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The Aztecs and Their Descendants in the Contemporary World

Abstract and Keywords

Attempts on the part of contemporary people to trace their descent from the ancient Aztecs is fraught with difficulties and uncertainty due to historical factors, the volatile nature of the empire itself, Spanish and later Mexican policies, common use of the Nahuatl language, and cataclysms such as devastating population declines that have befallen Mesoamerica over the past 500 years. This chapter discusses confusions in use of the term Aztecs, challenges in tracing the genealogical descendants of the Triple Alliance and concepts of ethnicity, and ethnogenesis and indigenismo and their complexities. However, ethnographic research has shown that many beliefs and practices found in ancient Aztec culture are shared among indigenous people today. Rather than being direct cultural descendants of the Aztecs, it is probable that groups both modern and ancient partake of common Mesoamerican traditions of great antiquity that are widespread throughout the region.

Keywords: Nahua, Nahuatl, Triple Alliance, ethnicity, ethnogenesis, indigenismo

Introduction to the Problem of Tracing Descent

Tracing contemporary genealogical descendants of the ancient Aztec Empire (or, more accurately, the Triple Alliance) appears on the surface to be a straightforward task, easily accomplished by consulting historical documents and ethnographic reports, compiling demographic data, mapping population distributions, and interviewing people about their ancestry. In reality, determining what happened to the people of the Triple Alliance following the empire’s collapse in 1521 is a problem of immense complexity that strikes at the heart of current crises in historiography and social science. Ascertaining descent implicates powerful contemporary struggles surrounding questions of ethnicity, the concept of culture, migration policy, and the role of art in identity politics. Despite these difficulties, it is a fact that Aztec culture is not dead—far from it. Perhaps most remarkable of all, given the tumultuous history of Mesoamerica, is the reality that many contemporary peoples continue to exhibit cultural patterns shared by the Aztecs that are deeply rooted in the prehispanic past. The persistence of these patterns amid some of the most cataclysmic changes experienced by a people anywhere teach us that culture is resilient, adaptable, and far from ephemeral.

Use of the Name Aztec

Use of the name Aztec to describe the Triple Alliance creates from the start a false impression. The designation was popularized 300 years after the conquest by (p. 708) Alexander von Humboldt in the early nineteenth century, and many writers have pointed out that it has been applied ambiguously over the years (López Austin 2001:68). Aztec was not used as an ethnonym historically by the people of the Triple Alliance, or by anyone else for that matter. It derives from the name of the probably mythical homeland Aztlán, from which several ethnic groups who inhabited the Valley of Mexico at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards traced their origins (Lint-Sagarena 2001). The people who came to be labeled “Aztecs” in the published literature belonged to one of the three kingdoms comprising the Triple Alliance. Subjects of this kingdom called themselves Mexica to distinguish their group from others in the region and from inhabitants of the imperial kingdoms that were their allies. Adding to the confusion, Aztec has been applied by writers over the years to many different contemporary groups in Highland Mesoamerica. Furthermore, as discussed in this chapter, the term implies a coherence and central organization of the Triple Alliance that did not exist.

Nahuatl Language and the Nahua

Aztec has also been applied to Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Mexica and their imperial allies. This usage, too, is imprecise and confusing. Many people throughout Mesoamerica spoke the language, but not all of them were participants in the Triple Alliance. The Tlaxcalans, for example, were traditional enemies of the Triple Alliance, and yet they spoke Nahuatl. To avoid confusion, anthropologists call speakers of Nahuatl (or the related Nahuat dialect) the Nahua, and they are careful to point out that the Aztecs were simply one group of Nahua, among many (Taggart 2001). As a consequence of the power and extent of the empire, Nahuatl was becoming the lingua franca for the region by the time of the arrival of the Spaniards. It is likely that many people included in the empire were multilingual, speaking Nahuatl along with their own language and other languages of neighboring groups. In some communities, Nahuatl came to replace the predominant local languages. Largely due its imperial connections, Nahuatl continues to be the most widely spoken indigenous language in Mexico (Kaufman 1994:34). In sum, the fact that a certain group of people today speak Nahuatl does not necessarily confirm that they are descendants of the original members of the Triple Alliance.

