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Introduction; Mexico City and Its Metropolitan Area; Population; Education and Culture; Recreation; Economy; Government; Contemporary Issues; History
Mexico City, capital of Mexico and the center of the nation's political, cultural, and economic life. Its population of 18.7 million (2003 estimate) makes Mexico City one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. It is also the seat of Mexico's powerful, centralized federal government. Much of the political decision-making for the nation takes place in Mexico City. Culturally, Mexico City dominates the nation since most of Mexico's leading universities, intellectual magazines, newspapers, museums, theaters, performing arts centers, and publishing firms are located in the capital.
Mexico City is built on the ruins of Tenochtitlán, which was the capital of the Aztec Empire. The Aztec developed an advanced civilization and dominated most of Mexico during the 15th and early 16th centuries. In the early 16th century Spanish explorers landed in Mexico and conquered the Aztec. The Spaniards founded Mexico City on the ruins of the Aztec capital, and it soon became the leading urban center in Spain’s American colonies. Mexico won its independence in the 1820s, and Mexico City became the capital of the new nation.
Mexico City expanded at a phenomenal rate in the 20th century. The metropolitan area absorbed surrounding communities and rural areas to become a sprawling, modern urban center with a thriving economy. The city's rapid growth resulted in major urban problems, including poor housing, pollution, inadequate sanitation, and uncertain water supplies.
Mexico City falls within the jurisdiction of the Federal District (in Spanish, Distrito Federal), which is the seat of Mexico’s federal government. The Federal District functions as the state and city government for Mexico City and the other communities within its jurisdiction. The Federal District borders the states of Mexico on the north and Morelos on the south.
Mexico City is located in the south central portion of the country. It lies at the southern edge of the Mexican central plateau in the Valley of Mexico, a basin at an altitude averaging 2,300 m (7,500 ft). The Valley of Mexico is ringed by a series of mountain ranges. On the eastern edge of the basin are the permanently snow-capped twin volcanoes, Iztaccíhuatl (5,286 m/17,343 ft) and Popocatépetl (5,452 m/17,887 ft). To the west, the mountains separate the Valley of Mexico from the Valley of Toluca and the Lerma River basin, the present source of much of the city's water. The surrounding mountains can trap air pollution within the valley, particularly when there is a thermal inversion (warmer air passing over the valley and trapping cooler ground air beneath it).
Mexico City’s climate is fairly consistent and steady, a product of both the city's latitude, which is south of the Tropic of Cancer, and its elevation of 2,239 m (7,347 ft). Although the city is located in a tropical climatic zone, the city's extremely high elevation produces a moderate climate with a narrow range of temperatures. The average annual temperature is 16°C (61°F). The coolest season runs from November to February; the coolest month is January, with average temperatures ranging from a high of 21°C (70°F) to a low of 7°C (44°F). The warmest period is from April to June; the average temperatures in May range from a high of 26°C (78°F) to a low of 12°C (54°F). Mexico City has a distinct rainy season from June through October, during which four-fifths of its annual 850 mm (33 in) of rainfall occurs.
Mexico City covers an area of 1,480 sq km (571 sq mi). It is the central, urban core of the Federal District, which was created around the capital city by the 1824 constitution. The Federal District occupies an area of 1,547 sq km (597 sq mi).
However, the larger metropolitan area of the capital extends well into the neighboring states of Mexico and Morelos. The metropolitan area largely fills the basin floor of the Valley of Mexico. Its urban development has engulfed a number of old, once-independent towns, such as Coyoacán, creating surprising pockets of colonial architecture in the midst of 21st-century suburban sprawl. Growth has extended to the western edge of the basin and is beginning to creep up the foothills on its western face. To the south the city has reached the town of Tlalpan on the edge of the valley. To the east, poorer areas stretch for miles in a string of ciudades perdidas (Spanish for “lost cities”).
