IN SEARCH OF AZTLÁN
Dr. Fermin Herrera Interview
July 31, 1999
Q: What is a codex?
A: In my twenty-five or so years experience of
teaching Nahuatl, [that question] frequently arises. Very simply a codex
is any ancient manuscript. In the case of Mexico and Central America,
there are two types of codices. The first type is the amochtli, which
is a book written in indigenous, hieroglyphic script, and the other type
of codex is a manuscript that is transcribed in Latin letters but that
reflects a Meso-American or indigenous language. So that in the case of
the hieroglyphic kind of document we have one called the Codex Boturini,
which talks about the migration of the Aztecs or Mexica, from their homeland,
which is identified as Aztlán. We also have, in the second category,
a very important document known as the Florentine Codex, which is a vast
compilation that talks about the lifestyle, the culture, of the people
of the valley of Mexico, and it is transcribed in Latin letters, but it
is actually written in the Nahuatl language.
Q: What is the meaning of the words "Aztlán" and "chicomoztoc,"
and what do they tell us about where we should be searching for Aztlán?
A: The word "Aztlán" literally
means "land of or place of wings." The
suffix t-l-a-n or "tlan" in the Aztec language means land
of and A-z is the root of the word for "wings."
Aztlán being the land of wings, would suggest that there were birds
in that area. Now Aztlán can possibly be, also, a deformation of
the word "aztaclán," which would mean something like
the land of the herons. Or storks. That also would reinforce the idea
that we are talking about an area where there were many birds. Finally,
we can say that with regard to Aztlán, it could also be a deformation
of the word "aztsalán" which means "in the middle
of the water." In this case, it would reinforce the idea that Aztlán
was actually an island, that is, a place surrounded by water.
The meaning of the word chicomoztoc is literally place
of the seven caves. With regard to any metaphoric extension of these
words, we might say that chicomoztoc could refer, perhaps, to the origin
of seven peoples, because the term "cave" or "otot"
in Nahuatl is often used as a metaphor for the womb, that is, for "origin."
[This] could be a reference to the point of origin of seven groups, or
at least the meeting place of seven groups, [perhaps meaning] seven populations
that had a common ground from which they migrated into the valley of Mexico.
Q: If you could reiterate then, based on this language, what might you
be looking for in terms of a site?
A: Based on the linguistic analysis of the name "Aztlán,"
if we were to ask "where could we find Aztlán?" I would
suggest that it could be an island. Second, an island where there are
a lot of birds. We do know from documentary evidence, specifically in
the Codex Boturini, that Aztlán was an island. That, of course,
is corroborated by the meaning of the word itself.
Q: Could you talk about what the Codex Boturini tells us about when these
migrations to Mexico City might have occurred?
A: With regard to the migration of the Aztecs or the Mexica into the Valley
of Mexico, if we examine the Codex Boturini, and if we correlate the date
given there with the Christian calendar, that were talking about,
perhaps, 1116 A.D. Thats a rough estimate, for the departure date.
Now, the Boturini states very clearly that they did not have a straight
path into the Valley of Mexico, but rather, that they zigzagged. They
went southward, then stopped there for a period of five to ten years,
then they went, went eastward, and then southward again then westward,
northward, and it took them, perhaps, Id say, about a hundred fifty
years to reach the Valley of Mexico. Its difficult to pinpoint the
actual settlement of these Aztecs, the traditional date that has been
accepted for a very long time is 1325 A.D. Thats been disputed by
some researchers, who claim that 1345 might be more appropriate. The latest
date I think that is plausible is 1369. But lets take the traditional
one, 1325 A.D. That would be the settlement of Mexico-Tenochtitlán
by these people called Aztecs. And let me point out that prior to their
settlement in this capital city, they called themselves, simply, "Mexitín"
which means "followers of Mexicli," who was a cultural hero
of theirs. They also called themselves Azteca, which means "people
from Aztlán." After their settlement, then they called themselves
people of Mexico, in other words, "Mexica."
Q: What evidence is there of inter-group communication between the native
people of the Valley of Mexico and the American Southwest?
A: There was a great deal of interaction between the peoples of the Valley
of Mexico and those in the Southwest. After all, were talking about
a common territory, despite the fact that now we have international borders.
If we go back to the period before the arrival of the Spaniards, first
of all, we see linguistic evidence, of course, [that] indigenous languages
of the Valley of Mexico, northern Mexico, and the American Southwest are
related. The Uto-Azteca language includes languages from the Southwest,
languages spoken in Utah, Shoshone, languages spoken in Mexico, such as
Yaqui, and Nahuatl. In addition, the diffusion of agriculture, the practice
of cultivating corn and beans and so forth, was a common bond that existed
between this entire population, so we can see clear evidence of interaction
there. In addition, [there is] the ball court, the game that was so popular
in Meso-America. We find evidence of that in northern Mexico and the American
Southwest, as well. We have to keep in mind that the merchants of the
Valley of Mexico had these vast trading networks in which they traded
goods from Meso-America for those from northern Mexico and the American
Southwest. Items such as turquoise, cotton, and so forth. We can go on
and on with examples, but I think that its very clear that there
was constant communication, interaction, between the population south
of the current Mexican-U.S. border, and north.
Q: Some maps indicate that Aztlán was quite far north. Could you
A: Based on [the] codices, I would say that there is a distinct possibility
that there was not one
Aztlán, but, rather, several. As a matter of fact, if you move
farther south, there is a possibility that there might have been another
Aztlán called Michoacan, which means place of the humming
bird. The humming bird, which was so important to the Aztecs, was
not very prominent in the Valley of Mexico, but was pervasive in the area
If we venture father north, I think that the possibilities are very exciting
and tantalizing considering the existence of maps that identify sites
of the American Southwest as perhaps earlier Aztláns. Considering
the linguistic unity that existed, there is every possibility that an
earlier Aztlán might have been situated somewhere in the American