An educational project of the
Houston Institute for Culture

By John P. Schmal

The state of Morelos, located in south central Mexico, occupies a total land area of 4,950 square kilometers (1,820 square miles), or 0.25% of the national territory. With a population of approximately 900,000, Morelos is one of the smallest states in Mexico and is bordered on the north and west by the State of Mexico, on the north by the Federal District, on the east by Puebla, and on the south and west by Guerrero. In addition to being very small in size, Morelos is a relatively young state, having been created in 1869 by President Benito Juárez in honor of the independence leader, José María Morelos y Pavon.

The Aztec Empire
Map of Mexico
History of Mexico
Mexican Traditions
Morelos, most of which is located between 1,000 and 3,300 meters (2,900 - 9,800 feet) above sea level, has a very diverse topography: 42% mountainous, 16% hilly land, and 42% flat terrain. The majestic mountain peaks of the Sierra Ajusco in the north of the state divide Morelos from the neighboring Valley of Mexico. Roughly seventy percent of the state has a subtropical climate, providing ideal conditions for agriculture, in particular sugar cane. Today, Morelos farmers grow an extensive variety of vegetables all around the year. The chief products of Morelos fields are bananas, chimoyas, mameyes, melons, and tomatoes.

The original inhabitants of the present-day state of Morelos were the Tlahuicas, a sub group of the Aztec Indians. The Tlahuicas are believed to have been an offshoot of the Toltec-Chichimec amalgam of tribes who first occupied the Valley of Morelos as early as the Seventh Century. It is believed that the Tlahuicas who first arrived in the region were related to the Aztec Indians who had arrived on the other side of the mountains in the Valley of Mexico at a later date.

The Tlahuicas are considered a subgroup of the Náhuatl-speaking Aztecs Indians of south central Mexico. Although the Aztecs are best known as the inhabitants of the great city of Tenochtitlán and the conquerors of a great Mesoamerican Empire, the term Aztec actually represents a very large cultural group that was composed of many local ethnic groups, all linked together by a broader Aztec culture and by a common language. All of the Aztec groups shared a common historical origin and many cultural traits.

Dr. Michael E. Smith, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Albany in New York state, has done extensive studies on the Tlahuica Culture of Morelos and sponsors a website discussing Tlahuica culture at http://www.albany.edu/~mesmith/tlapeop.html. Peter E. Newell, the author of Zapata of Mexico describes the Tlahuica of Morelos as follows: "singularly large, dark, slightly odalisk eyes, perfect white teeth - the dogtooth bred out to flat incisor - finely articulated small hands and feet, slender, wiry physiques, with soft musical voices."

The largest city of the Tlahuica Indians was Cuauhnahuac, which was later renamed Cuernavaca by the Spaniards (who were unable to pronounce the original Náhuatl name). Cuernavaca, boasting a population of approximately 500,000 inhabitants today, is now the state capital of Morelos and lay only 90 kilometers (52 miles) to the south of Mexico City. Cuernavaca, because of its favorable climate, has been referred to as "The City of Eternal Spring," while Morelos is sometimes called "Nearest Paradise." The Valley of Cuauhnahuac provided the Tlahuica Indians with a fertile land for agriculture. The Tlahuica also founded Huaxtepec, which today is called Oaxtepec. Another city in the region, Xochicalco, became an important center of culture, commerce, and agriculture during the pre-Hispanic era.

By the early Fifteenth Century, the Tlahuica had been organized into about fifty small city-states that covered most of the modern state of Morelos, each one ruled by a hereditary king (tlatoani). Each Tlahuica city-state consisted of a central town and the surrounding countryside and villages. City-state towns were built around a public plaza. On the east side of the plaza was the temple-pyramid of the city-state's patron god or gods. On another side of the plaza would be the palace of the ruler.

The rapidly expanding Mexica Empire, centered around Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and Tlacopan, first conquered the Tlahuica city-states in the late 1430s and again during the 1450s. As a result, the Tlahuica were forced to pay tribute to the three imperial capitals. However, as subjects of the greater Aztec Empire, the local government of the Tlahuica was allowed to stay intact. As a general rule, the Mexica did not interfere in the affairs of subject city-states as long as the tribute payments were continued without interruption.

Tlahuica culture was highly respected for its knowledge of astronomy and its highly developed agricultural system. Historians credit the Tlahuicas with developing a calendar based on the agricultural cycle and with perfecting techniques for growing cotton. Cotton was grown throughout Morelos wherever the land could be irrigated. Eventually, the land of the Tlahuica became the largest cotton-producing area in the Aztec empire. Tlahuica women learned to spin and weave cotton textiles in their homes. Although the cotton was used for clothing, cotton textiles also became the primary form of tribute that people had to pay to both the Aztec empire and their local city-state.

