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Jan 022014

The total number of people living in poverty in Mexico continues to rise, though the poverty rate (as a percentage) remains roughly the same. According to Mexico’s National Political and Social Development Commission (Spanish language acronym: Coneval), the number of people in poverty has risen steadily for several years, much in line with Mexico’s rising total population. Coneval’s figures are based on a simple multidimensional poverty index, which considers the following criteria:

  • household income
  • access to education
  • access to food
  • access to health care
  • access to social services
  • housing quality
  • access to basic household services (electricity, water, drainage)

According to Coneval, 53.3 million Mexicans (45.5% of the total population) were living in poverty in 2012, compared to 52.8 million (46.1% of the then population) in 2010 and 48.8 million Mexicans (44.5%of the population) in 2008.

Note that poverty statistics prior to 2008 in Mexico were generally based purely on income levels. From 2008, this method was replaced by a multidimensional index. The precise details of the index have been modified slightly since that time, making exact comparisons between 2012 and 2008 more problematic.

While the precise numbers are subject to debate, mainly due to differing definitions of what constitutes “poverty” and how it can be measured, the trend revealed by the Coneval numbers is supported by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in its “Social Panorama of Latin America 2013“, published in December 2013. The ECLAC report found that Mexico is one of a very few countries where poverty levels rose between 2011 and 2012, from 36.3% of the population to 37.1%, according to its definition.

The dire situation in Mexico compares to a slight decrease in poverty in most larger Latin American countries, including Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, Argentina and Colombia.

In absolute terms, according to ECLAC, 164 million people were found to be living in poverty in Latin America, about 57.4 million (35%) of them in Mexico.

Change in poverty rates in Mexico, 2010-2012.

Change in poverty rates in Mexico, 2010-2012. Credit: Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved. Data: Coneval

The map shows the Coneval data for changes in the poverty rate between 2010 and 2012 by state. It appears that poverty levels increased in many of Mexico’s more prosperous areas and in the longer established industrial areas, as well as in almost all areas where tourism is important. Poverty decreased in some of Mexico’s more rural, and generally poorer, states.

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Update on Mexico and the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Update on Mexico and the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)
Dec 302013

More than 190 countries signed up to the 2015 UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed in 2000. There are 8 major goals:

  1. eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. achieve universal primary education
  3. promote gender equality and empower women
  4. reduce child mortality
  5. improve maternal health
  6. combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. ensure environmental sustainability
  8. develop a global partnership for development

millenium-development-goalsMexico is well on its way to meeting most of the eight goals, according to the technical committee established to monitor the country’s progress. The technical committee includes representatives from various government departments, as well as INEGI (the National Geography and Statistics Institute) and CONAPO (the National Population Council).

The committee reports that Mexico has already met the targets for 38 (74.5%) of the 51 quantitative indicators used to assess progress towards the 8 goals, and is continuing work towards meeting the remaining targets by 2015 (the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals).

Satisfactory or good progress is being made on 5 of the remaining 13 indicators; all five are expected to be met sometime in 2015.  Progress on the other 8 indicators has been slower than needed, and it now seems highly unlikely that goal 7 (environmental sustainability) can possibly be met.

Specific targets that Mexico has not yet reached and where progress has either stagnated, or deterioration has occurred, include:

  • Decrease in mortality rate per 100,000 inhabitants due to HIV/AIDS  (part of goal 6)
  • Total carbon dioxide emissions (part of goal 7)
  • Proportion of total water resources already in use (part of goal 7)
  • Percentage of inhabitants with private dwellings using charcoal or wood for cooking (part of goal 7)

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The transformation of Real de Catorce from ghost town to film set and Magic Town

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Dec 262013

Both the name and the coat-of-arms of the state of San Luis Potosi recall the tremendous importance of mining to Mexico’s economy.

SLP-coat-of-armsCalled Potosí in emulation of the mines of that name high in the Bolivian Andes, the city’s coat-of-arms, awarded in 1656, has its patron saint standing atop a hill in which are three mine shafts. Left of the hill are two gold ingots, and right of it, two silver ones.

