How Mexico City Grew From an Island into a Metropolis

Making Sense of Mexico City

We have written about how Mexico City can appear to the newcomer to be an architectural batiburrillo (hodgepodge) and, how after a fair amount of walking around some of its central neighborhoods, we had the insight that what we were seeing was equivalent to an archeological site, but one where the various vestiges of a series of epochs stood side by side, rather than one atop another. (Making Sense of Mexico City: Architectural Hodge-podge or Horizontal Archeological Site)  This perspective of Mexico City as a side-by-side, horizontal archeological site, simultaneously representing over five hundred years of history, has become our guiding conceptual framework as we have pursued our Ambles.

Circling Back and Forth Between the 21st and the 16th Centuries

Beginning in early 2015, we have ambled from the 16th century Centro Histórico, to the turn of the 20th century Francophile neighborhoods of the Porfiriato (reign of President Porfirio Díaz, 1876-1911), to the vestiges of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917), which are primarily the public art of the Mural Movement that has its successive artists up to the present day.

Pilgrimage to the Living Past

We then returned to the 16th century for another look at the City, this time not from the point of view of the conquering, colonizing Spanish, but from the perspective of the indigenous peoples of the multitudinous original cities and villages that filled the Valley of Anáhuac, including many islands in its lakes, when the Spanish arrived and took over.

This has led us on a wondrous perigrinación, pilgrimage. First, we returned Centro, this time to seek out vestiges of its origins in the four original indigenous quarters of Tenochititlán. From there, we have traveled to more than sixty such original pueblos and barrios that still exist in thirteen of Mexico City's sixteen delegaciones (as of Jan. 2016, named alcaldías, mayoralties, 'boroughs'). Our 'bucket list' is to make it to as many more as possible of the over one hundred and fifty original villages that exist in all sixteen.

Travelling, as we have, around the City, circling through time from the early 21st century to the early 16th and then back to the present, experiencing the manifestations of five centuries in between, has led to the question we address here: How did Mexico City, which started on an island in Lake Texcoco— replacing the Azteca/Mexica city of Tenochtitlán—grow into the metropolis it is today, incorporating both ancient and new neighborhoods, side by side, all parts of the contemporary batiburrillo?

Territorial Expansion of Mexico City

Stage I: Tenochtitlan, from Indigenous Island Settlement to Aztec Empire Capital (1325 to 1521)

The Mexicas were originally a Nahuatl speaking, hunter-gatherer nomadic tribe that, according to their legends, were the last of a larger group of sister Nahua tribes to leave legendary Aztlán (hence the name Azteca, i.e., from Aztlán), an area possibly somewhere in what is now northwestern Mexico or the southwest U.S. After a long period of migration, each group had eventually entered the Valley of Anáhuac, now the Valley of Mexico, with it five lakes, making it perfect for the development of stable settlements based on agriculture centered on corn and the consequent development of a complex, civilized urban-centered culture.

The Mexicas arrived in the Valley about 1225 CE and found it already filled with established altepetls, city-states, and subsidiary villages. As hunter-gatherers, the Mexicas had to transform themselves, finding another way to live and a place to settle. They also formed alliances with some of the altepetls and were able to stay near them for a few years at a time. They evidently found work in mining rock from the surrounding mountains and as construction workers, using the stone for buildings in various altepetls. They also sustained themselves by serving as mercenary warriors for the altepetls that allowed them to settle in their territory for a time.

Finally, for twenty years, 1279 to 1299, they were able to settle on and around Chapultepec (the Hill of the Grasshopper, on the southwest shore of Lake Texcoco; on the map below, it is west of Tenochtitlan).

The Valley of Mexico
in the early 16th century
(It is about 8,000 km2 or nearly 3,100 square miles in area.)

founded by the Mexica in 1325 CE
and controlling the Valley since 1428,
and some of the preexisting cities and villages
surrounding the lakes and on their islands.

All of those from A(t)zcapotzalco and Tepeyac, in the northwest,
to Xochimilco and Mixquic, in the southeast,
are now villages incorporated into Mexico City.

However, in 1299, they were attacked by several other altepetls and driven out. perhaps because they were becoming a threat. The survivors ended up surrendering to Culhuacan (also spelled Colhuacan), one of the attacking altepetls, located on the Iztapalapa Peninsula, on the north shore of Lake Xochimilco. Eventually, a conflict with the rulers of Culhuacan led them to have to move to a series of islands in the southwest bay of the lake. (See map below.)

