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The seven caves of Chicomoztoc, from Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca

Aztlán (Spanish pronunciation: [asˈtlan], from Nahuatl: Aztlān, pronounced [ˈastɬaːn]) is the legendary ancestral home of the Nahua peoples, one of the main cultural groups in Mesoamerica. Aztec is the Nahuatl word for "people from Aztlan".



Nahuatl legends relate that seven tribes lived in Chicomoztoc, or "the place of the seven caves". Each cave represented a different Nahua group: the Xochimilca, Tlahuica, Acolhua, Tlaxcalan, Tepaneca, Chalca, and Mexica. Because of a common linguistic origin, those groups also are called "Nahuatlaca" (Nahua people). These tribes subsequently left the caves and settled "near" Aztlán, or Aztatlan.

The various descriptions of Aztlán are seemingly contradictory. While some legends describe Aztlán as a paradise, the Aubin Codex says that the Aztecs were subject to a tyrannical elite called the Azteca Chicomoztoca. Guided by their priest, the Aztec fled, and, on the road, their god Huitzilopochtli forbade them to call themselves Azteca, telling them that they should be known as Mexica. Ironically, scholars of the 19th century—in particular, William H. Prescott—would name them Aztec.

The role of Aztlán is slightly less important to Aztec legendary histories than the migration to Tenochtitlán itself. According to the legend, the southward migration began on May 24, 1064 CE; 1064 is also the year of a volcanic explosion at Sunset Crater in Arizona and the first Aztec solar year, beginning on May 24, after the Crab Nebula events from May to July of 1054. Each of the seven groups is credited with founding a different major city-state in Central Mexico. The city-states reputed to have an Aztec foundation were:

These city-states formed during the Late Postclassic period of Mesoamerican chronology (ca. 1300–1521 CE).

According to Aztec legends, the Mexica were the last tribe to emigrate. When they arrived at their ancestral homeland, the present-day Valley of Mexico, all available land had been taken, and they were forced to squat on the edge of Lake Texcoco.

After the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the story of Aztlán gained importance and was reported by Fray Diego Durán in 1581 and others to be a kind of Eden-like paradise, free of disease and death, which existed somewhere in the far north. These stories helped fuel Spanish expeditions to what is now the American state of California.

Places postulated as Aztlán

Depiction of the departure from Aztlán in the 16th-century Codex Boturini

While Aztlán has many trappings of myth, similar to Tamoanchan, Chicomoztoc, Tollan and Cibola, archaeologists have nonetheless attempted to identify the geographic place of origin for the Mexica.

The name of Aztalan, Wisconsin (a Mississippian site), was proposed by N. F. Hyer in 1837, because he thought it might have been Aztlán, following a suggested etymology of Aztatlan by Alexander von Humboldt. This is outdated information with modern scholarship's matching of chroniclers' accounts taken in Tenochtitlan directly after the Spanish conquest.

There is a lake around Cerro Culiacan, Lake Yuriria, that makes the mountain look very much like an island when photographed from the water, and similar to the illustration at right.

In the mid-19th century, fringe theorist Ignatius L. Donnelly, in his book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, sought to establish a connection between Aztlán and the fabled "lost continent" of Atlantis of Greek mythology; Donnelly's views, however, have never been recognised as credible by mainstream scholarship.

In 1887, Mexican anthropologist Alfredo Chavero claimed that Aztlán was located on the Pacific coast in the state of Nayarit. While this was disputed by contemporary scholars, it achieved some popular acceptance. In the early 1980s, Mexican President José López Portillo suggested that Mexcaltitán, also in Nayarit, was the true location of Aztlán, but this was denounced by Mexican historians as a political move.[1] Even so, the state of Nayarit incorporated the symbol of Aztlán in its coat of arms with the legend "Nayarit, cradle of Mexicans". All kinds of new scholarly articles now prove this artificial claim to be a political ploy for increased tourism to this coastal area.

Eduardo Matos Moctezuma presumes Aztlán to be somewhere in the modern-day states of Guanajuato, Jalisco, and Michoacán[2]. Indeed, scholars are all consistent in naming the measures of "150 leagues" from Tenochtitlan that were documented by the Spanish scribes taking notes from conquered Mexica as the distance to the place of origin, coinciding in all ways at Chicomoztoc, "Cerro del Culiacan", which is indeed a humped mountain when seen from the south face.