Some of the early mining towns in San Luis Potosí faded into obscurity, others became centers for ranching and commerce. The best known former mining town, Real de Catorce, for long considered a ghost town, has been resuscitated by tourism.

For visitors planning to see Real de Catorce, the best place to stay the night before is Matehuala, on highway 57, which has a full range of tourist services. From Matehuala, it is short distance west to Cedral. Shortly after Cedral a 24-kilometer-long cobblestone road climbs up the mountain to Real de Catorce, which sits at an elevation of  2,743 meters (9,000 ft) in the Sierra de Catorce range.

Real de Catorce

Main street of Real de Catorce. Credit: Tony

Main street of Real de Catorce. Credit: Tony Burton

The first surprise for visitors is the single file 2,300 meter long Ogarrio tunnel – the only entrance to the town from the north – a unique introduction to the many strange things awaiting you on the other side. The second surprise  is how such a large place, which produced more than 3 million dollars worth of silver each year, could ever have become a ghost town. Between 1788 and 1806, the La Purisima mine alone yielded annually more than $200,000 pesos of silver– and that was when a peso of silver was equivalent to a dollar.

The large, stone houses, often of several stories, with tiled roofs, wooden window frames and wrought-iron work, were so well built that they have survived to tell you their tales as you wander through the steep streets, soaking up the atmosphere of one of Mexico’s most curious places.

You need time to really appreciate the former grandeur of Real de Catorce. Fortunately, there are several simple hotels and restaurants. It is well worth hiring a local guide.  An enthusiastic guide will wear your feet out long before you tire of their informative commentaries.

Seek out the beautifully restored palenque (cock-fighting pit). Pause in the church to examine the mesquite floor, imaginatively described in some guidebooks as comprised of a mosaic of coffin lids. The church is dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi. The two week long fiesta in his honor, centered on October 4th, is a huge affair, attended by hundreds of returning Real de Catorce families.

In front of the church, across the small plaza of Carbón, is the former mint. This gorgeous building is well worth visiting and now used for cultural events such as photographic exhibitions. Look in the gallery and perhaps you’ll find an irresistible, original, handcrafted item made of locally mined silver.

The town of Real de Catorce and its surroundings are sufficiently photogenic that several movies have been filmed here, including Bandidas (featuring Salma Hayek and Penélope Cruz) and The Mexican (featuring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts).

The town, designated a Magic Town in 2001, has several small hotels and restaurants for those wanting to spend more time here.

This area has close associations with the indigenous Huichol (Wixarika) Indians who call this area Wirikuta. Each spring, they visit Cerro del Quemado, a hill within easy hiking distance of Real de Catorce, to leave religious offerings. The Huichol collect the hallucinogenic cactus peyote, used in some of their ceremonies, from the surrounding desert during an annual spiritual pilgrimage to Wirikuta from their heartland in northern Jalisco, 400 km (250) miles away. Cerro del Quemado was declared a National Sacred Site in 2011. An upcoming full length documentary about the Huichol Indians, the “Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians“, includes shots of the pilgrimage, while looking at how the continuation of the pilgrimages could be threatened by proposed mining projects.

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Seasonal greetings from Geo-Mexico

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Dec 232013

Geo-Mexico wishes all our readers a wonderful holiday season. May all your hopes and dreams come true.

Christmas ornaments in Chignahuapan

Christmas ornaments in Chignahuapan

See these previous Geo-Mexico posts to learn more about Christmas in Mexico:

We also recommend looking at MexConnect’s Christmas “Index Page” which has links to dozens of original, and fascinating articles related to Christmas in Mexico.


 Posted by at 4:36 am

The city of León in Guanajuato uses Google Earth to monitor its water usage

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on The city of León in Guanajuato uses Google Earth to monitor its water usage
Dec 212013

León, in the state of Guanajuato, is a prosperous industrial city (population 1.6 million), which built its wealth by processing animal hides obtained from the surrounding ranching areas into all manner of leather goods, especially clothing, accessories and shoes, the range of which goes from casual to ultra-fashionable. León does not just have shoe stores, it has shoe shopping centers!

