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Street patterns in Mexico City

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Jan 102013

A recent post on Polis, “a collaborative blog about cities across the world”, focuses on the street patterns in Mexico City.

The post uses Google Earth images of different parts of the city to illustrate how street patterns vary between neighborhoods with different levels of wealth. This approach has long been used in urban geography, but the examples provided are a useful reminder of the value of “old-school” map interpretation skills, some of which are rapidly being lost in the age of online maps.

Mexico City Metropolitan Area: Fuentes de Aragón

Mexico City Metropolitan Area: Fuentes de Aragón

A simple exercise for students would be to ask them to choose two similar-sized cities, one in the USA and one in Mexico, and then use Google Maps and Google Earth images to compare their urban morphology (street patterns). It is worth comparing areas of different land uses (such as industrial, commercial, residential). The analysis should include some annotated images highlighting the key similarities and differences.

Mexico City Metropolitan Area (Geo-Mexico Fig 22.2; all rights reserved)

Spatial growth of Mexico City Metropolitan Area (Geo-Mexico Fig 22.2; all rights reserved)

The striking rectilinear lines usually found in poorer neighborhoods are in stark contrast to the curvilinear street patterns common in wealthier suburbs. In a city with a long history, like Mexico City, it is easy to locate and identify residential areas of very different age. (In general, the older residential areas are closer to the city center than newer residential areas.)

Mexico City: Pedregal San Angel

Mexico City: Pedregal San Angel

In the case of both Mexico City and Guadalajara (Mexico’s second largest city), a transect across the city from the wealthy west to the much poorer east will reveal remarkable differences in street patterns, corresponding closely to the patterns of wealth.

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Globalization: Mexico exports almost all motor vehicles it produces, but imports new cars

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Jan 082013

Which company exports the most motor vehicles in Mexico? In term of units exported, Ford was the leader with 449,925 units. Ford exported over 97% of the vehicles it made in Mexico in 2011. Though Ford sold many new cars in Mexico, virtually all were imports, mainly from the USA or Canada. GM was a relatively close second with 443,237 vehicles exported, 81% of the total produced.

VW was next with 439,925 units exported, 84% of their total. Nissan was fourth with 411,660 vehicles exported which was a significantly lower percentage (68%) of its total production. Nissan sells about a third of its Mexican produced vehicles in Mexico, by far the highest percentage among auto manufacturers in Mexico.

Chrysler/Fiat exported 266,117 vehicles, 79% of their total production. Toyota was next with 49,549 vehicles exported for an amazing 99.9% of the total manufactured. Surprisingly only 47 of the almost 50,000 Toyotas made in Mexico in 2011 were sold in Mexico; all of the rest were exported to the USA or Canada. Virtually all of the thousands of new Toyotas sold in Mexico are imported. This is a very extreme case of globalization at work under NAFTA. Honda exported 36,429 units in 2011 for 80% of its total production.

Data are not yet available to determine which companies will lead in exports in 2012 and the percentage of total production that is exported. Overall production is expected to rise by over 20% in 2012 and perhaps even faster in future years judging by the amount auto companies are currently investing in Mexico. Obviously, production levels in 2013 and beyond will be closely tied to demand in the USA and Canada.

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Mexico’s changing urban landscape: the rapid rise of low-income subdivisions

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Jan 052013

Between 2000 and 2006, more than 2.3 million new low-income INFONAVIT homes were built in Mexico, a staggering rate of 2,500 new homes each and every day. The achievement was documented by photographer Livia Corona, who divides her time between New York and Mexico City, in a four-year project entitled “Two Million Homes for Mexico”. The project focuses on the “surge of mass-scale neighborhood developments in Mexico, exploring their role in the ongoing transformation of the ecological, social and cultural landscape of the nation and its citizens.”

47,547 Homes. xtapaluca, Mexico.Credit: Livia Corona.

47,547 Homes. Ixtapaluca, Mexico.Credit: Livia Corona.

As Corona’s photos reveal, while most of the “cookie-cutter” housing developments lack public amenities (schools, clinics) and public spaces (parks), and have few commercial establishments, the people moving into these homes proved remarkably adaptable and creative.

In the photographer’s own words, “Through images, films, and interviews, I look for the space between promises and their fulfillment. In my photographs of multiple developments throughout the country, I consider the rapid redefinition of Mexican “small town” life and the sudden transformation of the Mexican ecological and social landscape. These urban developments mark a profound evolution in our way of inhabiting the world.”

Credit: Livia Corona.

Credit: Livia Corona.