Characterizing the Triple Alliance

The nature, structure, and history of the Triple Alliance constitute major obstacles in identifying its direct descendants today. The empire was centered in the Basin of Mexico, and over a period of about 100 years beginning in 1428, its power and influence spread (p. 709) over a large area of central Mexico, eventually reaching both Pacific and Gulf coasts (Berdan et al. 1996; Carrasco 2001). Power was divided among three constituent kingdoms, each representing an ethnic group with its own urban center, territorial domain, and ruler (tlatoani). The three major cities were Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. Each kingdom had specific tasks to perform in running the empire, but the alliance came to be dominated by the Mexica, the ethnic group that ruled over Tenochtitlan and the nearby city of Tlatelolco. Despite their superordinate position, the Mexica actually occupied only a tiny slice of the Valley of Mexico and relied on intimidation and military force to exercise control over vast conquered territories, expand the empire, and extract tribute from the people they ruled (Gibson 1964:20). Subordinate to the three monarchs were lesser rulers of territories, towns (sing.: altepetl), and neighborhoods within towns (sing.: calpulli). In the Basin of Mexico alone there were at least 27 ethnic groups dispersed among the towns (Hicks 2001a), led by some 50 lesser rulers (also tlatoani [sing.]) (Gibson 1964:34). Ethnic group affiliation, however, was not the primary focus of identity for people in the empire, nor was social class (or estate, in the class-like system) (Hicks 2001b). During prehispanic times, the calpulli was the center of social life, while the altepetl of which it was a part was the primary basis for individual and group identity (Berdan 2008:108–110). This is not to say, however, that ethnicity was unimportant. At no time did the Triple Alliance try to eliminate ethnic diversity, and, in fact, some of its policies encouraged identity based on ethnic group affiliation (Gibson 1964:22).

Political Structure and Identity

Most Triple Alliance towns (and certainly the capital cities themselves) were multiethnic in composition (Umberger 2008). For the majority of people, it was the altepetl that provided access to land for farming, protection from external threat, and lines of communication to the imperial political hierarchy. Despite their importance, towns throughout the empire were characterized by a high degree of instability with incessant wars waged among the leaders as they maneuvered to gain advantage over one another. Internal disputes flared on occasion as residents of each calpulli fought over access to resources. Not infrequently, nomadic and seminomadic peoples moved into settled territories, stirring hostilities. And the shifting of people and families from one locale to another to evade danger or exploit economic opportunities must have been common and surely disruptive to local farmers and town dwellers. War and famines were frequent during the period, creating large displaced populations (Berdan 2008:108). At the same time, the inhabitants of hundreds of towns throughout the conquered territories labored under the yoke of imperial oppression. Millions of subjects were forced to produce and transport articles of tribute to the towns and capitals (Berdan and Anawalt 1997). Instability characterized the empire, resistance was met with violence, rebellions were common in the conquered territories, and only force (or the threat of force) kept the system together. (p. 710)

By contemporary standards, the Triple Alliance appears to have been volatile and chaotic. With its unstable political structure, shifting populations, and lack of emphasis on ethnic solidarity, it is not surprising that identifying descendants of the Aztecs today is highly problematic. Should we count as a descendant anyone who can trace their ancestors to one of the three city kingdoms of the Triple Alliance, or should we instead restrict our criteria to include only the Mexica? Surely many of the people living in the three capitals did not identify as bona fide members of the empire. And should our focus be only on the Mexica who lived in a very restricted area of the Valley of Mexico centered on the imperial capital, Tenochtitlan, and its sister city, Tlatelolco? Presumably we should not, because there were numbers of people, including soldiers, merchants, and government officials, who lived outside of the imperial capitals in the conquered territories but who identified as Mexica.

