An educational project of the
Houston Institute for Culture

By John P. Schmal

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The Republic of México is a country that exhibits a spectacular and impressive diversity of indigenous groups. When Hernán Cortés and his expedition reached the eastern shore of México in 1519, it is believed that at least 180 separate languages were spoken within the boundaries of the present-day republic. And ­ thanks to the isolation and cultural divergence that has taken place in southern México since the Conquest ­ the Republic is now home to some sixty ethnic groups speaking almost 280 separate languages.

1. The Indigenous People of Central Mexico
2. The Spanish Conquest of Mexico
3. The Federal District in the Twentieth Century
More History of Mexico
Each part of the Mexican Republic has a unique and fascinating history, but a great deal attention has been given to the Indian groups that inhabited central México, in particular the Distrito Federal (Federal District) and the state of México. Since Cortés first marched his army inland from Veracruz to confront the might of Emperor Moctezuma in Tenochtitlán, all eyes have been focused on this central location and the events that took place there.

Today, the genetic, cultural, and spiritual remains of the first inhabitants of México remain strong within the spirit of the Mexican people. An understanding of this history and the evolution of these people is a key to understanding the pride that Mexican people feel towards their ancestors.

The Federal District. The Distrito Federal is located in the south central portion of México. It shares borders with the states of México (on the west, east and north) and Morelos (on the south). The District occupies 1,547 square kilometers, which is equal to 0.1% of the national territory. In contrast, the population of Distrito Federal was 8,605,239 in 2000, equal to 8.83% of the national population. Politically, the District has no municipios, but is divided into sixteen political districts (delegaciones políticas).

Estado Libre y Soberano de México. The Free and Sovereign State of México is located in the center-south section of the Mexican Republic. This landlocked state has common boundaries with Querétaro de Arteaga and Hidalgo on the north, Puebla and Tlaxcala on the east, Distrito Federal, Guerrero and Morelos on the south and Michoacán de Ocampo on the west. The capital of México is Toluca, which had a population of 1,080,081 in 1995, making it the sixth largest city in the entire Republic of México.

The state of México - with a population of 13,096,686 in the 2000 census - contains 13.43% of the total population of the Mexican Republic. However, the state has an area of 21,196 square kilometers, which represents only 1.1% of the national territory. Politically, the state of México is divided into 121 municipios.

The following chart illustrates the relative populations of the Federal District and state of México, relative to each other and to the population of the Mexican Republic. Although the two political entities occupy a mere 1.2% of the national territory, they are recognized as the home of a large percentage of the Mexican people.

State 1900 1930 1990 1995 2000
Distrito Federal 541,516 1,229,576 8,235,744 8,489,007 8,605,239
Percent of National Total 3.98% 7.43% 10.14% 9.31% 8.83%
Estado de México 934,463 990,112 9,815,795 11,707,964 13,096,686
Percent of National Total 6.87% 5.98% 12.08% 12.84% 13.43%
Mexican Republic 13,607,259 16,552,722 81,249,645 91,158,290 97,483,412
Notes: Data refers to the following census dates: October 28 (1900); May 15 (1930), March 6 (1990), November 5 (1995); and February 14 (2000). Sources: 1900, 1930 and 1940: Population and Housing Censuses. For 1995: INEGI, Estados Unidos Mexicanos, Conteo de Población y Vivienda, 1995. Resultados Definitivos. Tabulados Básicos. For 2000: INEGI, Estados Unidos Mexicanos, XII Censo General de Población y Vivienda, 2000. Tabulados Básicos y por Entidad Federativa. Bases de Datos y Tabulados de la Muestra Censal.
Copyright © 2003, John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved

Historical Notes on the Indigenous People of the Valley of México
Today - as in the past - México City, the Federal District, and the State of México represent both the economic, cultural and political center of the Mexican Republic. México City itself is located on a large dry lakebed in a highland basin at an elevation of about 7,400 feet. The basin is surrounded by towering mountain ranges, including the Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl volcanoes.

Over the millennia the Valley of México's inhabitants have included the ancient Aztec (Mexica), Toltec and Chichimeca tribes, cultures which left a wealth of relics and ruins in the area that have attracted and amazed tourists and visitors throughout it's history. The City of México is built on the ruins of Tenochtitlán, which was the capital of the Aztec Empire.

