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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: The Quest for the Mysterious Aztlan: The Aztecs in Mexican History

The idea of tracing ancestry, of establishing roots and origins, is a universal concern with many patterns of expression. Some people think of a time of genesis when the world was divinely created; others emphasize an ancestral god or goddess, or a natural phenomenon such as the sun as the source of a royal lineage; still others look to legendary heroes or a geographical feature identified with the founding of a capital city. Modern nations may enshrine historical founders or commemorate the writing of a charter or constitution. For historians of culture the matter of origins more often concerns investigating the way different societies relate to each other in a process of evolution. The poet and philosopher Octavio Paz has reminded us that in Mexico today, the national project -the future to be created- involves a recognition and acknowledgement of the deep past, salvaging and exalting the achievements of the ancient indigenous peoples and their hispanicized descendants as dynamic part of the nation’s history, while moving into the modernity of the contemporary western world. Nowhere is this vision more concretely expressed than in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Visitors to the museum pass through a spacious vestibule before entering the grand patio flanked by exhibition galleries. The second floor contains ethnographic collections of the Indian peoples today while the ground level houses the archaeological collections of their forebears, whose advanced societies formed ancient Mesoamerican civilization between c. 1000 BC and the Spanish arrival in the 1520s. These galleries display artifacts, ritual objects and symbolic works of art from the Olmecs, the Huaxtecs and Totonacs of the Gulf Coast; the Maya of southern Mexico (whose domain also included Guatemala, Belize and parts of Honduras); the Mixtecs and Zapotecs of Oaxaca; Teotihuacan and the Toltecs of the Central Highlands; the peoples of West Mexico and the northern deserts; and the Aztecs whose empire was conquered by Hernán Cortés. The mainstream of cultural development is seen to be most deeply rooted in the south and to have flowed towards the central highlands. But in later centuries cultural influences went back and forth between these regions during the first millennium BC. The large, culminating gallery on the western end of the patio in the Natural History Museum of Anthropology is entirely devoted to the Aztecs. The circular Sun Stone is the most famous monument, dominating the exhibition space and commanding the main axis of the patio outside, as if it were the high altar of the entire museum. The hieroglyphics and symbolic figures of the sculptural relief show the Aztecs as the rulers of the world in the present era of creation, called "The Fifth Sun" by the Aztecs. Other imperial Aztec sculptures are ranged below and around this major monument. A large painting by the modern artist Luis Covarrubias reconstructs the Aztec capitol, Tenochtitlan, as it was described in the Letters to Charles V written by Hernan Cortés, and in Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s vivid account, The Conquest of Mexico. Although the Aztecs were latecomers in the succession of Mesoamerican peoples, their dominant place in the design of the National Museum of Anthropology reflects their powerful role in the process of creating modern Mexican national history. The Aztecs have become idealized in popular imagination and officially embody the heroic, indigenous past and the tragedy of foreign conquest. The continuity of Tenochtitlan-Mexico City as the central place of Spanish colonial government and the capitol of the modern republic has contributed strongly to the symbolic elevation of the Aztecs above all other indigenous peoples, as foremost representatives of the ancient, collective cultural inheritance.

Today, ongoing archaeological excavations and research in early Spanish colonial ethnological and historical records continue to expand our knowledge of this dynamic, creative, and martial society. Yet a mystery continues to surround the Aztec’s beginnings. Where was Aztlán, the famous origin place named in their myth of migration? Who were the original Aztecs? By what route did this wandering tribe of hunter-gathers and part-time agriculturists arrive in the Valley of Mexico, a place where sophisticated civilization had flowered for at least 1500 years before Tenochtitlan rose to power? Scholars who have attempted to find the geographical locations of Aztlán, or to trace a route of migration using the 16th century ethnohistoric texts have been curiously unsuccessful. Why so? What did Aztlán really mean to the Aztecs? And what does Aztlán mean today in the United States, as an origin-place and a source of cultural and political identity in the imagination of many in the vast community of immigrants tracing Mexican descent? To find out, we must turn back 500 years to the time when Tenochtitlan was becoming the paramount city of Ancient Mexico.