In 1325, they finally found (or were granted by A(t)zcapotzalco) a set of swampy islands in the bay. Their founding legend says that their tribal god, Huitzilopochtli, designated the site by giving a sign of an eagle perched on a cactus, holding a serpent in its claws. They named their settlement Tenochtitlan, apparently meaning "Among the prickly pears growing among the rocks".

A closer look at the southwest bay in Lake Texcoco,
with Tenochtitlan in its center,
and the many towns/pueblos around it
and on its many islands.
Here. all those south of Tepeyac (here, Tepeyacac),
the island village of Atepehuacan,
and Azcapotzalco in the north,
to the bottom of the map
are now within Mexico City.

From the magazine Arqueología Mexicana

Over the next one hundred years, the Mexica expanded their city by cobbling together the islands by driving pilings (light orange "cimentación por pilotaje" on the map below) into the swampy areas of the lake and filling them with mud from the lake. Chinampas (dark orange on map below), small islands serving as agricultural plots, were also created via pilings. Canals crisscrossed the city.

Soil and ecological characteristics of the Island of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco

San Pablo Teopan: Survival and Metamorphosis
of an Indigenous Quarter of Mexico City
During the Viceroy Period
by Rossend Rovira Morgado

The residents of Tenochtitlan supported themselves by expanding their military skills and political power as a subordinate of A(t)zcapotzalco. One major result of this alliance was the defeat of Culhuacán. Then, in 1426, the tlatoani, "speaker", of A(t)zcapotzalco died and a war of succession erupted between rivals to the throne. The Mexica of Tenochtitlan took advantage of this to ally with Tlacopan, another subject of  A(t)zcapotzalco just south of the main city, and Texcoco, an independent altepetl on the west shore of Lake Texcoco, to form what was called the Triple Alliance. Together, they defeated the warriors of A(t)zcapotzalco.

Tenochtitlan, as the strongest member of the alliance, then became the dominant power in the Valley. Over the next one hundred years, the Mexica of Tenochtitlan expanded their control over much of what is now central and southern Mexico, creating what is now known as the Aztec Empire. (Wikipedia)

Stage II: From Indigenous City to Spanish Capital (1521-1823)

As we have written elsewhere (Mexico City's Four Indigenous Quarters), after Cortés and his indigenous allies conquered the city of México-Tenochtitlán in August of 1521, he adapted the Mexica organization of the city to establish la Ciudad de México, Mexico City.

In traditional Mesoamerican manner, the Mexica had organized their city by dividing it into four campan, quadrants or quarters, associated with the four cardinal directions. Each campan was originally divided into five calpultin (singular: calpulli), or "big houses", for a total of twenty—one for each of the recognized calpulli, kin groups or clans of the Mexica. By the time of the Conquest, the city had grown considerably and there were eighty calpultinbarrios in Spanish.

Traza, Outline, of Mexico-Tenochtitlan
Drawn by Alonso García Bravo, 1521-22

The small square at right-center is the Templo Mayor complex.
Below it is the area of palaces of Mexica rulers,
surrounding what is now the Zócalo.

The four campan are, clockwise from upper left/northwest:
Teopan Zoquipan

Three main streets, cuepotli, led to causeways:
North to Tlatelolco and Tepeyac
(now the Republic of Argentina St., which becomes Calzada de Guadalupe)
West to Tacuba (now Tacuba St. and then other names)
South to Iztapalapa and Coyoacán, (now Pino Suárez and Calzada de Tlalpan).

Reproduced in "Cosmopolitan Indians and Mesoamerican Barrios in Bourbon Mexico City"
Doctoral dissertation by Luis Fernando Granados
Georgetown University, 2008.

The Spanish took the area of the royal quarters and temples for themselves, and they assigned to their indigenous allies each of the surrounding four quarters. Surviving Mexica were confined to the island of Tlatelolco, about a mile to the north. Colonial Mexico City remained this size for 300 years. It is now essentially the five colonias of Centro: Centro Histórico and Centro North, East, South and West, which lie at the center of Delegación Cuauhtémoc. (See Mexico City Delegations: Sixteen Puzzle Pieces)

Stage III: 19th Century After Mexican Independence: Central Federal District and Many Municipalities

When Mexicans won independence from Spain in 1821, they kept the Spanish Viceroyal Ciudad de México as their capital. It consisted essentially of what was the original indigenous city of Tenochtitlan, now surrounded by dry land, as the Spanish had drained Lake Texcoco to reduce annual flooding. The new government enlarged the original traza, outline or boundary drawn by Cortés, to a square about three and three-quarters miles on a side. They declared this area the Distrito Federal, Federal District.

