Why are Aztecs called Mexicas?

We all heard about the Aztec Empire and its complex history. While the Aztec Empire is a well-known chapter in history, the term “Aztec” is a source of confusion for many. Are Aztecs, Mexicas? Or are Mexicas, Aztecs?

Why are the Aztecs sometimes called Mexicas? Are Mexicans really Aztecs or Mexicas? What is the difference between both terms or they are the same? Is it more accurate to call the Aztec Empire the Mexica Empire?

To uncover this fascinating historical mystery, we must journey into the past and investigate the origins of the Aztec civilization and the Mexica people, whose complex history was relatively short in historical terms.

The Aztecs were actually called Mexica

Those we usually call Aztecs actually called themselves Mexicas.

The term “Mēxihco” or “Mēxihcah” (“Mexica”) originally referred to the Mexica people, who were one of the indigenous groups inhabiting the Valley of Mexico. “Mēxihcah” is the plural form of the word “mēxihcatl”.

The Mexica were one of these Nahuatl-speaking groups, who are best known for their establishment of the Mexica Empire (commonly referred to as the Aztec Empire) and the founding of the city of Tenochtitlan.

People from Aztlan

To the Aztecs themselves the word “Aztec” was not an endonym for any particular ethnic group. Rather, “Aztec” was a general term used to refer to several ethnic groups, that claimed heritage from the mythical Aztlan.

“Aztēcah” is the plural form of the word “aztēcatl” (“people from Aztlan”).

Aztlán was the ancestral home of the Mexicas. Aztlan is mentioned in several ethnohistorical sources dating from the colonial period. Whether Aztlan was a real location or purely mythological is still a matter of debate.

In the Nahuatl, “Aztlan” means “the Place of Whiteness” or “the Place of the Heron”.

The exact etymology of the word “Aztec” is still not entirely clear, but it is associated with the mythical Aztlan, the presumed place of origin of the Mexicas before they migrated to the Valley of Mexico in the 14th century.

While each source cites varying lists of the different tribal groups who participated in the migration from Aztlan to central Mexico, the Mexica who went on to found Mexico-Tenochtitlan are mentioned in all of the sources.

Who were the Aztecs?

Alexander von Humboldt originated the modern usage of “Aztec” in 1810, as a collective term applied to all the people linked by trade, custom, religion, and language to the Mexica city-state and the Triple Alliance.

In 1843, the term “Aztecs” was adopted by most, including 19th-century Mexican scholars who saw it as a way to distinguish present-day Mexicans from pre-conquest Mexicas. The term “Aztec” is still more common.

Some of the indigenous cultures that most people commonly call Aztecs are:

  • Mexicas
  • Texcocans
  • Tlatelolcans
  • Tlacopans
  • Xochimilcans
  • Chalca

These are a few examples of the pre-Hispanic indigenous cultures. Before the Spanish time, the Valley of Mexico was a complex and diverse region with various city-states, each with its history and characteristics.

When did the Aztecs come to the Valley of Mexico?

The Aztec tribes arrived in the Valley of Mexico in the early 14th century.

The Mexicas traveled with other tribes, including the Tlaxcalteca, Tepaneca, and Acolhua, but eventually, their tribal deity Huitzilopochtli told them to split from the other Aztec tribes and take on the name “Mexica”.

The Aztecs, or more accurately the Mexicas, originally Nahua speakers, settled in the Valley of Mexico in the early 14th century. When they arrived in the Valley of Mexico, they were not the only people in the region.

In 1325, the Mexicas founded Tenochtitlan on an island in Lake Texcoco. According to legend, the choice of this place was guided by the god Huitzilopochtli, who indicated the place where the city should be built.

When the Mexicas arrived, the Valley of Mexico was already inhabited by various other cultures, who spoke different languages. Over time, the Mexicas gradually gained political and cultural influence in the region.

Nahuatl became a dominant language in the region primarily due to the expansion of the Aztec Empire, which involved conquest and the imposition of their culture and language on other indigenous in the valley.

The Triple Aztec Alliance

The Mexica were not the only people in the Valley of Mexico. There were other established city-states, such as Tlacopan and Texcoco, and the Mexica had to engage in alliances and conflicts with these neighboring states.

The Aztec Empire, often referred to as the “Aztec Triple Alliance,” was a coalition of 3 major city-states in the Valley of Mexico: Tenochtitlan, Tlacopan (on the left side of the lake), and Texcoco (on the right side of the lake).

The Aztec Empire, also known as the “Aztec Triple Alliance”, was a coalition of 3 major city-states: Tenochtitlan (on an island), Tlacopan (located on the left side of the lake), and Texcoco (on the right side of the lake).

These 3 major and powerful city-states in the Valley of Mexico formed a political and military alliance that laid the foundation for the Aztec Empire, which was sometimes informally referred to as the “Aztec Triple Alliance”.

Tenochtitlan was the most dominant of the 3 allied city-states. Texcoco and Tlacopan were important in this alliance which formed the core of the Aztec Empire. Together, they controlled the Valley of Mexico and beyond.

Texcoco Lake in 1519

Tlatelolco, on the other hand, was another city-state located near Tenochtitlan.

Tlatelolco was generally considered a separate entity, closely associated with Tenochtitlan due to its proximity and cultural and economic ties, but it was not one of the 3 principal members of the Aztec Triple Alliance.

The Aztec Empire’s expansion

Through military conquest and diplomacy, this so-called Atec Triple Alliance, gradually expanded their influence and power, subjugating other city-states and forming a loose empire better known as the Aztec Empire.

They also required tribute from neighboring regions.

Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan

Each of these three city-states within the Aztec Triple Alliance had its own rulers or leaders, and they formed a joint leadership as part of the alliance. City-states Texcoco and Tlacopan had their own rulers (tlatoani).

Montezuma II was the emperor of Tenochtitlan, which was the most prominent city-state within the Aztec Triple Alliance. Texcoco and Tlacopan, the other two members of the Triple Alliance, had their own rulers.

Montezuma was the ruler of Tenochtitlan and held a position of great importance, but he was not the sole ruler of all 3 cities. Each city-state maintained some degree of autonomy while cooperating in the alliance.

The Valley of Mexico was home to numerous city-states, each with its own political structure. The Aztec Triple Alliance, comprising Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan, was the dominant power among them.

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