The story of the Aztec Empire is a rags to riches story, which has fascinated historians and students alike for many centuries. The Mexica (pronounced "me-shee-ka") Indians, the dominant ethnic group ruling over the Aztec Empire from their capital city at Tenochtitlán in the Valley of México, had very obscure and humble roots that made their rise to power even more remarkable. The Valley of México, which became the heartland of the Aztec civilization, is a large internally drained basin, which is surrounded by volcanic mountains, some of which reach more than 3,000 meters in elevation.

The growth of the Mexica Indians from newcomers and outcasts in the Valley of México to the guardians of an extensive empire is the stuff that legends are made of. Many people, however, are confused by the wide array of terms designating the various indigenous groups that lived in the Valley of México. The popular term, Aztec, has been used as an all-inclusive term to describe both the people and the empire.

The noted anthropologist, Professor Michael E. Smith of the University of New York, uses the term Aztec Empire to describe "the empire of the Triple Alliance, in which Tenochtitlán played the dominant role." Quoting the author Charles Gibson, Professor Smith observes that the Aztecs "were the inhabitants of the Valley of México at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Most of these were Náhuatl speakers belonging to diverse polities and ethnic groups (e.g., Mexica of Tenochtitlán, Acolhua of Texcoco, Chalca of Chalco)." In short, the reader should recognize that the Aztec Indians were not one ethnic group, but a collection of many ethnicities, all sharing a common cultural and historical background.

On the other hand, the Mexica, according to Professor Smith, are "the inhabitants of the cities of Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco who occupied adjacent islands and claimed the same heritage." And it is the Mexica who eventually became the dominant people within the Aztec Empire. Legend states that the Mexica Indians originally came to the Valley of México from a region in the northwest, popularly known as Atzlan-Chicomoztoc. The name Aztec, in fact, is believed to have been derived from this ancestral homeland, Aztlan (The Place of Herons).

In A.D. 1111, the Mexica left their native Aztlan to settle in Chicomoztoc (Seven Caves). According to legend, they had offended their patron god Huitzilopochtli by cutting down a forbidden tree. As a result, the Mexica were condemned to leave Aztlan and forced to wander until they received a sign from their gods, directing them to settle down permanently. The land of Atzlan was said to have been a marshy island situated in the middle of a lake. Some historians actually consider the names "Chicomoztoc" and "Aztlan" to be two terms for the same place, and believe that the island and the seven caves are simply two features of the same region. For nearly five centuries, popular imagination has speculated about the location of the legendary Aztlan. Some people refer to Aztlan as a concept, not an actual place that ever existed.

However, many historians believe that Aztlan did exist. The historian Paul Kirchhoff suggested that Aztlan lay along a tributary of the Lerna River, to the west of the Valley of México. Other experts have suggested the Aztlan might be the island of Janitzio in the center of Lake Pátzcuaro, also to the west, with its physical correspondence to the description of Aztlan. Many people have speculated that the ancestral home of the Aztecs lay in California, New Mexico or in the Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa. All of the latter-named locations are home to indigenous groups who belong to the Uto-Aztecan linguistic groups.

The northern Uto-Aztecans occupied a large section of the American Southwest. Among them were the Hopi and Zuni Indians of New Mexico and the Gabrielino Indians of the Los Angeles Basin. Also included in this linguistic group are the Paiute (of California, Oregon, Nevada, and Idaho) and the Ute (of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah). The Central Uto-Aztecans - occupying large parts of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Sonora in northwestern México - included the Papago, Opata, Yaqui, Mayo, Concho, Huichol and Tepehuán. Most historians agree that where there is a linguistic relationship, there is most likely also a genetic relationship.

It is, therefore, logical to assume that the Mexica would share common roots with other Uto-Aztecan groups, and that the legendary Aztlan was located in northwestern México or the Southwestern United States. "The north-to-south movement of the Aztlan groups is supported by research in historical linguistics," writes Professor Smith in The Aztecs, "The Náhuatl language, classified in the Nahuan group of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages, is unrelated to most Mesoamerican native languages." As a matter of fact, "Náhuatl was a relatively recent intrusion" into central México.