The remaining settlements in the Valley—both the original pueblos spread around the lakes and on their islands when the Spanish arrived; and others, such as Villa Coyoacán, Mixcoac, San Ángel and central Tlalpan (Villa San Agustín de las Cuevas), that had been taken over by well-to-do Spanish for country homes—were legally designated as separate municipalities, based on the Spanish model of territorial division and administration, and were located in the adjoining State of Mexico. Much of the land in these municipalities had long before been divided by and for the Spanish into haciendas, large estates for agriculture and raising cattle.

Valley of Mexico, mid-19th century, 
seen from the northwest,
by José María Velasco.
Mexico City lies in the far distance, middle left.
Volcanoes Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl 

form the southeastern horizon.

After the United States invaded Mexico in 1847 and seized Mexico City (Centro Histórico), the federal government greatly expanded the Federal District to some 660 square miles, in order to have direct control over most of the Valley. (It was later reduced to 573 sq. miles) The name Mexico City continued to refer just to the original municipality at the center of the enlarged Federal District. The other municipalities continued to exist, but were now within the Federal District rather than in the State of Mexico.

In 1862, the Federal District was divided into
the Municipality of Mexico City
(with the original city of Mexico in its middle)
and four prefecturas, administrative districts.
Guadalupe Hidalgo
Talpam, and

As can be seen,
the southwest bay of Lake Texcoco had been dried up,
but a large part of the lake remained to the northeast,
as did Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco to the south.

Stage IV: 20th Century - Federal District of Delegaciones

A decade after the Mexican Revolution (1910-17), in December 1928, Mexico City disappeared as an official entity when the federal government decided to abolish all municipalities within the Federal District. This was because municipalities, in their Spanish origins, had some implied independent status. In their place, the District was divided into one Central Department and 12 delegaciones (boroughs) administered directly by the government of the Federal District, appointed by the nation's President. The Central Department was created by combining the four former municipalities of Mexico City, Tacuba, Tacubaya (both to the west) and Mixcoac (to the south).

Map of the Federal District, 1929

Notice how little of the District is urban (brick red color).
The original Mexico City is the top part of the urbanized area.

The two extensions to the south are:
on the east side along the Calzada de Tlalpan,
as far as Coyoacán;
on the west side along Avenida Insurgentes,
as far as San Ángel in Delegación Álvaro Obregón.

The rest of the District was still composed of rural villages
and, to a great extent, haciendas around them.

In 1941, the Central Department was renamed Mexico City. From 1941 to 1970, the Federal District was comprised of this enlarged Mexico City and the twelve delegaciones.

In 1970, Mexico City as an official political entity once again disappeared—split into four delegaciones:
  • Cuauhtémoc (Centro and colonias to its west built during and after the Porfiriato, the rule of Porfirio Diaz, 1876-1911);
  • Miguel Hidalgo (the former Tacuba and Tacubaya, west of Cuauhtémoc, and newer areas of Polanco and Las Lomas north of Chapultepec Park);
  • Venustiano Carranza (east of Centro, mostly former lake bed and now the location of the airport and many commercial enterprises
  • Benito Juárez (the former Mixcoac, south of Cuauhtémoc, as far as Coyoacán)
This reorganization increased the number of delegaciones to the sixteen which currently exist. With the disappearance of an official Mexico City, the entire Federal District began to be popularly called 'Mexico City'.

Delegaciones of the Federal District,
beginning in 1970,
renamed alcaldías, mayoralties, in 2016,
when the Federal District offcially became Mexico City.-

Delegación Cuauhtémoc (tan, north center)
is the location of Centro, the former Tenochtitlan.

Stage V: Becoming Just Mexico City

In 1987 the Federal District began to be given a degree of autonomy from federal, i.e., presidential, control with the writing of its own Statute of Government (Estatuto de Gobierno), and the creation of an Assembly of Representatives.

In 1993, the confounding of the legal name, Federal District, with the informal name, 'Mexico City', led to an amendment to the Constitution whereby Mexico City and the Federal District were identified as being the same political entity of sixteen delegations.

Starting in 1997, residents were given the power to directly elect the head of government and representatives of a Legislative Assembly. Thus, a democratic government replaced federal/presidential control of the Federal District.

On January 29, 2016, again by Constitutional amendment, the Federal District ceased to exist. It is now officially la Ciudad de México, Mexico City (aka "CDMX"). As such, the City is now the country's 32nd federal entidad (entity, component member), with a level of self-government comparable to that of the other 31 states. (Wikipedia)

Oh, and the delegaciones were renamed alcaldías, mayoralties, in effect returning them to the status of municipalities, but not quite calling them that. (We have to admit, we aren't ready to make the change in nomenclature, nor does it appear that many chilangos (Mexico City residents) are, either. 