Founded in 1576 and named for a province in Spain, the city became an important colonial center, well positioned on the main trading routes. It later became important for anti-colonial sentiment. Brothers Juan and Ignacio Aldama, born here in the eighteenth century, became key figures in the Independence movement led by Father Miguel Hidalgo. Shortly after Independence, the city’s shoe industry started, introduced by skilled craftsmen from Puebla.

Like any wealthy Mexican city, León has lots of old buildings, including the eighteenth century Cathedral with its fine choir stalls and the Nuestra Señora de los Angeles church, embellished by the interesting carvings of a native craftsman. The impressive Town Hall, with its elaborate façade, is a nineteenth century addition, as is the Manuel Doblado Theatre, designed by José Noriega who also had a hand in building theatres in several other cities in the region, including Guanajuato, Aguascalientes and San Luis Potosí.

leon-agua-monitoreoThe city would have even more old buildings today were it not for the disastrous flood of June 1888 when torrential downpours caused the Río Gómez to burst its banks. A wall of water and debris swept away more than 2000 homes, causing 200 fatalities and making 20,000 homeless. Major engineering works shortly afterwards have ensured that the city is now safe from future events of this kind.

The city has grown into one of Mexico’s most important industrial centers. The position of León has been key to its success. The city is located in central Mexico, close to the major urban areas of Mexico City, Querétaro and Guadalajara. On a broader scale, it is close to the major export markets of the USA, Canada and Central America. Market proximity is enhanced by an excellent communications network, including good road and rail links, easy access to several major airports, and to seaports such as Manzanillo.

Like most cities in central Mexico, one of León’s most pressing problems is how to ensure that its residents and industries have an adequate supply of potable water, even though the city was rated #1 in the country in terms of overall performance in this regard in the 2011 report “Water Management in Mexican Cities”.

In order to monitor the city’s water usage more effectively, engineers from the León Potable Water and Sewerage System (SAPAL) have introduced a sophisticated software system that provides real time data about the city’s water network and wells. It enables the engineers to overlay data like address, owner, account status, and water consumption onto a series of screen connected to Google Earth.

The system was developed in-house by local engineers, starting more than a decade ago, at a fraction of the cost of purchasing a similar system from an external provider. The León system is already being closely studied by water experts from other cities and countries.

SAPAL’s Control and Monitoring Center has a video wall, measuring 7.5 by 2 meters, with 24 LED screens. The center functions 24 hours a day, monitoring details of water distribution for more than 9000 data points, including wells, pipelines and holding tanks.

According to Agustín Báez, the city official responsible for SAPAL operations, the objective is “to have measurement from point of extraction to final use” since “what is not measured is not controlled.”


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How well do you know Mexico? The geography of Mexico: Quiz 8

 Quiz  Comments Off on How well do you know Mexico? The geography of Mexico: Quiz 8
Dec 192013

Welcome to our eighth quiz about the geography of Mexico.

How many of the following can you answer correctly?

If you answer a question incorrectly, you can have more attempts at each question before the answer is revealed.

Good Luck!

Geography of Mexico Quiz 8

Congratulations - you have completed Geography of Mexico Quiz 8. You scored %%SCORE%% out of %%TOTAL%%. Your performance has been rated as %%RATING%%
Your answers are highlighted below.

Previous quizzes:

 Posted by at 6:47 am  Tagged with:
Dec 162013

In October 2013, the protection status of the Nevado de Toluca, Mexico’s fourth highest peak, was downgraded from National Park to Wildlife Reserve (Area of Protection for Flora and Fauna).

On paper, this is a significant downgrade that may now open the door to greater economic activity in the former National Park area with adverse environmental consequences. In practice, it might turn out to be a blessing in disguise and herald the start of a more pragmatic approach to environmental protection.