It is important to note, however, that the Aztlan migrations were not one simple movement of a single group of people. Instead, as Professor Smith has noted, "when all of the native histories are compared, no fewer than seventeen ethnic groups are listed among the original tribes migrating from Aztlan and Chicomoztoc." It is believed that the migrations southward probably took place over several generations. "Led by priests," continues Professor Smith, "the migrants stopped periodically to build houses and temples, to gather and cultivate food, and to carry out rituals."

The first group of migrants probably included the Acolhua, Tepaneca, Culhua, Chalca, and Xochimilca, all of who settled in the Valley of México. The second group, including the Tlahuica of Morelos, the Matlatzinca of Toluca Valley, the Tlaxcalans of Tlaxcala, the Huexotzinca of Puebla, and the Malinalca of Malinalco, migrated to the surrounding valleys. The last to arrive, around A.D. 1248, were the Mexica who found all the good land occupied and were forced to settle in more undesirable locations of the Valley.

When the Mexicas first arrived in the Valley of México, the whole region was occupied by some forty city-states (altepetl is the Nahua term). These city-states - which included the Tepanecs, Coatlinchans, Cholcos, Xochimilcos, Cholulas, Tlaxcalans and Huexotzincas - were engaged in a constant and continuing battle for ascendancy in the Valley. In describing this political situation, Professor Smith observed that "ethnically similar and/or geographically close city-states allied to form regional political confederations." By 1300, eight confederations of various sizes occupied the entire Valley of the México and adjacent areas.

As the late arrivals in the Valley of México, the Mexica were hard-pressed to find a home, which they could call their own. In A.D. 1325, once again on the run, the Mexica wandered through the wilderness of swamps that surrounded the salty lakes of the Valley of México. On a small island, the Mexica finally found their promised omen when they saw a cactus growing out of a rock with an eagle perched atop the cactus. The Mexica high priests thereupon proclaimed that they had reached their promised land. As it turns out, the site turned out to be a strategic location, with abundant food supplies and waterways for transportation.

The Mexica settled down to found their new home, Tenochtitlán (Place of the Cactus Fruit). The Mexica became highly efficient in their ability to develop a system of dikes and canals to control the water levels and salinity of the lakes. Using canoes and boats, they were able to carry on commerce with other cities along the valley lakes. And, comments Professor Smith, "the limited access to the city provided protection against military attack."

Huitzilihuitl, who ruled the Mexica from 1391 to 1415, writes Professor Smith, "presided over one of the most important periods in Mexica history; The Mexica became highly skilled as soldiers and diplomats in their dealing with neighbors. One of Huitzilihuitl's major accomplishments was the establishment of successful marriage alliances with a number of powerful dynasties." Over time, the Mexica, as the latecomers and underdogs of the Valley region, sought to increase their political power and prestige through intermarriage.

"Marriage alliances," writes Professor Smith, "were an important component of diplomacy among Mesoamerican states. Lower ranking kings would endeavor to marry the daughters of more powerful and important kings. A marriage established at least an informal alliance between the polities and was a public acknowledgement of the dominant status of the more powerful king."

Sometime around 1428, the Mexica monarch, Itzcoatl, ruling from Tenochtitlán, formed a triple alliance with the city-states of Texcoco and Tlacopan (now Tacuba) as a means of confronting the then-dominant Tepanecs of the city-state of Azcapotzalco. Soon after, the combined force of the Triple Alliance was able to defeat Azcapotzalco. Later that year, Culhuacan and Huitzilopochco were defeated by the Alliance. A string of victories continued in quick succession, with the defeat of Xochimilco in 1429-30, Ixtapalapan in 1430, and Mixquic in 1432."

Professor Smith writes that "the three Triple Alliance states were originally conceived as equivalent powers, with the spoils of joint conquests to be divided evenly among them. However, Tenochtitlán steadily grew in power at the expense of Texcoco and particularly Tlacopan." In time the conquests of the alliance began to take the shape of an empire, with the Triple Alliance levying tribute upon their subject towns. Professor Smith, quoting the words of the anthropologist Robert McCormick Adams, writes that "A defining activity of empires is that they are preoccupied with channeling resources from diverse subject polities and peoples to an ethnically defined ruling stratum."

