Veracruz, officially known as Heroica Veracruz, is a major port city and municipality on the Gulf of Mexico in the Mexican state of Veracruz. The city is located in the central part of the state, from the state capital Xalapa along Federal Highway 140. It is the state's most populous city, with a population that is actually greater than the municipality's population, since part of the city of Veracruz extends into the neighboring Boca del Río Municipality. At the 2010 census, the city had 554,830 inhabitants, 428,323 in Veracruz Municipality and 126,507 in Boca del Río Municipality. Veracruz is Mexico’s oldest, largest, and historically most significant port since European colonization.
When Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519, he founded a city here, which he named Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, referring to the area’s gold and dedicated to the "True Cross", because he landed on the Christian holy day of Good Friday, the day of the Crucifixion. It was the first Spanish settlement on the mainland of the Americas and the first to receive a coat-of-arms. During the colonial period, this city had the largest mercantile class and was at times wealthier than the capital of Mexico City. Its wealth attracted the raids of pirates, against which fortifications such as Fort San Juan de Ulúa were built. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Veracruz was invaded on different occasions by France and the United States; the last invasion occurred in 1914. For much of the 20th century, the production of petroleum was most important for the state's economy but, in the latter 20th century and into the 21st, the port has re-emerged as the main economic engine. It has become the principal port for most of Mexico’s imports and exports, especially for the automotive industry.
Veracruz has a blend of cultures, mostly indigenous, ethnic Spanish and Afro-Cuban. The influence of these three is best seen in the food and music of the area, which has strong Spanish, Caribbean and African influences.
The Spanish captain Juan de Grijalva, along with Bernal Díaz del Castillo, first arrived in 1518 at the island later known as San Juan de Ulúa The Spanish gave it that name because they landed on the Christian feast of John the Baptist, and in honor of the captain. de Ulúa is derived from the local name for the Aztecs, coluha or acolhua. According to tradition, when the Spanish arrived, they found two young men who had been sacrificed. When they asked the locals what had happened, they said the Aztecs had ordered the sacrifice. The word for Aztec evolved into Ulúa.
Because the first expedition detected the presence of gold in the region, a second expedition under the command of Hernán Cortés arrived in 1519. Cortés and his men landed at the shore opposite the island where Grijalva had moored, which has the pre-Hispanic name of Chalchihuecan. Cortés, Francisco de Montejo and Alonso Hernández Portocarrero founded the settlement, naming it Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz. The name Villa Rica (rich village) referred to the gold that was found here and Vera cruz (True Cross) was added because the Cortés expedition landed on Good Friday, a Christian holy day. When Cortés and his soldiers elected a “Justicia Mayor” and a “Capitán General,” they created the first city council on the American continent. The city was the first on mainland America to receive a European coat of arms, which was authorized by Carlos V in Valladolid, Spain on 4 July 1523.
The original settlement was moved to what is now known as Antigua, at the mouth of the Huitzilpan or Antigua River shortly thereafter. This separated the city from the port, as ships could not enter the shallow river. Ships continued to dock at San Juan de Ulúa, with small boats being used to ferry goods on and off the ships. When large-scale smuggling of goods took place to avoid customs officials, the Spanish Crown ordered the settlement returned to its original site to cut down on that traffic. Docks and an observation tower were constructed on the island to ensure that goods went through customs officials.
As in other parts of Mexico, the indigenous peoples suffered from epidemics of European infectious diseases and maltreatment, which decimated the population after contact. The Spanish began to import African slaves via the port of Veracruz to work on sugarcane plantations. In the 16th century, this state had more slaves than any other in Mexico.
By the end of the 16th century, the Spanish had constructed roads to link Veracruz with other cities such as Córdoba, Orizaba, Puebla, Xalapa and Perote. Their gold and silver were the principal exports. This caused the city problems with pirates, prompting the construction of Fort San Juan de Ulúa on the island where Grijalva landed in the mid 16th century. Major public buildings were constructed at the beginning of the 17th century: the municipal palace, the monastery of Nuestra Señora de la Merced, and the Hospital de Nuestra Señora de Loreto. In 1618, a fire nearly reduced much of the city to ashes. In 1640, the Barlovento Armada was stationed here for further protection against pirates. Through the rest of the colonial period, this was the most important port in New Spain, with a large wealthy merchant class that was more prosperous than that of Mexico City. The pirates Van Hoorn, Laurens de Graaf and Michel de Grammont attacked Vera Cruz in 1683.
The 19th century was marked by armed conflicts. During the Mexican War of Independence, Spain placed troops here to maintain Mexico City’s sea link with Spain. In 1816, Antonio López de Santa Anna commanded royalist troops countering the insurgency. In 1820, insurgents took the city, despite Santa Anna’s attempts to stop them. The last viceroy of New Spain, Juan O'Donojú, arrived here in 1821, where he signed the Treaty of Córdoba with Agustín de Iturbide at Fort San Juan de Ulúa. In 1823, Spanish troops remaining at Fort San Juan de Ulúa fired on the newly independent Mexican city of Veracruz. The city’s defense against the attack earned it its first title of “Heroic City.” During the Pastry War in 1837, the city mounted a defense against a French attack, and earned its second title of "Heroic City."
In 1847, during the Mexican–American War, United States forces invaded the city. It was defended by generals Juan Morales and José Juan de Landero, but they were forced to surrender a few days later. The government of Mexico recognized Veracruz with a third title of “Heroic City.”
Ten years later, civil war between liberals and conservatives forced Benito Juárez’s government to flee the capital of Mexico City. Juárez went to Veracruz and governed from there in 1857. In the 1860s, Spain sent its troops to occupy the port in an effort to secure payment of debts, which Juárez had suspended. French military forces accompanied Maximiliano I and occupied the city when the emperor and his wife Carlota of Belgium arrived in 1864.
The conflicts and damaged trade relations with Europe took its toll on the port of Veracruz. By 1902, the port facilities had deteriorated and it was considered one of the most dangerous on the American coast. President Porfirio Díaz contracted with foreign enterprises to modernize the port’s infrastructure.
After the Revolution, most port workers became unionized. Through most of the 20th century, federal and state legal and political initiatives intended to better workers’ lives had effects on the operations of the port. Eventually, unions came to have great power over the operations and tariffs charged. By the latter part of the 20th century, competing unions made the operations of the port difficult. Some blocked access to the port from federal roads and financial corruption was a problem.
In the 1970s, a federal commission was established to design a new administrative system for the ports of Mexico. The legislature passed laws authorizing the federal government to take control over important ports such as Veracruz. The federal government modernized the port, adopting automation of loading and unloading. This resulted in a reduction of 80% of the port's jobs and labor resistance through strikes. The dockworkers' unions unified, negotiating for members to have a stake in a new company to manage the port's functions, named the Empresa de Servicios Portuarios de Veracruz, S.A. de C.V. The old Compañia Terminal de Veracruz was dissolved in 1988 and the new organization was fully in place by 1991.
In September 2010, Hurricane Karl, a small, strong Category 3 hurricane, caused widespread flooding and damage affecting approximately half a million people. Sixteen were confirmed dead with another eleven missing. Sixty-five municipalities in the state were declared disaster areas. Preliminary damage estimates total up to $3.9 billion USD and $50 billion MXN.
Much of the most recent commercial development has been in newer areas in the south of the city and in the neighboring municipality of Boca del Río, linked by a ten-kilometer road along the shore that caters to tourists and business travelers. The hotels in Veracruz are more rustic and traditional; the modern ones are in Boca del Río, especially near Playa Mocambo.