Post-Conquest Demographic Collapse

Tracing descent from the Triple Alliance to modern-day peoples is complicated by yet another historical factor that constitutes one of the greatest disasters in all human history (see Márquez Morfín and Storey this volume). Following the dissolution of the empire in 1521, Spanish colonial policies and a series of epidemics caused the deaths of millions of people throughout Mesoamerica. We know that smallpox swept rapidly through the capital of Tenochtitlan during the Spanish siege of the city (Davies 1980 [1973]:273), with major epidemics of contagious diseases occurring in 1545–1548, 1576–1581, and 1736–1739 (Gibson 1964:137). The loss of human life was staggering, and subsequent social disorganization must have been severe. Peter Gerhard (1972:23–24) estimates that, of the 22 million people in the empire at its height, fewer than 1 million people survived the decades after the Conquest. Charles Gibson (1964:141) estimates that a population base of 1.5 million people living in the Valley of Mexico at the height of the empire had declined to 70,000 by 1650, the year of the lowest point of decline. We have no evidence about which groups survived or who were among those least affected by the disaster and consequently left descendants to carry on.

Colonial Policies and Identity

Spanish governmental programs further alienated subject populations from their own history, adding to the difficulties of accounting for their genealogical descendants. Anthropologist Edward Spicer showed that Spanish colonial (and later Mexican) (p. 711) policy aimed to remove people from their ancestral land, gather them into new communities, and then, under direction of missionaries and other representatives of the dominant culture, ease the entire community into the local version of European society. Spanish ranchers and hacienda owners recruited labor from these communities, and mixed populations of indigenous people became the major workforce in the national economy. At the same time, nonindigenous people were allowed by law to settle in indigenous territories, and over time they also mixed with the local population. The result of these colonial policies is that individual tribal and ethnic group identity never developed (to the extent that it did among indigenous populations in the United States), while nondifferentiated Indian identity persisted (Spicer 1962:463ff, 567ff). Spicer (1962:573) described this process as one of suspended assimilation. In place of a strong identity with a particular ethnic group, people continued the prehispanic pattern of directing their loyalty to the local community with its indigenous customs, language, and style of living. Ironically, Spanish policies designed to promote assimilation led to a generalized indigenous identity that is often in deliberate opposition to cultural patterns of the Hispanic elites (Sandstrom 2008). In sum, because links to their own history have been interrupted, the identification that contemporary indigenous people have with their own ethnic group is relatively undeveloped and weakened.

Establishing the ethnic identity of contemporary descendants of the Triple Alliance is further complicated by additional sixteenth-century colonial policies developed to establish and maintain order in New Spain. The initial plan of the conquerors was to keep much of the prehispanic political system in place, while Spaniards were to occupy the elite positions in the hierarchy. Spanish authorities thus recognized the indigenous nobility and accorded them privileges in the colonial system that were denied to the average person. Indigenous nobles were allowed to continue collecting tribute from their subjects, and many of the ancient sumptuary laws were maintained. A study of Nahua living in the Valley of Puebla by ethnohistorian John Chance (2008) shows that descendants of the original indigenous nobility expended considerable effort to convince Spanish authorities that they were the rightful heirs to positions of privilege in their respective communities. It can be assumed that the people in the Valley of Mexico and throughout the empire engaged in similar behavior following the Conquest. Chance reveals how strategies used by people aspiring to noble status changed over time to meet evolving conditions, causing the nature of Nahua ethnic identity to shift. Heirs provided documents, often of questionable accuracy, to Spanish courts purporting to trace their ancestry back to the original founders of a community and to noble lines that derived from them. This documentary evidence further complicates efforts to link descendants of the Triple Alliance to people today. However, there is at least one possible exception to these general statements. Following the Conquest, certain people were able to demonstrate their genealogical links the highest ranked prehispanic nobility. Some of the descendants of these ancient indigenous elites are important members of today’s Mexican aristocracy (Nutini 1995). (p. 712)

