Reframing Mexikah Identity
[ Kurly Tlapoyawa ]
In recent years, I have noticed that many Chicano-Mexicanos are openly antagonistic and resentful towards those who choose to identify themselves as “Mexica.” Instead of engaging in a meaningful discussion regarding this identity, opponents will often resort to launching slurs and insults at those they disagree with. (A visit to any number of the Chicano-themed and Indigenous-based social media sites populating the Internet will attest to this unfortunate trend.) For the “anti-Mexica” crowd it seems that simply having a different perspective on identity is somehow inherently wrong and deserving of ridicule – one might call it “identity policing” at its finest. Scanning these discussions on social media, it becomes clear that most of the anti-Mexica arguments stem from the idea that Mexica is strictly an ethnic identity, and those embracing this identity are ignoring the multitude of indigenous cultures and ethnicities that continue to thrive in Mexico. I feel this criticism is misplaced and counterproductive.
In my book “WeWill Rise” published in the year 2000, I mistakenly stated “Mexica is simply a way of saying “Mexican Indian” in Nawatl” . However, I now realize that this statement is a gross oversimplification, and ignores many cultural and historical factors. As my personal understanding of Mesoamerican culture has developed, I now understand that this statement was a result of my own personal ignorance and reflective of a need to further my education in these matters. The purpose of this essay is to contribute to the intellectual discourse regarding Mexica / Mexikah identity, particularly as it relates to the modern Chicano-Mexicano. As such, I propose reframing Mexikah identity as an ideological position, rather than a strict ethnic indicator (also note the different spelling). I feel that this fits in with historic Mesoamerican notions of identity, which did not always conform to a rigid concept of ethnicity.
Origins of Mexica /Mexikah identity
Historically speaking, the Mexica identity is relatively young. It wasn’t until after leaving Aztlan in the year Ze Tekpatl (1064 AD) that the followers of Mexihtli-Witzilopochtli adopted the name “Mexicah” . Prior to this migration, the Mexica referred to themselves as “Azteca,” a term that simply means “people of Aztlan.” Plate 8 of the Codex Aubin makes note of the moment that one group of Aztlan migrants was instructed by Witzilopochtli to change their name. (figure 1).
Auh cah niman oncān oquincuepilih in īntōca in Aztecah. Oquimilhuih, “In axcān aocomo amotoca in amaztecah, ye ammexicah.” Oncān oquinnacazpotonihqueh inic oquicuihqueh in īntōca in Mexicah. Codex Aubin, 1576 (orthography has been standardized to the Andrews-Campbell-Karttunen-system and punctuation normalized)
Authors’ translation: “And then, there he [Huitzilopochtli] changed the name of the Aztecah. He told them: ‘You are no longer called Azteca, now you are Mexica.’ There they put feathers in their ears. In this way the Mexica took their name” .
This is important for two reasons. First, it illustrates that the term “Azteca” was in use among native Nawatl speakers at least as far back as 1576. Second, it shows that identity in pre-Kuauhtemok Mesoamerica was fluid, and not strictly based on a rigid concept of ethnicity. Frances Berdan has pointed out that Mesoamerican concepts of identity were intrinsically tied to the Altepetl (capital city) in which one lived. In Mesoamerica, multi-ethnic city-states emerged with citizens adopting a common identity based on shared history and worldview rather than notions of shared ethnic descent .
The practice of assuming a group identity in order to claim affiliation to a founding leader or authority figure was common in Mesoamerica. Book 10 of the Florentine Codex states, “The name of the Otomitl comes from, is taken from, the name of him who first became the leader of the Otomih. They say his name was Oton. His children, his descendants, and his subjects were all called Otomih; a single one, Otomitl” . As we can see, self-identification as an Otomih extended to the “subjects” of Oton in addition to his direct descendants. Likewise, the Mazaua are named after “him who was their first leader, Mazatl Tecuhtli” . In both cases, Mesoamerican identity was forged via an emphasis on common history, rather than strict blood ties.
The following passage from the Codex Chimalpahin illustrates just how malleable identity in Mesoamerica could be: “Their home was a place called Aztlan; hence their name was Azteca. And the second name of their home was Chicomoztoc. And their names were Azteca and also Mexitin. But now their name is really said to be only Mexica. And later they arrived here taking as their name Tenochca” . Eventually, their name would be changed once more to “Culhua-Mexica” in order to reflect a noble Toltec heritage made legitimate through intermarriage and the installation of Akamapichtli as the first Tlahtoani of Mexiko-Tenochtitlan . Clearly, identity in Mesoamerica was not strictly defined by modern conceptions of ethnicity. Instead, self-identification was often based on “common history but not necessarily common blood” . Or as Frances Berdan states, “The primary metaphors surrounding ethnic identity in central Mexico thus had more to do with place and history than with kinship or descent” . Therefore, I argue that the adoption of a Mexikah identity by modern Chicano-Mexicanos is completely in line with traditional Mesoamerican concepts of identity and community.
