How Much Do You Know About Mexican History?

By: Torrance Grey
Image: E. B. & E. C. Kellogg, New York and Hartford

About This Quiz

Too often, Americans and Canadians think of Mexico only as a vacation destination, limiting it to the (admittedly gorgeous) beaches of its upper West Coast, and tourist spots like Mazatlan and Acapulco. Mexico, however, is much more than that. It has a rich and varied history. 

For example, do you know how long humans have occupied the Mexican subcontinent? It's a shorter period of time than you might have guessed  -- and we're not talking about European occupation, but humans overall. Native peoples, the most famous of which are probably the Aztec, lived in Mexico long before the arrival of the first Europeans. Their art and architecture, as seen in ruins and in museum pieces, is marvelous; the capital city of the Aztec empire must have been a sight to behold in its day. 

The history of Mexico continues with European conquest, eventual independence, and folk heroes like Pancho Villa (and another, whose name we can't tell you, because it's the answer to a quiz question). Today, Mexico is a thriving democratic nation — though its relationship with its immediate neighbor to the north has become rocky, to say the least, in recent years. 

Whether you consider yourself well-versed in Mexican history or would like to learn a little more, try our quiz now!

Approximately how long has the Mexican subcontinent been inhabited by humans?

This sounds recent, compared to the scope of homo sapiens history. Humans have been on the planet much longer, but they were in Africa and Asia. They later migrated across a land bridge (which no longer exists) from the Asian continent, into North America, and made their way to Central America about 13,000 years ago.

What is the name given to the era before the arrival of the Europeans?

This name is derived from Christopher Columbus, who accidentally discovered the Americas while looking for a route to India. Well, he "discovered" them if you ignore the fact that there were already many civilizations on the American continents.

Which of these was NOT one of Mexico's early indigenous peoples?

The Picts were a people in the early British isles. In what is present-day Mexico, there were predominantly four civilizations before the arrival of the first Europeans. These were the Aztec, Olmec, Maya and Toltec peoples.

In which century did Spanish forces arrive in Mexico?

An early expedition by Juan de Grijalva landed in 1517, opening the door to further explanation. If you're confused by the fact that the relevant year starts with a "15," remember, that really is the 16th century, just like years starting with 19 (e.g. 1970) were part of the 20th century.

Tenochtitlan, the center of the Aztec empire, is now what modern city?

Tenochtitlan was an island city in a lake (technically, it shared the island with another city-state, Tlatelolco). It is unfortunate that we only have woodcut images of the city from that time; it's described as a marvel of architecture, engineering and landscaping, with floating gardens and an aquarium with freshwater and saltwater ponds.

In 1521, the Aztec capital fell to forces led by whom?

Cortes led an army partly composed of native supporters — that is, fighters who felt oppressed by the Aztecs and were willing to help Spain overthrow them. Of course, these native people were only trading one oppressor for another.

Who was the emperor of the Aztecs at the time that Cortes arrived?

Many historians prefer the spelling "Moctezuma," but we're using the more easily recognized name here. Montezuma initially welcomed Cortes and his men to the capital and palace, but the cordial relationship inevitably went sour.

Who killed Montezuma?

After several months of being a hostage in his palace, Moctezuma appeared in public at the request of the Spanish, who wanted him to address the people and calm tensions between the Aztec and the Spanish. The address did not go well, and people threw a shower of rocks and darts at the disgraced leader. He was hit several times and later died of his wounds.

What did the Spaniards call the newly conquered land?

Not terribly original, but "Nueva Espana" was the name the Spanish gave to the conquered Aztec lands, just like the British colonizers of points north would coin names like "New York" and "New England."

In New Spain, who were the "peninsulares"?

Spain (along with Portugal) occupies the Iberian Peninsula of Europe. For this reason, Spanish people born in Spain were given this name, as a social class. Peninsulares were at the top of the social order in New Spain.

Who were the mestizos?

The mixing of races began early, with "Dona Marina," the companion and translator of Hernan Cortes, bearing him a son. Mestizos became a very large social class in New Spain. The term for someone with pure or nearly pure blood born in the new world was "criollo."

In what decade did Mexico gain independence from Spain?

The Mexican War of Independence began in 1808, when a priest announced the beginning of the revolution by ringing church bells in the town of Dolores. The war lasted until 1821, when Spain recognized Mexican independence with the Treaty of Cordoba.

The Mexican-American War ended with the Treaty of ________.

The name simply comes from the town where it was signed, the Villa de Guadalupe Hidalgo (now absorbed into Mexico City). Mexico ceded a great deal of land, not just present-day Texas but much of what we now consider the American West.

True or false: Mexico was the only former Spanish holding to establish a monarchy after independence.

Most other colonies became some kind of constitutional republic, and it didn't take Mexico long to follow in this model, either. Its monarchy lasted only two years.

Mexican Independence Day falls in which month?

Surprised? You were probably thinking of Cinco de Mayo, whose celebrations overshadow those of Sept. 16, at least in the United States. But Cinco de Mayo celebrates another military victory, one over the French.

Which of these leaders dominated Mexico during the early 19th century?

Santa Anna is often called a "caudillo," a term that doesn't have a direct translation. It means both a political and military leader with a great deal of power. Santa Anna was both a general and Mexico's eighth president.