Continuities and Discontinuities in Modern Mexico

As a product of colonialism, New Spain was composed of regions that were ecologically diverse, widely separated, and had little in common with each other. While indigenous people of Mexico shared certain common traditions, they had distinct histories and spoke more than 100 different languages. A few years after the war of independence from Spain (1810–1821), Mexico lost much of its territory to the United States and in the following decades was devastated by the revolution that gave birth to the modern nation. After the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), government officials, artists, and writers embarked on a program of indigenismo to fashion a national identity for the nation. The fundamental strategy involved glorifying the Native American past of the country paying special attention to the Aztecs and, to a lesser extent, the Maya. The Triple Alliance and Maya civilizations were exalted in books, paintings and public murals, movies, dance, school curricula, and advertising, while Spaniards, represented by the figure of Hernán Cortés, were vilified and defined as imperialist usurpers. Indigenismo has undergone a complex history, but in its original conception, contemporary Indians were seen as a hindrance to modernization and economic progress (Barnet-Sanchez 2001:42–44). As a result of this effort at creating a national identity, many contemporary indigenous people in Mexico with no direct link to the Triple Alliance now claim to be descendants of the ancient Aztecs.

Survival of Cultural Antecedents

In the early 1930s, French historian Robert Ricard (1966[1933]) published a history of the Catholic Church’s activities in Mexico beginning in the sixteenth century, titled in English The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico. Ricard claimed that in the areas where missionaries worked most intensely, such as the Central Highlands, the local populations cast off their ancient pagan religious beliefs and practices and embraced Christianity wholeheartedly. He was writing to counter the work of Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio, who had concluded that contemporary religion among indigenous people in Mexico was a syncretic blend of Spanish Catholicism and the prehispanic traditions. Scholars have known for years that aspects of the ancient traditions had survived the Conquest based on court proceedings and the testimony of Spanish chroniclers such as Ruíz de Alarcón (1984[1629]; Taggart 2001). Idolaters who were discovered in possession of ritual paraphernalia or conducting pagan rituals were brought before judges and their cases entered in court records. Ricard (1966[1933]:275ff) states that the heterodox beliefs and practices revealed in (p. 713) the documents can be explained in a number of ways: as reflecting various European origins, as the result of ignorance or errors perpetrated in missionary teachings, or as a product of what he termed “psychology,” presumably the unconscious predispositions of native adherents to the old ways. He claimed that they do not, in any case, trace to prehispanic religious belief and worldview. However, in 1960, ethnographer William Madsen (1969[1960]) published a study of folk religion, The Virgin’s Children: Life in an Aztec Village Today, focusing on the community of Tecospa, then outside of Mexico City and now completely surrounded by urban development. Madsen found, contrary to Ricard’s conclusions, that many elements of beliefs, myths, and ritual practices survived from the days of the Aztecs (Stresser-Péan 2009 [2005]:546). He shows that although we cannot be certain that the people of Tecospa were the direct descendants of the Mexica or the other ethnic groups at the head of the Triple Alliance, elements of the ancient culture in the imperial heartland had most definitely persisted into modern times.

