The Mexican Flag: History & Meaning

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Every nation's flag is symbolic in some way, and Mexico's flag is packed with symbolism. In this lesson, we'll check out this flag and see how it reflects Mexico's complicated history.

The Flag of Mexico

In 1821, the nation of Mexico completed an 11-year war and finally gained it's independence. They then had to start addressing all the questions facing new nations. For example, what would their flag look like?

The current flag of Mexico was formally adopted in 1968, but it's a variation of the same theme first established in 1821. A side-facing eagle perches atop a ''nopal'' cactus eating a rattlesnake. It sits in the middle of a vertical, white stripe, with a red stripe to the right and green stripe to the left.

So, it's an undeniably cool banner, but what does it mean? All flags are filled with symbolism, but the Mexican flag has managed to combine centuries of symbols into one. It's a fitting tribute to a nation with a complicated, and always contested, history.

The national flag of Mexico

The Eagle and the Cactus

The symbolism within the Mexican national flag can really be broken into two components: the colored bands and the central emblem. Let's start with that central symbol, which is also the Mexican Coat of Arms. The story of the eagle and the cactus dates back to the Aztec Empire, the powerful state that ruled out of Tenochtitlán (ancient Mexico City) before the arrival of the Spanish.

First, understand that there was never a single group of people called the Aztecs. That was the name of the empire. The Nahuatl-speaking people ruled this empire were called the Mexica, which is where the name Mexico comes from. But where did the Mexica come from? According to their own legends, they originated in a mystical homeland called Aztlán. No one knows for sure where Aztlán was, but many historians believe it was somewhere in Northern Mexico or the American Southwest.

Regardless, the Mexica were forced from Aztlán by a tyrannous king and went into exile. Unsure what to do, they prayed to the gods. Huitzilopochtli, god of war and the Sun, gave them a prophecy. They would wander south, across the great desert, until they saw an eagle, sitting on a cactus eating a snake.

In that spot, the Mexica would start a new life and go on to found a great empire of their own. So, the Mexica set off, making across the desert and up into the mountainous Valley of Anahuac. There, they finally saw their sign: an eagle perched on a cactus, eating a snake. They settled there, built Tenochtitlán, and the rest is history.

Mexica map of Tenochtitlan, with the emblem of the city in the center

The Colored Bands

The emblem of the eagle and cactus was the official symbol of Tenochtitlán since the city was founded, and later became the national symbol of all Mexico. But what about those colored bands on the Mexican flag? The colors represent independence (green), the purity of Catholicism (white) and the blood of national heroes (red), but why? That story comes much later, during the independence war itself.

The Mexican War of Independence began in 1810, but it was an uphill battle. Many of the first leaders were killed, the revolution petered out, was revitalized, and was divided between multiple armies. One of these armies was that of Vicente Guerrero. Guerrero was a fierce warrior, but the revolution was losing steam. Standing between him and Mexico City was Agustín de Iturbide, a general so fierce he was known as ''el Dragón de Hierro,'' the Iron Dragon.

In 1820, the royal colonial officials passed new policies meant to pacify the peasant rebels and end the war. All this did was alienate the wealthy class, including Iturbide. In a stunning move, he marched into Guerrero's camp and turned over all his soldiers to the liberation army. Colonial Mexico's greatest defender had just become the independence movement's greatest hero.

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