As she explained in an interview with Nina Corvallo for the  now-retired Nymphoto blog:

“In my current role as a visual artist, I am often familiarizing with new geographies, both for research and for commissioned assignments. My work is drawn by the underlying structures affecting quotidian survival, and my photographs expand on how these manifest on a broader level.”

“In my current work, Two Million Homes for Mexico, my drive comes from the riddle of what living in these neighborhoods can do to the development of a social and creative expression. What are the manifestations of this experience on the young minds growing up in these insular and remote landscapes, as they draw from a singular cultural and socio-economic backdrop?”

“Developers provided infinite rows of identical 100 to 200 square feet homes. Dwellers are now faced with the task of turning the rows into streets and developments into cities. I am inspired by the inventiveness of people in these neighborhoods, who are adapting with a very hands-on approach—despite a limited infrastructure—to procure a more appropriate living environment. Mexicans, as other Latin Americans, are notoriously gifted in appropriating the built environment. My project both celebrates these small individual triumphs as it frames the challenges and abuses made in providing housing for an ever-expanding population.”

The powerful images of Livia Corona are a worthy resource for urban geography classes.

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Education quality: How do Mexican students compare to those in other countries?

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Jan 032013

Mexico’s future is largely dependent on the quality of future citizens and consequently on the quality of its current education system. The Mexican economy has done quite well in recent years because it has a productive work force that is willing to work for relatively reasonable wages. While China previously had a workforce productivity advantage over Mexico, that advantage has essentially vanished. Therefore, many companies are moving their manufacturing operations from China to Mexico.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), coordinated by the OECD, evaluates national education systems every three years by testing 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science. The most recent assessment in 2009 investigated students in 65 countries, including the mostly high income 34 OECD countries.  (The 2012 results will be released in December 2013).

In 2009, the following countries ranked in the top ten in all three categories (reading, mathematics and science):

  • China: Shanghai (PISA divides China into several sub-national regions)
  • South Korea
  • Finland
  • Hong Kong
  • Singapore
  • Canada
  • Japan

How do Mexican 15-year-olds stack up against students from these other countries?

Within this group, the Mexican students ranked 48th in reading with a score 425. This placed Mexico behind the USA (17th, 500), Turkey (41st, 464), Russia (43rd, 459) and Chile (44th, 449); but ahead of Colombia (52nd, 413), Brazil (53rd, 412), Indonesia (57th, 402), Argentina (58th, 398) and Peru (63rd, 370). We mention the ranking and score of the USA because there has been considerable information published recently about the mediocre quality of its education system. While Mexico’s ranking and score is way behind that of the USA and closer to the bottom of this 65 country sample, it is not really so bad. It is better than that of most other Latin American countries. On the other hand it could and should be better.

The Mexican students did not do quite as well in mathematics. They ranked 50th with a score of 419. This placed them significantly behind the USA (31st, 487) and Russia (38th, 468). Mexico was also below Turkey (43rd, 445) and just behind Chile (49th, 421). As with reading they were ahead of Argentina (55th, 388), Brazil (57th, 386), Colombia (58th, 381), Indonesia (61st, 371) and Peru (64th, 360). Only one country was below Peru, namely Kyrgyzstan (65th, 331). It is important to remember that this sample includes mostly European countries, only one African country, Tunisia; no South Asian Countries, and only two Middle Eastern countries, Israel and Dubai. Mexico would look considerably better if it were compared with all countries in the world.

Mexico did about as well in science as they did in mathematics. They ranked 50th with a score 416. This placed them far behind the USA (23rd, 502) and Russia (39th, 478) and a ways below Turkey (43rd, 454) Chile (44th, 447). As with reading they were ahead of Brazil (53rdh, 405), Colombia (54th, 402), Argentina (56th, 401), Indonesia (60st, 383) and Peru (64th, 369). The data suggest that the scores for each country on reading, mathematics and science are pretty much the same within each country. In other words, the scores on any one of these disciplines tend to be a rather good measure of the overall quality of the education system.

If Mexico is going to compete in the globalized world economy, it must continue to improve its education system. Recent efforts have accomplished a great deal, raising the average amount of schooling of its citizens to 8.6 years. Future efforts should focus as much attention on improving the quality of education.

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The important role of telenovelas and historietas as forms of communication in Mexico

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Dec 312012

The highest rating programs on TV are televised novels, telenovelas. A telenovela is a limited‑run television serial melodrama, somewhat like a soap opera but normally lasting less than a year, and where the eventual ending has already been scripted.

image of los ricos tambien lloranThe first global telenovela was Los ricos también lloran (“The rich cry too”), originally shown in 1979. Telenovelas are now a $200 million market. Some critics claim they are effective promoters of social change, others deride them as being nothing more than mass escapism. Whichever view is more accurate, their portrayals reflect society’s values and institutions.