Ethnography at the Margins of Mesoamerica

Additional ethnographic research in the highlands of Mesoamerica and on the periphery of the culture area has repeatedly affirmed Madsen’s findings. Ethnographers reporting on indigenous communities, located at the margins of Mesoamerica, including Guerrero (Broda and Good 2004; Dehouve 1974), the Huasteca Veracruzana (Gómez Martínez 2002; Sandstrom 1991), Nayarit (Furst and Schaeffer 1996; Neurath 2002), Oaxaca (Lipp 1991; Monaghan 1995), the Sierra de Puebla (Dow 1986; Ichon 1973 [1969]; Taggart 1997), Tlaxcala (Nutini 1968), as well as the Maya region (Vogt 1976) present copious evidence that ancient traditions and beliefs, although modified by time and distance, are still at the center of many people’s lives. As Ricard (1966 [1933]:280–281) admitted, the greatest survival of Native American traditions has been in the regions furthest removed from direct Spanish influence. These areas for the most part were never urbanized and thus lack documents from the early chroniclers. The Spaniards were little interested in recording traditions from the empire’s rural areas that contained fewer valuable minerals or trade goods and also lacked sufficient populations as sources of labor. It is in the realms of language and religion that the ancient beliefs are easiest to detect. Many of the religious beliefs, myths and oral histories, and ritual practices documented by anthropologists in these remote regions probably did not derive directly from urban centers. They undoubtedly originated instead from a time predating the appearance of cities and empires in the highlands. Ancient Mesoamerican traditions forged over the millennia and persisting today in small villages throughout the periphery likely provided the fundamental substrate upon which (p. 714) sophisticated urban dwellers and founders of empire elaborated their religious systems in the service of the emerging state.

Nahuas of the Huasteca and Cultural Continuity

An excellent case in point is the Nahua of the southern Huasteca, who live outside of the highlands in one of the most indigenous regions of Mexico. The people living in rural communities speak Nahuatl in everyday communication and call themselves Mexica, but whether they represent actual descendants of the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico is difficult to prove (although Nahua from the Triple Alliance moved into the region prior to the coming of the Europeans) (Berdan, et al. 1996:291–293; Berdan and Anawalt 1997:131–141; Provost 1975:28–29). The Huastecan Nahua have also undergone a traumatic history, and their culture has undergone dramatic change over the centuries. What is clear, however, is that Nahua religious beliefs and rituals, as well as other aspects of their social life and customs, are rooted in the ancient traditions of Mesoamerica. A brief enumeration of beliefs and ritual practices illustrates the case for cultural continuity: a pantheistic religion (alien to Christianity), based on a single, sacred animating principle; a pantheon of spirit entities or aspects of the sacred principle that overlap with that recorded among the sixteenth-century Mexica, including spirits or personifications of water, clouds, rain, earth, sacred hills, sun, seeds, fire, death, and a host of underworld figures; belief in transforming sorcerers and disease-causing winds; extensive use of ritual paper-cutting involving the sprinkling of animal blood on paper images of the spirit entities, a practice specifically recorded among the Mexica by the chronicler Bernardino de Sahagún (1950–1969[1575–1580?], Part 10, Book 9:9–11); use of copal incense, flowers, cornmeal, and tobacco as offerings; elaborate pilgrimages to sacred mountains, caves, springs, and geographic anomalies; a well-developed cycle of myths that overlap significantly with those recorded in the sixteenth century; ritual observances tied to the calendrical cycle, which feature sacred music, dancing, chanting, spirit possession by male and female ritual specialists called people of knowledge, and construction of elaborate altars. The listing of religious beliefs and practices could be extended indefinitely and matched with cultural information recorded among the Mexica in Tenochtitlan; very few of these elements were introduced by the conquering Spaniards. What is impossible to determine from the historical records is whether the Nahua of the southern Huasteca inherited their religion from the ancient Mexica of the Valley of Mexico, or whether both religions simply partake of an older, widespread Pan-Mesoamerican tradition. In favor of the latter explanation, non-Nahua people in in the Huasteca region such as Otomí and Tepehua also exhibit these features in their beliefs and rituals. (p. 715)

Understanding Pan-Mesoamerican Religious Beliefs and Practices

Because the cultures of Mesoamerica are historically related and so intertwined, anthropologists and other researchers are wise to compare religious beliefs and practices among contemporary people with those recorded among the Mexica in the sixteenth century. The ancient religion has been well documented by the chroniclers, and their writings are sources of insight that aid in interpreting modern ethnographic data. Study of indigenous peoples today can likewise be an invaluable resource for ethnohistorians working to better understand these ancient cultures. Of course, such comparisons must be undertaken with great care. Furthermore, if there is historical evidence that people of the Triple Alliance occupied a given region, it appears legitimate to call their Nahua descendants living in the same region by the equivocal term Aztec. This practice is commonly used by researchers (e.g., Madsen 1969; Sandstrom 1991) and should not be a source of confusion for readers.

