Mexico City: What Makes This Capital A World Class Gem?

by Shelli Stein

One of the most fascinating cities on Earth is Mexico City. What makes it so notable? Of course, its size. At 22 million+ it makes Mexico City the fifth largest city on earth (#4 Sao Paulo; #3 Shanghai; #2 Delhi; #1 Tokyo). It is the largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere. About 20% of Mexico’s population lives in Mexico City (also called Mexico, D.F. for distrito federal). And on an interesting note, Mexico City has the largest population of Americans who live outside of the United States (700,000).

Mexico City: A City of Contrasts

This metropolis, located in south central Mexico, is about 800 miles from the U.S. border. Yet for many reasons it seems a world away. It is a place of contrasts, reflecting the mixture of cultures, social classes, and colonias (neighborhoods). The city is known for its concentration of wealthy and powerful citizens (and foreign elites) and its impoverished and working class individuals living in ghettoes and shantytowns.

The many neighborhoods or zones that comprise Mexico City include modern high rise structures and malls, with surrounding communities built in more European style architecture. Wide, tree-lined boulevards make up the grid of the downtown area.

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Mexicans born in the city are sometimes called chilangos. Even today society is divided by race and social class. People with indigenous ancestry and mestizos (those with mixed European and Indian blood) are part of the lower and middle-class in Mexico City. Those of European ancestry who have light skin or are criollos live in the wealthier areas. Many critics of Mexican City culture maintain that skin color is a big factor in social mobility.

To understand the culture and magic of Mexico City, it’s important to have a sense of its history. The rich land and appealing location made this a contentious site with a succession of invaders, revolutionaries, and reformers. The city’s history tells the story of bloodshed and betrayal as the Europeans (and then the Mexicans) took the land from the indigenous inhabitants.

Mexico City: The Early History

Mexico City is located in a valley that was home to several indigenous groups from 100 to 900 A.D. These tribes were related to the Toltecas, who established Tula in approximately 850 A.D. in the modern-day state of Hidalgo. When the Toltecas declined in power and influence, the Acolhula, Chichimeca and Tepenaca cultures rose up in their place.

During the Aztec period, Mexico City was initially built over a lake, the Lago de Texcoco. These early Aztecs created an artificial island by moving soil into the lagoon. Later, the Spaniards built a second Mexico City on top of the Tenochtitlán ruins.

In 1325 A.D. the Mexicas (later known as the Aztecs) people established Tenochtitlán. Its development fulfilled their prophecies that their god would let them know where to locate a great city by providing a sign: an eagle eating a snake from on top of a cactus. The Aztecs saw the vision come true on an island in Lake Texcoco, so that is how Mexico City got its start.

The Aztecs were fierce warriors who eventually dominated other tribes throughout the region. They took what was once a small natural island in Lake Texcoco and expanded it by hand to create their home and fortress, the beautiful Tenochtitlán. Their civilization, like their city, eventually became the largest and most powerful in pre-Columbian America.

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The Aztecs dominated all of Mesoamerica during this era, making a few allies but more enemies. In 1519 when Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés began to conquer the area, many indigenous groups seized the opportunity to liberate themselves from Aztec rule and joined his army.

When Cortés arrived, Moctezuma II believed that the Spaniards were related to the god Quetzalcóatl, whose return had been prophesied. Moctezuma sent gifts to the Spanish, hoping they would spare his city and leave. But to the contrary, Cortés invaded the city with his troops.

Not wishing to offend a god, Moctezuma welcomed Cortés and his soldiers and extended every courtesy. After enjoying the king’s hospitality for several weeks, Cortés arrested Moctezuma, using him to gain leverage with the Aztecs. For months after, Moctezuma continued to appease his captors, losing most of his subjects’ respect in the process. In 1520, Cortés and his troops conquered the Tenochtitlán. The Spanish then built Mexico City on the ruins of the once great city.

Spanish Colonial Period

During the colonial period (1535-1821), Mexico City was one of the most important cities in the Americas. Although the native Indians needed work permits to enter the Spanish-dominated city, the population inevitably intermingled and created the Mestizo class, mixed-blood citizens who eventually became a political force. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the caste system prevailed in Mexico City, separating the population into complex ethnic divisions including the Mestizos, Criollos and Coyotes. The Catholic Church had great influence in the city, and religious orders like the Franciscans, Marists and Jesuits established convents and missions throughout Mexico.

