An educational project of the
Houston Institute for Culture

By John P. Schmal

The state of Veracruz, located along the eastern Gulf Coast of the Mexican Republic, has a population of 6,856,415 people, representing 7.39% of Mexico's national population in 1990. Politically divided into 203 municipios, the state has an area of 27,759 square miles (71,896 square kilometers). Veracruz shares common borders with the states of Tamaulipas (to the north), Oaxaca and Chiapas (to the south), Tabasco (to the southeast), and Puebla, Hidalgo, and San Luis Potosí (on the west). Veracruz also shares 430 miles (690 kilometers) of its eastern boundary with the Gulf of Mexico.

The Aztec Empire
Map of Mexico
History of Mexico
Mexican Traditions
Veracruz has a very diverse and rapidly changing topography, witnessing a rise from the tropical coastal plains to temperate valleys and thence to the highlands of the Eastern Sierra Madre Mountains. As a result, the state's climate is very assorted, evolving from cold, snow-topped mountain slopes that descend toward the warm western coastal areas. Pico de Orizaba, inland from Veracruz, with an elevation of 18,793 feet above sea level, is the highest mountain in all of Mexico.

Abundant rainfall and extremely fertile soil in the coastal regions of Veracruz permit the cultivation of a wide range of crops. The state is a leading national producer of coffee, sugarcane, corn, and rice. From the tropical forests of the inland regions come dyewoods, hardwoods, and rubber. In the cooler regions in the west, one finds maguey, cactus and coniferous forests. However, the state's principal natural resource and dominant industry is oil. The mountains contain relatively unexploited deposits of gold, silver, iron, and coal.

The history of the native peoples of the state of Veracruz is a very complex and fascinating story. In the pre-Hispanic period, the modern-day state of Veracruz was inhabited primarily by four indigenous cultures. The Huastecos and Otomíes occupied the north, while the Totonacs resided in the north-center. The Olmecs, one of the oldest cultures in the Americas, became dominant in the southern part of Veracruz. For the researcher seeking to learn the detailed history of the individual communities of Veracruz, Aztec Imperial Strategies (by Frances F. Berdan, Professor Michael E. Smith, and others) and Peter Gerhard's A Guide to the Historical Geography of New Spain are probably the two best works to consult.

The Olmecs were probably one of the first Indian groups to occupy Veracruz. They occupied the coastal plains in the present-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco (southeast of Veracruz) sometime around 1000 to 300 B.C. Several Olmec sites have been found in Veracruz, including San Lorenzo and Tres Zapotes. These settlements were probably the most complex "ceremonial" sites found in all of Mesoamerica at the time of their apogee. For this reason, many anthropologists consider the Olmec civilization to be the cultura madre (mother culture) of the many Mesoamerican cultures that followed it.

The Olmecs. The Olmec were renowned for their sculpting skills and distinctive motifs. One of the most notable examples of Olmec culture is the sculptured heads of basalt, weighing as much as 40 tons and standing almost ten feet in height. The basalt used for these carvings came from a location 50 miles (80 kilometers) away and apparently had been floated on rafts to their destination. Pyramidal mounds have been found in many of the Olmec settlements. It is believed that the Olmec economy centered around agricultural production on the fertile floodplains, and was supplemented by fishing and shell fishing. However, by 300 B.C., the Olmec culture was eclipsed by other emerging civilizations in Mesoamerica.

The Totonac Indians. By the time, the Spaniards arrived on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in 1519, the Totonac Indians occupied a province known as Totonacapan, which stretched through the central part of Veracruz and the Zacatlan district of the present-day state of Puebla. Occupying some fifty towns and boating a population of a quarter million people, the Totonacs spoke four primary dialects. Their capital, Cempoala, located five miles inland from the present city of Vera Cruz, had a population of about 25,000.

During the Fifteenth Century and the early years of the Sixteenth Century, the mighty Aztec Empire, ruled by the Mexica Indians from their capital city Tenochtitlán, began a concerted effort to subdue and incorporate the rich coastal areas into their domain. Eventually, Veracruz, along with portions of the neighboring states, would make up the Aztec provinces of Tochtepec, Cuetlaxtlan, Cempoallan, Quauhtochco, Jalapa, Misantla, and Tlatlauhquitepec.

After their conquest by the Mexica ruler Axayácatl in 1480, the Totonacs were incorporated into the Aztec provinces of Cempoallan, Misantla and Xalapa. These areas, with an abundance of water and fertile land, were richly endowed with a wide array of vegetation and crops, including cedars, fruits, cotton, cacao, maize, beans, and squashes. In pre-Hispanic times, cotton was a very significant crop, which the Totonacs used to make cotton armor. As tribute to their Aztec masters, the Totonacs sent cloth, clothing, maize, foodstuffs, honey and wax to Tenochtitlán.

