From Aztlan to Tenochtitlan: the history of Mexican heritage

I am privileged to come from one of the richest countries in terms of its culture; Mexico. I lived there for 11 years, surrounded by the most heart-warming people, comforted by the sweet aroma of atole and singing of ‘Cielito Lindo’. Mexico City, is my home, built upon the grand lakes of Tenochtitlan that were dried by the Spanish and drowned under cement. Where the history of the Aztecs, the fallen pyramids, and an ancestry of Mexico where left buried underground. Mexico’s history revolving around intricate myths and stories that entertain for hours is one of the most overlooked. My beautiful country should be known by everyone, the Aztecs are the epitome of resilience and strength, a lesson for the world which faces us today.

The Mexican identity revolves around the myth of Aztlán and the pilgrimage to Tenochtitlan.

Mexican landscapes amazed the Spaniards when they first arrived in Continental America. However, there was one site that attracted the conquistadors the most. The Spanish encountered Aztlán through the stories of the indigenous people. Aztlán means “place of herons” and is a mythological place of Novahispanic origin from which the Aztecs claim to have descended. It was the place where the people of Mexico embarked on a journey to find the sacred land of Tenochtitlan.

Diego Duran, a Spanish historian of the time, described Aztlan as the place “where ducks, herons, sea crows, [and] water hens […] rejoiced. A place where people enjoyed the song and melody of the little birds of red and yellow heads. There, people enjoyed the freshness of the groves that were among those banks and the fountains surrounded by willows and junipers and large and beautiful alders.” According to a legend, Huitzilopochtli and the Aztecs departed, the deity ordered the men to seek an eagle that fluttered its wings whilst on a cactus and tore a serpent with its beak. The promised land would lay beneath that eagle. The Aztecs departed from their paradise under the promise of the god Huitzilopochtli, a deity of the sun, war, and human sacrifice, to find a homeland where they could settle forever.

When they left, Aztlan perished into memories. Years later, the conquistadors launched various expeditions northward in search of this mystical place, however, they did not find Aztlan, which lives on today, only in the stories passed down through generations.

The Aztecs travelled about 210 years in their search and became migratory people. They first arrived in the city of Tula and followed as far as Atlitlalaquian the place where “water was summed upon the earth”.  Innumerable indigenous cities were grazed by them during their journey. In Zumpango, they erected a skull wall and crossed the mighty Acalhuacan lakes in canoes. The Aztecs settled in various places, came across perilous snakes, and learnt to cultivate pulque, a dewy beverage, still present in Mexican cuisine. A bloody quarrel against a pack of enemy cities near the beautiful Chapultepec Forest seized their leaders. The Aztecs’ perseverance allowed them to regain strength time and time again.

Their journey, which had now extended hundreds of years, culminated the day they reached the limits of Lake Texcoco. The symbol they had been desperately waiting for lay on an island in the middle of the lake. A majestic eagle stretched out its wings, as Huitzilopochtli had promised, perched on a cactus, it devoured a snake.

It was there that the village, called Tenochtitlan, was established. Tenochtitlan, founded in a salt lagoon, was a lake city, combining “half land and half water”. Pyramids, temples and neighbourhoods were erected all around the city centre. The Mexican architecture used to build Tenochtitlan in the centre of the lake was based on the Chinampas: an Olmec method of cultivation of floating terrain islands on which crops could thrive. The parks and squares as well as the marketplaces were popular gathering spots. They traded corn, beans, amaranth, squash, live animals such as turkeys and traditional dishes such as pulque, atole, tamales and tortillas. Tenochtitlan’s most beautiful feature was Lake Texcoco, with hundreds of fish species and birds surrounding it, creating an almost paradisiac postcard in the Mexican Basin.

These myths built what Mexico is known as today and stand as strong symbols encrusted in our culture. Aztlan is a place that has amazed historians for centuries and one that lies deeply rooted in Mexican hearts. This part of our heritage can no longer be seen due to the industrialization of Mexico city, yet it is in the words of its people that these stories live. I hope I have inspired readers to look into their own stories and tell the world all about them.

This was the first European map of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, conquered by the Spanish in 1521
(The Map: Tenochtitlan. 1524. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/cartography/map-tenochtitlan-1524.)