It has also been proposed that the original site of Aztlán was the area around what is now Lake Powell. Part of the migration legend also describes a stay at Culhuacán ("leaning hill" or "curved hill"). Proponents of the Lake Powell theory equate this Culhuacán with the ancient home of the Anasazi at Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park.[3]

Primary sources

The primary sources for Aztlán are the Boturini Codex, the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, and the Aubin Codex. Aztlán is also mentioned in the History of Tlaxcala (by Diego Muñoz Camargo, a Tlaxcalan mestizo from the 17th century), as well as Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca.


The meaning of the name Aztlan is uncertain. One suggested meaning is "place of egrets"—the explanation given in the Crónica Mexicáyotl—but this is not possible under Nahuatl morphology: "place of egrets" would be Aztatlan.[4] Other proposed derivations include "place of whiteness"[5] and "at the place in the vicinity of tools", sharing the āz- element of words such as teponāztli, "drum" (from tepontli, "log").[6]

Aztlán [asˈtlan] is the Spanish language spelling and pronunciation of Nahuatl Aztlān [ˈas.tɬaːn]. The spelling Aztlán and its matching last-syllable stress cannot be Nahuatl, which always stresses words on the second-to-last syllable. The accent mark on the second a added in Spanish marks stress shift (from oxytone to paroxytone), typical of several Nahuatl words when loaned into Mexican Spanish.

Use by the Chicano movement

The unofficial flag of Aztlán, used by Chicano nationalists in San Diego and Denver during the Chicano movement

The concept of Aztlán as the place of origin of the pre-Columbian Mexican civilization has become a symbol for various Mexican nationalist and indigenous movements.

The name Aztlán was first taken up by a group of Chicano independence activists led by Oscar Zeta Acosta during the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s. They used the name Aztlán to refer to the lands of Northern Mexico that were annexed by the United States as a result of the Mexican-American War. Combined with the claim of some historical linguists and anthropologists that the original homeland of the Aztecan peoples was located in the southwestern United States, Aztlán, in this sense, became a symbol for mestizo activists who believe they have a legal and primordial right to the land. In order to exercise this right, some members of the Chicano movement propose that a new nation be created, the Republic of Aztlán.[7]

Groups who have used the name Aztlán in this manner include Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, "Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán"), and the Nation of Aztlán (NOA).

Many in the Chicano movement attribute poet Alurista for popularizing the term Aztlán in a poem presented during the Chicano Youth Liberation Conference in Denver, Colorado, in March 1969.[8]

Despite this, the idea of an Aztlan is opposed by the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic-American civil rights organization. The group has also stated that pro-Aztlan advocacy is outside the political mainstream of the modern Chicano movement.[9]

Cultural references

In fiction

Aztlán has been used as the name of speculative fictional future states that emerge in the southwest US or Mexico after the central US government suffers collapse or major setback; examples appear in such works as the novels Warday, The Peace War, The House of the Scorpion, and World War Z, as well as the role-playing game Shadowrun. In Gary Jennings' novel Aztec, the protagonist resides in Aztlan for a while, later facilitating contact between Aztlán and the Aztec Triple Alliance just before Hernán Cortés' arrival.

In Michael Flynn's alternate history story "The Forest of Time", Colorado is part of a nation-state called Nuevo Aztlán.

Thomas Pynchon refers to Aztlan as the "mythic ancestral home of the Mexican people" in Against the Day:

Hallucinatory country and cruel, not hard to understand that Mormons might have found it congenial enough to want to settle, but this is much older--Thirteenth Century anyway. There were perhaps tens of thousands of people back then, living all through that region, prosperous and creative, when suddenly, within one generation--overnight as these things go--they fled, in every appearance of panic terror, went up to the steepest cliffsides they could find and built as securely as they knew how defenses against...well, something.[10]

In non-fiction

In The Long Emergency, James Howard Kunstler speculates on the impact of peak oil on the "Aztlan" region of the United States (which he describes as a region encapsulating California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and parts of Colorado), describing the area as a site of initial political and violent conflict followed by depopulation as, without electricity, the desert area will be unable to maintain living conditions for humans.[11]

In music

Colombian heavy metal band Kraken mentions "the old Aztlán" as the place where the Aztek governors (Uey Tlatoani) reside, in the song "Méxica", from their albums Kraken IV: Piel de Cobre and Kraken Filarmónico. American rock band Los Lobos released an album titled Good Morning Aztlán in 2002.