The province of Cempoallan, and its associated Totonac towns and fortifications, could mobilize up to 50,000 warriors at a time. The natives of Cempoallan, incited by the neighboring Tlaxcalans (who remained an independent enclave within the Aztec Empire), continuously rebelled against the Mexica. Even the last Mexica emperor Moctezuma II spent the early years of his reign leading campaigns against the Indians of Veracruz.

The Aztec Province of Xalapa (Jalapa), also inhabited by Totonac Indians, was only added to the Mexica domain by Moctezuma II in the years preceding the Spanish contact. Jalapa stood along a major route between the coast and Tenochtitlán and was rich agricultural territory, with maize and chilies as its prominent crops. The city of Jalapa is now the capital of Veracruz.

The Totonacs were the first natives whom Captain Hernán Cortés met upon his landing on the Gulf Coast near present-day Veracruz. Being compelled by the Mexica to the payment of a heavy tribute, including the frequent seizure of their people for slaves or for sacrifice in the bloody Aztec rites, the Totonac were ripe for revolt, and their king, Tlacochcalcatl, eagerly welcomed Cortés and promised the support of his fifty thousand warriors against Emperor Moctezuma and the Aztec Empire. The Spaniards helped the Totonacs to expel Moctezuma's tribute-collectors in Totonacapan who apparently fled to a Mexica garrison at Tizapancingo, about twenty miles to the southwest. With a full force of Spaniards, 16 horses, and Totonacs, Cortés seized control of Tizapancingo.

In June 1519, the Totonacs helped Cortés and the Spaniards in the founding of La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (The Rich Town of the True Cross) on the site of the present-day port of Veracruz. Veracruz thus became the first city founded by the Spaniards on the North American continent. Even today, Veracruz remains as one of the most important commercial and industrial centers of Mexico.

In the subsequent events, culminating in the taking of the city of Tenochtitlán and the downfall of the Aztec Empire in 1521, the Totonac took an active part in the campaign as allies of the Spaniards and their traditional allies, the Tlaxcalan Indians. In addition to giving ready allegiance to Spaniards, they embraced the Roman Catholic faith of the Europeans. As early as 1523, the Franciscans first started working among the Totonac people of the highlands. The Augustinians arrived a decade later to proselytize the Totonacs along the border region of Hidalgo, Puebla, and Veracruz.

H.R. Harvey and Isabel Kelly, the authors of "The Totonac" in the Handbook of Middle American Indians, write that "In the large areas where Totonac speech has survived to the present, there was little to attract the Spaniard. Transportation and communication were difficult; Also, Totonacapan largely lacked the mineral resources so attractive to the Spaniards. Thus, until relatively recent years, much of Totonacapan has remained intact and isolated, and many forms of native Totonac culture have survived." Today, the Totonacs of Puebla and Veracruz, numbering about 100,000, are industrious farmers. Their chief crop is sugar cane, from which they manufacture sugar in their own mills. Dancing and festivals are important elements of their culture. Although some of their festivals retain elements of their ancient sacrificial rites, most of the Totonacs are Roman Catholic today.

The Huasteco Indians. The Huasteco Indians, who speak a form of the Mayan language, presently occupy 55 municipios in the modern-day states of Veracruz, San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo, as well as smaller sections of Tamaulipas and Querétaro. It is believed that they were isolated from the rest of the Maya and evolved separately and may have arrived in the area as early as 200 A.D. Under Aztec rule, the Huastecos occupied two Aztec provinces, Atlan and Tochpan.

Atlan Province, located in the area of the present-day towns of Metlaltoyuca and Pantepec, was occupied by Huastecos, Tepehuán, Otomíes and Totonacs. This region was an important cotton-growing region, and the Huastecos of this province were forced to pay tribute to the Mexica in the form of skins, paper, cotton and blankets. However, when the Spaniards arrived in their territory, the Huastecos did not cooperate with them as the neighboring Tlaxcalans and Totonacs did. In 1520, the Huastecos wiped out a small Spanish settlement that had been set up in their territory.

Once he had taken control of Tenochtitlán in August 1521, Cortés marched toward Huasteco territory with a large force of Spaniards and Mexica allies. After meeting with considerable resistance, Cortés defeated the Huastecos and founded the Villa de San Esteban in 1522. However, revolts by the Huastecos in October-December 1523 and 1525-26 were put down with great cruelty. In spite of their battles with both the Mexica and the Spaniards, the Huastecos continue to survive today, maintaining many aspects of their traditional culture and language. Huastecan music and dancing have influenced the musical folklore of Mexico. The contemporary Huasteco population numbers about 80,000 in Veracruz and San Luis Potosí.

Tochtepec was a large and sprawling Aztec province that extended from the Gulf Coast inland to the rugged eastern mountains. While the Náhuatl language of the Aztecs dominated Tochtepec, the Chinantec and Mazatec languages dominated the southwestern edge of the province. The Aztecs valued this province because it became a source of many highly valued resources, including cacao, cotton, precious feathers, gold, greenstones, and rubber, as well as several staple foodstuffs, fruits, and fish.