Inhabited by some 300,000 people in the early 16th century, Tenochtitlan was built upon an island and reclaimed wetlands in Lake Tetzcoco. This shallow body of water occupied a large portion of the Central Valley of Mexico. Today, the lake is drained and the ruins of the Aztec capitol lie beneath the Colonial and modern buildings of downtown Mexico City. Tenochtitlan was approached by long causeways from the mainland across the marshes to the north, west, and south; the east side was open to the lake and a principal landing place for canoes. Four wide pedestrian walkways led in from the principal points of entry, quartering the residential zones and converging on the impressive civic and religious core of the city. Royal palace compounds stood by an open market-plaza, while a large quadrangular enclosure defined the innermost ritual area. In the middle of this sacred precinct a tall pyramid rose above lesser pyramid-platforms and related buildings (fig. 2). This pyramid was of dual construction, each half made with four superimposed stepped-back platforms, upon which stood paired temples of the ancient rain and fertility deity Tlaloc, and the mythical warrior-hero Huitzilopochtli (fig. 3). Among many temples, council-houses and other buildings within the great enclosure there stood a tall scaffolding with transverse poles strung with thousands of skulls of the Aztec’s enemies. These were votive offerings to the many gods enshrined in the enclosure, but most especially to Huitzilopochtli. The skulls also served as terrifying reminders of the military might of Tenochtitlan’s rulers, or this was the hub of an immense empire that demanded tribute from subjected provinces on a regular basis. The teeming Tlatelolco market, described by Hernan Cortés and Bernal Diáz, was one of the extraordinary sights of the Aztec metropolis. In this spacious, ordered commercial space, traders from many towns brought produce from lakeside plantations and other goods from the plains and mountains of the highland region. Long-distance traders displayed exotic luxury items brought by long trains of human carriers from sources on the tropical lowland coasts and the forests and mountains far to the south. Greatly feared throughout the land, the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan and their allies had ruthlessly conquered an empire in central and southern Mexico during the course of the 15th and early 16th centuries—before they were themselves overcome by the expedition of Cortés joined by thousands of Indian warriors from Indian communities rebelling against the Aztec overlords, in the summer of 1521

The Aztec Migration Myth

Early colonial annals and accounts of Aztec life, written by Spanish friars and historians of Indian or Mestizo descent, plus pictorial manuscripts prepared by Indian artists with scholars notation, only trace the Aztecs to the early 13th century with any degree of historical certainty. Similarly, archeological excavations have tended to concentrate on 15th and 16th century sites belonging to the imperial period. As a result, the geographical place of Aztec origins remains to this day an unsolved mystery. The texts say that the Aztecs or, properly speaking, the Mexica-Aztecs, appeared as one of several different tribes of nomadic hunter-gathers and primitive part-time agriculturists, who, in the 13th century, were migrating into the Central Highlands from the northern deserts. This movement followed a very old pattern of migration seen intermittently throughout Mesoamerican history. In response to drought or other harsh ecological conditions, famine, the pressures of other desert peoples or war among city-states in the center, tribes from the arid region had sought their future by migrating into the fertile, well-watered highlands where multi-ethnic, agricultural, urban populations had long flourished. Beyond the 13th century, then, we are forced to rely on the myths and legendary stories recorded by the Mexica-Aztecs as their “official” history. These stories tell of the place of origin, Aztlán, ‘place of cranes,’ located somewhere far to the north. Aztlán is described as an island-hill rising from a lake. It was there that the Aztecs, “crane people,” had emerged from caves and the earth-womb itself in the genesis time of creation. After a while they decided to leave and embarked by canoes to the mainland, where they began a long migration. Soon they were joined by another group, calling themselves the Mexica, “moon people,” who led by a chieftain, Huitzilopochtli, “hummingbird on the left.” It was this legendary leader who commanded the tribe to adopt the spare tool kit and ways of hunting and gathering in the desert. The name Huitzilopochtli may have been a title of office; in any event, it appears thereafter in association with an effigy or fetish-like sacred bundle transported by four priests as the migration continued. These priests voiced Huitzilopochtli’s oracular directions as to where the combined Mexica-Aztec tribe was next to travel. These matters are illustrated in a screenfold pictorial manuscript known as the Tira de la Peregrinación (the migration strip), also named the Codex Boturini, after a European scholar who once owned it.