Los Angeles-based Ozomatli penned a standout song on 2004's Street Signs in solidarity with the Chicano movement called "Santiago", alluding to Uncle Sam as "Santiago de Aztlán".


  1. ^ Jáuregui (2004)
  2. ^ Matos Moctezuma (1988, p.38)
  3. ^ Proponents of this nonstandard view include Antoon Vollemaere, a Belgian independent researcher and writer on ancient America. See Vollemaere (2000, §4 et. seq..)
  4. ^ Andrews (2003, p.496)
  5. ^ Andrews (2003, p.496)
  6. ^ Andrews (2003, pp. 496,616)
  7. ^ Professor Predicts 'Hispanic Homeland', Associated Press, 2000
  8. ^ Alurista biography on
  9. ^ National Council of La Raza (2007). "The Truth About NCLR: Reconquista and Segregation". Press release. Retrieved 2007-03-24.  
  10. ^ Quotation from Pynchon (2006, p.277).
  11. ^ Kunstler (2005, pp.275–279)


Andrews, J. Richard (2003). Introduction to Classical Nahuatl (revised ed.). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3452-6. OCLC 50090230.  
Clavigero, Francesco Saverio (1807) [1787]. The history of Mexico. Collected from Spanish and Mexican historians, from manuscripts, and ancient paintings of the Indians. Illustrated by charts, and other copper plates. To which are added, critical dissertations on the land, the animals, and inhabitants of Mexico, 2 vols.. Translated from the original Italian, by Charles Cullen, Esq. (2nd ed.). London: J. Johnson. OCLC 54014738.  
Jáuregui, Jesús (2004). "Mexcaltitán-Aztlán: un nuevo mito". Arqueología mexicana (México, D.F.: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Editorial Raíces) 12 (67): 56–61. ISSN 0188-8218. OCLC 29789840.   (Spanish)
Kunstler, James Howard (2005). The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 0871138883. OCLC 57452547.  
Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo (1988). The Great Temple of the Aztecs: Treasures of Tenochtitlan. New Aspects of Antiquity series. Doris Heyden (trans.). New York: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-39024-X. OCLC 17968786.  
Miller, Mary; and Karl Taube (1993). The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05068-6. OCLC 27667317.  
Prescott, William H. (1843) (online reproduction, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library). History of the Conquest of Mexico, with a Preliminary View of Ancient Mexican Civilization, and the Life of the Conqueror, Hernando Cortes. New York: Harper and Brothers. OCLC 2458166.  
Pynchon, Thomas (2006). Against the Day. New York: Penguin Press. ISBN 1-594-20120-X. OCLC 71173932.  
Smith, Michael E. (1984). "The Aztlan Migrations of Nahuatl Chronicles: Myth or History?" (PDF online facsimile). Ethnohistory (Columbus, OH: American Society for Ethnohistory) 31 (3): 153–186. doi:10.2307/482619. ISSN 0014-1801. OCLC 145142543.  
Smith, Michael E. (2003). The Aztecs (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-23015-7. OCLC 48579073.  
Vollemaere, Antoon Leon (2000). "Chimalma, first lady of the Aztecan migration in 1064" (PDF online publication). Sixth Gender and Archaeology Conference, October 6-7, 2000. Gender and Archaeology Across the Millennia: Long Vistas and Multiple Viewpoints (online collection of papers presented ed.). Flagstaff: Northern Arizona University, Department of Anthropology and Women's Studies. Retrieved 2007-12-28.  
Wilcox, David R.; and Don D. Fowler (Spring 2002). "The beginnings of anthropological archaeology in the North American Southwest: from Thomas Jefferson to the Pecos Conference" (unpaginated online reproduction by Gale/Cengage Learning). Journal of the Southwest (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, on behalf of The Southwest Center, U. of Arizona) 44 (2): 121–234. ISSN 0894-8410. OCLC 79456398.  

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