The Look and Symbolism Behind the Flag of Mexico

The coat of arms reflects Mexico's Aztec heritage

The Flag of the United States of Mexico
The Flag of the United States of Mexico.

There have been a few looks for the flag of Mexico since its independence from Spanish rule in 1821, but its overall look has remained the same: green, white and red and a coat of arms in the center that is a nod to the Aztec Empire's capital of Tenochtitlan, formerly based in Mexico City in 1325. The flag colors are the same colors of the national liberation army in Mexico.

Visual Description

The Mexican flag is a rectangle with three vertical stripes: green, white and red from left to right.

The stripes are of equal width. In the center of the flag is a design of an eagle, perched on a cactus, eating a snake. The cactus in on an island in a lake, and beneath is a garland of green leaves and a red, white and green ribbon.

Without the coat of arms, the Mexican flag looks like the Italian flag, with the same colors in the same order, although the Mexican flag is longer and the colors are a darker shade.

History of the Flag

The national liberation army, known as the Army of the Three Guarantees, officially formed after the struggle for independence. Their flag was white, green and red with three yellow stars. The first flag of the new Mexican republic was modified from the army's flag. The first Mexican flag is very similar to the one used today, but the eagle is not shown with a snake, instead, it is wearing a crown. In 1823, the design was modified to include the snake, although the eagle was in a different pose, facing the other direction.

It underwent minor changes in 1916 and 1934 before the current version was officially adopted in 1968.

Flag of the Second Empire

Since independence, only on one occasion has the Mexican flag undergone a drastic revision. In 1864, for three years, Mexico was ruled by Maximilian of Austria, a European nobleman imposed as the emperor of Mexico by France.

He redesigned the flag. The colors stayed the same, but golden royal eagles were put in each corner, and the coat of arms was framed by two golden griffins and included the phrase Equidad en la Justicia, meaning​ "Equity in Justice.” When Maximilian was deposed and killed in 1867, the old flag was restored.

Symbolism of the Colors

When the flag was first adopted, the green symbolically stood for independence from Spain, the white for Catholicism and the red for unity. During the secular presidency of Benito Juarez, the meanings were changed to mean green for hope, white for unity and red for the spilled blood of fallen national heroes. These meanings are known by tradition, nowhere in Mexican law or in documentation does it clearly state the official symbolism of the colors.

Symbolism of the Coat of Arms

The eagle, snake and cactus refer back to an old Aztec legend. The Aztecs were a nomadic tribe in northern Mexico who followed a prophecy that they should make their home where they saw an eagle perched on a cactus while eating a snake. They wandered until they came to a lake, formerly Lake Texcoco, in central Mexico, where they saw the eagle and founded what would become the mighty city of Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City.

After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, Lake Texcoco was drained by the Spanish in an effort to control continuous lake flooding.

Flag Protocol

February 24 is Flag Day in Mexico, celebrating the day in 1821 when different rebel armies joined together to secure independence from Spain. When the national anthem is played, Mexicans must salute the flag by holding their right hand, palm down, over their heart. Like other national flags, it may be flown at half-staff in official mourning upon the death of someone important.

Importance of the Flag

Like people from other nations, Mexicans are very proud of their flag and like to show it off. Many private individuals or companies will fly them proudly. In 1999, President Ernesto Zedillo commissioned giant flags for several important historical sites.

These banderas monumentales or “monumental banners” can be seen for miles and were so popular that several state and local governments made their own.

In 2007, Paulina Rubio, famous Mexican singer, actress, TV hostess and model, appeared in a magazine photo shoot wearing only a Mexican flag. It created quite the controversy, although she later said that she meant no offense and apologized if her actions were viewed as a sign of disrespect of the flag.