Angry headlines led the newspapers. With an actress out in front, protest marchers tramped through the capital invoking national sovereignty. Officials gave indignant speeches and the Foreign Ministry delivered a formal protest note to the U.S. State Department.

In these and other ways, Mexico has reacted energetically to the charges of corruption and mismanagement leveled by U.S. government officials and legislators in recent weeks.

According to well-placed Mexican officials, however, the display of outrage reflected a historic sensitivity to U.S. intervention -- piqued this time by unusually strong words from Washington -- rather than a sense of crisis within Mexico or in its relations with the United States.

"We had to say that was enough," a Mexican diplomatic source explained.

President Miguel de la Madrid's government got mixed signals on the significance of the charges and remains unsure of the degree to which the charges, and the tone in which they were made, represent U.S. policy, these officials pointed out.

Some reports suggested the contentious Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearings on Mexico, held May 12-13, were called by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in cooperation with high-level administration officials to dramatize displeasure with de la Madrid's government, they said. These interpretations were encouraged by the appearance of Elliott Abrams, who, as assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, is considered to speak for the administration on Mexican matters.

But other signals indicated that the sense of alarm during the Helms hearings reflected the assessment of only a small rightwing group in Washington upset with Mexico's role in the Contadora negotiations on Central America, the officials added. This interpretation was reinforced by the U.S. Embassy here, by a conciliatory telephone call May 22 from Attorney General Edwin Meese III to his Mexican counterpart, and by subsequent administration statements backing off from specific allegations of corruption and emphasizing U.S.-Mexican cooperation.

"We have to believe them," a government official said. "We have to believe them when they say this was the work of a small group of ultraconservatives."

The Foreign Ministry protest note, illustrating this conclusion, referred to the administration officials who testified at the hearing as "minor."

Whatever their status, the Mexican government felt it had to react. De la Madrid's handling of Mexican affairs had been loudly questioned in a foreign capital, demanding a government reply. But the main reason for the vigorous response, Mexican officials said, was to satisfy upset public opinion within influential political, journalistic and business circles in Mexico City.

"This was really the determining factor," one official said.

Mexican political tradition has been steeped in memories of U.S. intervention in internal matters, giving comments on Mexico from the United States an importance here they might not have elsewhere. Resistance to U.S. interference has become as much a staple of Mexican political discourse as, say, quality education is in the United States.

During the previous Mexican administration, for example, the government set up the National Museum of Interventions, where schoolchildren visit, notebooks in hand, to learn about Spanish, French and U.S. meddling in Mexican history. Maps have been hung to show Mexico the way it might have been -- including the territory that is now California and Texas. One plaque explains:

"The North Americans developed their expansionist project with fundamentally religious elements of Calvinist origin, according to which God determined that Anglo-Saxons were elected to cultivate and benefit from the earth."

Responding to this atmosphere, de la Madrid sent off his delegation to this weekend's annual U.S.-Mexican Interparliamentary Meeting in Colorado Springs, Colo., with this exhortation: "That which we do not in any way accept is that anyone from outside tries to take a part in questions that only we Mexicans are called on to resolve.

"Without dignity, there is nothing," he added.

Antonio Riva Palacio, who presided over the Mexican delegation, told the opening session yesterday, "Mexican political life constitutes a process that can be judged, modified or impugned only by the Mexican people and its legitimate representatives."

Most public reaction here centered on Customs Commissioner William von Raab's allegations of drug-related corruption, particularly suggestions that Gov. Rodolfo Felix Valdez of Sonora State and a relative of de la Madrid are involved in drug trafficking.

But some Mexicans also expressed irritation at less publicized suggestions that the country's economic crisis may be leading to social unrest. The official view is that de la Madrid has been doing a skillful job of balancing the austerity measures brought on by a $98 billion foreign debt, and the recognition that Mexico's 78 million inhabitants can tighten their belts only so far.

Outside the capital, however, Mexico's role in the World Cup soccer tournament opening here today seems to be at least as important as its role in relations with the United States. A taxi driver taking a visitor to the Museum of Interventions, for example, joked that there is no need to worry about U.S. intervention anymore because Mexico City traffic is so snarled no one could get here to intervene even if he wanted to.

In part because of de la Madrid's measures, which were compounded by a drastic fall in oil prices, Mexican officials have predicted the economy could shrink by more than 3 percent this year, in contrast to a growth of 3 percent in 1985.

The issue of further government budget reductions has been under discussion for some time with the International Monetary Fund, making Washington's suggestions of ineffective management particularly unwelcome now.