. It widens at
the northern end of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and then encompasses the
limestone formations that underlie the Yucatan peninsula.
The Rio Balsas and its tributaries drain the Balsas Depression as well
as much of the southern portion of the Mesa Central. Dammed where it crosses the
Sierra Madre del Sur, the Balsas is a major source of hydroelectric power.
Farther south the Grijalva is the main river system. It drains a large part of
the Chiapas Highlands. Dammed in two places, the Grijalva has created a pair of
huge man-made lakes. The Rio Papaloapan, which enters the Gulf of Mexico south
of Veracruz, was dammed in the 1960s in a project modeled after the Tennessee
Valley Authority. The project's aim was to control flooding along the previously
swampy coastal plain and to provide for new agricultural production.
In the north an arid climate and interior drainage limit the size and
number of rivers. By far the major river in this part of the nation is the Rio
Grande in the, which forms the international border. Because both the Sierra
Madre Occidental and the Sierra Madre Oriental originate close to the coastal
margins, streams on the west and east coasts are short and steep. Along the
Pacific Lowlands the Rios Yaqui, Fuerte, and Hunaya have been dammed, and they
support major irrigated acreages. Baja California and the Yucatan peninsula are
essentially devoid of permanent streams.
Because of its topographic diversity and large range in latitude, Mexico
has a wide array of climatic conditions, often occurring in very short distances.
More than half of Mexico lies south of the Tropic of Cancer. Within the tropics,
temperature variations from season to season are small, often less than 10 F
between the warmest and coldest months of the year. In these areas winter is
defined as the rainiest rather than coldest months. The climate also changes
significantly with increases in elevation.
From sea level to just above 2,000 feet is the tierra caliente with
uniformly high temperatures. Acapulco, for example, has an average daily
temperature of approximately 80 F, with the warmest month averaging 83 F and
the coldest about 78 F. The tierra templada extends from 2,000 feet to about
6,000 feet. At an elevation of 4,500 feet, Jalapa has an average daily
temperature of 63.6 F with a yearly range of 9 F. Tierra fria is situated from
about 6,000 to 11,000 feet. Pachuca, at just under 8,000 feet, has an average
annual temperature of 58 F and a yearly range of just 10 F. Above the tierra
fria are the paramos, or alpine pastures, while the tierra helada, or permanent
snow line in central Mexico, is found at roughly 14,000 feet.
The natural wildlife of northern Mexico was severely affected by the
introduction of cattle, sheep, and goats more than 400 years ago. While rabbits
and snakes abound in the deserts and steppes, such larger animals as deer and
mountain lions are found only in isolated or mountainous areas. Massive flocks
of ducks and geese migrate into the northern part of the Sierra Madre Occidental
to winter. A millennium of human habitation has brought about the virtual
elimination of much of the natural fauna throughout the Mesa Central and parts
of the Southern Highlands, especially the Oaxaca Valley. In contrast the rain
forests of the Gulf Coast and Chiapas and the degraded rain forests of the
Pacific coast still provide a largely undisturbed habitat for many animals from
monkeys to parrots to jaguars.
Mexico's population comprises a wide variety of racial and ethnic groups.
At the time of European arrival in the early 1500s, the country was inhabited by
numerous Amerind civilizations. The "Indians" are thought to have migrated into
the New World from Asia some 40,000 to 60,000 years earlier by crossing a former
land bridge in what is now the Bering Straits.
By far the greatest number of people lived in the Mesa Central. Most
were under the general rule of the Aztec Empire, but a great many separate
cultural groups thrived in the region, among them speakers of Tarastec, Otomi,
and Nahuatl. Outside the Mesa Central were numerous other cultural groups such
as the Maya of the Yucatan and the Mixtecs and Zapotecs of Oaxaca. Highly
organized civilizations had occupied various regions of Mexico for at least
2,000 years prior to European discovery. The Aztec cities of the Mesa Central
were marvels of architectural design, irrigation technology, and social
organization. Spectacular Mayan ruins in the Yucatan evidence widespread
urbanization and intense agricultural productivity dating from well before the
Christian Era.