Advocates of telenovelas point to their role in challenging some traditional Mexican media taboos by including story lines about urban violence, racism, homosexuality, birth control, physical handicaps, political corruption, immigration and drug smuggling. Early telenovelas tended to be shallow romantic tales. The form subsequently evolved to include social commentaries and historical romances, some applauded for their attention to historical detail. Some were used for attempts at social engineering. An early government-sponsored telenovela promoted adult literacy programs. Several others openly advocated family planning and have been credited with contributing to Mexico’s dramatic decline in fertility rate. Other telenovelas have targeted younger audiences, focusing on issues connected to pop music, sex and drugs.

Rius historieta: The failure of education in Mexico

Rius historieta: The failure of education in Mexico

Besides the shallowness of the plot lines in most telenovelas, the other common criticism is that their stars are almost always white-skinned, blue-eyed blondes. Sadly, all too often, actors with indigenous looks are relegated to roles portraying menial workers such as home help or janitors.

Telenovelas have been extraordinarily successful commercially. They have become immensely popular not only in Latin America and among the US Hispanic population but also in more than 100 other countries, mainly in Eastern Europe and Asia.

In print media, a similar role to the telenovela has been played by historietas (comic books), the best of which have tackled all manner of social, political and environmental issues well before such topics made the main-stream press. Historietas helped educate millions of Mexicans and were also a commercial success. Their circulation peaked in the 1980s but has since declined due to competition from television and, more recently, the internet. The most influential creator of historietas is the cartoonist and writer Eduardo del Río (Rius) whose work earned him a 1991 United Nations Environment Programme prize.

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Which company produces the most motor vehicles in Mexico?

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Dec 292012

Back in 2006, General Motors (GM) was the clear leader in production with 493,841 units (just over 25% of the national total). Nissan was second with 411,236 units (21%). These were followed by Volkswagen (VW) – 339,183; Ford – 329,993 and Chrysler – 307,344. The newcomers, Toyota and Honda trailed way behind with 33,835 and 24,297 units, respectively.

By 2011 the picture had changed considerably. All the manufacturers suffered major losses in 2009 as a result of the Great Recession, but all have recovered, some better than others. Between 2006 and 2011, Nissan increased total production by 48%. In 2011, Nissan led all producers with 607,087 units for almost 24% of the national total.

Nissan easily surpassed GM which increased 2006 to 2011 by only 10% for a total of 544,202 units. VW increased by an impressive 50% to 510,041 units. Ford nearly kept pace with an increase of 40% to 462,462 units. Chrysler with merged with Fiat matched GM with an increase of only 10% up to 338,772 vehicles. Toyota upped production by a very significant 47% to 49,596 units. Honda did even better, increasing its production by a whopping 87% to 45,390 units.

Final data are not yet available to determine which companies led production in 2012. Overall production was expected to rise by over 20% in 2012 and perhaps even faster in future years judging by the amount auto companies are currently investing in Mexico. Obviously, production levels in 2013 and beyond will be closely tied to demand which is linked to overall economic growth. Judging from the investment amounts announced so far, it appears that Nissan will retain its lead in total production, with VW and Ford perhaps challenging GM for second place.

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Two examples of bird re-introduction programs in Mexico

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Dec 222012

Assuming that the world did not come to an end yesterday, Geo-Mexico would like to convey best wishes to everyone for the entire duration of the next Long Count Maya calendar cycle, which runs until sometime in 2406. This may allow sufficient time for some real progress to be made in environmental stewardship.

Today’s post looks at two ornithological conservation projects that have made significant advances in 2012. The first is in Maya territory in south-east Mexico, where biologists are trying to stave off the extinction of the colorful Scarlet Macaw, and extend its current range. Researchers believe that between 250 and 400 of the birds now remain in the wild, almost all of them in the area straddling the borders between Mexico, Guatemala and Belize.

Birds raised in the Xcaret Center for the breeding of macaws, located in the state of Quintana Roo, are being gradually prepared for being set free in Aluxes Park, an ecological reserve on the edge of the natural forest in Palenque, in the state of Chiapas. The plan is to release as many as 250 birds over the next five years. The natural range of the Scarlet Macaw, prior to deforestation, habitat loss and wildlife trafficking, once extended all the way along Mexico’s Gulf coast, from Tamaulipas to Campeche.

At the other end of the country, a decade-old multi-institutional project (government, academic and NGO) aims to reintroduce the California Condor into Baja California state. There are believed to be about 30 California Condors now flying free in the Sierra de San Pedro Martir, following the release of six condors there earlier this year.

