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Mexico is the northern most country of Latin America with the Rio Grande forming a natural boundary between Mexico and the United States. The official name of the country is Estados Unidos Mexicanos (United Mexican States). With a population estimated at close to 96 million, it ranks the third highest among the countries of the Western Hemisphere, behind the United States and Brazil.
The great majority of its people are mestizos who are of mixed European and Indian ancestry and about all of them speak Spanish, be it an enchanting blend of Spanish and Indian cultures. The official flag features three colored stripes; green for independence, white for religion and red for union. The country is a federal republic made up of 31 states and a Federal District.
Mexico's cultural mix is a result of its long and colorful history. Hundreds of years ago, Mexico was the home of great Indian civilizations. The people built cities and temples. They developed a calendar, a counting system and a form of writing. The last of these Indian empires fell to Spanish invaders in 1521. Following this conquest, Mexico remained a Spanish colony for the next 300 years. This led to widespread intermarriage and racial mixing between Spaniards and Native Americans. As late as the early 19th century, Native Americans accounted for nearly two-thirds of the population in the region. During that century, however, the racial composition of the country began to change from one that featured distinct European (Spanish) and indigenous populations, to one made up largely of mestizos-people of mixed Spanish and Native American descent. By the end of the 19th century, mestizos, who were discriminated against during three centuries of Spanish colonization, had become the largest population group in Mexico. Mestizos now account for about 60 percent of Mexicans.
Indigenous peoples account for 30 percent of the population, and people of European ancestry, primarily Spanish, account for about nine percent of the population. About two percent of all Mexicans are immigrants from abroad. Africans contributed to the original racial mixture when approximately 120,000 slaves were brought to the region between 1519 and 1650. It is estimated that by the end of the colonial period, as many as 200,000 Africans may have entered New Spain. Blacks intermarried with Native Americans and mestizos and make their home on both the west and east coasts of Mexico. Their primary influence is centered in the area of the Gulf Coast port of Veracruz. Native Americans are concentrated in the regions of Mexico where indigenous civilizations were located at the time of the conquest.
During the colonial era, many Native Americans and mestizos adopted the Spanish language, and were converted to Roman Catholicism, the religion of the Spanish colonizers. There are as many as 100 Native American languages that are still spoken in Mexico, but to date no single alternative language prevails. Eighty percent of those Mexicans who speak an indigenous language also speak Spanish. The most important of the Native American languages is Nahuatl - which is the primary language of more than a million Mexicans, and is spoken by nearly one-fourth of all Native Americans in the country. This is followed by the Maya language, used by 14 percent of Native Americans. The Mexican government uses language as its determinant when counting the number of Native Americans in the population.
The vast majority of Mexicans, about 90 percent, are Catholic. The states that are the least Catholic generally have the highest percentages of Protestants. In 1917, Mexico's constitution guaranteed freedom of religion followed by major constitutional reforms in 1992 which eliminated many of the severe restrictions on the Catholic Church and other religions.
Since the 1940's the Mexican government has encouraged manufacturing and petroleum production. While these changes have been effective, it has not kept abreast with the nation's rapid growth in population. More than one third of the Mexican people live in poverty. The population of Mexico City has leaped to nearly 10 million making it the largest city in the world.