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Aztec (native of Aztlan) is a popular term widely used in Europe and the United States, but it is very imprecise. Although generally used in referring to the inhabitants of Mexico Tenochtitlan, it is usually broadened to include the inhabitants of the twin city, Mexico Tlatelolco. At other times it is used in referring to the Nahuatl-speaking groups of central Mexico and even to all the peoples in that region whether they spoke Nahuatl or not.

Strictly speaking, Aztec is a name for the inhabitants of a place called Aztlan, where the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco are said to have originated. But, as indicated by their own chronicles, when they left that location they changed their name to Mexica as commanded by their patron god, Huitzilopochtli. Furthermore, the other Nahua groups never used the term Aztec to refer to themselves, whereas those who inhabited Tenochtitlan called themselves Mexicas or Tenochas. So it is more correct to speak in general terms of Nahua groups when referring to all Nahuatl speakers of central Mexico and to use Mexica, Tenochca, or Tlatelolca, as applicable. This article will give preference to use of the term Mexica.


Since the late twentieth century, investigation into the historical development of the Mexica people has focused on understanding the significance that recounting their own past had for them rather than trying to establish the factual reality of the events involved. Accordingly it can be said that, for the Mexica, the story of their migration from Aztlan to their founding of Tenochtitlan and their subsequent military expansion to the height of their splendor was seen as the fulfillment of the promise that the god Huitzilopochtli had made to his people at the beginning of their history. The story says that the god Huitzilopochtli promised them that if they left Aztlan, they would ultimately gain fame, glory, untold wealth, and dominion over other peoples. In exchange, the Mexica were to devote a sumptuous religious cult to the deity and, particularly, to offer him human sacrifices. Wealth and power, plus the victims offered as human sacrifices, would be obtained through war. This was exactly the situation at the height of their splendor: a city receiving material resources as tribute from an extensive area of central Mexico.

This new understanding of the image that the Mexica themselves created for their reality as a hegemonic people in the Late Post-Classic period in Mesoamerica certainly sheds light on the issues involved in their response to the Spanish Conquest and the construction of the new colonial order of New Spain.


Studies of their economic, social, and political organization have been less prevalent in the early twenty-first century. Nevertheless, there have been important contributions, mainly with regard to the colonial period and fewer to the pre-Hispanic era. Focus has been given to the significant continuities between the Mesoamerican world and that of the early colonial period.

Certainly one of the greatest problems encountered in gaining knowledge of Mesoamerican societies in general and of Nahua society in particular has to do with the terminology that scholars have used. The problem begins with the Spanish writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who employed their own terms to describe the new situation they saw before them. They used a medieval language, compared very different institutions to each other, and made comparisons of social elements that were in principle quite distinct. This approach has a strong legacy for modern scholars, who continue to speak of kings and empires, of tributaries and slaves, of nobles and plebeians, solely because a sixteenth-century friar or conquistador thought that is what they were. However, neither can scholars simply resort to the expedient of using Nahuatl terms if they are not clearly explained and if their content and meaning are not well understood. The solution to this problem lies in a deep analysis of the Nahua categories of their own society and in the qualified and thoughtful use of a modern language.

These problems become evident with the extensive use in recent years of the Nahuatl term altépetl (alt meaning "water" and petl meaning "mountain"), when it is conceived of as a city-state governed by a monarch, an understanding that does not coincide with the majority of historiographic sources that use altépetl in referring to populations of highly diverse aspects, with different forms of government, from simple peasant farmer villages to enormous hegemonic metropolises. Furthermore, the chronicles give much more weight to the governing lineages of each locality than to the altépetl as political entities. Greater importance is also given to smaller units called calpulli (large houses) that were linked by kinship, engagement in a common economic activity, or worship of a particular god. It must be recognized that a full understanding of the basic structures of the social and political organization is still problematic, including that of the calpulli itself and such political structures as tlahtocáyotl (government of a tlatoani), tecuhcáyotl (government of a tecuhtli) and the largest political form we know of, the Triple Alliance or Excan Tlatoloyan (the triple seat of power).


Without a doubt, the most numerous and most published studies by far are those of the Mexica worldview and religion. Three conditions favor such studies, one of which is that there is more source information on these topics; another is that there has been a long series of studies on the subject since the nineteenth century. Some of the most eminent scholars who have studied the Mexica have devoted themselves specifically to the field of religious thought. The greatest contributions are in the general worldview and in the study of the mythology, particularly the works of Alfredo López Austin on the common source of Mesoamerica's religious structures and traditions.

The third condition favoring research on these topics lies in the studies of the archaeological reports on the Great Temple and the learned works based on traditional sources. Overall, there has been more study of the beliefs and myths of the Mexicas but very little of their religious institutions, so that the institutional foundations of the operation of the religious apparatus are still unclear. The natural foundations of Nahua religious beliefs have been studied by Gabriel Espinosa and Johanna Broda.


The study of Nahuatl literature has posed various problems from the beginning. The first is conceptual, since the etymological meaning of literature tends to the literal, to the written script, hardly applicable in principle to a cultural universe in which the recording forms were oral or pictographic. Consequently scholars have resorted to the concept of oral literature proposed from literary studies. According to this concept, any oral production with meaning is a text and can be considered literature. The second problem is the question of the literary genres applicable to that literature. The pioneer in these studies, Ángel María Garibay, was aware of the insufficiency of European literary genres in understanding and defining Nahuatl cultural phenomena but, for educational reasons, made constant use of them in his works.

Miguel León-Portilla, however, has reviewed the matter and taken a different position, critical of Garibay. This scholar proposes that there are two great genres: cuícatl (songs) and tlahtolli (discourses). Cuícatl is generally characterized as being a form of oral public expression accompanied by music, that is, these works were sung. The cuícatl were sung by individuals specially prepared for the task, such as priests and young cantors from the power group, who also composed them. Tlahtolli are described as a form of public oral expression without music, very similar to declamation or recitation. The tlahtolli were declaimed by individuals specially prepared for the task, generally elderly men, priests, and governors, who also composed them.


Study of the sources that provide the history and culture of the ancient Nahua in general and those of the Mexica in particular have been slowly receiving the stimulus and depth they deserve. The potential for gaining greater knowledge depends to a great extent on the quality of the basic work material and the skill of the researchers in understanding the sources in their context. There are two prominent, different but complementary, paths of research. One is the critical publication of the sources themselves, and the other is the analysis of the sources from the historiographic perspective.

In the field of publication of sources, there are three important trends. One is the facsimile edition, with appropriate introductory studies, of the pictographic documents known as codices. Another is the work of translating the Nahuatl texts, which requires sufficient knowledge of Nahuatl and a good critical apparatus. The third trend is the need for critical publications of the texts written in Spanish. Prominent in this field are recent technical innovations in the reproduction of facsimiles that provide today's specialist with materials highly faithful to the originals, in such aspects as use of color, calligraphic details, and composition of the paper. Some of the translations worthy of mention are those done by the Chalca chronicler Chimalpahin Cuauhtlehuanitzin, and among the publications of Spanish-language texts is Historia de Tlaxcala by Diego Muñoz Camargo.

In regard to analysis of the sources themselves from the historiographic perspective, significant contributions have been made in both the study of works and of specific writers-such as the work of José Rubén Romero Galván on the Mexica chronicler Hernando Alvarado Tezozómoc-and the broad perspective of the studies coordinated by Romero himself and those prepared by Miguel Pastrana Flores. These studies have revealed the need to understand the chronicles of indigenous tradition within a social process of strong cultural change, combining the ancient worldview of the Mesoamerican peoples with European historiographic forms.



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                               Miguel Pastrana Flores

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