Mexico City, Nahuatl México, Spanish Ciudad de México or in full Ciudad de México, D.F. , city and capital of Mexico, synonymous with the Federal District (Distrito Federal; D.F.). The term Mexico City can also apply to the capital’s metropolitan area, which includes the Federal District but extends beyond it to the west, north, and east, where the state (estado) of México surrounds it on three sides. In contrast, the southern part of the Federal District sustains a limited population on its mountain slopes.
Spanish conquistadors founded Mexico City in 1521 atop the razed island-capital of Tenochtitlán, the cultural and political centre of the Aztec (Mexica) empire. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited urban settlements in the Western Hemisphere, and it is ranked as one of the world’s most populous metropolitan areas. One of the few major cities not located along the banks of a river, it lies in an inland basin called the Valley of Mexico, or Mesa Central. The valley is an extension of the southern Mexican Plateau and is also known as Anáhuac (Nahuatl: “Close to the Water”) because the area once contained several large lakes. The name México is derived from Nahuatl, the language of its precolonial inhabitants.
Mexico City’s leading position with regard to other urban centres of the developing world can be attributed to its origins in a rich and diverse environment, its long history as a densely populated area, and the central role that its rulers have defined for it throughout the ages. Centralism has perhaps influenced Mexico City’s character the most, for the city has been a hub of politics, religion, and trade since the late Post-Classic Period (13th–16th century ce). Its highland location makes it a natural crossroads for trade between the arid north, the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico (east) and the Pacific Ocean (west), and southern Mexico. The simple footpaths and trails of the pre-Hispanic trade routes became the roads for carts and mule trains of the colonial period and eventually the core of the country’s transportation system, all converging on Mexico City. Throughout the centuries, the city has attracted people from the surrounding provinces seeking jobs and opportunities or the possibilities of comparative safety and shelter, as well as a myriad of amenities from schools and hospitals to neighbourhood organizations and government agencies. Area Federal District, 571 square miles (1,479 square km). Pop. (2005) city, 8,463,906; Federal District, 8,720,916; metro. area, 19,231,829.
Table Of ContentsCharacter of the city
Mexico City is a metropolis of contrasts, a monument to a proud and industrious country also faced with many problems. Some observers have fixated on the city’s dangers, horrors, and tragedies—views that were reinforced by the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes when he called the city “the capital of underdevelopment.” In the late 20th century the writer Jonathan Kandell retorted, “To its detractors (and even to a few admirers), Mexico City is a nightmare, a monster out of control.…And it just keeps growing.” Others have acknowledged the capital’s drawbacks while holding that it is a true home to millions—a bustling mosaic of avenues, economic interests, and colonias (neighbourhoods) that are buttressed by extended family networks, reciprocity, and respect.
By itself the Federal District (the city proper) is comparable in many ways to New York City, Mumbai (Bombay), and Shanghai. But the capital’s huge metropolitan population constitutes some one-fifth of Mexico’s total, representing one of the world’s most significant ratios of capital-to-national population. The country’s next largest city, Guadalajara, is only a fraction of its size. Moreover, its dense population has yielded an unparalleled concentration of power and wealth for its urban elite, though not for the denizens of its sprawling shantytowns and lower-working-class neighbourhoods.
The city’s rich heritage is palpable on the streets and in its parks, colonial-era churches, and museums. On the one hand it includes quiet neighbourhoods resembling slow-paced rural villages, while on the other it has bustling, overbuilt, cosmopolitan, heavy-traffic areas. Its inhabitants have sought to preserve the magnificence of the past, including the ruins of the main Aztec temple and the mixture of 19th-century French-style mansions and department stores that complement its graceful colonial palaces and churches.
Yet the city’s residents also embrace modernity, as evidenced by world-class examples of the International Style of architecture and the conspicuous consumption of steel, concrete, and glass. Contemporary high-rise structures include the Torre Latinoamericana (Latin American Tower) and the World Trade Center, the museums and hotels along Paseo de la Reforma, and the opulent shopping centres of Perisur and Santa Fé. Supermarkets have sprung up around the metropolis, but traditional markets such as the Merced are still bustling with hawkers of fresh fruits, live chickens, tortillas, and charcoaled corn on the cob. Chapultepec Castle, the Independence Monument, the Pemex fountain, and numerous other monuments and memorials attest to past dreams and future aspirations amid the chaos of congested avenues and endless neighbourhoods built on the dry bed of Lake Texcoco.
Table Of ContentsLandscape
The highland Valley of Mexico is enclosed on all sides by mountains that form parts of the Cordillera Neo-Volcánica (Neo-Volcanic Range). The waters on their slopes drain toward the basin’s centre, which was once covered by a series of lakes. As a result, these lacustrine plains make up one-fourth of the city and Federal District’s area. The downtown lies at an elevation of some 7,350 feet (2,240 metres), but overall elevations average above 8,000 feet (2,400 metres). Mountainous slopes of volcanic origin occupy about half of the area of the Federal District, largely in the south, where ancient lava beds called pedregales underlie much of the modern built-up area. However, only a small proportion of the population lives in the southern third of the district, including the rugged delegaciones (administrative areas) of Tlalpan and Milpa Alta.
The city and its metropolitan area extend well into the surrounding Neo-Volcánica slopes, including the western Monte Alto and Monte Bajo ranges. The Sierra de las Cruces lies to the southwest. Among the several peaks in the southern part of the district are Tláloc, Chichinautzin, Pelado, and Ajusco, the latter rising to the highest point in the capital at 12,896 feet (3,930 metres). To the east the built-up area extends from the old lake beds onto a broad, inclined plain that leads to a piedmont and then to the highest promontories of the Sierra Nevada. On the metropolitan fringes where the state boundaries of México, Morelos, and Puebla meet, snows cap two high volcanoes: the “White Lady,” known by its Nahuatl name Iztaccihuatl, which rises to 17,342 feet (5,285 metres), and the “Smoking Mountain,” Popocatépetl, an active peak with a correspondingly uncertain elevation of some 17,880 feet (5,450 metres). These two volcanoes are sometimes visible from Mexico City on windy mornings, when the air is less laden with pollutants.
The city’s remarkable size and complexity have evolved in tandem with the radical transformation of its surroundings. The island on which it was founded lay near the western shore of Lake Texcoco, but its built-up area gradually expanded through land reclamation and canal building. The Aztec and, later, Spanish rulers commissioned elaborate water-supply and drainage systems to reduce the threat of flooding within the city. These were gradually expanded in capacity until they drained nearly all of the basin’s lake water.
The Valley of Mexico constitutes a broad area of convergence for species of the tropical and temperate realms. However, urban growth has reduced the size and diversity of plant life, from the tall fir forests along the western ridges to the pines along the southern Ajusco mountains, as well as the formerly widespread oak forests. Grasslands that once bordered the city are now largely covered by prickly pear cactus as well as by a drought-resistant scrub tree known as pirul or piru, the Peruvian pepper tree; this was introduced during the colonial period and became an aggressive colonizer. A unique and fragile plant community survives in patches on the lava flows to the south of the city where it has not been destroyed by urban sprawl. A small area remains as an ecological reserve within the main campus of the National Autonomous University.
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