Centuries ago, the Aztec founded their island capital in a breathtaking site known as the Valley of Mexico. Today the site is not ideal. Mexico City sits on a fault line in an unstable lake bed surrounded by mountains and active volcanoes that trap smog. Nevertheless, 23 million people (one out of five Mexicans) continue to live in the city. Why? They live there because they are held by traditions of power that hark back hundreds of years.
Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, stood on the site of modern Mexico City. These are not different cities. Tenochtitlan is the foundation and the cultural base for Mexico City. The story of Tenochtitlan begins in the early 1300s when a tribe known as the Mexica, a Chichimec subgroup arrived in the Valley of Mexico. But by the time of their arrival, most of the Valley of Mexico appeared to be taken. The north was controlled by the Otomí, the west by the Tepaneca, the east by the Acolhua, and the south by the Xochimilca, the Colhua, and the Chalca. The Mexica, however, followed a vision spoken to them by their god Huitzilopochtli, who told them to settle where the mighty eagle sat upon the nopal (prickly pear) cactus devouring a snake. The Mexica saw this sight on a small island located in the center of Lake Tetzcoco. In 1325, they built their city upon that island and named it Tenochtitlan (the place of the nopal that grows on the rock). A second city named Tlatelolco was built around the same time a few hundred meters north on an adjoining island by dissident Mexica, the Tlatelolco, who would become great traders.
The twin islands upon which Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco were built did not at first sight appear to have the resources needed for the growth of an empire. There were meager agricultural prospects and a lack of building materials. Furthermore, Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco were surrounded by cities that were generally hostile. However, the Mexica were very close to the practices of their hunter-gathering ancestors, and they were thus able to make use of the positive features of the islands. If at first they could not farm, the many forms of available, edible aquatic life, snakes, fish, and birds allowed hunting, and other types of produce such as frogs, crustaceans, insect eggs, and lake algae allowed a type of gathering. As the Mexica were surrounded by hostile neighbors, Tenochtitlan came to specialize in war. Surrounding enemies were easily reached via the lake, which allowed large numbers of soldiers and materials to be moved by canoe. Tlatelolco, on the other hand, took advantage of its proximity to other people to develop trade with the Colhua, Chalca, Xochimilca, and Mixquica to the south, the Acolhua in the east, and the Tepanec in the west. The traders of Tlatelolco became so successful that their market became the largest in Mesoamerica. Therefore, after only a few decades, the Mexica of Tlatelolco and Tenochtitlan began to make their influence felt as “traders and raiders.”
Initially, the Tenochca were vassals of the more powerful city of Azcapotzalco, but they eventually allied themselves with Tetzcoco and Tlacopan to conquer Azcapotzalco in 1428. The Triple Alliance was the beginning of the Aztec Empire because it brought together three important tribes from the Chichimec migrations: the Mexica of Tenochtitlan, the Acolhua of Tetzcoco, and the Tepaneca of Tlacopan.
People often compare the island city of Tenochtitlan with Europe’s Venice, but the urban traditions of the Aztecs were based on Mesoamerican concepts. Mexica pipiltin (nobles), macehualtin (commoners), and pochtecah (traders) learned about their nomadic Chichimec and civilized Toltec ancestors in public schools. They learned that the Tenochca and other Nahuatl-speakers used the name altepetl (water-mountain) for “city” because a city was a copy of the natural environment. Since they believed that the landscape was bound by the four cardinal directions, they divided their cities into four quarters, and they raised a two-temple pyramid at the heart of each city. This pyramid represented the womb of the pregnant Earth reaching out to the heavens, and the two temples represented the belief that the universe was ruled by a force that had a male and a female aspect. Therefore, duality and the four directions were an integral part of the institutions, plan, and architecture of Tenochtitlan and later Mexico City.
The altepetl (city) of Tenochtitlan was ruled by the tlatoani (speaker, or “he who speaks”) and the cihuacoatl (woman-serpent). This dual leadership reflected the Aztec belief that every institution, from families to cities, should be represented by the male and female force that governed the universe. The tlatoani, by speaking for the city and controlling the military forces, represented the father who worked outside harvesting, trading, and fighting. The cihuacoatl provided for the internal rule of the city just as a mother directed the activities of the home. Eventually, as in Rome, the growth of the Aztec Empire led to a change in government, and the office of tlatoani become kinglike. The first of these independent kings was Itzcoatl (1427–44); he was chosen by a council of four people because he was related to the last tlatoani and had military experience. Subsequent leaders were chosen for the same reasons.
