Mexico was the site of some of the earliest and most advanced civilizations in
the western hemisphere. The Mayan culture, according to archaeological research,
attained its greatest development about the 6th century AD. Another group, the
Toltec, established an empire in the Valley of Mexico and developed a great
civilization still evidenced by the ruins of magnificent buildings and monuments.
The leading tribe, the Aztec, built great cities and developed an intricate
social, political, and religious organization. Their civilization was highly
developed, both intellectually and artistically. The first European explorer to
visit Mexican territory was Francisco Fernández de Córdoba, who in 1517
discovered traces of the Maya in Yucatán. In 1535, some years after the fall of
the Aztec capital, the basic form of colonial government in Mexico was
instituted with the appointment of the first Spanish viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza.
A distinguishing characteristic of colonial Mexico was the exploitation of the
Native Americans. Although thousands of them were killed during the Spanish
conquest, they continued to be the great majority of inhabitants of what was
referred to as New Spain, speaking their own languages and retaining much of
their native culture. Inevitably they became the laboring class. Their plight
was the result of the 'encomienda' system, by which Spanish nobles, priests, and
soldiers were granted not only large tracts of land but also jurisdiction over
all Native American residents. A second characteristic of colonial Mexico was
the position and power of the Roman Catholic church. Franciscan, Augustinian,
Dominican, and Jesuit missionaries entered the country with the conquistadores.
The Mexican church became enormously wealthy through gifts and bequests that
could be held in perpetuity. Before 1859, when church holdings were
nationalized, the church owned one-third of all property and land. A third
characteristic was the existence of rigid social classes: the Native Americans,
the mestizos, mixed Spanish and Native American (an increasingly large group
during the colonial era), black slaves which were brought from Africa and the
Caribbean, freed blacks and white Mexicans. The white Mexicans were themselves
divided. Highest of all classes was that of the peninsulares, those born in
Spain, as opposed to the criollos, or Creoles—people of pure European descent
who had been born and raised in New Spain. The peninsulares were sent from
Spain to hold the highest colonial offices in both the civil and church
administrations. The peninsulars held themselves higher than the criollos, who
were almost never given high office. The resentment of the criollos became an
influential force in the later movement for independence. In 1808 the viceroy,
under pressure from influential criollos, permitted them to participate in the
administration. Other peninsular officials objected and expelled the viceroy.
In the midst of these factional struggles a political rebellion was begun by the
Mexican people. Mexico has been rocked by political rebellion during most of
its entire history in one way or another. Under the various dictatorships that
Mexico found itself under at times in history, it made tremendous advances in
economic and commercial development. Many of the new undertakings were financed
and managed by foreigners (mostly American and European). This was and
continues to be a major factor in the discontent of most Mexicans. Moreover,
the government favored the rich owners of large estates, increasing their
properties by assigning them communal lands that belonged to the Native
Americans. When the Native Americans revolted, they were sold into peonage.
Discontent, anger and a spirit of revolt continued to grow throughout Mexico.
Madero was elected president in 1911, but was not forceful enough to end the
political strife. Other rebel leaders, particularly Emiliano Zapata and
Francisco (Pancho) Villa, completely refused to submit to presidential authority.
Victoriano Huerta, head of the Madero army, conspired with the rebel leaders
and in 1913 seized control of Mexico City. New armed revolts under Zapata,
Villa, and Venustiano Carranza began, and Huerta resigned in 1914. Carranza
took power in the same year, and Villa at once declared war on him. In addition
to the ambitions of rival military leaders, intervention by foreign governments
seeking to protect the interests of their nationals added to the confusion. In
August 1915, a commission representing eight Latin American countries and the
United States recognized Carranza as the lawful authority in Mexico. The rebel
leaders, except for Villa, laid down their arms. The bandit leader incited his
forces to commit crimes against Americans to show his resentment against the
United States and in 1916 led a raid on Columbus, New Mexico. As a result, an
American force under General John J. Pershing was sent to Mexico. A new
constitution, enacted in 1917, provided for a labor