Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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 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.
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.
Together, Iturbide and Guerrero outlined a new plan for independence, called the ''Plan de Iguala.'' At the heart of this were the Three Guarantees that would found the basis of their ideology: independence must be won at any cost, Catholicism would be maintained as the only true religion of an independent Mexico, and Mexico would be a place of absolute equality, where Spaniards, Mexicans, Amerindians, and people of any mixed ancestry would live in collective peace.
With this ideology, they renamed their conjoined forces the Amy of the Three Guarantees. Under a flag with diagonal white, green, and red stripes representing the Three Guarantees, the army marched into Mexico City unopposed.
In 1821, Mexico's independence was recognized and Iturbide was crowned as the new Emperor of Mexico. For his flag, he took the tricolor scheme of the Three Guarantees, rearranged them with the white stripe in the middle, reoriented them vertically, and placed an eagle wearing a crown in the center.
When he was overthrown and a republic established in 1823, the crown was taken off the eagle, and the snake was added. The current version was formally created in 1968, but is still based on the same ideology as these first banners. It's a flag with a long history, and one that reflects the many elements of Mexico's complex national history and identity.
The Mexican national flag contains three vertical bands of green, white, and red, with an eagle on a cactus eating a snake over the white section. This central emblem was the symbol of Tenochtitlán, capital city of the Aztec Empire, based on the foundational legend of the Mexica people.
The colors represent independence (green), the purity of Catholicism (white) and the blood of national heroes (red). This color scheme was first used to represent the Three Guarantees, and the Army of the Three Guarantees under Agustín de Iturbide and Vicente Guerrero. These colors were first matched with the eagle in 1821, representing the mixed heritage of Mexico, although the modern version was adopted in 1968. It's a flag that requires a lot of explanation, but then again, Mexican history has always been anything but simple.
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