Xochimilco in the early twenty-first century is one of the sixteen delagaciones (political subdivisions) of Mexico's Federal District, but in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries ce it was the capital of a large and powerful city-state that dominated the freshwater part of the Valley of Mexico. The name "Xochimilco" is derived from the Nahuatl xochitl and milli, meaning "where the flowers grow," and referring to the rich agricultural productivity and abundance of flowers that have typified the area since pre-Columbian times. The Aztec defeat of Xochimilco in 1430 pushed back its territorial bounds to the southern shore of Lake Xochimilco. It was surrounded by canals and chinampas (fields reclaimed from the lake marshes), and at the time of the Spanish Conquest, Hernán Cortés described it as "a pleasant city … built on the freshwater lake." Its fertile lands produced quantities of food that were sent to the Aztec capital as tribute and trade goods during the pre-Columbian and early colonial periods. After the Conquest, Xochimilco was assigned to Pedro de Alvarado as an encomienda (a trusteeship labor system), and was designated one of only four colonial ciudades in the Valley of Mexico in 1559.
Agricultural products from Xochimilco continued to be carried into Mexico City by canoe during the early twentieth century. It remained a small suburban city located ten to fifteen miles south of Mexico City's main plaza and was connected to it mainly by electric streetcar. Even in the twenty-first century, about two thirds of the delegacion's area remains in agriculture and forest, with landscapes and agricultural practices little changed from those of pre-Columbian times. Farmers use small canoes to navigate the network of canals that connect the "floating gardens." Trajineras—brightly colored, flower-bedecked special boats whose names are spelled out in cut flowers of many hues—are poled through the canals, carrying thousands of residents and visitors, especially on weekends and holidays. Despite the beauty of the area, however, the stagnant water in the canals has contributed to a serious deterioration of its environmental quality.
Garza, Gustavo, and la Programa de Intercambio Científico y Capacitación Técnica, eds. Atlas de la Ciudad de México. Mexico City: Colegio de México, 1987.
John J. Winberry