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By Ruben Ochoa
“We didn’t call ourselves Aztecs. We called ourselves Mexica.” That refrain, or something very similar to it, has been repeated time and time again by countless Chicanos, Mexicanos, indigenistas, cultural practitioners, etc., for who knows how long. Hell, even I used to say it about fifteen to twenty years ago, when I was still relatively nascent in my studies of our indigenous history. But is there really truth to this statement?
I first started reading about the indigenous history of Mexico when I was between ten to twelve years old. I knew I was Mexican, and the encyclopedia said that the Aztecs were from Mexico, so BAM!, there you have it. I’m Aztec. Then of course I kept reading, and come to find out that the people all these books kept referring to actually called themselves Mexica, and so now I was Mexica. At some point, as I began to interact with others whom presumably were also studying and reclaiming their indigenous roots (MEChA, Danza Azteca, etc.), I began to hear that refrain mention above: “We called ourselves Mexica, not Aztec.” Of course this made sense to me at the time, and so I too started saying it.
Some years passed, and that refrain, though I can’t recall when or where I first heard it, turned into “We didn’t call ourselves Aztec. That’s what an anthropologist called us ‘cause they didn’t know what we called ourselves.” And that in turn turned into an anthropologist coming up with that name as an umbrella term to lump all the people of the Valley of Mexico together. That further changed to a white anthropologist decided to call us that, and then that white anthropologist became more specifically European. At some point in the past ten years, we’ve somehow even managed to identify the culprit who dared sully us with a name not our own, and that perpetrator has been identified as none other than Alexander Von Humboldt. People have become so confident that the above is true that the new chorus, with all the certitude in the world, is that Alexander Von Humboldt is to blame for the very existence of the word “Aztec,” a word that was presumably then never uttered by our people.
All of the above, of course, is wrong. Hernando de Alvarado Tezozomoc (c. 1525-c. 1610), Nahua noble and grandson of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, uses the term Azteca numerous times in his famed Cronica Mexicayotl, which, to be clear, was written in both Nahuatl and Spanish. Likewise writing in both Nahuatl and Spanish and using the term Azteca repeatedly is Domingo Francisco de San Anton Munon Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin (1579-1660), whom was also of pure indigenous blood and said to descend from Chalco nobility. The Cronica Mexicayotl is believed to have been written around 1598. Exact dates for Chimalpahin’s writings are difficult to pin down, though they likely follow Tezozomoc’s given that the former was born over 50 years later. By contrast, Alexander Von Humboldt wasn’t even born until 1769, over 100 years after the death of Chimalpahin and more than 150 years after the death of Tezozomoc.
Following are a few examples from the Cronica Mexicayotl illustrating Tezozomoc’s use of the term Azteca:
- “Ynicquizque yn Chichimeca yn Azteca yni comp a huálquizque ynkhan Aztlan y pan ce Tecpatl Xihuitl.”
“Cuando salieron los chichimecas, los aztecas, entonces de allá hacia acá salieron de Aztlan su morada, en el año Uno-Pedernal.”
- “Auh y nompac ynkhan y tocayo can Aztlan. yehica ynintoca Azteca yhuan ynompa ininchan ynicontlamantli ytocayocan Chicomoztoc. auh ynin yntoca Azteca y huanyntoca Mexitin. auh yn axcan gamellahuac yn mitohua ynintoca Mexica…”
“Y allá la morada de ellos, el lugar de nombre Aztlan, por eso es su nombre aztecas, y allá la morada de ellos se llama por Segundo nombre Chicomoztoc y son sus nombres aztecas y mexicanos; y hoy día en verdad nomás se les llama, su nombre es mexicanos…”
- “Auh inic hualpanoque in Aztlan in Azteca Mexitin, acico oncan in Culhuacan…”
“Y cuando atravesaron hacia acá de Aztlan los aztecas, los mexicanos vinieron a llegar allá a Colhuacan…”
- “Auh yuhqúitotihui in huehuetque in ompa Aztlan ic hualquizque in Azteca ayemo intocacatca Mexitin zano quixquich ic monotza inic Azteca, auh yequin oncaninin titlatohua in quicuique intoca inic yemonotza Mexitin, auh yuhqui in inic macoque inyuhquitotihui huehuetque, yehuatl quintoca macac in Huitzilopochtli.”
“Y según lo vienen a decir los viejos cuando de allá por esovhacia acá salieron los aztecas todavía no eran sus nombres mexicanos, aún nomás todo por eso se llaman aztecas, y ya después decimos esto tomaron los nombres de ellos, entonces ya se llaman mexicanos. Y así cuando entonces les fué dado, según lo vienen a decir los viejos, él les dio nombre, Huitzilopochtli.”
And from the writings of Chimalpahin:
- “Auh yn oyuh hualquizque yn ohuallolinque yn ompa ynchan aztlan, yn omoteneuhque Mexitin azteca Teochichimeca, yc niman ohualnehneque ohuallitlatocaque, ynic nohuiyan tlalli ipan ohualnentiaque, ynic niman ohuacico y noncan canin ytocayocan huey culhuacatepec.”
“And when the aforesaid Mexitin Azteca Teochichimeca had thus emerged and moved from their home in Aztlan, as they traveled and followed their way, as they traveled all over the land, they then reached a place named Huey Culhuacatepec.”
- “ipan in yancuican yc ceppa oncan quilpillico yn inxiuhtlapohual huehuetque mexica azteca Teochichimeca, oncan yn tlalixco.”
“At this time initially, for the first time, the Mexica Azteca Teochichimeca ancestors bound their year count at Tlallixco.”
- “Auh ynin omoteneuhque Mexica Azteca Teochichimeca, yniqu ehcoque ahcico ynic mocentlallico nican Mexico Tenochtitlan…”
“And when these said Mexica Azteca Teochichimeca arrived, reached, and assembled here in Mexico Tenochtitlan…”
(You’ll forgive me for not providing page numbers, but this is not meant to be an academic paper. All you really need to do is scan the Cronica Mexicayotl or the works of Chimalpahin for their use of the word Azteca, in Nahuatl, to find these examples and numerous others. A good book on the works of Chimalpahin is the Codex Chimalpahin, translated by Anderson and Schroeder and published by the University of Oklahoma Press, while a free PDF version of the Cronica Mexicayotl can be found on the Mexika.org site. Translations are not mine, but copied directly from the books in front of me.)
And so there you have it, two indigenous Nahua nobles using the word Azteca. By their usage of the term, it is clear that it was an umbrella term used to collectively define those who left Aztlan/Chicomoztoc. It was not an anthropologist, a white anthropologist, a white European anthropologist, Alexander Von Humboldt, who made up the word. I would naturally assume that if Nahua nobles were using the term shortly after the fall of Tenochtitlan, then it’s probably safe to say that it was used well before that as well.
None of this is to suggest that all peoples in or around the Valley of Mexico called themselves Aztecs, nor to argue for the use of one term over the other, and especially not to dismiss the various names of the various peoples. We are simply pointing out that Azteca is a Nahuatl word, and one that was used presumably well before European arrival. In our quest to regain indigenous identities, we often over-romanticize, overreact, overreach, overcompensate, and over-everything. In doing so, many have accepted many things that are told to them by teachers, elders, etc., without giving things a second thought. As a result, we have come to accept as fact a great number of things that are simply wrong and sometimes even easily disproven. We have unfortunately also dismissed many things that are correct and easily proven. Question everything, think critically, and don’t fall into either of those traps. Verify everything for yourself. As it turns out, some of us did call ourselves Azteca.
(Update 6/3/18: Fixed minor errors and quotations format.)