Aztlan Affirmed, Part III: Indigenous Informants

This thread continues my discussion of what indigenous sources have to say about Aztlan, the legendary homeland of the Aztecs.

In the first two parts of this series, I’ve looked at pictorial codices and works by Nahua historians.

Now let’s see what indigenous informants had to say.

Primeros Memoriales (“First Memoranda”) is an illustrated Nahuatl-language manuscript compiled between 1559 and 1561 by the Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún and his trilingual indigenous assistants in Tepepolco, a large town northeast of Mexico City.

In a study now seen as an early template for anthropology and ethnography, they interviewed a series of elderly, upper-class informants, writing down their Nahuatl responses. Sahagún organized these into a draft of his evolving project to document pre-Columbian Nahua society.

Over time, of course, this would become his Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España (General History of the Things of New Spain), a twelve-volume exploration of nearly every aspect of Aztec life before the Conquest more commonly known as the FLORENTINE CODEX.

It was in Primeros Memoriales that Sahagún recorded what the elders said about the origins of the Mexica, Acolhuah, and Tepenecah — the ruling cultures of the Triple Alliance or Aztec Empire.

They were originally Chichimecah, informants claimed, emerging from Chicomoztoc.

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Seven groups in all emerged:

1. Ahcolhuah or “Tecpilchīchīmēcah” (“noble Chichimeca”)
2. Cōlhuahqueh, with their goddess Tonān Quilāztli
3. Otomih, with their god Otonteūctli
4. Mēxihcah, with their god Huitzilopochtli
5. Cuextēcah (whom we call Huastecs)
6. Tenimeh (“barbarian” Chichimeca)
7. Totōnaqueh

God of the Otomi people
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These groups, the informants’ ancestors had told them, saw Mesoamerica as their birthright. They’d been created by Quetzalcoatl to dominate it. As they emerged from Chicomoztoc, they spread, waging war against any people who refused to submit to them, demanding tribute.

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That’s how the Triple Alliance rose to power, informants declared. The Mexica, Acolhua and Tepaneca saw every human being (Cemānahuacatl, “inhabitant of the world”) as their property via conquest.

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Conquered folks would say: “I guess your Terrible God, Huitzilopochtli, has come to take what’s His.”

The Triple Alliance would reply: “Are you angry? Do you want to try to take it back?”

For the most part, no.

People paid tribute. The rest of this section (called “paragraph 14”) details just what they had to give up. It was a lot.

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Ok. You’ve noticed that this text does NOT mention Aztlan, just Chicomoztoc (which we’ve seen other sources say was part of Aztlan’s dominion).

You might begin to wonder: were there two origin stories? One about the Mexica coming from Aztlan and another about tribes from Chicomoztoc?

I’ll circle back to that in my analysis at the very end of this series, but here’s an important point:

The people of Tepēpōlco weren’t Mexica or Tepanēcah. The city was founded by Chīchīmēcah, then Otomi groups joined them, and finally Nahuas.

The city was marginally governed by various kingdoms until it was at last conquered by the Alliance. Their perspective on the Mexica national myth would of course be different.

Speaking of different perspectives: the document known as Anónimo Mexicano (anonymous Mexica or Mexican, which meant “Nahua” by the late 1500s) was written circa 1600 by an anonymous Tlaxcaltecan author. They’re probably fuming in Mictlan at the title, however. The Tlaxcaltēcah were the sworn enemy of the Mexica.

Tlaxcallān was located one valley to the east from the Valley of Mexico (Anahuac, the area around the great lakes). After resisting the Triple Alliance for a century, it allied with the Spanish and destroyed the empire.

It’s interesting to read their views on Aztlan.

Anónimo Mexicano gives an epic account in Nahuatl (the language of Tlaxcallān) of the settling of central Mexico by Nahuas from the northern frontier.

The Tlaxcalan writer claimed that the Nahuatl-speaking Toltecs were the first to emerge from Aztlan and rule Mexico.

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Later, the wise [high priest] Huitzinton heard the cry of a bird: “tihuih, tihuih” (“we go, we go”) and convinced a leader named Tēcpāntzin (“revered line of people”) to organize the fleeing Aztēcah into nine groups according to lineage and lead them out of Aztlān.

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After 1194 years in Aztlān, these groups left:

1. Chālcah
2. Mātlatzincah
3. Tepanēcah
4. Malīnalcah
5. Xōchimīlcah
6. Cuitlāhuacah
7. Chīchīmēcah (Tlaxcaltēcah)
8. Mizquicah
9. Tenōchcah [as the Mexihtin or Mēxihcah would call themselves after building Tenōchtitlan]

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They arrived in Chicomoztoc, where they multiplied and became distinct nations. Then they began to leave, with only the Mexica staying behind, being the last to abandon those seven caves and come to the Valley of Mexico (though some claim the Mexica arrived in Anahuac before the others.).

Two chapters later, the text gives a different version. Describing a lost Tlaxcalan codex, it claims the Mexica, the Tlaxcaltēcah, the Otomih and the Totōnactin (note the interesting dialectal difference in plural) lived together in Aztlān. The Mexica left; the Tlaxcaltēcah followed.

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Additional tidbit: The Tlaxcaltēcah considered Teōcolhuahcān (the sacred curved mountain) their ancestral home in Aztlān territory.

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It definitely seems that there was a desire among different Nahua nations to use the Aztlan / Chicomoztoc legend to establish their primacy in Anahuac. We’ll examine the possible origin of that story and its power in the next two articles.

Read the rest of the series.
Part I: Pictorial Sources
Part II: Nahua Historians
Part III: Indigenous Informants
Part IV: Other Cities, Other Tongues
Part V: Commentary

A Mexican-American author and translator from deep South Texas, David Bowles teaches literature and Nahuatl at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley.

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