All of the Tlahuica city-state towns had periodic marketplaces where professional merchants, petty artisans, farmers, and other people gathered once a week to buy and sell. Traveling merchants linked these markets together, and also linked them into the larger network of Aztec markets throughout central Mexico. Through the markets, the Tlahuica people, commoners as well as nobles, had ready access to a large variety of goods produced throughout Mesoamerica.

On April 21, 1519, Hernán Cortés landed on the Gulf coast near modern-day Veracruz with a force of 11 ships, 550 men and 16 horses. In this year of the Aztec calendar, it had been prophesied that the legendary ruler Quetzalcóatl would return from the east. As Cortés marched westward to meet with Moctezuma II, the Emperor of the Aztecs, he met with the leaders of the various subject tribes of the Aztecs along the way. Once in Tenochtitlán, Cortés and his men were given a friendly reception. Soon after, however, through trickery and manipulation, Cortés was able to take Moctezuma as a hostage. Over the next two years, Cortés and a large force of allied Indians would lay siege and conquer Tenochtitlán.

After the conquest of Tenochtitlán (renamed Mexico City by the Spaniards), the Spaniards arrived in the region. Morelos, at this time, had a diverse political nature and was subject to five principal rulers in Cuernavaca, Tepoztlán, Oaxtepec, Yautepec, and Yecapixtla, all of which were subject to Moctezuma and the Aztec Empire. Cortés himself arrive in Cuernavaca and built a palace for himself in the city. In 1529, the Spanish Crown granted a sizeable tract of land that included all of the present-day state of Morelos, as well as all the Indians living within this region. As the Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, Cortés was granted extensive powers over all the people of this realm.

The historian Ward Barrett writes that "the region now known as Morelos has a physical unity sufficient to define it and set it in strong contrast to other regions of Mexico. This unity derives from its basin-like nature, which ensures that relatively abundant supplies of water drain into it from the escarpment and are available for irrigation at its base." Mr. Ward adds that "the region is unique in Mexico, for there is no other one of similar size, offering similar advantages of climate, water, and large areas of flat land."

With the arrival of the Spaniards, the Tlahuicas made adjustments to their economic activities, switching from growing cotton to growing sugar cane and refining the sugar in nearby mills. To compete with the island-grown sugarcane of the Caribbean that employed slave labor, the Spaniards had to establish the Hacienda System, which utilized vast areas of land and Indian labor, reducing the people, in effect, to servitude. From the Sixteenth Century until 1917, the Hacienda System thrived in Morelos as a practice inherited from the colonial period. The great hacendados became a powerful economic and political force, reaping great profits from the harvest of the sugar cane.

After two hundred and eighty-nine years of colonial Spanish rule, the road to independence was initiated by two relatively unknown parish priests, Miguel Hidalgo and Jose Morelos. On September 16 1810 Miguel Hidalgo led Mexico's Indians in a revolt directed against the rich Spanish plantation owners in Guanajuato State. His call to arms, El Grito de Dolores (The Cry of Sorrows), paved the way for the opening salvos of a twelve-year war for independence.

The territory which would become the state of Morelos was a crucial battleground during the War of Independence. After the defeat and execution of Father Hidalgo in 1811, Jose Morelos took control of the revolution. In 1812, the Royal Army besieged the rebel-held town of Cuautla, which was defended by the forces of Jose Maria Morelos. Morelos and his men held out for fifty-eight heroic days, ultimately winning one of the vital early battles on the road to independence. Although Morelos continued to lead guerilla attacks against the Spaniards, he was finally captured by Royalist forces and hanged in 1815. His sacrifices, however, were not forgotten by the Mexican people who would eventually name a state in his honor. In 1821, Mexico achieved independence from Spain.

In the post-war period, the sugar industry of Morelos made this region one of the richest parts of the Mexican Republic. Much of this sugar made its way to European markets. As a result, the city of Cuernavaca, serving as an important trade center for exports, became a well-established outpost along the Camino Real (Royal Road) to Acapulco. But the sugar cane estates were worlds unto themselves: great luxury for the (often absentee) owners and misery, debt and poverty for the workers.

On April 17, 1869, President Benito Juarez issued a decree which gave Morelos the status of state, taking territory from the states of Guerrero, Puebla and Mexico to create the new political entity. During the long presidency of Porfirio Diaz (1877-1911) that followed the creation of the new state, the economy of Morelos continued to be dominated by the large sugar plantations. During this time, the sugar cane estates were modernized and began to use steam-driven mills and centrifugal extractors. These changes created a great new demand for the water and land resources needed to grow sugar cane. As a result, the haciendas expanded steadily, but only at the expense of the peasants, who were unfairly deprived of their land by the hacienda owners.