California Condor

California Condor in flight. Credit: Friends of the California Condors

Specialists say the project has almost reached the point at which the birds are likely to reproduce successfully in the wild. Since 2008, 10 nesting sites have been located. Condors nest in caves making it difficult and time-consuming to locate nests, even when the birds are tagged with transmitting devices. Among the threats to the success of the program is the incidence of lead poisoning in condors resulting from them swallowing bullets left in animal carcasses killed, and then abandoned, by hunters.

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The “Geographic Accounts”: Mexico’s sixteenth century “Domesday Book”

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Dec 132012

Mexico’s equivalent of the Domesday Book was compiled in the sixteenth century.

Conquerors often have very little idea of precisely what they have acquired until their victory is assured. In many cases, one of their first post-conquest steps, therefore, is to undertake a comprehensive survey of everything of value, or potential value.

For instance, in 1086, William the Conqueror ordered a survey of his newly acquired England, the results of which were compiled into the Domesday Book. The decision to send out his assessors to every corner of the land was made at his Christmas Court in 1085. As a belated Christmas present to himself, William wanted to know “what or how much each landholder had, in land or livestock, and how much money it was worth”, so that he could tax it accordingly.

Though less comprehensive, a pictorial record of the wealth of Mexico already existed prior to the Spanish conquest. The Mexica people had gradually established an empire (the Aztec Empire) stretching from the Gulf coast to the Pacific. In order to administer the tributes due from each part of the empire, they recorded the requisite payments of feathers, animals, minerals and food, on bark paper codices. Some of these documents still survive, though most were destroyed by the Spanish. The image below is taken from the Codex Mendoza, which was created shortly after the conquest as a record of Aztec life, including the tributes payable by various villages and towns.

Tribute page from the Codex Mendoza

Tribute page from the Codex Mendoza

In this case, the tribute includes:

  • 2 strings of beads of jadeite, a green semi-precious stone
  • a total of 4000 handfuls of colored feathers
  • 160 skins of the bird with a blue plumage
  • 2 labrets (lip piercings) of amber encased in gold
  • 40 skins of jaguar
  • 200 loads of cacao beans, the main ingredient of chocolate
  • 800 tecomates (cups for drinking chocolate)
  • 2 slabs of clear amber, each approximately the size of a brick

Such tribute lists were of little interest to the Spanish when they arrived. Some of the items held in high esteem by the Aztecs were deemed worthless by the conquerors. Other items, such as silver, of little or no consequence to the Aztecs, were highly prized by the Spaniards.

Back in Spain, 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 earliest version of which dates back to the late sixteenth century.

In 1569, shortly after Juan de Ovando y Godoy was named Visitor of the Council of the Indies, he sent a questionnaire containing 37 questions to the New World. Another questionnaire, with about 200 questions, was sent in 1570. A few years later, perhaps in an effort to elicit more responses from the provinces, Ovando y Godoy’s former secretary and successor Juan López de Velasco reduced the number of questions to 50. These 50 questions, sent to New Spain in 1577, became the basis for the Geographic Accounts.

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 (Seville) or the Real Academia de la Historia (Madrid). A further 43 of them 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.

A future post will look at the content of a typical example of a “Geographic Account”.


Several transcriptions of the Relaciones geográficas have been published in Spanish. The version used in preparing this article is Acuña, R (ed) 1987 Relaciones geográficas del siglo XVI: Michoacán. Edición de René Acuña. Volume 9 of Relaciones geográficas del siglo XVI. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Note: This post is based on an article first published on

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Dec 102012

Geographic Travels, one of my very favorite Geography blogs, recently posted a photo of a Mexican Christmas Tree, accompanied by a short history claiming that the Christmas tree was first introduced into northern Mexico by German industrialists and others.

That may be a popular notion, but the true history of Christmas trees in Mexico is far more interesting!

According to Historia del árbol de Navidad en México by Hector de Mauleón, prior to 1870, no writers describe the use of Christmas trees in Mexico. By 1890, however, Mexican author Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera (1859-1895) includes the Christmas tree in an inventory of Christmas customs writing that, “¡Tristes aquellos que no tienen un árbol de Noel!” (“Sad are those who do not have a Christmas Tree!”). At that time, small candles were apparently used to illuminate the tree.

Historians, including Teresa E. Rohde (1933-1992), generally agree that the Christmas tree was first brought to Mexico during the French Intervention by none other than Emperor Maximilian, whose execution in 1867 brought an end to this unfortunate episode in Mexico’s nineteenth century history. At some point during their three years in Mexico, Maximilian and his wife Carlota imported a Christmas tree from Europe and installed it in Chapultepec Castle, their palatial home. The tree impressed at least some of Mexico’s wealthy families, who began to install their own trees at Christmas time.