Is this good news or bad? This post considers some of the possible implications of the volcano’s recent change of status.

El Volcán Nevado de Toluca

El Volcán Nevado de Toluca


The Nevado de Toluca (also known as Chicnautécatl) is Mexico’s fourth highest peak, with a summit elevation of 4680 m (15,354 ft) above sea level. Located in central Mexico, southwest of the city of Toluca (the capital of the state of Mexico) and 80 km (50 miles) from Mexico City, the Nevado de Toluca is one of the most accessible volcanic peaks in the country. During the warmer months, regular vehicles can be driven very close to the volcano’s crater with its small lakes. During cooler months, when snow blankets the top portions of the mountain, the access road is popular with Mexico City families wanting to show their children what snow looks and feels like.

The area was granted National Park status in 1936, during the administration of President Lázaro Cárdenas, at a time when deforestation threatened to undermine the mountain’s ability to capture rainwater and be used as a water source for Mexico City and Toluca. (1936 was an important year in the history of environmental protection in Mexico because it was when the International Parks Commission was established which led to a series of protected areas–National Parks, Wildlife Areas and Forest Reserves–being established on either side of the Mexico-USA border).

The decree establishing the Nevado de Toluca National Park called for the expropriation of all the land around the volcano that was over 3000 m in elevation. The total area involved was about 536 sq. km. (207 square miles). While, for a variety of reasons, this expropriation was never fully implemented, deforestation of the volcano’s slopes was halted and tree-cutting banned.

In the succeeding decades, settlement expansion gradually ate away at the lower slopes with the result that the original National Park area now houses more than 5000 inhabitants in at least 16 distinct villages.

The newly designated Wildlife Reserve has a nucleus, centered on the crater, of 1.9 sq km, surrounded by a buffer zone of 51.7 sq. km.

A draft of the management plan for the Wildlife Reserve has been published by the National Commission for Protected Natural Areas (Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas, CNANP) and made available for public consultation. The statuary 60-day consultation period began in mid-November.

The draft management plan [Map and plan both dated 5/11/2013] has met with considerable criticism in the popular press. The main issue is whether or not any such plan, however well intentioned, will be effectively enforced.

Several journalists have highlighted the very real danger that the new status will allow changes of land use in the former park that could lead to serious environmental degradation. The possible expansion of mineral extraction and of tourism within the Wildlife Reserve are of particular concern.

Nevado de Toluca Crater June 1986.

Nevado de Toluca Crater, June 1986. Photo: copyright Christopher Kessler (Wikimedia Commons)


In “Se tolerará la minería dentro del Nevado de Toluca“, Paris Martínez looks at the situation of several mining operations in the former park currently quarrying volcanic sand and gravel. Only one of these companies apparently had the requisite permit from the State of Mexico to quarry within the National Park area. The draft management plan allows all the quarries to continue operating for at least five years. Effectively, as Martínez points out, the change of status of the Nevado de Toluca means that mining operations that were operating illegally within the park are now “regularized”, for at least five years.

The main existing sand and gravel quarries are: El Atorón and Loma Alta in the municipality of Zinacantepec La Loba, El Capulín, Las Lágrimas (the only one with a state permit) and El Varal in Temascaltepec.

There are also reported to be many smaller illegal quarries extracting tepojal, a volcanic deposit similar to pumice, used in the construction industry. Unsupervised and unauthorized extraction is especially prevalent on the southern and eastern sides of the Wildlife Reserve.

Local residents say that quarrying, together with the construction of the access roads required to access the quarries, has resulted in serious environmental damage to the slopes of the volcano. Specifically, quarrying activities have led to:

  • deforestation
  • erosion, soil loss, degraded hydrology
  • loss of soil water absorbing capacity
  • particle emissions
  • loss of slope stability
  • visual pollution

The impacts of quarrying are not confined to the slopes of the volcano. The increased erosion of the lower slopes has led to local streams having to cope with a higher sediment load, reducing their capacity to carry the heavy rainy-season precipitation. This has led to flooding damage downstream in municipalities such as Tenango del Valle, Calimaya and Rayón.