Mexicayotl, the MCRA, and pseudohistory
The term Mexicayotl was most famously utilized by Alvarado Tezozomoc in his Cronica Mexicayotl, a historical document written around 1598 in both the Spanish and Nawatl languages. Translated literally, Mexicayotl means “that which pertains to the Mexica” . Aztec Dance traditions have long promoted a Mexica identity, and Indigenous scholar Jack Forbes suggested Mexica as an identity for Chicanos in his 1973 book “Aztecas del Norte” . In Mexico, the Mexica identity experienced a widespread resurgence when archaeologist Eulalia Guzman allegedly discovered the location of Kuauhtemok’s remains in 1949 .
It was Kuauhtemok who served as the last Tlahtoani (“speaker”) of Mexiko-Tenochtitlan, leading the final defense of the city in 1521. Kuauhtemok was taken captive after the fall of Tenochtitlan, and eventually put to death by order of Hernan Cortes on February 28, 1525. He remains a powerful symbol of Indigenous resistance and a source of Mexico’s national pride to this very day. The discovery of Kuauhtemok’s tomb, which had been supposedly concealed by Spanish priests at the XVI century Santa Maria de la Asuncion Church in Ixcateopan, Guerrero provided the needed spark for the revitalization of the Mexica identity. Unfortunately, the location of the tomb was ultimately determined to be an elaborate hoax, but the resulting explosion in Mexico’s Indigenous pride could not be deterred . Legitimate or not, the alleged discovery of Kuauhtemok’s tomb had a profound effect on Mexico’s national identity.
Eulalia Guzman was a member of an organization known as the Movimiento Confederado Restaurador de Anahuac (MCRA). Founded in the late 1940’s by Rodolfo Nieva Lopez, the MCRA sought to glorify Mexico’s indigenous past, but relied almost exclusively on pseudohistorical misrepresentations of Mesoamerican history and culture . The MCRA adopted the concept of Mexicayotl as the defining character of their movement, and released a book in 1969 titled Mexikayotl, which outlined their overall philosophy. In Spanish, the MCRA began to refer to their version of Mexicayotl as “La Mexicanidad” . Much like Afrocentric pseuodscholars who shamelessly over exaggerate African contributions to the world, the MCRA had a strong tendency to falsify and embellish the cultural achievements of Pre-Kuauhtemok civilizations . Membership of the MCRA is a who’s-who of bad scholarship and new age nonsense. In addition to Eulalia Guzman, members included Domingo Martinez Paredes, Francisco “Tlakaelel” Jimenez, Estrella Newman, Maria del Carmen Nieva Lopez, Romero Vargas Iturbide, Estanislao Ruiz Ramirez, Miguel Angel Mendoza, and Juan Luna Cardenas, just to name a few. Each of these individuals has contributed large amounts of pseudohistory and fabricated “traditions” that continue to permeate Mexicayotl and Aztec dance circles to this day .
A New Mexikayotl
While I can certainly sympathize with the urge to elevate the historical legacy of a maligned and ostracized people, a pseudohistorical reimagining of our past is both unnecessary and dishonest. The legacy of pre-Kuauhtemok civilization is impressive enough without resorting to exaggeration and falsehood. In the summer of 2014, three colleagues and I established Yankwik Mexikayotl as a means of confronting the destructive issues found in Mexicayotl. Translated literally, Yankwik Mexikayotl is the “New Mexikayotl.” Its purpose is to reshape the current movement of “La Mexicanidad / Mexicayotl” into one characterized by cultural resilience, critical thinking, skeptical inquiry, and scientific literacy. The principles of Yankwik Mexikayotl stand as a bold alternative to the danza focused philosophy of Mexicayotl – a philosophy that has consistently failed to formulate any sort of significant social movement while instead pushing tired anti-scientific new age ideas, pseudohistorical fantasies, and conspiracy fetishism. This is not so say that Yankwik Mexikayotl is opposed to the tradition of Danza Azteca, in fact we recognize its value as a means of reindigenizing our communities. But we do maintain that Danza alone should not represent the sum of our cultural identities.