Artificial Christmas Tree with Coca-Cola decorations in Querétaro.

Artificial Christmas Tree with Coca-Cola decorations in Querétaro. Photo:

Within a few years, the Christmas tree had become a tradition in many homes and had begun to replace the elaborate traditional nativity scenes (nacimientos).

In 1878, General Miguel Negrete, who had fought against the French Intervention, decided to have a Christmas tree in his home. According to some sources, he may have brought the idea back from the USA, independently of the earlier European introduction. His tree garnered considerable press attention. It was decorated with 250 toys. As each of his guests arrived at the house, they were given a number, and later took turns to select a gift from the tree, according to one journalist’s contemporary press account.

Despite the popularity of Christmas trees in Mexico, some nationalists continue to decry the practice, considering them a cultural invasion that continues to threaten the much older tradition of nacimientos.

Modern Mexican Nacimiento. Photo: Ariaski (Flickr);

Modern Mexican Nacimiento. Photo: Ariaski (Flickr); creative commons license

Christmas trees are a good historical example of cultural invasion, but at what point (as Hector de Mauleón asks) does a new custom become a tradition? After 150 years, can we now agree that Christmas trees have been assimilated into Mexican culture? Or do we need to wait another 150 years?

Wherever you may be, and real tree or not, warmest Mexican seasonal greetings to all!

In an interesting follow-up post, Geographic Travels considers the possible “Layers of Geopolitical Myths” behind the introduction of Christmas trees into Mexico: The Christmas Tree in Mexico: Layers of Geopolitical Myths?

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Durango gets its first Magic Town: Mapimí, along with the Ojuela suspension bridge

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Dec 082012

The state of Durango state finally has its first Magic Town. The small and historic town of Mapimí served various local mines, including San Vicente, Socavón, Sta. Rita, Sta. María, El Carmen, La Soledad, and the presumably traitorous Judas.

The indigenous Tepehuan Indians called this place “the rock on the hill” and repeatedly thwarted the attempts of Jesuit missionaries to found a town here, but the thirst for gold won in the end. It is rumored that gold was even found under the town’s streets. A small museum houses mementos and photos from the old days showing just how prosperous this mining town once was. One handbook to gem collecting in Mexico describes Mapimí as the “mineral collector’s capital of Mexico”. This is the place for the geologist in the group to find plenty of inexpensive agates, selenite crystals, calcite and other minerals.

Like seemingly every town in this region of Mexico, Mapimí boasts that both Miguel Hidalgo, the Father of Mexican Independence, and Benito Juárez, the President of Indian blood, passed by in the nineteenth century. Juárez even stayed overnight.

Ojuela Suspension Bridge

Ojuela Suspension Bridge. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved

Access to one of the local mining areas, about 10 km outside the town is via the Ojuela suspension bridge, a masterpiece of engineering. Ruined stone houses on the hillsides tell of Ojuela’s former wealth. Ore was first discovered here in 1598. By 1777, seven haciendas de beneficio (enrichment plants) served thirteen different mines. In 1848, the Spanish mine owners gave up their struggle to make the mines pay and a Mexican company took over. In 1892 they decided to attack the hillside opposite Ojuela. To shortcut the approach, engineer Santiago Minguin spanned the gorge with a 315-meter-long suspension bridge, said by some to be the third longest in Latin America.

The mine’s production peaked just after the Mexican Revolution. Between 1922 and 1925, 687 kilograms of gold and 99,820 kilos of silver were extracted, alongside more than 51 million kilos of lead and a million kilos of copper. At that time, some 3000 miners celebrated every evening in the bars of Ojuela, now completely abandoned to the elements.

The bridge, restored for its centenary, is a worthy contribution to tourism in Durango state. One and a half meters wide, it sways and bounces in the breeze, probably scaring mums and dads into silent concentration faster than their excited children! But the local miners and their mineral-laden donkeys rattle across the planks as if it were a highway. Once across the bridge, old timers will take you on a one kilometer walk along mine galleries (unlit except for hand-held miners’ lamps) which completely traverse the mountain to emerge into daylight on the far side.

Not far from Mapimí is the internationally-famous “Zone of Silence”, the Mapimí Biosphere Reserve, the claimed merits of which are much discussed.

Mapimí is a very worthy addition to the Magic Towns list. In a future post, we will look at the merits of  six more towns added to the list in the last days of the previous federal administration.

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