Chicano activists have long claimed that Aztlán was somewhere across the border in California, the Southwest and even more distant areas. As the original homeland was, according to this theory, located in the U.S. they claim the right of Mexicans to immigrate at least to these ancestral lands.
Aztec legend claims that their ancestors migrated from Aztlán to Tenochtitlan, an island city of canals and "floating gardens" said to be modeled on the original island homeland. Mexcaltitán's streets turn into canals when they are inudated during the rainy season.
Paul Kekai Manansala
Pacific island claims to be the roots of Mexico
Location of Aztec homeland has been sought and debated
By JEREMY SCHWARTZ Cox News Service
Aug. 30, 2008, 5:34PM
MEXCALTITÁN, MEXICO — In the pre-dawn darkness, the fishermen return with nets brimming with plump shrimp and tie up their canoes behind homes of mud and wood.
It's a way of life that's hardly changed over the past 1,000 years in Mexcaltitán, an isolated Pacific coastal island that's been dubbed the Venice of Mexico because its sunken streets become canals during the rainy season.
But embedded in that humble daily ritual may lie clues to one of the hemisphere's great historical mysteries: Where did the mighty Aztec civilization come from?
For local officials and some historians, Mexcaltitán is nothing less than the mythical Aztlán, birthplace of the ancient Aztecs.
Immigration flashpointAccording to legend, the Aztecs left an island in 1091 and wandered for two centuries before settling in what is now Mexico City. There, they founded the legendary city of Tenochtitlan, an island city of canals and floating gardens, and lorded over an empire that stretched from Guatemala to northern Mexico before the Spanish conquered them in 1521.
But the location of Aztlán is no mere academic exercise: the term has become a flashpoint in today's raging U.S.-Mexico immigration debate.
Entering "Aztlán" in an Internet search is to be immersed in a fierce, often nasty, ideological battle over immigrant rights.
Historians and archeologists are bitterly divided over the location of Aztlán, or even over whether the place ever existed.
With some theories placing the Aztec homeland in the U.S. Southwest, Utah or California, the notion has become fraught with political overtones.
For decades, the idea of an Aztlán located within the United States was an important part of the growing Chicano pride movement.
Anne Martinez, a University of Texas history professor, said the embrace of Aztlán reflected a desire by Mexican-Americans to forge a clear geographical link, and thus a belonging, to the United States.
"It was also the idea that wherever Mexicans are outside of Mexico that that is Aztlán," she said. "That we take Aztlán with us."
'Powerful idea'Today, the term is more likely to be used by anti-immigration groups warning of a reconquista, or reconquering, of the Southwest U.S. by Mexican immigrants. The Just Build the Fence blog defines Aztlán as "the enemy encamped within our own borders."
"(Aztlán) is a very powerful idea," said Mexican archeologist Jesús Jáuregui, a leading expert on Aztlán theories. "It can mean something different to each person."
In Mexcaltitán, located in the Pacific state of Nayarit, clues that this was once Aztlán are tantalizing.
In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs (who called themselves the Mexica), Aztlán means "place of whiteness" or "place of herons." And the village is indeed a favorite haunt of white herons, which nest in the surrounding lagoon, as well as seasonal blooms of white water lilies.
Héctor Apodaca, a guide at the village's museum, argues that local fishing holes have the same names as Aztec places like Toluca.
Apodaca says that Cora Indians, who were among the last indigenous groups to be subdued by the Spanish and speak a version of Nahuatl, still come to the island every year to make offerings.
"That's because they believe that this was a ceremonial center of the Mexica," Apodaca said.
A living replicaOthers point to Mexcaltitán's striking physical resemblance to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital whose ruins sit under Mexico City. Some historians say Mexcaltitán's circular shape and cruciform design are similar to that of Tenochtitlan, which Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz described as "an enchanted vision."
Tenochtitlan was destroyed in 1521, long before the invention of the camera, and officials in Mexcaltitán say their village is the closest thing to a living replica.
Local officials are so certain that Mexcaltitán is Aztlán that they've dubbed the state of Nayarit the "cradle of Mexicaness" and changed the state's official seal to include a diagram of the Aztecs' departure from Mexcaltitán.
But despite the local certainty, historical debate rages on. No definitive archeological evidence has yet been uncovered to prove Mexcaltitán's connection to Tenochtitlan.
Jáuregui, the Mexican archeologist, believes Aztlán is more myth than place and says the official sanctioning of Mexcaltitán as Aztlán stemmed from political, rather than historical reasons.
He said that during the 1960s and 1970s, Mexican officials grew alarmed by Chicano and Mexican-American assertions that the ancient homeland actually sat outside the boundaries of Mexico. He argues that such a possibility embarrassed and potentially undermined what has become Mexico's creation myth.
And the state of Nayarit, traditionally one of the poorest in Mexico, was in need of a tourism boost.
"Mexcaltitán is a beautiful place," he said. "But that's a lot different than saying it's Aztlán."
In Mexcaltitán, any collective memory of the Aztecs' presence there seems to have been lost.
Antonio Osuna Carbajal, a Mexcaltitán fisherman, smiles slyly when asked if his home is Aztlán.
"That's what they tell us," he said. "But the bad thing is that the older generations didn't leave us any writings or anything like that."