Yankwik Mexikayotl is a means to maintain the cultural integrity of the traditional foods, rituals, clothing, music, languages, cultures, cosmovisions, systems of social organization, philosophies, etc. of Mesoamerica. Yankwik Mexikayotl is an ideological stance, a social movement, and a life philosophy all rolled into one. Because of this, I think that Mexikah identity is better utilized as a culturally assertive, politically charged ideology, not a claim of strict blood descent from a specific historical group. As members of Yankwik Mexikayotl, we have humbly adopted the term “Mexikah” to collectively identify ourselves, just as the followers of Emiliano Zapata refer to themselves as Zapatistas, or the followers of the Magon brothers refer to themselves as Magonistas. As I have already demonstrated, such self-identification is grounded in Mesoamerican tradition. Mexikah is the plural form, while Mexikatl is the singular form. We use the spelling “Mexica” when referring to the historic group that established Mexiko-Tenochtitlan, and “Mexikah” to identify ourselves as modern adherents of Yankwik Mexikayotl. The term is all-inclusive, as it does not follow European language conventions of gender.
The goals of Yankwik Mexikayotl are:
- Promote a strong indigenous identity among Chicano-Mexicanos by reappropriating and defending our pre-Kuauhtemok cultures, which are often distorted, maligned, and dismissed as irrelevant by mainstream colonialist society.
- Expose and eliminate the many fabrications and distortions that have infected our movement via the Catholic Church, pseudo-historians, magical thinking, new age practitioners, conspiracy theorists, Afrocentric interlopers, and charlatans from within our own communities.
As such, the philosophy and strategy of Yankwik Mexikayotl is grounded in the traditional ethics and values that shape how we view the world from an Indigenous perspective. To follow Yankwik Mexikayotl is to struggle for the autonomy and self-determination of our fellow Mazewalmeh – the indigenous people. Perhaps most importantly, Yankwik Mexikayotl is resistance.
Whereas philosophies such as Mestizaje, Hispanidad, and Raza Cosmica seek to eliminate and reject our Indigenous cultural inheritance, Yankwik Mexikayotl embraces this heritage and actively promotes reindigenizing our worldview. There are those who think that by promoting Yankwik Mexikayotl, we are attempting to “assimilate” distinct Indigenous ethnic groups into a generic “Nawa-centric” mold. This is simply not true. It is my assertion that by claiming a Mexikah identity, you are not rejecting your Raramuri, Tlaxkaltekah or Otomi heritage. Instead, you are aligning yourself with an ideology that actively seeks self-determination for all indigenous people. Mexikah exists as an identity for those who wish to embrace it – nobody is being forced to identify as Mexikah. Nor is anyone expected to reject or supplant his or her heritage with a Mexikah identity. History shows us that since the very beginning, the Mexikah were a multi-ethnic coalition united by their common vision. This remains true to this day. In fact, if you were to visit the Zocalo in Mexiko-Tenochtitlan on any given weekend, you could see for yourself as Totonako, Mixteka, Chontal, Purepecha, Tlaxkaltekah and others gather as a united front to participate in Danza Azteca and Conchero ritual. This beautiful display of Indigenous unity is illustrative of Mesoamerican models of identity at work.
Unfortunately, many of our people have chosen to base their cultural identities on the Spanish language rather than their Indigenous cultural inheritance. They will proudly proclaim, “I am Spanish!” because they think that speaking a certain language is entirely reflective of their heritage. In the case of colonialist languages such as Spanish, nothing could be further from the truth. Imagine African Americans declaring themselves Englishmen simply because they speak English and have English last names. To be fair, it’s not entirely our people’s fault that this way of thinking continues to permeate our communities. The labels “Hispanic,” “Latino,” “Hispano” and the even more culturally confused “Indo-Hispano” were created as a means of manipulating us into rejecting our Indigenous heritage and identifying as foreigners – even in our own ancestral lands.
Tleika Yankwik Mexikayotl? Why a New Mexikayotl?
Yankwik Mexikayotl is a true alternative to the repressive conditions faced by Mazewalmeh in the United States and throughout Mesoamerica. Since Yankwik Mexikayotl promotes our indigenous cultural inheritance, it serves as a complete and viable system of economics, communal labor, collective decision-making, education, warfare, science, cosmovision, arts, food, and law. It is a complete ideological system based on equality and respect that was developed through the greatness of OUR ancestors and which reflects OUR cultural inheritance. Yankwik Mexikayotl eliminates the need to attach ourselves to foreign concepts and ideologies such as capitalism, Communism, Marxism, socialism, and anarchism – no matter how “revolutionary” they may claim to be.
