I keep coming back to this book since I first turned to it to understand Mexico's earthquake patterns earlier this year.
I keep learning more, and being startled by the correlations between Mexico's geography and its politics, religion, economics, commerce and even tourism patterns.
It's often said that biology is destiny, but possibly to an even greater extent, a country's geography shapes its destiny. Mexico is one of the most geographically diverse countries in the world, with vast deserts, rain forests, jungles, high plateaus, volcanic belts, and coastlines.
It's the 14th largest country in the world and ranks 11th in population and economy ($1.58 trillion USD a year). Three fourths of the country is higher than a thousand meters altitude (3,300 feet).
Some 85% of the population lives in these higher regions (half the population lives in a band across the middle of Mexico from Veracruz to Guadalajara), largely in a giant central plateau that could be called high desert.
Yet the country has 30 inches of rainfall a year overall, more than the averages for Canada and the US. Only 3% of that rainfall seeps down to replenish its aquifers. Some 44% of the country is severely water stressed.
Mexicans use 1,441 cubic meters of water a year for all purposes, while the US uses 2,483 cubic meters a person. Water shortages and patterns are one huge factor that has shaped Mexico, even to its reliance on corn as its main food product throughout history since corn requires less water than many other food sources.
It is a country which has major mountain ranges separating its peoples, some areas better suited to transportation by horse, then trains and cars, so that these populations became more assimilated into the world than the more remote areas, which stayed poorer and less exposed to new cultures and social forces.
In these remote areas, 16% of the women speak only an indigenous language, no Spanish. When the Conquistadors arrived the people throughout Mexico spoke 170 indigeous languages, and today there are 62, disappearing rapidly.
While overall the average level of education for Mexico is 8.4 years for men, 7.9 years for women, in indigenous areas for men it is 5.1 years of education, 3.9 for women.
There is no way of knowing the population of Mexico when Cortés arrived, but it fell at least 90% in the next hundred years, to 1.6 million, largely due to diseases. Now it is about 110 million.
The birth rate keeps falling, until it is expected that within a few decades, it will fall below the 2.1 children per female level required for its population to maintain itself. Its elderly population is expanding, causing the same kinds of problems as the US is alrady experiencing.
So many geographic factors shape Mexico. It ranks seventh in countries in the world according to known oil resources, producing 3.2 million barrels a day in 2008, exporting 44%, for about $50 billion USD income a year. But its known reserves will be exhausted in ten years at current rates of extraction.
More than a hundred maps, graphs, charts and text boxes show concretely how Mexico divides itself geographically, even in religion. A band across Zacatecas to Michoacan includes the highest percentage of Roman Catholics, some 95% of the population in that area, while less than 75% of the population in southeast mexico, from Chiapas to Quintana Roo, calls itself Roman Catholic.
To help develop agriculture in the more desert north, President Obregon gave tax concessions, freedom of worship and exemption from military service to some 3,000 Mennonite families of German and Russian descent.
They came down from Canada in 1922 and turned much of that region into workable dairy farms, producing in particular Mennonite cheese similar to the yellow cheddar they'd produced in Canada. (Most of Mexico's cheeses are white.)
Mormons were drawn to the Chihuahua area and today they make up more than a million people throughout Mexico, up from a quarter million in 1980. Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses are other fast-growing religions this book calls "Biblical, not evangelical" non-Catholics. The evangelical Protestant groups are making strongest headway in southern Mexico.
This book even examines the influences of geography with major cities, particularly Mexico City which was the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan built on an island. Spaniards imposed European ideas of how a city should be laid out upon colonial cities, while cities like Monterrey which were not so much Spanish influenced grew along their own natural geographic patterns.
The Spanish interfered with natural development in so many ways, including importing as many as 200,000 slaves from Africa during colonial times. They were heartier and lived a little longer working in the mines.
Blacks outnumbered Spaniards in Mexico until after 1810. Mexico outlawed slavery in 1829, while the US kept slavery legal until 1865. Some 4,000 escaped US slaves settled in Mexico, given land concessions to encourage development of some areas.
Every page of this thoroughly researched and documented book contains valuable information for anyone who seeks to understand Mexico, not just its political history but the even deeper geographic forces which have made it what it is today.
And the book is highly readable as well, bearing no resemblance to the geography textbooks that turned most of us off of the subject in school.
Richard Rhoda is a PhD geographer, university instructor and author who has headed international aid and environmental programs in Asia, Africa and Latin America. He has lived in Ajijic, Mexico since 1999.
Co-author Canadian Tony Burton, formerly of Ajijic, is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and edited the Lloyd Mexican Economic Report for 12 years. He was chief Examiner in Geography for the International Baccalaureate Organization. He authored two previous books on Mexico and is a moderator on [...].
I recommend Geo-Mexico highly to anyone who wants to understand Mexico and move beyond the stereotypes and superficialities that have done it a grave disservice.
Carol Schmidt, [...]