"Mexico, a vibrant and populous country, occupies a unique position in the modern era, with its population surpassing 128 million as of 2023. What makes Mexico's demographic landscape particularly intriguing is the concentrated pattern of habitation that has endured for centuries. A staggering 66 million people, slightly more than half of Mexico's total population, reside within a narrow strip that spans only 18% of the country's vast landmass. This pattern, nestled between the demographic giants of Japan and Russia, challenges conventional expectations and warrants exploration.
Delving into history, a census conducted in 1895 revealed a Mexico with a mere 12.7 million inhabitants. Despite the tenfold increase in population over almost 130 years, the distribution pattern has remarkably persisted. In 1895, approximately 55% of the population lived within the same concentrated strip. Fast forward to the present, and this proportion has shifted only slightly to 51%, maintaining an unexpectedly stable distribution.
The question that arises is why, over centuries, have the majority of Mexicans consistently chosen to reside within this specific area, constituting less than a fifth of the country's available land? The answer unfolds as we navigate the harsh realities of Mexico's geography and the limitations imposed by its diverse landscapes.
Examining Mexico from a climatic perspective reveals a crucial correlation. The concentrated strip aligns almost precisely with a narrow climate band of subtropical highlands that traverses the country. This temperate zone, nestled between arid deserts to the north and dense rainforests to the south, emerges as the Goldilocks zone of Mexico. Beyond this strip, the challenges posed by extreme climates, from arid deserts to impenetrable jungles, limit both large-scale agriculture and human habitation.
The historical significance of this temperate climate band is underscored by its role as the cradle of civilization in Mesoamerica. The Valley of Mexico, characterized by five large lakes and numerous rivers, was not only home to the ancient city of Teotihuacan but also a hub of agriculture and trade. The fertile volcanic soils, enriched by continuous volcanic activity, have made this region one of the most agriculturally productive areas on the planet, nurturing crops like maize (corn), a staple in human history.
Despite being roughly 3.5 times larger in landmass than France, Mexico's arable land is limited to about 12% of its territory. This arable land is predominantly concentrated within the high temperate valleys of central Mexico, making it a strategic hub for agriculture and settlement throughout history.
The mountainous terrain, covering nearly 70% of Mexico, introduces both challenges and benefits. While mountains pose geographic obstacles for infrastructure development, the high plateaus and valleys in central Mexico rise above the tropical climate, offering cooler temperatures and fertile soils. These lands, shaped by the intersection of the North American Plate, the Cocos Plate, and the Rivera Plate, have been enriched by volcanic activity, creating an ideal environment for agriculture.
As we traverse through these high temperate valleys, we encounter the historical significance of the region. The ancient city of Teotihuacan, at its peak, boasted an urban population of at least 125,000, making it not only the most populous city in the Americas but one of the largest globally. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the Valley of Mexico was already densely populated, with the Aztec Empire accounting for around 6 million inhabitants.
However, the arrival of the Spanish brought unprecedented challenges, leading to the decline of indigenous populations. It wasn't until the early 1900s, more than four centuries later, that the Valley of Mexico saw a resurgence in population, culminating in the present-day metropolis of Mexico City. Remarkably, Mexico City stands as the sixth most populous urban area globally, situated at an elevation of around 7,800 feet above sea level, higher than any other city of comparable population.
The challenges posed by Mexico's geography extend beyond mountains and include the absence of navigable rivers. This lack impedes easy transportation, making it expensive to connect the high temperate valleys and limiting trade between regions. Additionally, Mexico's coastal lowlands, particularly around Veracruz, serve as crucial ports, yet vulnerability to external threats is evident, as history illustrates.
Mexico's northern and southern borders present formidable challenges for governance. Sparse populations, rugged terrains, and jungles make effective policing nearly impossible. This geographic reality has given rise to autonomous factions, akin to Afghanistan's decentralized power struggles.
Yet, Mexico has navigated its geographical challenges strategically, finding a unique solution in its relationship with the United States. The maquiladora agreement, initiated in the 1960s and expanded under NAFTA in 1994, paved the way for factories near the U.S. border to export goods duty-free into the U.S. market. This collaboration transformed Mexico into a manufacturing powerhouse, with factories taking advantage of cheaper labor and proximity to the U.S. market.
Furthermore, the Shale gas revolution in the U.S. has led to the establishment of 17 natural gas pipelines spanning the U.S.-Mexico border. This abundant and cheap supply of natural gas has turbocharged Mexico's economy, providing cheap energy to power factories. As a result, Mexico emerged as the United States' largest trading partner by 2019, further solidifying its economic ties.
The impact of these developments is evident in the northern border cities, which have experienced higher population growth than their American counterparts. Cities like Tijuana, Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Matamoros have become economic hubs, operating more as satellite cities of the United States than extensions of Mexico's historic core.
In essence, Mexico's unique geography, once perceived as a constraint, has transformed into a catalyst for economic growth. The challenges posed by mountains, lack of navigable rivers, and formidable borders have spurred innovative solutions and strategic collaborations. As Mexico continues to evolve into a manufacturing superpower, the demographic landscape may experience a shift, with more Mexicans seeking opportunities in the burgeoning northern regions.
The dance between geography and innovation unfolds as Mexico navigates its past, present, and future. Whether the concentrated pattern of habitation will persist or undergo a transformative shift remains an intriguing question, as Mexico harnesses its geographic advantages in the complex tapestry of its national identity."