True or false: Texas has always been either part of Mexican territory, or part of the U.S.

This was the basis of the Texas Revolution, a chapter in both Mexican and American history. The people in this region were both northern Mexicans and immigrants from the United States, and they rebelled against Santa Anna's government and became an independent state, the Republic of Texas, for a time.

During the Texas Revolution, Santa Anna led his forces to victory at the unforgettable Battle of the _____.

This, of course, gives us the rallying cry "Remember the Alamo!" Along with "Remember Goliad!" (another Mexican rout), this was shouted by Texian officers at the Battle of San Jacinto, won by Sam Houston's army (Texas, remember was an independent republic then).

Who was the American president during the Mexican-American War?

Polk annexed the Republic of Texas, but Mexico wanted to reclaim that territory as well. Mexicans call the war that Polk started the "American intervention in Mexico."

According the the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War, what became the boundary between Mexico and Texas?

Of course, it's the Rio Grande. Because the river flows south from the Colorado, it doesn't make up the entirety of border, but it is the greater part.

Which nation invaded Mexico in 1862, ostensibly to collect unpaid debts?

So much for the idea of France being an un-warlike, non-interventionist country! France invaded in 1862, and despite a May 5 defeat now commemorated by Mexicans as "Cinco de Mayo," succeeded in putting a Habsburg ruler, Maxmillian III, in control. France eventually withdrew from Mexico in 1865-66, under pressure from the United States.

Which of these men led a peasant revolution in the early 20th century?

Zapata is one of several folk heroes of the Mexican Revolution; Pancho Villa is another. Zapata led the Liberation Army of the South, and helped to bring about the fall of longtime president (and virtual dictator) Porfirio Diaz.

Which of these men was also an important figure in the Mexican Revolution?

Venustiano Carranza Garza was more conservative than either Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata. This is probably one reason why, after the war, he rose to become Mexico's 37th president. Sadly, he was assassinated after trying to install a protege as the new president in 1920.

Today, what percent of Mexicans profess to be Catholic?

As in European countries like Italy and France, Catholicism is the dominant religion in Mexico.

What is Mexico City's "zocalo"?

Why is this piece of geographical information included on a history quiz? Because the "zocalo" has been part of Mexico City life going back to Aztec times, when the city was the capital of Tenochtitlan. Formally, it is named Plaza de la Constitucion, but nearly everyone calls it the zocalo.

Which of these American figures from Spanish history gave his name to a Mexican flower?

Joel Poinsett was the first American minister to Mexico (today, we'd say "diplomat.") As an amateur botanist, Poinsett was taken with the "flor de nochbuena," or "Christmas Eve flower," and sent some to the U.S. Today, it is called the "poinsettia."

What was Mexico's small but key role in World War I?

This was the famous "Zimmerman telegram" affair. Germany sent a message to its diplomat in Mexico, instructing him to suggest that Germany and Mexico declare war on the United States together, with Germany helping Mexico reclaim lost territory. The telegram was intercepted and revealed to the United States, and backfired on Germany: It was the provocation that led the U.S. to join the war.

Which U.S. president implemented the "Good Neighbor" policy toward Mexico?

It was the more recent Roosevelt president — and unsurprisingly, a liberal — who created this policy of non-interference. It did not just apply to Mexico, but to all the Latin American countries.

What was Mexico's chief role in World War II?

World War II saw the rise of the "bracero" program, meaning "strong back." Mexican laborers replaced American men who'd gone to fight in the war. In addition, some ground troops and fighter pilots fought on the Allies' side, mostly in the Pacific theater after Pearl Harbor.

What is the PRI?

PRI stands for Partido Revolucionario Institutional, or Institutional Revolutionary Party. (How a political group can be both Institutional and Revolutionary escapes us, but we'll take their word for it). It held power for an amazing 71 years before other factions got a stronger foothold in Mexican politics.

Which Mexican president signed the NAFTA agreement?

Salinas signed off for Mexico, with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney representing Canada and George H.W. Bush the United States. Current U.S. President Donald Trump has spearheaded a new agreement, the U.S,-Mexico-Canada Agreement, but it is pending ratification.

From about 2010 to 2013, Mexico was home to the world's richest person. Who was he?

Carlos Slim Helu is still bouncing around the Forbes list of the world's billionaires, though he hasn't been at the top recently. Beginning his adult life as a stock trader, he is currently invested in virtually all significant sectors of the world economy, including a majority holding in the New York Times.

True or false: Mexico is the northernmost country in Central America.

Although many Americans consider Mexico to be part of Central America, based on similarities in language and culture with the countries to its south. However, geographically, Mexico is the southernmost country in North America (hence its inclusion in NAFTA).

What role did "la Malinche" play in early Mexican history?

Mexicans don't have an entirely positive view of "Dona Marina," who also bore Cortes a son. The word "malinchista" was coined to mean a person disloyal to their people. However, there's also a view of la Malinche as a kind of matriarch of modern Mexico, where a great many people have mixed Spanish and Indian blood.

At present, where does Mexico City rank among the world's largest cities?

Technically, we should call it the 11th-largest "urban area" in the world, as this ranking includes the population of Mexico City's 16 surrounding boroughs. It also ranks as the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world.

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