In the migration account, the combined Mexica-Aztec tribe moves ever onward, stopping from place to place, sometimes for a period of years. In successive locations, cultivation was practiced and a rudimentary ballcourt and pyramid-platform for Huitzilopochtli’s effigy were built . But always the group moved on at their tribal avatar’s urgings. At one point a dissident faction split off from the main tribe, led by the “evil” woman Malinalxóchitl. This group continued on towards the mountains northwest of the Valley of Mexico, where they intermarried with the native Matlazinca people and founded the town Malinalco. Another landmark mentioned is the mountain Culhuacan-Chicomoztoc. This feature is also named in the migration story of the 10th century Tolteca - Chichimeca, and is depicted in an illuminated manuscript (the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca) as an origin-place with a womb-like interior, within which seven tribes are about to emerge. Thus the Aztec imagery of Aztlán is shown to have a much earlier precedent in the legendary history of another migrant people.

The Birth of Huitzilo-Poohtli

At an indeterminate time, seemingly before the migration began, an astonishing event took place at Coatepetl, “Serpent Mountain”. This was the magical birth and supernatural victory of Huitzilopochtli. This mythic episode begins by describing an aged earth-priestess, Coatlicue, “Serpent Skirt”, who is sweeping an earth-shrine atop the mountain Coatepetl. Unexpectedly a ball of feathers fell from the sky and impregnated her with Huitzilopochtli. Soon, Coatlicue’s sons the Centzonhuitznaua “four hundred”, (i.e. “many”), and her elder daughter Coyolxauhqui, all learned of their aged mother’s new pregnancy. Enraged, they determined to slay her; but the old priestess was comforted when Huitzilopochtli, within her womb, said that he would know what to do. The armed host led by Coyolxauhqui advanced fiercely up the mountain. Suddenly, Huitzilopochtli was born, as a fearsome, supernatural warrior. Hurling a flaming “fire serpent” he pierced Coyolxauhqui and cut off her head, sending her body crashing in pieces down the slope of the mountain. Then Huitzilopochtli chased the Centzin-huitznaua around the hill, slaying without mercy. The utter destruction of the enemy was the inevitable, pre-ordained consequence of Huitzilopochtli’s wrath.

The migration story continues with an account of another fabled battle, after the immigrant tribe had arrived in the Valley of Mexico and attempted to settle near the springs of Chapultepec. An enemy chieftain named Copil arrived with a force to confront the squatters. Copil was the vengeful “son” of Malinalxóchitl, leader of the old dissident faction that split from the migrating group long before. The Mexica-Aztecs were defended by Huitzilopochtli who slew Copil and handed his heart to a young warrior who threw it far into the lakeshore marshes. The heart landed at the very place where the wandering tribe would eventually found their pyramid and the capitol city, Tenochtitlan. The site itself is described in supernatural terms: a field of reeds magically turned white, with a white juniper growing by white cattails and willows. White serpents, frogs and fish swam in a spring by the juniper’s roots. Another version of this episode describes twin springs with dark blue and yellow water. Yet these images were also borrowed by the Mexica-Aztecs from earlier sources, for they are clearly depicted in the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca. The final miraculous event seen by the Mexica-Aztecs at the site of their future pyramid was the sight of a splendid eagle perched on a cactus growing on a rocky outcrop. This was taken as a manifestation of a long-sought vision, prophesized by Huitzilopochtli as mystical sign of the place where the tribe was to finally settle. And so it happened in the year 2 house, corresponding to 1325 in the Christian calendar.

What Really Happened When the Aztecs Arrived?