The Aztec province of Cuetlaxtlan lay along Veracruz's broad coastal plain north of Tochtepec. Michael E. Smith and Frances F. Berdan, in their descriptions of the Aztec provinces, write that "Cuetlaxtlan was very frequently caught in the political machinations of the Mexica and Tlaxcallans. Upon abandonment by their Tlaxcalan allies, Cuetlaxtlan was conquered by Moctezuma Ilhuicamina." However, the province was frequently in a state of rebellion against their Mexica overlords. Eventually, Emperor Axayácatl, who ruled from 1468 to 1481, reconquered the region and installed Aztec tribute collectors and garrisons.

During the long colonial period, the port of Veracruz, as Mexico's main port of entry, has been a contested prize for both Mexican generals and alien invaders. It was through this port that thousands of African slaves were brought en route to destinations at various locations in colonial Mexico. During the Seventeenth and Eighteen Centuries, the port was easy prey for buccaneers who wreaked havoc throughout the Caribbean. As the first city founded by the Spaniards in Mexico, it was also their last stronghold before their expulsion in 1821.

On May 19, 1822, General Agustin Iturbide had been declared the Emperor of Mexico. However, his reign quickly met with resistance and, in August 1822, Iturbide took action against all the opposition. It was in Veracruz on December 1, 1822, when the commander of the garrison, Antonio López de Santa Anna Pérez de Lebrón, rose against Iturbide and proclaimed a republic. Santa Anna would eventually serve nine terms as President of the Mexican Republic. In 1838, the French Navy blockaded Veracruz during the "Pastry War" of that year. In 1847, during the Mexican-American War, General Winfield Scott led American troops in a landing at Veracruz.

Benito Juárez was elected as President in March 1861. However, because the Mexican Republic had been devastated by three years of civil war (The War of the Reform), the treasury was depleted. As a result, Juárez cancelled Mexico's foreign debt. Spain, Britain and France, all outraged by this action, decided, in October 1861, to force repayment of their loans by the occupation of the Mexican Gulf Coast. In December, Spanish troops occupied the port of Veracruz, followed a month later by French and British forces.

However, soon after the Spanish and British forces evacuated. Spurred on by dreams of reestablishing the empire of his uncle (Napoleon I), Emperor Napoleon III made moves to occupy the entire country. Although the French occupied Veracruz for several years, they were soon expelled from the country by the forces of Juárez in 1866/67. On April 21, 1914 an incident involving U.S. sailors in Tampico led President Woodrow Wilson to land American troops in Veracruz, where they remained for six months. Mexico later responded by severing diplomatic relations.

Today, the state of Veracruz, rich in natural resources, is an important component of Mexico's economy. Approximately 35% of Mexico's water supply is found in Veracruz. In addition, the state has four deep-water ports and two international airports. Although Veracruz is an important source of metals such as iron and copper, a great deal of its mining involves non-metallic minerals as sulfur, silica, feldspar, calcium, kaolin and marble.

The northern part of Veracruz is a major oil producer. The manufacturing industry in Veracruz accounts for 21% of the state's gross domestic product, and approximately 64% of the manufacturing industry GDP is generated by the chemical and petrochemical sectors. The rest of the state's production includes metal products, food, beverage production, printing and publishing, non-electric machinery and equipment industries.

The area around Jalapa, the capital, is one of Mexico's major coffee-growing areas while the central part of the state is characterized by a traditional agricultural development and the presence of long standing industrial centers such as Cordoba, Orizaba and Rio Blanco, whose main activity is textile manufacturing.

The port of Veracruz, with its attractive climate, cuisine, and archaeological sites, is a favorite seaside resort for Mexican and foreign tourists. Veracruz has a very advantageous location along the Gulf of Mexico. It is a favored port for exports to the United States, Latin America, and Europe. Seventy-five percent of all port activity in Mexico takes place in Veracruz. The chief exports of this state are coffee, fresh fruits, fertilizers, sugar, fish and crustaceans. Mining only accounts for 1.5% of economic activity.

Veracruz has always been and remains an important and essential state to the Mexican Republic. Its rich mineral resources and strategic location have guaranteed that, in the worst of times, Veracruz is likely to prosper and carry on.

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


"Diagnostico de los Pueblos Indigenas de la Huasteca." Online: http://www.sedesol.gob.mx/perfiles/regional/huasteca/index.html January 12, 2002.

Peter Gerhard, A Guide to the Historical Geography of New Spain (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972).

H. R. Harvey and Isabel Kelly, "The Totonac" in Evon Z. Vogt, Handbook of Middle American Indians, Part Two, Vol. 8 (Austin: University of Texas, 1969), 638-681.

Michael E. Smith and Frances F. Berdan, "Province Descriptions" in Frances F. Berdan et al., Aztec Imperial Strategies (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1996), pp. 265-349.

"The Hausteca Indigenous Profile: Summary." Online: http://www.sedesol.gob.mx/perfiles/regional/huasteca/00_summary.html . January 10, 2002.

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."