Population Growth | Mexico and Mexico City

For most of its history, up until the mid-twentieth century, the country of Mexico was predominately rural and thinly populated. It is estimated that its population at the time of Independence in the 1820s was around six million people.  By the beginning of the 20th century, it was 15 million. It actually declined during the Revolution (1910-1917) and started to recover during the 1920s, reaching 17 million by the early 1930s. The Great Depression slowed the rate of population growth. In 1940, it was 20 million. By 1950 it was 26 million, fewer than 10 million additional persons in twenty years.

The rate began to increase in the 1950s, such that by 1960, the population was 35 million, nearly 10 million more than a decade before. Over a period of sixty years, the population had little more than doubled.

Late 20th Century Population Explosion

In the 1960s, however, the population growth took off, increasing to two million net (births minus deaths) new persons per year, such that by 1970 it had reached 50 million. By 1980 it was 70 million. This explosion was due to the fact that families continued to have seven children on average, while improved health care resulted in much lower child mortality rates. Moreover, the sale of contraceptives was illegal until 1960.

Ultimately, the population explosion convinced the government to change its position on family planning, and The Mexican Family Planning Association, MEXFAM, was established to promote contraception. The program has been highly successful, with the national population growth rate decreasing from 3.5% per year and 7.2 children per mother in the 1960s to 1.4% per year and 2.4 children per mother by 1999. By 2015, the growth rate was under 1%.

However, because of the large base population established by 1980, even at the lower reproductive rate, the country has continued to grow rapidly. In 2015, the population was estimated to be 121 million, a 70% increase in 35 years! (Wikipedia and PopulationStats/Americas/Mexico)

Mexico City's Population Growth

In 1900, the population of the Federal District was only about 500,000 people (Wikipedia), concentrated mostly in what was the original Mexico City, now Centro Histórico, and the colonias built during the Porfiriato (reign of President Porfirio Díaz, 1876-1911) west of Centro, along Paseo de la Reforma, on former lake bed in what is now Delegación Cuauhtémoc. The remainder lived in what were still legally and physically distinct, rural municipalities centered on the sites of the original indigenous villages.

Late 20th Century Burgeoning

By mid-century, the population of the Federal District was nearly 3 million. However, as a result of the national population explosion described above, by 1980 the population had ballooned to over 8 million. Until the mid-20th century, most Mexicans lived in the countryside, working as small, non-mechanized family farmers, or in related trades. The population explosion meant that there was no longer sufficient tillable land to support everyone in a family, which gave rise to a vast migration to the cities, especially Mexico City, by those seeking work in its factories and commercial establishments.

Here, without resources, the migrants simply squatted on any vacant land they could find. They tended to settle first in the more rural delegaciones such as Izatapalapa, Coyoacán, Tlalpan and Xochimilco, where they moved onto ejido land—farmland held and worked in common by indigenous communities. In western Coyoacán, they moved onto the Pedregal, a wasteland of barren volcanic rock laid down 2,000 years ago when the little Xitle volcano erupted nearby. Next, they moved up the mountainsides, cutting down the evergreen forests legally designated as conservation areas to protect Mexico City's water supply.

Over succeeding decades, these "shanty towns" have been built up into working-class neighborhoods of simple, cement and cinderblock houses, supplied by the local government (often intermittently) with the basic necessities of water, sewage, electricity, paved streets, schools and other services.

Since this explosion, the population of Mexico City has remained relatively stable, increasing by less than a million, primarily because most of the empty land, even up the steep hillsides, has been occupied. Additional growth has taken place in contiguous cities in the Valley, which are in the State of Mexico, surrounding Mexico City horseshoe-like on three sides.

Now, together with Mexico City, these cities make up the Greater Mexico City Metropolitan Area of some 21 million people, one of the world's largest metropolitan areas.

The map above very clearly shows the population growth/urban expansion of the Federal District/Mexico City that occurred during the 20th century. The then Federal District and its current sixteen delegaciónes are outlined.
  • Until 1930, the urban area had grown little beyond the original Colonial City, which sat upon the ground of the indigenous city of Tenochtitlan, and the Porfiriato colonias to its west.
  • From 1930 to 1950, there was some growth, but the urban area was still very small.
  • Then, from 1950 to 1970, the urban area more than doubled.
  • Huge urbanization took place between 1970 and 1990, beginning to expand beyong the Federal District's boundaries into adjacent municipalities.
  • In the ten years from 1990 to 2000, it exploded even further into the previous rural delegaciónes of the south and west of the then Federal District and into the surrounding municipalities of the State of Mexico. 

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