This mythic account thus shows that the Mexica-Aztecs were appropriating and assimilating certain, older well-known themes into their own migration story. To understand why this took place we must turn to other historical records. Fray Diego Durán, who was raised in Mexico and was fluent in the Nahuatl (Aztec) language, wrote The History of the Indies of New Spain, one of the most comprehensive and sympathetic chronicles. His work was based on records from various Indian communities in the Valley of Mexico. When the Mexica-Aztecs arrived in the northern end of the valley sometime in the late 13th century, they encountered settled populations boasting prestigious lineages. Although some intermarriage took place, notably between a Mexica-Aztec chieftain and a woman from an aristocratic family of Zumpango, the newcomers were regarded as primitive and uncouth. Soon the migration continued down the western side of Lake Tetzcoco, through lands long claimed and jealously governed by other old towns. Their brief stop near Chapultepec was in fact a disaster, for they were defeated by the local Tepanecs of Atzcapotzalco and were forced to ask the neighboring Lord of Culhuacan for land on which to settle. This was granted in return for Mexica-Aztec warriors to serve Culhuacan in the endemic small-scale war and raiding between the fiercely independent rival towns and small cities of the basin. All went well for a time but trouble broke out between the settlers and their hosts when the Mexica-Aztecs sacrificed the daughter of the Culhuacan chief as an offering to the earth and fertility. In a running battle the barbarous outsiders were driven into the marshlands by the western shore. Taking shelter in this essentially unclaimed area of reedbeds, the refugees began the permanent settlement that was named Tenochtitlan. But the people were industrious and accustomed to a hard life of survival. They established a marketplace and traded products gleaned from the lake, while their chieftains paid service to their old enemies in the nearby Tepanec town of Atzcapotzalco, contributing levies of warriors as tribute. Approximately one hundred years after the founding, this hitherto disdained and marginal people were building a formidable city and formed alliances to decisively shift the balance of power. The allied cities Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan defeated the Atzcapotzalco and divided up the old Tepanec empire. In 1428 the new Mexica-Aztec ruler Itzcóatl and his allies began a series of conquests that were to lead in successive reigns to the control of a vast system of tribute from many lands of Mesoamerica.

The Aztecs Rewrite Their History

As this project got underway, Itzcóatl and his main counselors saw the need to reconsider the past and define a new “national” historical identity. A council assembled in Tenochtitlan to review the old migration accounts. The council concluded that the obscure origins, the humiliations endured by the migrating tribe, and their well known lack of a prestigious ancestry were unacceptable for their new imperial status. It was determined that the common people need not know of the original circumstances in any detail or of the actual events surrounding the founding of Tenochtitlan. The old records were burned and a new official history began to be written. At this time Huitzilopochtli was promoted as the official god of the Mexica-Aztecs. With this information, modern scholars have independently analyzed the existing migration texts and the legend of Huitzilopochtli, noting especially the mythological episodes and the curiously composite character of many events. Their findings show that the Mexica-Aztec migration story not only has episodes closely reflecting the old migration stories of the Tolteca-Chichimeca. Indeed, the whole sequence of events beginning in Aztlán conforms to a widespread pattern of origin and migration stories found far south among the (Mexicanized) Quiché Maya of Guatemala, among the Tolteca-Chichimeca of the Valley of Puebla in central Mexico, as well as the Tarascans of Michoacán, and even as far north as San Juan Pueblo on the Rio Grande of New Mexico. The sequence begins in a faraway land or a lake to the north at the onset of a new era. Often, a people emerge from the earth or the waters. Departure from the homeland may be directed by a god or goddess as a result of a dissention or war. The departing group is frequently joined by others, and a supernatural leader or messenger points out the route of migration. There can be no doubt that the “official” account of the Mexica-Aztec migration reflected well established models. While the legend of Huitzilopochtli’s supernatural “fatherless” birth and the merciless slaying of enemies is not readily apparent in the annals of other peoples, it may be seen as a Mexica-Aztec creation aimed at bypassing their lack of a “legitimate” aristocratic lineage ancestry. Huitzilopochtli shows no development of character such as exhibited in the history of other Mesoamerican founder-fathers: he is more of an "action" hero, with powers conferred by miraculous birth, physical invincibility and a spirit of utter ruthlessness; some aspects of his imperial cult in Tenochtitlan also grant him solar associations. His story is not one of a succession of deeds and moral growth. Rather, stress is placed on maximum ferocity and energy required to kill enemies. Pronouncements attributed to Huitzilopochtli are promises of booty and luxury without end. But the fact of this mythology being invented for purposes of state does not render it invalid, for the Mexica-Aztecs created a new point of reference for the development of a rising military aristocracy and a social dynamic of violent conquest. The migration legend and Huitzilopochtli’s symbolism gave them inspiration for their warrior culture of fierce valor, pride and destruction.