Tenochtitlan, like most Aztec cities, had four campan (quarters), and it is possible that at one time the council that selected the tlatoani had represented each quarter of the city. There is some evidence of this from the Huichol and Cora, Chichimec tribes who never migrated south to the Valley of Mexico. These two tribes, from the present-day states of Jalisco and Nayarit, continue to organize their towns and villages into four quarters (A, B, C, and D). Every year the elders from each quarter choose two people from one quarter to rule for a year. They always choose in the same order, so if in 1900 the rulers came from the A quarter, then in 1901 the elders would choose someone from the B quarter, and so on. Furthermore, the historian James Lockhart discovered Spanish records written after the conquest that show evidence of a rotational system in indigenous institutions at Chalco and Tenochtitlan.
People in the Aztec world defined themselves by their altepetl, so the people of Tenochtitlan saw themselves as Tenochca. There was however a smaller unit of organization called the calpulli (big house) that represented a clan and a neighborhood. Usually, the calpulli was made up of a group of macehualtin (commoner) families led by pipiltin (nobles). According to laws passed by Motecuhzoma II, each calpulli had to have a school (telpochcalli). The calpulli also served as the basis for the squadrons of the Aztec army, for maintaining small temples to the god of the calpulli, and for other such needs of everyday life.
Becoming a Center of Trade
In 1474, the Tenochca ruler Axayacatl captured Tlatelolco. This event affected every altepetl and calpulli in the Aztec Empire because the union of these two cities made the site of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco the economic and political center of the Valley of Mexico. Tlatelolco was a trade city whose pochtecah (merchants) had over time created the largest market in Mesoamerica, in large part owing to three characteristics, identified by architectural historian Wolfgang Braunfels common among waterfront cities such as Tlatelolco and Venice: Ships can dock in front of homes, people from the trade city have an impulse to acquire possessions or colonies, and the city is entered at the center. Tenochtitlan, meanwhile, was the city of warriors. The drive to conquer came from that city. Each Aztec ruler began his reign with a campaign to bring prisoners for sacrifice at the great temple. The conquest of Axayatcatl led, therefore, to the concentration of trade and tribute in Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco. This city for all intents and purposes became the capital of the Aztec Empire.
Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco resembled a spider web. This city, situated in the western part of Lake Tetzcoco, was connected to the mainland by five great causeways (calzadas) to Tlacopan, Chapultepec, Tenayuca, Iztapalapa, and Tepeyac. Three of these causeways led to the heart of the city and the Sacred Precinct of Tenochtitlan. The city was divided into four campan, which were organized into smaller equal plots (calpulli) marked off by canals and streets. The central precinct of Tlatelolco with its famous marketplace was in the north, connected to the causeway to Tlacopan. Many of the streets that were crossed by water also had bridges that could easily be removed. These main causeways also acted as dikes, which were easy to build due to the shallowness of the lake. Yet here and there, the causeways were broken to let the water flow under wooden bridges, because it was dangerous to bottle up the currents of the lake. This dense grid of walkways, narrow canals, and causeways also provided routes for foot traffic and canoes, which were needed because the Aztec had no wheeled vehicles.
The architecture of the city was dominated by bright colors and triangular shapes. Aztec architecture consisted of open square areas and raised quadrangular platforms forming hollow squares within regular geometrical shapes. Additionally, all of the ceremonial buildings, platforms, and stairways were symmetrically arranged to provide a visual hierarchy oriented to Aztec religious beliefs founded in the four directions. Pyramids and plazas were built along a line showing a dominant east-west axis. Their construction also symbolized and echoed sacred beliefs in the elements of earth, wind, fire, and water; for example, pyramids for Ehecatl (the wind) tended to be circular to allow the god to circle around his temple.