The Spanish Crown’s power relied on the support and loyalty of New Spain’s aristocracy. Political power remained in the hands of the Spaniards born in Spain, but by the 18th century, the criollo class (descendants of the Spanish who were born in the Americas) had grown in number and social power. The struggle for recognition and favor among the various classes drew attention to the country’s political corruption and helped spark the independence movement.

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Mexico’s Independence from Spain

The catalyst for Mexico’s independence was a Catholic priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, who made the first public cry for rebellion in Dolores, Hidalgo, in 1810. Hidalgo had begun attending meetings of educated criollos who were agitating for a large-scale uprising of mestizos and indigenous peasants. Discontent with Spanish rule was spreading rapidly throughout the country. When rumors of military intervention by the Spanish began, the priest decided it was time to act. Parishioners who came to hear mass on Sunday, September 16, 1810, instead heard a call to arms. Sparked by the energy of the grassroots rebellion, militant revolutionary armies formed quickly.

Mexico’s Distrito Federal was created in 1824, originally encompassing Mexico City and several other municipalities. A period of relative peace prevailed for the next couple of decades.

In 1846, Mexico City was invaded by the United States during the Mexican-American War. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war in 1848, Mexico was forced to cede a huge portion of its northern territory to the United States.

On July 17, 1861, Mexican President Benito Juárez suspended all interest payments to Spain, France and Britain, who launched a combined assault on Veracruz in January 1862. When Britain and Spain withdrew their forces, the French took control of the country. Supported by Mexican conservatives and by French Emperor Napoleon III, Maximiliano de Hamburgo arrived in 1864 to rule Mexico. His policies were more liberal than expected, but he soon lost Mexican support and was assassinated on June 19, 1867, when the liberal government of Benito Juárez regained Mexico’s leadership of the country.

The next government was ruled by Porfirio Díaz in 1876. A cunning and manipulative politician, Díaz maintained power for the next 36 years through violence, election fraud and repression, even assassination, of his opponents.

Mexico Into the 20th Century

By 1910, the citizenry lost patience with Díaz’s self-serving leadership and unwillingness to recognize minority rights. Díaz was ousted. Revolutionary forces led by the men such as Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata took power. Political turmoil and power exchanges continued for over a decade, ending with the establishment of the Partido Nacional Revolucionario party (today’s PRI), which ushered in a period of stability for Mexico City and the rest of the country as well. This lasted until 2000.

Mexico City experienced an explosion of growth in the second half of the 20th century. This was due in part to migration from other parts of Mexico. The population swelled from 3 million in 1950 to 14 million in 1980.

The 1968 Summer Olympic Games drew thousands of people to the city, and brought international attention.

Amazing Mexico City is also known for its world-class museums, parks, universities, and cultural events including opera, dance, and theater. And the food……..oh the food!

Mexico City Economy

Mexico D.F. is the economic backbone of the state of México. The region’s economy contributes almost a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product. The service sector makes up most of the city’s economy, with another portion coming from manufacturing.

But there is also a more hidden sector of the economy which compensates for the high unemployment rates: the informal work of day laborers, candy and gum sellers, shoeshine men, street performers, dog walkers, and garbage scavengers, to name a few. Of course there is also a black market economy that includes crime, drug dealing, and prostitution.

You might wonder about the governance of such a vast and complicated city. Residents of Mexico City elect a mayor for a 6-year term. The city has tended to have left-wing politicians, with contrasting views to the usually right wing national president of Mexico.

The city government resides in the historic Zócalo compound in downtown Mexico City. A legislative assembly makes and reviews laws and policies.

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Amazing Sites Around Mexico City

Chapultapec Park is at the top of the list! Spending time in Chapultapec is one of my favorite ways to enjoy the city.

The park’s history dates back to Aztec emperors who used the area as a retreat. It was built around Chapultapec Hill, a mount that overlooks the city. There are four sections to the park, including the zoo, several museums, and the castle.

The Aztecs thought the land was sacred where Chapultapec now stands. The first palace was constructed in the 1400s. Monctezuma I and II developed the park during their reigns, adding reservoirs, plants, and statues.