The management plan appears to lack a clear pathway for the regulation or limitation of quarrying activities. At the same time, it calls for short-term remediation of areas that have been subject to soil degradation, but only for former mining areas that are not currently being exploited. It does nothing to reduce soil impacts in areas where quarrying is ongoing.

While the management plan does not discuss how or when the quarries might be closed, it does propose establishing workshops to develop “alternative productive activities” for the owners of small quarries, to provide them with an alternative source of income. However, the workshops are only mentioned as part of the long-term plan, ie to be introduced at some point at least 5 years down the road.

What’s more, only one alternative productive activity – public use, open-air recreation and tourism- is actually mentioned in the plan, alongside those activities that would provide products or services for tourism. Surely the final version of the plan should also suggest other viable options?

The plan calls for compensation for the owners of property where quarrying is halted, and who opt for alternative activities. However, this too is only mentioned as part of the longer term plan, so many landowners may well be tempted to start mining in the interim, in order to be able to claim compensation in a few years’ time!


The decision to change the protection status of the Nevado de Toluca was based on a commissioned study that showed the area had potential for “intensive tourism” and “private infrastructure”. The study identified potential “tourism nuclei” or “sites for intensive tourism” where the construction of cabins was considered “feasible”. Following criticism and opposition that included almost 30,000 signatures on a change-org petition, the draft Management Plan does not use terms like “intensive tourism” and states that “tourism developments and ski runs may NOT be built in the area”, nor may subdivisions, hotels, golf courses or weekend homes.

The draft plan calls for “low-impact tourism” which is environmentally aware, defined as being suitable for activities such as hiking trails, camping and bird-watching. The plan allows for this form of tourism to be developed in most of the core area of the crater of the Nevado de Toluca as well as in a 3-square-kilometer section on the slopes of the volcano. The plan also allows existing settlements (whose area is not precisely defined) to develop tourism infrastructure; this could easily result in some short-term land-grabbing. Equally, precisely what counts as tourism infrastructure is not clearly defined.

Accepting that the National Park was never adequately patrolled or regulated, then if the new Wildlife Reserve Management Plan is tightly written and backed up by effective monitoring and the enforcement of regulations, then the volcano’s change of status may yet prove to be the best way to preserve the mountain’s unique character.

The draft plan is a valuable step forward, but Geo-Mexico hopes that the final Management Plan will address the many concerns raised in the press, to the benefit of both the volcano itself and its local residents.

Thanks to Arq. Ricardo Warman for first alerting us to the Nevado de Toluca’s change of protected status.

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Dec 122013

Today is 12 December, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the beloved indigenous patron saint of Mexico and much of the Americas. This seems like a good excuse, if ever one was needed, to revisit the “Gender Gap” in Mexico. The gender gap assesses the “gap” between females and males for a number of variables, but should not be taken as reflecting the quality of life of females in different countries.  For example, the gender gap between women in Japan and Japanese men is very large, even though Japanese women enjoy a relatively high quality of life.

In “The Global Gender Gap Report 2013″, the World Economic Forum (WEF), based in Geneva, Switzerland, placed Mexico 68th of the 136 nations included in the study. Between them, the 136 nations house 93% of the world population. Mexico has risen 16 places in the rankings since 2012, meaning that the gender gap in Mexico is narrowing, even if there is still a long way to go to reach gender equality. (It is worth noting that Mexico has been climbing steadily up the rankings for several years, from #98 in 2009, to #91 in 201, #89 in 2011 and #84 in 2012).

Of the 136 countries studied for the 2013 report, Iceland had the smallest gender gap, for the 5th year running, followed by Finland, Norway and Sweden.