Aztec Historiography and Ethnography

Many Mexicans today identify very strongly with the Aztecs regardless of the ambiguous nature of that designation. They consider themselves descendants of the Aztec Empire, an identity that separates them from Spain and the rest of Europe and gives their nation a unique character. The federal government spends large sums in excavating Aztec archaeological sites almost as a sacred mission, the entire country is saturated with Aztec symbols, and children are taught to be proud of their Native American heritage. Aztec identity has spread beyond the border and has been taken up in the United States by Chicanos who proclaim that the American Southwest is the site of Aztlán, the mythic Aztec homeland (Fields and Zamudio-Taylor 2001). Half a millennium separates people today from the people of the Triple Alliance, who can be credited with founding the largest empire in the New World. But, as we have seen, history ultimately fails us when it comes to identifying their descendants in the contemporary world. The documentary record yields no clear answers. Ethnography—with its focus on culture—serves us better. While history records discontinuities, ethnography reveals continuities with the past. Ethnography may not connect the people of the sixteenth century with specific people living today through genealogical links, but it can show that Mexica of the Triple Alliance and contemporary Nahua (and other Native American groups as well) partake of a common prehispanic Mesoamerican cultural system tracing back thousands of years. It is testimony to the power of culture to survive and thrive under seemingly hopeless circumstances, given the devastating events that have befallen the people of this world region since the sixteenth (p. 716) century and that continue today in the struggle over indigenous people’s rights to define their own identity and intellectual property (e.g., see Lupo 1998).

Ethnogenesis and the Creation of an Aztec Identity

Ethnic identity is now seen by many anthropologists as actively created by local people who find it in their interest to separate themselves from other groups in the society. In this view, identity is much more that simply a dead inheritance from the past (Stark and Chance 2008). A common term for this process is ethnogenesis—the creation of ethnic difference (Sandstrom 2008:150). Although biological relationships are commonly invoked in explaining ethnic difference, the sharing of biological substance among people is unrelated to ethnicity. For people engaged in ethnogenesis, what matters is the creation of difference from other groups, not historical accuracy or biological relatedness. Many markers of ethnic groups throughout the world have no historical salience. From this perspective we can see that the inability of contemporary people to trace genealogical links to the Aztecs does not invalidate the creation of Aztec identity. Ethnic difference is closely related to cultural difference, and herein lies a dilemma for social science. Culture increasingly appears to be contingent, based on opposition with other systems, founded on people’s self-interest, and constantly in process—not the complex whole in its original modern definition by Edward B. Tylor (1871) in his classic work Primitive Culture. At the same time, all cultural and ethnic identities are authentic in that they provide meaning for people regardless of whether they are based on historical or biological facts. We require far more sophisticated theories to account for such a complex social phenomenon as ethnogenesis.

Authentic Descendants of the Aztec Empire

Who are the contemporary descendants of the Aztec Empire? Just as the historical Aztecs have receded into the mists of time, their authentic descendants are the people who invoke them in the creation of their own identity. They are to be found in Native American villages throughout Mexico, where people may or may not call themselves Mexica but have used their historical legacy to forge identities in opposition to the dominant Hispanic culture. They can be found among the Mexican citizens migrating to the United States and other countries in search of work, in the Chicano populations in the new Aztlán of the American West whose art celebrates their links to prehispanic civilizations, and anywhere people locate their identity in the historical legacy of ancient (p. 717) Highland Mesoamerica. The Aztecs and their descendants are very much a part of the contemporary world.

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