A classic example of the city’s unchecked expansion is the sprawling neighboring community of Netzahualcóyotl, in the state of Mexico. Economically and socially an integral part of Mexico City, the settlement was a sparsely populated lake bed in 1960. Its population grew to a little more than 500,000 people in 1970 and then more than doubled to 1,140,528 in 2005, making it one of the largest cities in the country. It had to deal with problems characteristic of much of the greater metropolitan area. In the late 1990s only 10 percent of the streets in Netzahualcóyotl were paved, and few public services were available. The people faced poverty, massive unemployment, malnutrition, and soaring infant mortality rates.
Since Aztec times the Zócalo, known officially as the Plaza of the Constitution, has been the hub of Mexico City. During the Aztec Empire, this public square was the point where three great causeways converged to connect the city, which was an island in Lake Texcoco, to the mainland empire. Archaeological excavations have exposed the lower levels of the Aztec pyramids and temples in both the Templo Mayor, just behind the Zócalo, and the Plaza of the Three Cultures, a short distance to the north. The excavations are important not only as archaeological sites but also as symbols of Mexico's rich past.
When the Spaniards conquered the Aztec in 1521, the Spaniards destroyed a great Aztec palace and temple at the site. They replaced them with a church and palace. The small, original Spanish church on the north side of the plaza was replaced by the Metropolitan Cathedral, which was built between 1573 and 1813. On the plaza's eastern side is the National Palace, the present seat of the Mexican government. Spanish colonial authorities began building the palace in the late 17th century to replace the residence of the Spanish viceroy (colonial governor), erected by conqueror Hernán Cortés and destroyed by rioters in 1692. Work on the palace continued intermittently throughout the 1900s, and the entrance is now adorned with murals by 20th-century Mexican painter Diego Rivera.
A rather austere and daunting public space, the Zócalo is the scene of major public ceremonies and military displays. The Zócalo continues to be filled with significance for many Mexicans. It is a sacred place for Native Americans seeking to identify with their precolonial past. It is also a rallying point for political protesters and the location for massive Independence Day celebrations each year on September 16.
Slightly to the west of the Zócalo, in the heart of the city's commercial and shopping district, is the Alameda, a park of tree-lined walks laid out in 1592. The park is bordered on the east by the imposing 19th-century Palace of Fine Arts, with its theater and murals. Also nearby is the 44-story Latin American Tower, downtown Mexico City's tallest structure, which houses professional and commercial offices.
Farther to the west is the Paseo de la Reforma, an elegant, tree-lined boulevard that is 60 m (200 ft) wide. Seven landscaped traffic circles, or glorietas, line the Paseo de la Reforma and are marked by monuments honoring Mexico's past. These monuments include landmarks such as the statues of Mexican president Benito Juárez and the “Angel of the Independence,” a symbol of Mexico's national identity.
The Paseo de la Reforma passes some of Mexico City's finest shops, embassies, and offices on its southwesterly course to the 400-hectare (1,000-acre) Chapultepec Park. Stands of trees fill the park, which has extensive recreational facilities, including a lake, fountains, museums, a zoo, and an astronomical observatory. In precolonial times Aztec emperors used Chapultepec as a retreat. Today it offers some indication of the former natural beauty of the valley.
The park houses some of Mexico's most important public buildings, including Chapultepec Castle. Construction of the castle began in 1783. Positioned on the park’s highest elevation, the castle functioned as a fortress during colonial times. It once served as the presidential residence and now houses the National Museum of History, which includes murals by 20th-century Mexican painter Juan O'Gorman. Los Pinos, the official residence and working offices of the president, is also on the grounds, but it is not open to the public.
Chapultepec Park also contains several museums. The most important is the National Museum of Anthropology. Other museums include Mexico's Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Natural History. (These museums are described below in the section Education and Culture.)
Mexico City's major north-south artery is the Avenida Insurgentes, which stretches 30 km (21 mi). It crosses the Paseo de la Reforma just north of the tourist area known as the Zona Rosa (Spanish for “Pink Zone”). Within this neighborhood are many of the principal hotels, restaurants, and fashionable stores catering to the tourist trade.