Among Latin American nations, Nicaragua had the smallest gender gap (placing 10th in the world), with Cuba, which has the highest female participation in government, coming in 15th and Brazil remaining 62nd. Other notable placings were Germany 14th, and South Africa 17th.

gender gap graph for Mexico

How Mexico (country score) compares to other countries (sample average). Source: Gender Gap Report 2013

The Gender Gap Index is a composite index comprised of a number of variables grouped into four key areas:

  • health and survival
  • educational attainment
  • political empowerment
  • economic participation

As noted in our summary of the 2012 Gender Gap Report, Mexico ranks #1 in the world, tying with several other countries, for the health and survival subindex. This means that Mexican females are unsurpassed with respect to sex ratio at birth (female/male) combined with female life expectancy (female/male).

For the other subindexes, in 2013 Mexico ranked #36 for political empowerment and #70 for educational attainment, but a lowly #111 for economic participation.

Geo-Mexico agrees wholeheartedly with Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, who called for renewed efforts to ensure gender equality, saying that, “Countries will need to start thinking of human capital very differently – including how they integrate women into leadership roles. This shift in mindset and practice is not a goal for the future, it is an imperative today.”

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Mexico City explores deep water aquifer

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Dec 092013

Background: The Valley of Mexico is an interior basin about 9000 square km in area. The basin floor sits at an elevation of 2200 meters above sea level and is surrounded by mountains that rise up to more than 5000 meters above sea level. It receives around 700 mm of rainfall a year, with a rainy season from late May to September.

The basin was originally the site of several lakes and marshes, and much of it is underlain by lacustrine sediments up to 100 m thick, beneath which are alluvial sediments up to 500 m thick (see geological cross-section below). These sediments are interstratified with layers of volcanic basalt. Beneath the alluvial sediments are 100 m to 600 m of volcanic deposits, which form the principal Mexico City aquifer (found about 500 m to 1000 m below Mexico City).

As Mexico City has grown, and water demands have increased, this main aquifer has been greatly overexploited, leading to a drop in the level of the water table underground, accompanied by ground subsidence that has had serious consequences for Mexico City:

Feasibility study of a deep aquifer

The National Water Commission (CNA) and Mexico City Water System (SACM) are undertaking a 3-year, 23-million-dollar feasibility study to assess the potential of an aquifer that lies more than 2000 meters below Mexico City. (Our earlier, initial report about this aquifer is here).  The project includes experts from Pemex, CFE and UNAM’s Institute of Geophysics.

Schematic stratigraphy of the southern portion of the Basin of Mexico.

Schematic stratigraphy of the southern portion of the Basin of Mexico.
Source: Adapted from Mooser, 1990.

Initial exploratory wells have shown that the deep aquifer’s water quality is superior to that currently derived from the overexploited shallower wells that extend to depths of around 800m.

It is hoped that the feasibility study will confirm that water from the deep aquifer could be an additional viable source of freshwater for the city. Assuming the deep aquifer is hydrologically independent of the shallower aquifers, this  would not only reduce the need to pump water from the shallower aquifers, but would also avoid the ground subsidence resulting from continued shallow-water extraction. The feasibility study will assess whether or not the deep water aquifer is “fossil” water or is still being recharged from precipitation and underground throughflow. If it is being recharged, the experts will calculate its recharge rate to determine the aquifer’s maximum sustainable yield. (The maximum sustainable yield is the “additional groundwater output from the system which will cause minimal and acceptable levels of stress to the ecosystem with maximum benefits to the society and to the economy”).

The first test well is likely to be sunk in the Magdalena Mixhuca Sports City area, in the eastern part of Mexico City.

This potential deep aquifer source of freshwater could play a vital part in ensuring that future generations of Mexico City residents have a dependable and sustainable water supply.

Mexico’s consideration of utilizing deep water aquifers runs counter to the prevailing wisdom in the US where it has long been argued that deep water aquifers will be too costly to utilize for fresh water, will never be used, and are therefore more useful as a repository for waste and can be intentionally polluted.