Over the last four centuries descendants of Indians and Europeans,
sometimes called mestizos, have become the dominant group in Mexico. Today they
account for at least two thirds and perhaps three fourths of the total
While Indians are still said to represent nearly a quarter of the
population, in 1980 there were only slightly more than 5 million people who
spoke an Indian language and just over 1 million who spoke only an Indian
language. There are more than 50 Indian languages spoken in the country.
Entirely European-descended people, including many who immigrated during the
last half century, account for about 10 percent of all Mexicans.
One of the more dynamic aspects of Mexico's demography is its rapid rate
of population increase. At present the nation's population is growing at a rate
of 2.6 percent annually. This is about 50 percent higher than the world average
and almost four times the rate of the United States. This growth rate, however,
represents a recent slowing in natural increase. From 1960 to 1980 Mexico
averaged about 3.0 percent annually. This reflects the greatly improved health-
care standards introduced since 1940. These changes allowed a significant
lowering of the death rate, especially infant mortality. The more recent decline
in the growth rate results from increasing urbanization, higher educational
levels, and a lessened dependence on child labor.
In 1910 Mexico had a population of about 15 million, and by 1940 the
number had increased to only 20 million. In 1960 there were more than 34 million
people and by 1970 more than 58 million. The 1980 population surpassed 66
million, and at the end of 1986 it was estimated that it surpassed 80 million.
Such rapid growth has severely taxed the ability of the Mexican Republic to
provide basic social services and economic opportunities for its citizens. It is
estimated that Mexico will have 113 million people by the year 2000.
Traditionally the government has opposed limiting population growth. This
position has been somewhat modified since the late 1970s with continuing high
growth rates and recurring economic difficulties.
More than 50 percent of all Mexicans live on the Mesa Central, which
accounts for only 15 percent of the national territory. Mexico City's urban area
has about 18 percent of the population. Parts of the Gulf Coastal Plain and the
Southern Highlands, especially the Oaxaca Valley, are relatively densely settled,
but southern Baja California, much of the Yucatan peninsula, and large parts of
the Chiapas Highlands are sparsely populated.
Although Spanish speakers form the bulk of the population throughout
most of the country, there are several areas where Indian speakers still
dominate. Mayan speakers are the majority cultural group in the rural Yucatan.
In the Chiapas Highlands and the Southern Highlands, especially the Oaxaca
Valley and more remote parts of the Sierra Madre del Sur, Indian communities
abound, and enclaves of Indians are still significant in isolated mountain areas
on the eastern margin of the Mesa Central.
The movement of people within the nation's borders has drastically
altered the distribution of Mexico's population. Massive migrations of peasants
from rural areas and small towns to cities began in the 1950s, resulting in an
estimated 70 percent of Mexicans now living in cities. This represents a
substantial proportional decline in rural population, which accounted for 50
percent in 1960. In 1987 roughly half of the country's residents lived in cities
with 50,000 inhabitants or more. As a group, Mexican cities have grown at a rate
of more than 5 percent a year since the 1960s.
In addition to internal migration, the number of individuals who have
emigrated from Mexico to the United States illegally has grown sharply since the
1970s. Estimates are highly inaccurate and vary drastically, but it is believed
that somewhere between 4 and 8 million Mexicans relocated illegally to the
United States between 1970 and 1985. An increasing number of highly qualified
technicians and professionals have found their way northward causing a "brain
drain" for Mexico.
Mexico has made great efforts to improve educational and health
opportunities for its people. Despite a rapidly growing population and an
increasingly large number of school-age children, gains are being made in many
areas. As in most Third World countries, social infrastructure is much more
available in cities than in the countryside, but national programs have sought
to provide primary schools and basic health-care centers to all rural areas.
Within the hierarchy of Mexican urban places, Mexico City is the
political, economic, social, educational, and industrial capital of the nation.