Southward along the Avenida Insurgentes, various stages of the city's growth can be seen. In Colonia Juárez, just south of the Paseo de la Reforma, are elegant 19th-century mansions from the era of Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz. Less distinguished housing of pre-1940 vintage is located farther south. Finally, as the Avenida Insurgentes approaches the city’s boundaries, more affluent neighborhoods appear, with modern buildings, restaurants, and boutiques.
At the southern edge of the city, the National Autonomous University of Mexico straddles the Avenida Insurgentes. On the western part of the campus is the 100,000-seat Mexico 68 Olympic Stadium, site of the 1968 Olympic Games. Just east of the Avenida Insurgentes is the university's main library. The building and its famous tile mosaic exterior were designed by Juan O’Gorman. Three-dimensional murals by Diego Rivera adorn the rectory on the main campus slightly farther to the east.
Outside the city, in the state of Mexico, lie major archaeological sites, including two important pyramids located at Teotihuacán, the capital of an ancient pre-Aztec civilization. The two pyramids face each other on a north-south axis and are known as the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. Massive in size and height, they provide an extraordinary view of the surrounding region.
Mexico's leading religious shrine is located just north of Mexico City in the community of Gustavo A. Madero (formerly Guadalupe Hidalgo). In this community is a basilica that marks the site of the appearance of the Virgin Mary to an indigenous peasant in 1531. The Virgin of Guadalupe, as the apparition came to be called, became a symbol for Mexican forces fighting to gain independence from Spain in the early 1800s. As the patron saint of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe is revered by millions of Mexicans. The shrine attracts more religious pilgrims than any other site in the country.
The population of Mexico City proper was 13,096,686 in 2000. The population of the metropolitan area reached 18.7 million in 2003. The city's population growth was phenomenal during most of the 20th century, spurred by migration from the provinces and a high birth rate. From 1950 through 1970, the city’s population grew 4.2 percent a year, from 3,050,000 in 1950 to 6,874,000 in 1970. By 1980 the national census reported 8,831,000 people residing in Mexico City. But from 1970 to 1990 the annual growth rate decreased to only 0.9 percent.
In part, the growth rate slowed after the mid-1970s because the government introduced a population control policy. As late as 1970, the government denied that a population problem existed. However, during the administration of Mexican president Luis Echeverría Álvarez (1970-1976) the government began a concerted effort to reduce birth rates, providing information on family planning through the national system of social security hospitals. In the capital, the government began an advertising campaign suggesting smaller families as an ideal.
The government also began to encourage the creation of jobs in other regions of Mexico, which led to a sharp decrease in migration into Mexico City. From 1985 to 1990, the Federal District lost over a million people, more than any Mexican state. Nonetheless, in 1990 about 22 percent of the city's population had been born outside the metropolitan region. During the 1980s and 1990s, the average age of the population in the metropolitan area increased as younger residents left Mexico City to pursue economic opportunities elsewhere. The median age in the Federal District was 23 in 1990, higher than any of the states.
In 1995 the overall population density was about 6,600 persons per sq km (17,200 per sq mi). In the past, the city center was by far the most densely settled part of the city. However, since the 1940s the outlying areas have absorbed most of the population increase. Not surprisingly, the Federal District is more urban than any of the Mexican states, with 99.7 percent of the population living in communities with more than 2,500 inhabitants.
Most of the people who live in Mexico City are mestizos—people of both Spanish and indigenous descent. Nevertheless, variations exist within the mestizo population based on the ratio of Spanish to indigenous ancestry. Most of the people in the city speak Spanish. Mexico City has relatively few individuals who still speak Native American languages, unlike other regions of the country. In 1990 only 1.5 percent of Federal District residents spoke Native American languages, compared to 7.5 percent nationally.
The major condition dividing the city's population is wealth. The capital is a city of sharp social contrasts. Wealthy residential sections are characterized by housing and suburban retail centers that rival the most luxurious in the world. A person can travel for miles in the affluent western and southern parts of the city without awareness of being in an underdeveloped nation. These neighborhoods are often in sharp contrast to the poorer sections, where housing is substandard, access to utilities and services is limited, and the standard of living is well below the poverty level. These less affluent neighborhoods are found in the center of the city and to the north and east.