The Sacred Precinct
The Sacred Precinct was the most important ceremonial center in Tenochtitlan, and today many of its ruins lie beneath downtown Mexico City. The Sacred Precinct measured approximately 182 meters (600 feet) east to west and 160 meters (528 feet) north to south. Within its wall were wide-open spaces and pyramids with multi-colored shrines. The wall had gates to the north, south, and west that led to the great causeways of Tacuba, Iztapalapa, and Tepeyac. In addition, there was a gate to the east that led to the Tetamazolco dock. The Great Temple was the highest building, with two shrines atop: a red painted shrine to Huitzilopochtli and a blue painted shrine to Tlaloc. It commanded the eastern half of the Sacred Precinct and was neighbored by a tzompantli (skull rack). The round temple pyramid of Quetzalcoatl rose roughly in the center. The western half contained the calmecac (school for the nobles), the ball court, and the Temple of the Sun. The Sacred Precinct represented the fusion of Toltec and Chichimec beliefs that was integral to Aztec religion: Inside the walls, a priest who entered from the western entrance would walk by the tzompantli, adjoining ball court, and circular pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, all of Toltec origin, on his way to the Great Temple with its twin shrines to the Chichimec solar god Huitzilopochtli and the pre-Toltec rain god Tlaloc. These buildings symbolized the past and the present, the Toltec and the Chichimec heritage of the Aztec.
The area just outside the walls of the Sacred Precinct held buildings needed for the everyday running of the city, such as palaces, houses of dignitaries, and the marketplace. The house of the cihuacoatl and the royal zoo stood along the eastern wall. The Palace of Axayacatl bordered the western wall, and the southern gate led to the imperial palace of Motecuhzoma II (the site occupied by the modern National Palace). These two palaces housed the tlatoani, his wife, family, and many of the bureaucrats needed to run the city. Archaeology at other Aztec sites reveals that surrounding houses were probably the homes of the paper makers and ink makers, who provided these tools needed by the rulers. This main square was also the site of one of Mesoamerica’s largest markets, second only to Tlatelolco’s market. Tenochtitlan’s marketplace was very orderly but also crowded with people.
Market of Tlatelolco
The center of Tlatelolco was the economic center of the united city Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, and it had two halves. The western half contained the main pyramid of Tlatelolco, which is the current site of the Plaza of the Three Cultures. The eastern side had the marketplace of Tlatelolco, which was the largest in the American continent. Cortés reported that as many as 60,000 people exchanged goods in this market. In shape, it resembled a modern-day open-air market (tianguis) in Mexico or a swap-meet in the United States. The selling of merchandise was organized into specific areas and then by rows. Items ranged from basic necessities, such as corn and tomatoes, to exotic goods, such as feathers and bolts of the finest cloth. Nearby judges heard complaints of cheating and stealing and issued harsh sentences. The Aztec did not use coins or paper money. Instead they bartered and used cacao (cocoa beans), cotton cloaks, and gold-filled feather quills for money.
Most Aztec homes in Tenochtitlan were rectangular houses built of adobe walls and thatched roofs. Simple homes might have only one building with one doorway, but larger homes had several buildings whose doors opened around a central courtyard. The size of the house depended on whether pipiltin or macehualtin lived there. An important Aztec city for evidence about families and living arrangements is Quauhchichinollan because census documents for this city from the 1540s have survived. The English version of the census for Quauhchichinollan, by S. L. Cline, reveals joint families and nuclear families living side by side, but the joint family was more common. It included a father, a mother, children, and other relatives. The houses of pipiltin were sometimes raised platforms and colored with vibrant colors, but these homes followed the same basic design of buildings arranged around a central courtyard.
Effects of the Conquest
In 1521, the Aztec Empire came crashing down. An alliance of Spaniards and mostly Tlaxcalans conquered the great city of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco. The leader Hernán Cortés then built a new city on top of the Aztec capital. Eventually, this new city received the name of Mexico. A few Spaniards might have concerned themselves with the purity of their blood, but the majority of the population in Mexico City soon became mixed. The descendants of the Aztec, knowing that they had had a dual Chichimec-Toltec heritage, over time accepted that their heritage had become both indigenous and Spanish.
The site that embodies this acceptance of mestizaje (mixed blood) is Mexico-Tenochtitlan. In Mexico City, three places of worship represent the concept of the duality of mestizaje. At the corner of Guatemala and Argentina Streets stand the remains of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan and its shrines to Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli. To the north is the Plaza of the Three Cultures with its Tlatelolco pyramid and a Spanish church on top. And in the neighborhood of Tepeyac is located the modern basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. These three buildings prove that the belief in duality or mestizaje will remain as long as Mexico exists. However, Mexico City must give up some of its power. The centralization of the Aztec Empire did not end with the Spanish conquest. Today, trade and tribute (taxes) still flow from the provinces to the capital, but not enough money is given in return, even as Mexicans flock north to the United States. As long as Mexico City retains its great centralized power, Mexicans from other cities will continue to migrate north, and eventually, they will develop a new mestizaje based on a Mexican and American heritage.