Frontline World

Mexico - The Ballad of Juan Quezada, May 2005

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "The Ballad of Juan Quezada"

A Reporter Returns to Her Roots

The Man Who Discovered the Pots


Background, Population, Government, Economy, Trade and Labor

Background, Pottery, NAFTA


Streaming video

How should society support communities like Mata Ortiz?


Images of Mexican landscapes, people and culture
Facts & Stats

• General Background
• Population
• Government
• Economy
• Trade and Labor

General Background

Mexico is located in North America, between the United States to the north and the Central American countries of Belize and Guatemala to the south. It is approximately three times the size of Texas, with a total landmass of 1,972,550 square miles.

Mexico is the birthplace of the Aztec civilization, which ruled the country from approximately the 12th century until the beginning of the 16th century. The Spanish conquered the Aztecs in 1521, subjecting Mexico to 300 years of colonial rule.

Mexico fought for and achieved its independence from Spain between 1810 and 1821. It became a republic in 1824, and its history since then has been defined largely by its border relations with the United States. In 1835, U.S. settlers in Texas, which then belonged to Mexico, declared their independence. In 1848, Arizona, New Mexico and California as well as parts of Colorado, Utah and Nevada came under U.S. control following the Mexican War.

The Mexican Revolution, an armed uprising by peasants and urban workers that lasted from 1910 until 1920, dramatically changed the political and social landscape of Mexico, initiating its move toward modern democracy. The war also sent nearly a million Mexicans fleeing north to the United States, setting in motion a pattern of migration that still continues.

Mexico City is the political, cultural and industrial capital of Mexico. It is the oldest city in North America, situated on top of the former capital of the Aztec kingdom, Tenochtitlán, which was built in 1325. With an estimated population of 18 million, Mexico City is the world's third-largest city, after Tokyo, Japan, and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Chihuahua, the largest of Mexico's 31 states, is mostly desert. The word "Chihuahua" is thought to originate from the Nahuatl word xicuahua, which means "dry, sandy place."

The Barranca del Cobre -- Copper Canyon -- is a spectacular system of canyons, like the Grand Canyon, located in Chihuahua.

back to top


Mexico's population in 2005 was about 106 million. It is estimated that nearly 10 percent of this total, or 10 million people, are undocumented migrants living in the United States.

By ethnicity, Mexicans are 60 percent Mestizo (Amerindian-Spanish), 30 percent Amerindian or predominantly Amerindian, 9 percent white and 1 percent other.

By religion, Mexicans are 89 percent Roman Catholic, 6 percent Protestant and 5 percent other.

Spanish is the official language of Mexico, although many indigenous languages, such as Mayan and Nahuatl, are also spoken.

back to top


Mexico is a democratic federal republic. The president, who is elected by popular vote to a six-year term, is both the chief of state and the head of the government. The legislative branch is the bicameral National Congress, consisting of the Senate, with 128 seats, and the Chamber of Deputies, with 500 seats.

The current president of Mexico is Vicente Fox. His election in December 2000 marked the first defeat for the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), which had ruled since 1910. Mexico's next presidential election is scheduled for 2006.

back to top


Mexico has the ninth-largest economy in the world. Its main industries are food and beverages, tobacco, chemicals, iron and steel, petroleum, clothing, motor vehicles, consumer durables, and tourism. It is a major exporter of silver, fruits, vegetables, coffee, cotton, oil and oil products.

Mexico produces approximately 3.5 million barrels of oil a day and is the world's eighth-largest oil exporter. Sales from oil account for nearly a third of all government revenue.

Remittances from Mexican immigrants in the United States to their families back home are a major source of income in Mexico, second only to oil and surpassing even the tourism industry. Money sent back in 2004 totaled $16.6 billion, a 28 percent increase over the previous year.

Mexico's labor force comprises 20 percent agricultural workers, 24 percent industrial workers and 56 percent service workers. Agriculture accounts for 5 percent of Mexico's gross domestic product; industry, 26 percent; and services, 69 percent. Income distribution is highly inequitable -- approximately 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Mexico's main trading partner is the United States (82.7 percent); Canada is second at 5.4 percent. Mexico also negotiated free trade agreements with Costa Rica in 1995, Nicaragua in 1998, and Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in 2000.

back to top

Trade and Labor

Mexico's economy has undergone dramatic change in the last decade because of the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed in 1994 by the United States, Mexico and Canada. NAFTA was born when American companies opted to move jobs to Mexico, where the cost of labor is a 10th of what it is in the United States. Proponents of NAFTA argued that it would spawn thousands of new jobs in Mexico and help modernize the Mexican economy.

Under the agreement, exports have grown from $52 billion in 1994 to $161 billion today, and Mexico's per-capita annual income has risen 24 percent, to approximately $4,000.

The official unemployment rate in Mexico in 2004 was 3.2 percent. However, the country's "underemployment rate" -- a measure that denotes employees earning less than the minimum wage or working fewer than 35 hours a week -- could be as high as 25 percent. Informal workers, such as street vendors and day laborers, are believed to total 10 million. Some sources suggest that as much as half of Mexico's workforce is unemployed or working informally.

back to top

Sources: CIA World Factbook; PBS; BBC; Wikipedia; Business Week; Bloomberg News; Latinnews Daily; The New York Times; The San Francisco Chronicle; MSNBC News; The Gazette (Montreal); Encyclopedia Britannica online;