Mexico’s colorful history is a tale of conquest and heartache, betrayal and hope. From the days of the Spanish Conquest in 1521, the country’s indigenous peoples have struggled against oppressive rule, seeking respect and a decent quality of life that all people deserve. Mexico’s cast of characters has included kings and raffians, conquistadors and revolutionaries, priests and paupers. And although the country’s most famous and infamous characters are long gone, they still whisper to us, asking that we not forget them, their dreams, their struggles, and most of all, their hopes for Mexico and its people.
A few famous people of Mexico, before the Spanish Conquest:
Montezuma II, ruler of the Aztecs (1200 AD to 1520 AD) when Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés conquered the land now known as Mexico in 1521.
Cuauhtemoc, nephew of Montezuma II, was the last of the Aztec emperors. He died while fighting to save his people and way of life.
A few famous people of Mexico, during and after the Spanish Conquest:
Hernán Cortés was a Spanish conquistador and explorer who arrived Mexico in 1518 and conquered the thriving civilization, the Aztecs, in 1521. Cortés is considered the founder of Mexico, and his conquest began 300 years of Spanish rule in the territory that became known as New Spain.
One of the most famous people of Mexico was Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Roman Catholic priest of Spanish descent who is considered the father of Mexico. A man of the people, he worked to improve the economic well-being of his parishioners and opened his home to poor Indians, Creole intellectuals and marginalized mestizos. In 1810, spurred by Spain's overbearing and intrusive rule, Hildago declared New Spain's independence from Spain, triggering the War of Independence. Hidalgo became a general of the rebel forces. Though beloved by his followers, Hidalgo was not a savvy soldier and was executed by Spanish forces in the state of Chihuahua in 1811.
Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794 - 1876), also known as the Napoleon of the West, was president and/or dictator of Mexico eleven non-consecutive periods over a time span of 22 years was one of the famous people of Mexico. He led the revolution against Mexico's President Anastasio Bustamante and defeated the Texans, killing Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and 181 others at the Alamo in 1836. With the battle cry, "Remember the Alamo," the Texans regrouped and captured Santa Anna on April 21, 1836 at the Battle of San Jacinto. As a result, Santa Anna was forced to recognize Texas' independence from Mexico on May 14, 1836. Thanks to this defeat, Mexico's government stripped Santa Anna of his authority. Santa Anna went into retirement but was never one to accept defeat easily and returned several times as Mexico's leader. He died in 1876.
Anther famous Mexican was Benito Juarez (1806-1872), a lawyer who served five terms as the President of Mexico and is often noted as Mexico's most beloved leader. Under his leadership, Mexico's economy prospered and education and health care improved. When France, under President Napoleon III, attempted to install a French monarchy in Mexico in 1864 and sent Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlota to rule the country, Juarez opposed them. In 1867, French troops began withdrawing from Mexico, and Juarez and his forces seized upon the opportunity to have Maximilian executed. Juarez returned to the presidency but died of a heart attack in 1872, and today is remembered as a forward-thinking and talented reformer dedicated to democracy and securing equal rights for his nation's indigenous peoples.
Two more famous Mexicans were Maximilian and Carlota, the Emperor and Empress of Mexico. Maximilian was a member of Austria's royal family, and his wife (and second cousin) was the former Princess Charlotte of Belgium. With the backing of some Mexican monarchists and French President Napoleon III, Maximilian and Carlota became the Emperor and Empress of Mexico in April, 1864. Although genuinely interested in the people of Mexico, Maximilian had difficulties ruling from the outset as most Mexicans, including Benito Juarez, did not recognize his authority. Carlota spent much of her time traveling in Europe, seeking support for her husband, but she suffered a mental breakdown and spent the rest of her life in seclusion, never returning to Mexico. She died in Belgium in 1927. When French troops began withdrawing from Mexico, Maximilian was captured by Benito Juarez's forces, and despite pleas from international leaders, was executed by firing squad in June, 1867. A few of his last words were, “May my blood flow for the good of this land. Viva Mexico!"
Another famous Mexican was Pancho Villa (1878-1923), the first general during the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910. For many years he lived as an outlaw, wanted for murdering a man who tried to rape his sister. His infamy spread throughout Mexico, and he became known as a champion of the poor. He was a natural, charismatic leader and became successful as a bandit, looting and pillaging towns, taking from the wealthy and giving to the poor. When the Mexican Revolution broke out, Villa assembled an army of scoundrels, known as Villistas, and became the revolutionary general who led the war in the northern region of Mexico. When the war ended in 1920, attempts were made on Villa's life, and on July 20, 1923, while driving his car through the town of Parral, Chihuahua, he was assassinated. His killers, perhaps followers of Álvaro Obregón, a former army general, were never caught.
Emiliano Zapata (1879 -1919) was another in a long line of famous Mexican people. His motto was "the land is for the one who works it," and he joined the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to fight for the rights of poor farmers. Along with Pancho Villa and other rebels, Zapata helped overthrow President Diaz, a dictator who had seized power in 1876. Francisco Madero, supported by Zapata, became President, and although the Revolution had ended, Zapata continued his struggle to improve the conditions of Mexico’s indigenous peasants. In time, Zapata became a threat to the establishment and in 1919 was ambushed and murdered by supporters of then President Venustiano Carranza. Today Zapata is a revered national hero, viewed as both a bandit and a revolutionary, someone who fought for Mexico's downtrodden.