When the Spaniards arrived, they claimed Chapultapec Hill. The Mexicans claimed the area after their independence in 1821. In the Mexican-American War of 1947, the Battle of Chapultapec was fought there. A succession of Mexican presidents lived in the castle through the 1940s. This is about the time the castle was converted into a museum that you can visit today.

The Frida Kahlo Museum is located in the Coyoacan neighborhood od Mexico City. Her house and studios were restored to show visitors Kahlo’s life and work.

The Zocalo, also known as the Plaza de la Constitucion, is an enormous plaza downtown. It has been the site of political history over the decades, including demonstrations and riots. The area around the Zocalo also includes the iconic Palacio de Bellas Artes—Palace of Fine Arts. Diego Rivera’s murals are in the lobby.

Famous neighborhoods of Mexico City include the trendy areas of Roma and Condesa. These neighborhoods are in the process of gentrification, with many buildings being restored. The Polanco neighborhood is fun to explore, especially with the trendy stores, restaurants, and parks.

You might be surprised to know that while Mexico is overwhelmingly a Catholic country, Mexico City is home to about 40,000 Jewish citizens, many of whom are Orthodox. This Orthodox population lives mainly in the Polanco area.

The Floating Gardens of Xochimilco is a popular destination for visitors. This World Heritage Site suggests what the Valley of Mexico might have looked like before the Spaniards arrived. The Gardens are about a 40 minute drive south of Mexico City.

Historians believe that the Aztecs created a lake and canal system that connected the various settlements in the area. The “gardens” were once rafts made of reeds and mud from the canal bottom. They might have grown vegetables and fruit.

Today tourists can take a trajinera or gondola along the waterways.

Finally: The National Museum of Anthropology is a “must see.”

The monumental building includes 22 exhibition halls, gardens, terraces, and other facilities. The museum was founded in 1825, and the building was constructed in 1963. You can think of this as a collection of museums. Eleven separate galleries provide extensive displays covering the various time periods of Mexico’s past (from pre-classical to more modern), as well as focus on the many indigenous cultures that comprise Mexico. These include exhibits on the Toltecs, the Mayans, the cultures of Oaxaca, and much more.

Among other artifacts, the museum houses the Stone of the Sun, the Aztec Calendar stone.

Is Mexico City Safe?

Mexico City gets a bad rap for crime. The Department of State has determined most of Mexico to be under a travel advisory.

According to the Department of State:

Exercise increased caution due to crime. Both violent and non-violent crime occur throughout Mexico City. Use additional caution, particularly at night, outside of the frequented tourist areas where police and security patrol more routinely. Petty crime occurs frequently in both tourist and non-tourist areas.

What’s Mexico City really like?

A September blog post by Hernán Gonzales tells us that Mexico City has a lower crime rate than New York City, with a lower homicide rate than Chicago. Gonzales writes that Mexico City is “generally safe,” though it is known for petty thefts like pickpocketing, and various scams. Most tourist websites agree that it is not a good idea to wander around at night.

Some neighborhoods are definitely dangerous for visitors. There are gangs, drugs, prostitution, and a number of other nefarious activities that happen in particular parts of the city. Even the Centro Historico (Historic Downtown), a popular tourist destination, can be questionable for visitors.

It’s interesting to note that there is a high ratio of police to civilians in Mexico City (1:100), and there are many police and security officers in tourist areas like Polanco.

Final Thoughts

Mexico City is an example of reinvention: decade by decade and century by century, the Mexican people have blended cultures and resources to face the future.

Feeling inspired? I suggest, because Mexico City is one of my favorite destinations, you go and see for yourself. The sites, sounds, and tastes of this incredible city just might win you over!

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Christian February 17, 2024 - 11:10 pm

Nice perspectives on a lovely city. It’s been many a year since I was in Mexico City but I remember thinking when I was around 20 that it was like Paris except with nice people. A bit snarky perhaps but it’s tough to view the Mexicans as less than hospitable. The food is certainly good and the history is outstanding. I personally adored the Anthropological Museum as it was simply stunning. I think you’ve reawakened my interest in going back. How’s the air quality?

Shelli Stein February 17, 2024 - 11:19 pm

Great comment, Christian. Gracias! I visit often and don’t have much of a reaction to air quality there. I do notice it can get smoggy, can depend on the season, and for sure people do have reactions. I wouldn’t let that deter you though :)) Disfruta!


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