The metropolis covers a solidly built-up urbanized area of some 15 by 20 miles.
Despite its already enormous population, Mexico City gains more than 350,000
people per year. By the end of the century the city's population could easily
exceed 25 million.
The famous Aztec pyramids of Teotihuacan are located northeast of the
city, and the floating gardens of Xochimilco are in the southeast. Hundreds of
thousands of Mexicans, many of them peasants, make annual pilgrimages to the
Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is a holy site for the country's Roman
Through the years Mexican writers and artists have received worldwide
acclaim for their creativity and innovation. Within the nation both folk and
classical traditions are strong. The country's most renowned writers have gained
their reputations by dealing with questions of universal significance, as did
Samuel Ramos. Octavio Paz is the foremost poet of Latin America. Carlos Fuentes
is honored throughout the world, Gustavo Sainz is a leader in Spanish-language
literature, and Juan Jose Arreola's fantasies are widely admired. Among
dramatists Rodolfo Usigli was extremely influential during his lifetime, but
more recently Luisa Josefina Hernandez and Emilio Carballido have made
significant contributions to Mexican drama.
In economic terms Mexico is a developing nation. With a 1986 gross
domestic product of approximately United States $2,300 per capita, the country
has a long way to progress before it can provide its people with living
standards similar to the more developed nations. But even this modest figure
represents a major improvement in a relatively short period of time. In constant
1982 dollars Mexico's GDP per capita has increased from about $1,100 in 1960.
Given the steady and rapid population growth rate, the nation's economic growth
has been impressive. Between 1960 and 1980 the GDP grew at an average annual
rate of 6.8 percent. To illustrate the effect of petroleum prices on Mexican
economic growth, in 1981 the GDP increased by 7.9 percent. In 1982, the year of
the price collapse, GDP growth fell to -0.5 percent.
Largely because of the diversity of its physical environment, Mexico
produces a wide array of agricultural products in different parts of its
national territory. Despite the fact that farming and ranching have been the
basic economic activities throughout its history, Mexico has a very limited
amount of good agricultural land. Much of the country is too arid or too
mountainous for crops or grazing. Irrigation is required in many areas to bring
the land into any kind of production. It is estimated that no more than 20
percent of the nation can be classified as potentially arable. Normally only
from 10 to 12 percent of the country's area is planted to crops annually, and
because of weather conditions only half of that is harvested. Only 20 percent of
the cropland in production is irrigated.
The most fertile soils and the largest areas of agricultural land are
located in the Mesa Central, where a dense farming population has been present
for at least 1,000 years. Aridity in the north and dense tropical vegetation in
much of the south have hampered the spread of agriculture to these areas.
Ranching has been extended into many areas considered marginal for crops.
Slightly less than a fifth of Mexico's national territory is forested.
It is estimated that nearly two thirds of the country was covered by forests in
the mid-1500s, but indiscriminate exploitation decimated the resource. While
conservation methods are now practiced in some of the pine forests in the north,
the uprooting of rain forest continues elsewhere.
Metallic minerals have been a significant part of the economy throughout
the nation's history. Silver was long the most valuable product mined, and
Mexico was the world's leading producer until about 1970. The major mining area
during the colonial period was the Silver Belt, a region that extended from
Zacatecas and Guanajuato in the northern part of the Mesa Central into Chihuahua
on the Mesa del Norte. San Luis Potosi was an eastern outpost. The Silver Belt
is still the primary region of mineral production, but the focus is now on
industrial rather than precious minerals.
exico's nearly 5,500 miles (8,850 kilometers) of coastline is richly
endowed with marine resources. Seafood products do not form a major part of the
Mexican diet despite attempts to increase it, so the nation's fishing industry
has not yet been developed to its potential. Commercial exploitation of ocean
products has occurred only since the 1940s.