What, now, of the question of origins? Where did the Mexica-Aztecs come from? We have seen that beyond the early 14th century when the tribe first entered the Valley of Mexico, the migration texts provide little to follow with certainty. Scholars who have attempted to trace Aztlán to the lakes of northwest central Mexico –to Chapala or nearby seasonal lakes in upland Jalisco; to lakes Pátzcuaro or Cuitzeo in Michoacán; to the lagoon Mexcaltitlán on the pacific coast of Nayarit, where an island-town preserves its ancient four-quarter layout; or even to the Lagoon Tamiahua on the gulf coast of north Veracruz, have only ended in speculation. For Aztlán was really primarily a place of the imagination. The Aztecs themselves knew this. During the reign of Motecuhzoma I (1440–1469), a party consisting of priests and shamanic mediums were commanded to “visit” their ancient homeland. The group traveled northward past the Toltec ruins of Tula to a to a place reputed to be the birthplace of Huitzilopochtli. Fray Diego Durán records the legend of how the royal delegation was met by a supernatural being who magically transformed everyone into birds and other winged beasts. All took flight to arrive in Aztlán where they resumed human form and were greeted by kinsmen paddling canoes. Then the royal messengers were taken to an aged man said to be related to Huitzilopochtli. After questions and answers this guide took them on another magical journey full of dangerous trials. Revealing his powers, the guide scolded the Mexica-Aztecs for their luxurious life in Tenochtitlan. Presently they were ushered into the presence of Huitzilopochtli’s ancient mother Coatlicue, to whom they offered presents and told of the successful rise of their imperial state. But she replied with a sobering prophecy, that Tenochtitlan would be conquered some day. The visitors then returned to present their report to Motecuhzoma. Aztlán was conceived by the Aztecs themselves as a mythic place rather than a concrete geographical location.

Aztlán In the Process of Cultural Renewal

Yet the fact remains that there was a pattern of intermittent connections dating from at least the first millennium BC, between the urban peoples of the central highland basins and tribes of the arid north. Although many origin-stories conform to a type, they do convey the unmistakable sense of deep-seated cycles of migration throughout ancient Mexican history. A people such as the Aztecs are not likely to entirely forget their beginnings, however assimilated they became to an urban way of life developed by the old state-like societies of southern and central Mesoamerica. The culture of a people will usually retain, sometimes subtly in terms of a prevailing tone or thought or habit of movement, or even in ways that may be too deep for naming, impressions or memories conditioned by an earlier existence, by the pulse of another seasonal rhythm, or tensions and emotions experienced in other landscapes. Attitudes formed in the stark simplicity of a desert economy, demanding a ready adaptability, a quickened flexibility to changing conditions and the necessity to seize and exploit new opportunities, were undoubtedly collective traits automatically availed to individual leaders seeking to assimilate and shape a more complex society and culture for the Aztecs among the old urban peoples in the Valley of Mexico. If Mesoamerican civilization's earliest and deepest roots lie in the south, surely many of its later branchings and flowerings were also attributable to cultural graftings from incoming groups who had the capacity to interrupt older indigenous patterns with determining force. From such dynamic, creative encounters there arose new cultural syntheses.

The quest for Aztlán might thus be redefined as an inquiry into a kind of culture, once found among many indigenous societies in that region of mountains, basins, and ranges stretching between the southwestern deserts of the United States and the central highland of Mexico, and asking how the contributions of such peoples helped to shape ancient-and modern-Mexican history. The analogy of Aztlán now also reaches far northward, as a concept embracing a range of values brought by modern immigrants engaging in the vital new process of assimilation, cultural reformulation and renewal among the many communities of peoples in the United States.

This article appears in La Raza

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

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