Ninety-two percent of the population professes membership in the Roman Catholic Church. Only 3.2 percent are Protestant, and less than 0.3 percent are Jewish. The Roman Catholic Church plays an influential social and cultural role in the city. More residents are members of church-affiliated organizations than of any other type. Led by one of Mexico's cardinals, the diocese of Mexico City is the most important in the country. It frequently publishes statements criticizing political and societal problems and emphasizing the need to reduce economic poverty.
Mexico City dominates the country's cultural life with a disproportionate number of universities, museums, and cultural institutions. One-third of Mexico's institutions of higher learning are located in the capital, including its largest and most prestigious universities. Most people who are educated in the capital remain there because universities provide the primary source of employment for cultural leaders in Mexico.
The dominant educational institution is the National Autonomous University of Mexico, which moved to its present site, known as University City, in 1952. Its rapid rise in enrollment, from 40,000 in 1960 to 135,000 in the mid-1990s, reflects both the increase in the city's population and the rising aspirations of Mexicans. To accommodate the soaring student enrollments of the 1970s, the government created the Metropolitan Autonomous University, the largest university system in the country. It provides a series of large campuses in various areas of the city, including working-class neighborhoods. These campuses have increased access to higher education among lower-income social groups.
Also of note is the National Polytechnic University. Another institution, the Colegio de México, patterned after the United States university system, is widely known for its graduate program and its research in the social sciences. Mexico City is also home to the National Center of the Arts, opened in 1994. This architecturally impressive complex houses facilities for students of the fine arts, music, film, and drama and contains a library and concert hall.
In Mexico, many university campuses are highly political, and student groups often engage in ideological battles or become actively involved in national political issues. Universities are often the sites of strikes by university employees. Several prestigious private colleges, including the Jesuit Ibero-American University and the Anáhuac University, are havens from the social turmoil that frequently grips the large public institutions.
While nearly all of the children in Mexico City between the ages of 7 and 13 attend elementary school, one-third never progressed beyond the 6th grade. There is a chronic shortage of school space, which is more acute at the secondary level. School space is in short supply partly because so many people have moved to Mexico City from rural areas.
Mexico City has a wide range of museums and cultural attractions. The Templo Mayor museum contains artifacts of the city’s early history. Chapultepec Park contains several historical museums, including the world-famous National Museum of Anthropology, whose collection forms a comprehensive history of Mexico's indigenous populations. It is complemented by the National Museum of History housed in Chapultepec Castle, which offers exhibits of Mexican life since the time of the European conquest in the early 1500s.
Chapultepec Park has several other museums, including Mexico’s Museum of Modern Art, which houses paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries, and the Museum of Natural History, featuring exhibits about Earth and its plants and animals. The Rufino Tamayo Museum, also located in Chapultepec Park, includes the collection of European and American art once owned by Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo. The park also includes the Papalote Children’s Museum. This hands-on science museum encourages visitors to take part in interactive exhibits.
The Museum of Mexico City is located in the older section of downtown. It is a general museum with an emphasis on the development of the city and history and culture of the Valley of Mexico from prehistoric times through the Mexican revolution. In the Coyoacán neighborhood, the home of Frida Kahlo, one of Mexico's leading painters, is also a popular attraction.
Mexico City's outstanding theater is the Palace of Fine Arts. Its imposing marble structure is home to the national opera, national theater, National Symphony Orchestra, and Ballet Folklórico, the official national dance company of Mexico. Murals by celebrated 20th-century Mexican artists, such as Diego Rivera, Juan O'Gorman, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, adorn the Palace. Works by these artists, which feature indigenous Mexican motifs and themes, are exhibited throughout the city in museums and on public buildings. Among the most important sites are the National Palace, the secretariat of public education, the Chapultepec Castle, the Palace of Justice, and the National Museum of History.
Mexico City is the center of Mexico’s vigorous publishing industry, which benefits from one of the freest publishing climates in Latin America. Two of Latin America’s best newspapers, Excélsior and Reforma, are among the dailies published in the city, which also has several television stations and numerous radio stations. The most important libraries are found at the Colegio de México and the National Archives.
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