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Mexico City (Spanish: Ciudad de México, known in Pre-Columbian times as
Tenochtitlán) is the capital of Mexico; it geographically spans both the
Mexican Federal District (a special administrative unit along the lines of
the District of Columbia in the USA), and part of the state of Mexico, to
the north of the Federal District. Mexico City is one of the world's most
populous, with about 30 million people. It also has one of the largest urban
areas in the world; greater Mexico City forms a rough ellipse 40 kilometers
east to west and 60 kilometers north to south.
Mexico City is centered at latitude 19°0'26" north, longitude 99°0'08" west.
The city's average elevation is 2,240 meters above sea level (about 7,200 feet).
Much of current Mexico City was under the waters of Lake Texcoco until the
16th century. Many different tribes came and went from its shores without
establishing a culture more important than other in the southeast of today's
Mexico. It was not until the arrival of the Aztecs, a tribe of people coming
from the west, when Mexico City acquired its importance.
The Aztecs migrated following an ancient legend that prophesied that they
would find the site for their new city in a place where they would see a
mythical vision fulfilled: an eagle eating a snake while standing on a
cactus. The Aztecs eventually came across this vision on what was then a
small swampy island in Lake Texcoco. Not deterred by this, they invented a
system to dry the land by setting up small plots in which they produced all
the food they required. When enough land was dry they would begin to build
there. Tenochtitlán (the Nahuatl name for the city) was founded in 1325.
A thriving culture developed, and the Aztec empire came to dominate other
tribes all around Mexico. The island was perpetually enlarged as
Tenochtitlán grew to become the largest and most powerful city in
MesoAmerica. Commercial routes were developed that brought goods from places
as far as the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean and perhaps even the Incan Empire.
Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés first arrived in Tenochtitlán in 1519,
but did not succeed in conquering it until August 13, 1521, after long
fierce fighting that destroyed most of the old Aztec city.
After the fall of Tenochtitlán, it was renamed Mexico City and became the
center of political, religious, economical and cultural power of the Spanish
colony, New Spain. On top of the ruins of the Aztec empire, and very often
using materials from destroyed Aztec buildings, the Spanish built a new
city. The area between the island and the closest shore to the west was
drained and filled in, making the city a peninsula rather than an island.
Further draining of the lake allowed further expansion of the city over the
ensuing centuries, as Mexico City became the largest city in the Americas,
from where all of New Spain and later the Philippines would be governed.
After independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico City was briefly the capital
of the Mexican Empire under Iturbide, and from 1823 on the capital of the
Republic of Mexico.
The city has twice been occupied by foreign invaders: in 1847 by the United
States, during the Mexican-American War; and in 1864 by the French, who for
a time installed puppet ruler Maximilian of Habsburg.
In 1873 the first railroad line linking the capital to the coast at Veracruz opened.
Mexico City hosted the 1968 Summer Olympics, during a period of political
unrest that led to the Tlatelolco massacre of student protestors immediately
preceding the inauguration of the games.
Modern Mexico City
Mexico City is one of the world's largest cities. Most of the growth
occurred in the late 20th century. In 1950 the city had about 3 million
inhabitants. In 2000 the estimated population for Mexico City proper was
18,131,000. Estimates for the greater Mexico City metropolitan area range as
high as 28 million people in an urban area covering some 5,000 km square.
The mountains surrounding the city like the rim of a bowl contributes to the
city's serious problem with air pollution.
The city's construction on a former lake bed means that the effects of
earthquakes tend to be magnified by the geology. At 0717 on 19 September
1985 the city was struck by an earthquake of magnitude 8.1 on the Richter
scale, which resulted in the deaths of 5000 (government estimate) to 20,000
people, and rendered 50,000-90,000 people homeless. 100,000 housing units
were destroyed, together with many government buildings. Up to
$4,000,000,000 of damage was caused in three minutes. There was an
aftershock of magnitude 7.5 thirty-six hours later.
Mexico City is served by the Metro, an extensive subway system (207 Km), the
first portions of which were opened in the 1960s. It transports more than 4
million people a day, only surpassed by Moscow's (7.5 million) and Tokyo's
(5.9 million). It is heavily subsidized, and it is the cheapest in the
world, each ticket costing around USD 0.20. A number of stations display
Pre-Columbian artifacts and architecture that was discovered during the
Mexico City is also served by Benito Juarez International Airport (MEX).
Famous sights in Mexico City include the Zócalo, the main central square
with its Spanish Cathedral and Aztec ruins; the wide elegant avenues of
Paseo de la Reforma and Insurgentes; Chapultepec, a hill with a palace
museum on top surrounded by a park with many attractions; the National
Museum of Anthropology, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Plaza of Three Cultures
in the neighborhood of Tlatelolco, and the shrine and Basilicas of Our Lady
The city has some 160 museums, over 100 art galleries, and some 30 concert halls.
In many places there are murals by Diego Rivera. He and his wife Frida Kahlo
lived in the southern suburb of Coyoacán. Nearby was the house of Leon
Trotsky, where he also was murdered.
Due to its special situation as home of the Mexican Federal government,
Mexico City has gone through several transformations of its local
government. Since Mexico's independence the city sometimes had a local
government, and sometimes (and for the large part of the 20th century) the
government depended directly on the President of the Republic, who delegated
his authority to one person that held the post at ministerial level (the
Regente, "Regent" in English).
This kind of political organization caused much resentment amongst the
inhabitants of the city because for many years they were deprived of a
government that properly represented them. The most serious situation arose
in 1988 when people from Mexico City clearly voted for opposition
candidates, despite which they were ruled for six years by the party that
won the federal presidency.
Under these circumstances political reform became inevitable. First a local
congress was established, and people were able to elect their mayor (jefe de
gobierno) for the first time (both institutions still had limited powers
dependent on the federal congress and president).
The first democratically elected chief of government was Cuauhtémoc
Cárdenas, a former presidential candidate (who was, according to many,
cheated out of victory in the closely fought 1988 presidential election).
A measure of the democratic development in Mexico City is that the current
(2000-06) chief of government in the Federal District is Andrés Manuel López
Obrador, from the PRD which has a left-leaning ideology (with former members
of the Communist Party among its numbers), while at the same time the
federal government has a conservative President.