Yankwik Mexikayotl can serve as a powerful tool of decolonization and empowerment, as it allows those who do not know which specific pueblo they come from to embrace an Indigenous identity and partake in the struggle for our land, liberty and cultural survival from an Indigenous point of view. Unfortunately, many of our people have been disconnected from their indigenous cultural inheritance as a result of 500+ years of colonialism and anti-Mexican racism. The Mexikah identity provides a way of escaping this condition. Also, those who follow Yankwik Mexikayotl do not look down upon those who may be of mixed biological background.
The concepts of “Mestizaje” and the “Mestizo” (literally, “the mixture” and “the mixed”) are inventions of European colonizers who sought a way to divide the Indigenous people of Mesoamerica into groups of “full-blood” and “mixed-blood” native people, with social privilege determined by degrees of whiteness. The European notion of white supremacy that arrived with the Spanish was codified in the Sistema de Castas, which established a racial hierarchy with Spaniards on top, followed by Creoles (Spaniards born in Mexico), Mestizos, and natives on the bottom. The introduction of African slaves contributed to this already convoluted racist system of castes that, unfortunately, many in Mexico still cling to. Following the Mexican Revolution, the “Mestizo” was championed as a source of Mexican national identity by Jose Vasconcelos, the Secretary of Public Education . While Vasconcelos’ position of authority gave his views the veneer of legitimacy, he was a Nazi sympathizer who sought to inject his own brand of racial supremacy into the Mexican psyche . In his book “La Raza Cosmica,” Vasconcelos drove home his view of Indigenous people as being inherently backward when he wrote “The Indian has no other door to the future but the door of modern culture, nor any other road but the road already cleared by Latin civilization”  Sadly, the destructively racist concept of the “Mestizo” continues to be popularized among Chicanos and Mexicanos alike. Yankwik Mexikayotl soundly rejects the “Mestizo” concept as a racist, paternalistic, and divisive tool of internal colonization.
Finally, it should be noted that Yankwik Mexikayotl and the Mexikah identity are not to be confused with Indigenismo. In fact Yankwik Mexikayotl can be seen as the ultimate rejection of Indigenismo. Initiated in the early twentieth Century in Mexico, Indigenismo is an oppressive ideology led by paternalistic non-Natives who desire to “improve” the lives of their countries’ Indigenous people by assimilating them into the “national culture.” Under Indigenismo, the slogan “Mexicanize Indians, don’t Indianize Mexico”  was popularized. In his book “Indigenismo,” Author Jorge Alejandro Ovando Sanz wrote “Indigenismo is the theory of members of the Latin American oligarchy to stop and repress the indigenous peoples’ liberation movement” . This anti-Indigenismo sentiment is echoed in the declaration of the Second Conference of Indian Nations and Organizations of South America in Tiwanaku, Bolivia, in 1983. Those at the conference stated, “Indigenismo must be rejected because it corresponds to the ideology of oppression” . While Indigenismo stems from a racist non-Native perspective, Yankwik Mexikayotl remains a movement which comes FROM Indigenous people and which seeks to serve the interests OF Indigenous people in regards to decolonization and liberation. The fact that such critics enthusiastically accept the racist / colonialist philosophy of “mestizaje” as a legitimate source of self-identification only exemplifies just how badly a movement like Yankwik Mexikayotl is needed.
It is my belief that by engaging in Yankwik Mexikayotl, we can help undo the destructive effects of colonialism and racism, and work towards a society based on freedom, equality and respect. Towards a society in which we can live with dignity and honor – where our cultural inheritance is valued in every aspect of our daily lives. It is this very struggle that I have dedicated myself to, and it is for this reason that I proudly declare: Nimexikatl!!! I am Mexikatl!!!
Artwork courtesy of Lalo Alcaraz
Interested in learning more? Check out my book “Our Slippery Earth: Nawa Philosophy in the Modern Age” available on Amazon.com. In it, I discuss basic themes of Nawa philosophy, and how these themes can be practiced in the modern age.
Kurly Tlapoyawa is an archaeologist, author, and ethnohistorian. His research focuses primarily on the interaction between Mesoamerica, Western Mexico, and the American Southwest. Kurly has lectured at UNLV, University of Houston, and Yale University on topics related to Mesoamerica. His recent book, “Our Slippery Earth: Nawa Philosophy in the Modern Age” was published in 2017. In addition to his work in Archaeology and Ethnohistory, Kurly is a professional stuntman with over 35 credits to his name.
Follow Kurly on twitter @KurlyTlapoyawa
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