Mexico has rich shrimping grounds in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Gulf of
California, and along the southern Pacific coast. The gulf coast from Tampico to
the United States border and from Veracruz to Campeche has been fished
commercially since the 1940s, producing about 25,000 tons of shrimp in 1984. The
Gulf of California shrimping grounds were not exploited on a large scale until
the late 1950s but are now the most productive. More than 40,000 tons of shrimp
were taken there in 1984, with another 10,000 tons landed in the far south.
Petroleum is Mexico's primary economic asset. Nearly 70 percent of the
nation's foreign-exchange earnings are derived from the sale of oil and natural
gas, the overwhelming majority of which is exported to the United States.
Petroleum is seen as the commodity capable of creating enough resources to bring
about significant changes in the country's social and economic systems. Oil
money will be used to create jobs, improve infrastructure, and finance social
programs. Oil revenues could lead to the modernization of Mexico.
exico is the most industrialized country in Latin America after Brazil.
A disproportionate share of manufacturing is located in the Mexico City
metropolitan area largely because of its huge market and superior infrastructure.
Its impressive array of manufacturing includes everything from agricultural
processing to automotive assemblage and electronics to iron and steel production.
Most of the country's industrial jobs are located in this urban area, acting as
a magnet to migrants from throughout Mexico.
Because of its physical diversity and economic status, Mexico has had a
difficult time creating an integrated transportation network. Although it was
one of the first in Latin America to develop railway lines, the nation is joined
together by an extensive but inefficient state-owned railway system.
Major rail routes extend outward from the Mexico City hub along the west
coast to Mexicali, through the Central Plateau to El Paso and Laredo, via the
Gulf Coastal Plain to the Yucatan peninsula, and south to Oaxaca. Rail traffic,
both for passengers and freight, is slow and unreliable.
Tourism is a growth industry in Mexico. The country attracted visitors,
especially from the United States, for many years, but in relatively limited
numbers. Historically these tourists came to visit Mexico City and surrounding
colonial towns in the Mesa Central and to see the archaeological ruins at
Tenochtitlan and Tulum. More adventurous tourists went to the Mayan ruins of the
Yucatan or to the Indian-dominated Oaxaca Valley. People later discovered
Mexico's beaches, and the government invested heavily in this sector of the
Before the Spanish arrival in 1519, Mexico was occupied by a large
number of Indian groups with very different social and economic systems. In
general the tribes in the arid north were relatively small groups of hunters and
gatherers who roamed extensive areas of sparsely vegetated deserts and steppes.
These people are often referred to as Chichimecs, though they were a mixture of
several linguistically distinctive cultural groups.
In the rest of the country the natives were agriculturalists, which
allowed the support of dense populations. Among these were the Maya of the
Yucatan, Totonac, Huastec, Otomi, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Tlaxcalans, Tarascans, and
Aztecs. A number of these groups developed high civilizations with elaborate
urban centers used for religious, political, and commercial purposes. The Mayan
cities of Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Palenque, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan,
Tzintzuntzan of the Tarastec, and Monte Alban of the Zapotecs are examples.
By AD 1100 the Toltecs had conquered much of central and southern Mexico
and had established their capital at Tula in the Mesa Central. They also built
the city of Teotihuacan near present-day Mexico City. At about the same time,
the Zapotecs controlled the Oaxaca Valley and parts of the Southern Highlands.
The cities they built at Mitla and Monte Alban remain, though they were taken
over by the Mixtecs prior to the arrival of the Spanish.
When the Spanish arrived in central Mexico, the Aztecs controlled most
of the Mesa Central through a state tribute system that extracted taxes and
political servility from conquered tribal groups. The Aztecs migrated into the
Mesa Central from the north and fulfilled a tribal prophesy by establishing a
city where an eagle with a snake in its beak rested on a cactus. This became the
national symbol of Mexico and adorns the country's flag and official seal. The
Aztecs founded the city of Tenochtitlan in the early 1300s, and it became the
capital of their empire. The Tlaxcalans to the east, the Tarascans on the west,
and the Chichimecs in the north were outside the Aztec domain and frequently
warred with them. The nation's name derives from the Aztecs' war god, Mexitli.


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