The historian Samuel Brunk, in his biographical work Emiliano Zapata: Revolution and Betrayal in Mexico, writes that the Porfiriato had brought on a period of "order and progress" which "allowed Mexico a new degree of involvement in the world economy. Foreign investment and trade were encouraged by increasing fiscal solvency, by lower tariffs, and by laws that favored private enterprise. Railroads were built with dizzying speed; mining and industry prospered; the domestic market expanded. For the hacendados of Morelos - who largely produced for the domestic market - conditions were ripe for progress." To take advantage of the renewed economic boom, the plantation owners undertook massive new irrigation projects and began investing in modern milling equipment. Between 1905 and 1908, the hacendados of Morelos increased production by more than 50 percent.

Early in the Porfiriato, some of the Morelos haciendas evolved into company towns, employing from 250 to 3,000 workers. Some planters were able to organize their own stores, powerhouses, schools and police. They employed bricklayers, blacksmiths, carpenters, and mechanics, and they recruited managers, overseers and skilled workers from Mexico City, Cuba and Spain. "Throughout the 1880s," writes Mr. Newell, "the Mexican government sold to the hacendados much of the common land left in the state, and also granted them favourable rulings on requests for titles to other requisitions. New Federal legislation jeopardised the previously held titles and water rights of many villagers."

During the last decade of the Nineteenth Century, many important towns surrounded by plantations actually ceased to grow. Small haciendas had failed and were incorporated into the more modern enterprises of their larger neighbors. In some cases, whole villages located near railway lines, timber forests or well-watered areas were disappearing.

By the late 1890s, in fact, seventeen families of Morelos owned thirty-six haciendas that made up 25% of the surface area of Morelos, including most of its cultivable land. By 1909, twenty-eight hacendados actually owned as much as 77% of the state's lands. The Hacienda System destroyed many of the small villages by forcing Indians to live on the hacienda. Mr. Newell comments that in 1876 - the year that Porfirio Díaz took power - the total number of villages in Morelos numbered 118. But eleven years later, this number dropped to 105. By 1909, less than a hundred pueblos were registered in Morelos, in spite of an overall increase in population.

"Little by little," writes Mr. Newell, "the peones lost their ejidos, pastures, water supplies and common lands. Inevitably, they were driven into debt peonage, and into the cane fields of the great hacendados and planters. Dispossessed and destitute, many villagers began sharecropping the scrubbiest of plantation fields; then, when their debts mounted, they too were forced to hire themselves out to the hacendados as field hands, sometimes still living in their pueblos, but working in contracted gangs under a foreman."

Professor Samuel Brunk writes that "while some legal resourse did remain, laws emanating from the Sixteenth Century that were designed to protect the Indians rarely worked as they were meant to, and legal procedures did little to stop the greedy hacendados." This situation was one of the causes of the Revolution of 1910 against President Porfirio Díaz. In many parts of Mexico, localized rebellions, led by regional leaders, broke out. From the state of Morelos came one of the strongest and most respected revolutionaries of this period: Emiliano Zapata.

Continue to History of Emiliano Zapata

Copyright © 2004 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved. Read more articles by John Schmal.


Ward Barrett, "Morelos and Its Sugar Industry in the Late Eighteenth Century," in Ida Altman and James Lockhart (ed.), Provinces of Early Mexico: Variants of Spanish American Regional Evolution. Los Angeles: UCLA, 1976, pp. 155-175.

Samuel Brunk, Emiliano Zapata: Revolution and Betrayal in Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.

Linda Cintron, History of Cuernavaca (Cuauhnahuac)," Online. http://dougsinc.com/LifeInMex/History.html . December 12, 1997.

Peter E. Newell, Zapata of Mexico. Quebec, Canada: Black Rose Books, 1997.

Dr. Michael E. Smith, Tlahuica Peoples of Morelos. Online: http://www.albany.edu/~mesmith/tlapeop.html. September 20, 2001.

Dr. Michael E. Smith, Tlahuica Ruins Near Cuernavaca. Online: http://www.albany.edu/~mesmith/tlaruin.html December 12, 1997.

John Schmal is an historian, genealogist, and lecturer. With his friend Donna Morales, he coauthored "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books, 2002) and "The Dominguez Family: A Mexican-American Journey" (Heritage Books, 2004). He has degrees in History (Loyola-Marymount University) and Geography (St. Cloud State University) and is a board member of the Society of Hispanic Historical Ancestral Research (SHHAR). He is an associate editor of SHHAR's online monthly newsletter, www.somosprimos.com. John is presently collaborating with illustrator Eddie Martinez on a manuscript entitled "Indigenous Mexico: Past and Present."