With each conquest, the Aztec domain became more and more ethnically diverse, eventually controlling thirty-eight provinces. The Aztec tributary provinces, according to Professor Frances F. Berdan, were "scattered throughout central and southern México, in highly diverse environmental and cultural settings." Professor Berdan points out that "these provinces provided the imperial powers with a regular and predictable flow of tribute goods."

Of utmost importance became the tribute that made its way back to Tenochtitlán from the various city-states and provinces. Such tribute may have taken many forms, including textiles, warriors' costumes, foodstuffs, maize, beans, chilies, cacao, bee honey, salt and human beings (for sacrificial rituals). Aztec society was highly structured, based on agriculture, and guided by a religion that pervaded every aspect of life. The Aztecs worshipped gods that represented natural forces that were vital to their agricultural economy.

For hundreds of years, human sacrifice is believed to have played an important role of many of the indigenous tribes inhabiting the Valley of México. However, the Mexica brought human sacrifice to levels that had never been practiced before. The Mexica Indians and their neighbors had developed a belief that it was necessary to constantly appease the gods through human sacrifice. By spilling the blood of human beings onto the ground, the high priests were, in a sense, paying their debt to the gods. If the blood would flow, then the sun would rise each morning, the crops would grow, the gods would provide favorable weather for good crops, and life would continue.

Over time, the Mexica, in particular, developed a feeling that the needs of their gods were insatiable. The period from 1446 to 1453 was a period of devastating natural disasters: locusts, drought, floods, early frosts, starvation, etc. The Mexica, during this period, resorted to massive human sacrifice in an attempt to remedy these problems. When abundant rain and a healthy crop followed in 1455, the Mexica believed that their efforts had been successful. In 1487, according to legend, Aztec priests sacrificed more than 80,000 prisoners of war at the dedication of the reconstructed temple of the sun god in Tenochtitlán.

By the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, the Aztec Empire had become a formidable power, its southern reaches extending into the present-day Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. The Mexica had also moved the boundaries of the Aztec Empire to a large stretch of the Gulf Coast on the eastern side of the continent. But, as Professor Smith states, "rebellions were a common occurrence in the Aztec empire because of the indirect nature of imperial rule." The Aztecs had allowed local rulers to stay in place "as long as they cooperated with the Triple Alliance and paid their tribute." When a provincial monarch decided to withhold tribute payments from the Triple Alliance, the Aztec forces would respond by dispatching an army to threaten that king.

Professor Smith wrote that the Aztec Empire "followed two deliberate strategies in planning and implementing their conquests." The first strategy was "economically motivated." The Triple Alliance sought to "generate tribute payments and promote trade and marketing throughout the empire." Their second strategy deal with their frontier regions, in which they established client states and outposts along imperial borders to help contain their enemies."

In 1502, Moctezuma II Xocoyotl (the Younger) ascended to the throne of Tenochtitlán as the newly elected tlatoani. It was about this time when the Mexica of Tenochtitlán began to suffer various disasters. While tribute peoples in several parts of the empire started to rebel against Aztecs, troubling omens took place, which led the Mexica to believe that their days were numbered. Seventeen years after Moctezuma's rise to power, the Aztec Empire would be faced with its greatest challenge and a huge coalition of indigenous and alien forces, which would bring an end to the Triple Alliance.

Continue to The Spanish Conquest of Mexico

Copyright © 2003 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved. Read more articles by John Schmal.


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John Schmal is an historian, genealogist, and lecturer. With his friend Donna Morales, he coauthored "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books, 2002) and "The Dominguez Family: A Mexican-American Journey" (Heritage Books, 2004). He has degrees in History (Loyola-Marymount University) and Geography (St. Cloud State University) and is a board member of the Society of Hispanic Historical Ancestral Research (SHHAR). He is an associate editor of SHHAR's online monthly newsletter, www.somosprimos.com. John is presently collaborating with illustrator Eddie Martinez on a manuscript entitled "Indigenous Mexico: Past and Present."