As a result, as this Huffington Post article explains, “policy-makers often exempt these deep aquifers from clean water protections and allow energy and mining companies to inject pollutants directly into them.”  The article adds that, “the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued more than 1,500 permits for companies to pollute such aquifers in some of the driest regions. Frequently, the reason was that the water lies too deep to be worth protecting.”


Mooser, F. 1990. “Estratigrafía y estructura del Valle de México en el subseulo de la cuenca del Valle de México y su relacíon con la Ingeniería de cimentaciones, a cinco anos del sismo”, in Revista de la Sociedad Mexicana de Mecánica de Suelos. Mexico, D.F.

For a detailed description of Mexico City’s shallower aquifer and its exploitation, see Mexico City’s Water Supply: Improving the Outlook for Sustainability (1995) (viewable online or register for a free download)

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Example of a sixteenth century map

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Dec 072013

In the mid-sixteenth century, the Spanish Court was determined to acquire accurate information about everything being encountered in New Spain. This led to a series of censuses and accounts, including the Relaciones geográficas (Geographic Accounts).

The basis for the Geographic Accounts was a 50-question survey, sent to New Spain in 1577. The authorities in each administrative center were instructed to call a meeting of the “Spaniards and other natives in the district”, to find out everything they could about the area’s geography, people and history.

Of the 191 known responses to the 1577 questionnaire, 167 have survived in archives to the present day. Most of the original responses are housed in Spain, in either the Archivo General de las Indias in Seville or the Real Academia de la Historia in Madrid, while a further 43 responses form part of the Benson Latin American Collection in the University of Texas library in Austin. (The library’s webpage about the Relaciones geográficas has several links to images of sample pages and maps).

Map of Zempoala area from the Relaciones Geográficas

Map of Zempoala area from the Relaciones Geográficas (1577)

The accounts contain a wealth of information about population, relief, flora, fauna, economic activities and lifestyles. Some also include maps of the areas being described. However these early maps do not follow modern conventions in terms of having a uniform scale across the area being shown, or an orientation that is consistent in terms of compass directions. They are pictorial maps, where the scale varies across the map, and where areas are delimited, or places are linked, without apparent regard for direction.

One such map (see image above) depicts the area around Zempoala (Hidalgo). This is analyzed by Barbara E. Mundy, Associate Professor of Art History at Fordham University, in an online article, Mapping Babel: A Sixteenth-Century Indigenous Map from Mexico, published in The Appendix, a “journal of narrative and experimental history”. In the article, Mundy provides a detailed, step-by-step account of the map, with lots of additional related images and information.

Detail of map, showing Tepemayalco

Detail of map, showing Tepemaxalco

Mundy’s analysis reveals several “acts of translation” that have been made by the indigenous artist(s) presumed to be responsible for drawing the map.

For example, the artist(s) made the Spanish paper provided for the map more closely resemble its indigenous counterpart (bark paper), by joining sheets together to create the size they wanted for the map. In addition, unlike modern maps where the viewer is essentially static, with the map details arranged around them, indigenous maps demand changes of perspective, mobile viewers, who have to reorientate themselves depending where they are on the map in order to see things clearly.

Many of the images are a translation, perhaps of similar European images. For instance, like most towns on the map, Tepemaxalco is shown with “a conventional sign for a Christian chapel: a small building drawn in perspective with one side marked by a shadowing grey wash, topped with belfry and cross.”

The map also links the pictograph for each place name to its name written in alphabetic script. “The pictograph for Tepemaxalco (see image) registers some of its Nahuatl components: tepetl, ‘hill,’ maitl, ‘hand,’ xalli, ‘sand’ and co, ‘place of.’ Below, the name is written in alphabetic script, probably introduced by the Franciscans who evangelized this region.”

The dominant pictogram on this map is that for Zempoala (written “Cenpoballa” on the map). Mundy offers an interesting interpretation of this pictograph, which we hope to examine further in a future post.

Further reading

Barbara E Mundy. 2001. The Mapping of New Spain: Indigenous Cartography and the Maps of the Relaciones Geográficas.

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