Not Aztecs and Probably Not Mexica

Note: I don’t mean to upset my fellow Mexican-Americans, Mexicans, or native peoples from Mexico with the following post. Modern descendants of indigenous Mesoamericans (nican tlacah or “people from here”) should be clearly allowed to call themselves what they like. This post makes clarifications about the pre-Conquest group of people that history refers to as Aztecs.

Many people don’t realize that “Aztec” is a relatively modern and inaccurate term for a group of interrelated nations that could be more accurately referred to as Nahuas. The Nahuas of the 15th and 16th century used the word “Aztecah” to mean “inhabitants of Aztlan,” the legendary nation their ancestors had fled centuries before. To them, the “Aztecah” were severe overlords in that land whose rule the various tribes had escaped in a series of long exoduses. Imagine early US citizens calling themselves “English,” and you’ll see why “Aztec” doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The last of these Nahua tribes to leave Aztlan, according to their collective tradition, was the Mexica (Nahuatl “Mexihcah”), from whose kingdom (“Mexihco”) the modern nation of Mexico took its name. As a result of their influence and popularity, we often replace “Aztec” with “Mexica” (and, as I’ve said, for self-identification, that’s totally respectable). But let’s be clear: “Mexica” is NOT actually the best replacement for that “Aztec” when discussing the people who suffered at the hands of the Spanish Conquistadores.

The Mexihcah were the Nahua nation that settled on an islet in Lake Texcoco, founding the cities of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco, and the residents of those cities also referred to themselves as “Tenochcah” and “Tlatelolcah.”

In addition to the Mexihcah, however, there were quite a few other tribes that spoke roughly the same language (Nahuatl) living near those highland lakes: the Xochimilcah, the Tlaxcaltecah, the Tepanecah, the Tetzcohcah, the Tlacopanecah, etc. Those last two nations joined with the Mexihcah to form the Excan Tlahtoloyan (the Triple Alliance), which history now knows as the Aztec Empire. Soon they controlled all of what was known as Anahuac (the highland region in Central Mexico around the lakes).

What I’m getting at is that people living under the Triple Alliance didn’t call themselves Mexihcah (those were the most powerful in the confederation, the ones mainly calling the shots). They called themselves by their tribal/city name. But when one referred to ALL of these people together, there were two basic options:

Nahuatlacah (“clear-speaking people,” those who spoke Nahuatl) or Anahuacah (“inhabitants of Anahuac”).

As a result, I sincerely wish people would use the modern English “Nahuas” or “Nahua people” when discussing “Aztecs.” It would be more accurate and more respectful of how they saw themselves.

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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