Until 1521, the region now known as Mexico was home to Aztecs. That year, conquerors from Spain came and took over the area. They attacked the Aztecs with advanced weapons. And they carried smallpox. Once in power, the Spanish forced Christianity and social and economic systems on the native Aztecs. For the next 300 years, the Spanish invaders and their heirs were in charge.
A caste system formed in Mexico during this time. There were criollos, or people with Spanish blood. They thought these people were upper-class and important. They were landowners and controlled the economy. There were also mestizos, or people with “mixed” blood. Mestizos were the majority class, but they had the least power and wealth. This system was called La Encomienda and was very unfair. Only criollos could own land. They treated the mestizos poorly. They made the mestizos work the land and treated them like enslaved people.
From 1810 to 1821, Mexico waged a war for its independence. At the end of the war, Mexico was free from Spanish and European rule. When this war ended, mestizos became even more unhappy at their treatment. They believed they should hold more power and land. A new constitution in 1857 promised more equality, better economic opportunity, and a fair justice system.
Porfirio Díaz became president in 1876. He seemed to be a leader with good intentions. Díaz built roads and railroads. He started policies for economic improvement. The longer Díaz held the presidency, the more people questioned his power.
Rural people didn’t see the same benefits as those in cities. Wealth seemed to flow only to the privileged. Díaz again ran for re-election in 1910. He jailed his chief opponent, Francisco Madero. Madero believed in bringing democracy back to a government that Díaz had turned into a dictatorship.
With Díaz president again in October 1910, Mexican people saw no hope for honest elections. Madero fled to the United States. On November 20, 1910, while living in Texas, he urged people to revolt against Díaz. No major battles took place that day. The date marks the start of the Mexican Revolution. Díaz resigned and left Mexico in May 1911. Madero returned from exile and was elected president that same year.
For the next 10 years, a few battles took place. Famous revolutionaries like Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Venustiano Carranza organized forces. Over the course of the civil war, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans died.
A new constitution in 1917 brought education and workforce reforms. Schooling was free and mandatory for the first time. It urged the government to care for the social and economic well-being of all Mexicans. Many believe the war ended in 1920, though fighting continued for several more years. Only in 1934, when Lázaro Cárdenas became president, did democracy really replace dictators in Mexico.
The Mexican Revolution was the first war to be recorded on film. It also brought about a program using artists to tell the story of the revolution. Muralists like Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco painted on the walls of public buildings. Their works told the tales of the war and recorded the lives of everyday people. For a country with a high illiteracy rate before schooling was widely available, these paintings were educational.
Corridos, or storytelling songs, shared tales from the revolution. Leaders receive heroic treatment in these songs. They shamed rulers who treated Mexican people poorly. Each Mexican state has its own corrido that retells important events. These songs remain important today in remembering Mexican history.