Mexican X Part XVIII: Tlaxcala, Land of … Tortillas?

One of Mexico’s 32 states / federal entities, Tlaxcala sits just east of Mexico City. Its capital city is also called Tlaxcala. The city came first, in colonial times, but it was named for an Indigenous republic that allied itself to the invading Spanish:


The people of Tlaxcallan lived mainly in and around four allied city-states. The first to be settled was Tepeticpac Texcallan, “on the summit, amid the crags.” And for a time, “Texcallan” was what the region under its control was called.

“Place amid the crags.”

As years passed, three more cities were established nearby: Ocotelolco, Tizatlan and Quiyahuiztlan. As the nearby Mexica created their Triple Alliance, what we call the Aztec Empire, Texcallan also grew mighty.

Along the way, the collective name became “Tlaxcallan.” Interesting word. It means “place of the tlaxcalli.”

What’s a tlaxcalli, you ask? It’s a corn tortilla.

Literally, though, the word means “thing cooked over coals.” The verb “ixca” (to cook over coals) is transitive (needs an object). But if you want to say that someone cooks “stuff,” you say “tlaxca”—they cook stuff over coals. That inanimate indefinite object prefix “tla-” is also used to form nouns from transitive verbs. The simplest way is prefix + verb + absolutive suffix (-lli).

So in this case, “tlaxcalli” — thing/stuff cooked over coals.

And one of many suffixes for making place names is -tlan. When you affix it to a root ending in -l (like “tlaxcal,” the root of “tlaxcalli”), the “tl” becomes “l.” That gives us “Tlaxcallan.”

It’s possible this is an evolution of the original term “Texcallan” that just happens to sound like “Place of the Tortillas.” We’re not entirely sure why or how the region came to be called Tlaxcallan. But the Nahuatl name glyph for the republic has both crags and tortillas, suggesting its people knew that Texcallan and Tlaxcallan were related.

Nahuatl name glyph for Tlaxcallan. Hands raise a tortilla from the crags.

The Tlaxcaltecah (people of Tlaxcallan) were proud and fierce. They were ruled by a governing body, somewhat like a senate or boule, made up of men who’d shown their value (usually in battle). They were the sworn enemies of the Mexica and the rest of the Triple Alliance.

There’s frankly no way the Spanish could have conquered the “Aztecs” had it not been for the Tlaxcaltecah. While they could have wiped out the invaders had they chosen to do so, after years of resisting Aztec control of its lands, Tlaxcallan was ready to see Tenochtitlan fall.

But like all the rest of the Nahua peoples, the Tlaxcaltecah fell victim to smallpox and Spanish perfidy. They helped their allies spread throughout Mesoamerica, but their numbers dwindled, until only 700 souls remained in Tlaxcallan when once it had been 300,000 strong.

A final quick note: you may be wondering why, if the Nahua peoples (the “Aztecs” and Tlaxcaltecah spoke the same language) had a word for corn tortillas, we don’t call them “tlaxcalli” in modern Mexican Spanish.

I’ve covered that in another explainer article, though I should add that Nahuatl (which consists of several varieties) is still spoken by 1.5 million people. To them, in their native language, the tortilla is still a tlaxcalli.

For the rest of us, however, the short version is that the Spanish already had a name for flatbread, which had been eaten on the Iberian Peninsula for centuries, derived from Middle-Eastern and North-African cuisine. Tortilla. When they saw tlaxcalli being cooked and eaten, they already knew what those round things were. The only difference was that Spanish tortillas (at that time, of course, as modern Spanish tortillas are more like omelettes or quiche) were made from wheat flour.

So “tortillas de maíz.” Corn tortillas.

The Nahuatl word is still preserved in the place name “Tlaxcala.”

The pronunciation isn’t.

“Tlaxcalli” is pronounced “tlahsh-KAHL-lee.” However, “Tlaxcala” is “tlahks-KAH-lah.” The “x” in this case didn’t shift from “sh” to “h” or “s” but to “ks,” perhaps from the influence of the hard “c.”

I know what you’re wondering, reader. The most important question of all.

“Do they make good tortillas in Tlaxcala?”

Yes. Yes they do, from all colors of maize, like these special four-colored tlaxcalli … highly recommended if you’re ever down in the Land of Tortillas.

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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