Mexican X-Plainer: Mesoamerican Turkeys

Around Thanksgiving, we should always reflect on indigenous culture, food, and language, respecting and honoring Native Americans and Mesoamericans displaced or killed by conquest and colonization, rather than erasing them with false legends that glorify European arrival in the Americas.

Central to US feasts is the turkey, a bird that emerged from Mexico. The Nahua (Aztecs) called the wild turkey “huehxōlōtl” and the domesticated turkey “tōtolin.” In modern Mexican Spanish these have become “guajolote” and “totole” (the latter less common), which are used interchangeably.

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A huehxōlōtl on the left, and another accompanying Quetzalcoatl on the right.

Wild turkeys were also called “cuauhtōtolin,” literally “turkeys of the forest.” The more popular term, “huehxōlōtl,” means “big xōlōtl.” I know that isn’t helpful, but “xōlōtl” has multiple meanings: slave, canine double of the god Quetzalcoatl, and monster. “Big monster” is an interesting possibility, as Aztec myth tells us that, when the world was destroyed by fire, the humans of the third age were transformed into huehxōlōmeh — wild turkeys … or perhaps something more sinister, as suggested by the many modern Mexican legends about attacks by bird people.

The Spanish, however, called the native bird “pavo,” from the Latin “pavus,” originally meaning “peacock.” After the Conquest, the word shifted to signify “turkey,” and the peacock became the “pavo real” or “royal” turkey, heh. Compare to the Spanish verb pavonear (to strut like a peacock).

Guajolote and totole aren’t the only Native Mesoamerican words for turkey to persist in modern Spanish. In northern Mexico and the US, the term “cócono” or “coconito” is used for turkey, which comes from the Nahuatl “cōconeh” or “young/baby [bird].”

In Central America and Southern Mexico, it’s common to hear “chompipe” (also “chumpipi” or “chumpi”), which may be a loan word from Quechua (though some linguists give it a Nahuatl origin, too, from “tzompipil”). Also common in some regions is “picho/piche,” which derives from “pich,” meaning “turkey” in several Mayan languages.

Whatever we may call them, we should always remember that the Spanish took those domesticated turkeys to Europe, where the fowls spread eventually to England and were brought by the “pilgrims” to the US just as Conquest was killing off the native birds. It’s ironic and depressing that for so many US citizens they’ve become symbols of supposed peace and cooperation between European colonizers and Native Americans. In reality, their theft and reintroduction heralded future massacres and appropriation.

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