Mexcaltitán, the Mexican lakeside city that some identify with Aztlán, the mythical place of origin of the Aztecs

“Now you will no longer call yourselves Aztecs. You are already Mexica». These are the words that, according to legend, the god Huitzilopóchtli said to the people he had under his protection and who wandered through what is now Mexico in search of a place to settle, finding it first in Culhuacán and later on an island in the Lake Texcoco, where they split into two groups to found what would be the future cities of Tlatelolco and Tenochtitlán. That nomadism, which lasted for centuries, began when they left their ancient city, Aztlán, whose location -if it really existed- is uncertain, proposing several places as possible candidates. One of the most curious is Mexcaltitán.

In the Mexican state of Nayarit, a land located in the middle of the west coast of the country, overlooking the Pacific, bordering Durango and Sinaloa to the north, Jalisco to the south, and Zacatecas to the east, there is a small town called Mexcaltitan. It barely exceeds a thousand inhabitants and although it has an eighteenth-century church and an archaeological-ethnographic museum significantly named The originPerhaps its greatest attraction lies in the brightly colored houses with gabled roofs among which you can navigate in a canoe or panga (motorboat) when the floods flood its five streets and its square, like a kind of modest Venice.

In fact, when the water level of the San Pedro River rises -when the town “sinks”, as its neighbors say-, Mexcaltitán is turned into a small island with canals, hence the height that its sidewalks have in the dry season. Thus, it resembles a miniature version of what was the great Tenochtitlán that so astonished the Spaniards; Cortés tells in one of his Relationship Cards:

Plan of Mexcaltitán/Image: Andy Raeber on Wikimedia Commons

“The great city of Tenochtitlán is built in the middle of this salty lake, and it is two leagues from the heart of the city to any point on the mainland. Four causeways lead to it, all made by hand and some twelve feet wide. The city itself is as big as Seville or Cordoba; the main streets are very wide and straight; they are rammed; but quite a few, and at least half of the smaller thoroughfares, are canals through which they go in their canoes.

Moreover, even the main streets have openings at regular distances so that the water can pass freely from one to the other, and over these openings, which are very wide, cross great bridges with enormous beams, very firmly set, so firm that on many of them ten men on horseback can pass at a time.

It is at that moment of the flood when Mexcaltitán reaches its most beautiful and iconic image that is reminiscent of the description of the conqueror: a round piece of land about four hundred meters long by three hundred and fifty meters wide furrowed by navigable channels that delight any visitor. That very special image, which would already be given in the 12th century, would be the one that led the Mexicas to found a city with similar characteristics (although with a grid arrangement instead of the concentric rings of Mexcaltitán) that appeased the nostalgia for the march of their original home.

This leads, first, to briefly explain what Aztlán was. More or less translatable as the “place of the herons” (or of the white herons), due to the abundance of these birds, it would also be an island city in the middle of a lake called Metzliapan. There is no archaeological record of such a site and that is why many researchers believe that it is a mythical place, resulting from the need of a people to explain their origins. Moreover, the Mexicas were not the only ones to abandon their home, since there were a total of seven Nahuatl-speaking towns that did so, each under the invocation of their patron god; Apart from them were the Tepanecas, Chalcas, Acolhuas, Xochimilcas, Tlatepozcas, Huexotzingas and Tlahuicas.

Of course, we are basically talking about mythology, even though there may be some element with some real basis. But the fact is that today we know that the Mexicas probably formed the last wave of Chichimeca migrations, peoples of nomadic hunter-gatherers coming from the north, such as the Caxcanes, Guachichiles, Tecuexes, Pames, Guamares, Cocas and Zacatecas. They did not constitute a unit and came from Aridoamerica (central-north of present-day Mexico and southern USA), despite the fact that the description of Aztlán does not coincide with the parched landscape of that area (nor with the Huastec jungle of the Caribbean coast).

In its History of the coming of the Mexicans and other peoples, Cristóbal del Castillo narrates how the song of a bird indicated to the caudillo Huiztizilin the moment to set out, around the year 1 Flint, equivalent to 1111 AD. A long and painful journey of more than two centuries awaited them, often passing through where their predecessors did and always being received with distrust and contempt, sometimes even hostility. They even suffered a split when the followers of Malinalxóchitl, sorceress of the moon goddess, tired of so much pilgrimage, decided to stay in their last seat and not follow the rest.

Around the year 1165 they settled on a hill called Coatépec to celebrate their first calendrical cycle of fifty-two years. Apparently, they carried out works with a view to surrounding it with water, thus reproducing the physical characteristics of Aztlán. But Huitzilopóchtli told them that they should continue the journey and thus, advancing inland, they reached Chapultepec, a mountain near a lake area where they remained for seventy years.

Their presence did not please the peoples of the region either, which, urged on by Malinalxóchitl, formed a coalition to subdue the newcomers. Indeed, they defeated them and became servants of the cualhuaques who, over time and understanding that they were extraordinary warriors, used them as mercenaries against Xochimilco and other lordships. They obtained a brilliant victory and that is why the lord of Culhuacán granted them their own land where they could settle.

It was Tizapan, an arid and hardly habitable place, full of snakes that, paradoxically, served the Mexicas as food, demonstrating their toughness and ability to adapt. The next step was to ask the lord of Culhuacan for the hand of one of his daughters to make the two towns related and get out of that miserable state. They were in the year 1325 and, during the corresponding nuptial party, the Culhuacanos discovered horrified that the Mexicas had sacrificed and skinned the young woman. Enraged, they violently expelled the Mexicas, who in their flight took refuge on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco.

It turned out that there was a nopal cactus on which an eagle perched to kill and devour a rattlesnake; according to other versions the prey was a frog, a smaller bird, the Atl-tlachinolli (symbol of duality, whose glyph would later have been confused with the snake) or there was even the eagle alone. The scene was interpreted as a metaphor: Huitzilopóchtli, incarnated as the raptor (representative of the sun) triumphed over the stars. And he also did it in a place that was very reminiscent of Aztlán; It was the promised land and there they began to build their city, Tenochtitlán. There was still a century to go before they crushed the Tepanec neighbors and became the great Mesoamerican power, making Tlahuicas, Culhuacanos and Tlaxcaltecas consider them to originate from hell. But that is already another story.

The truth is that the theory of this parallelism between the capital conquered by the Spanish and the town of Mexcaltitán as its original version on a smaller scale -that is, like Aztlán- was born in the 19th century at the risk of the romantic currents of the moment. One of its first defenders was Alfredo Chavero, a poet and playwright fond of history and archeology who directed the National Museum and published numerous works on pre-Hispanic Mexico. Already in the 20th century, other researchers such as José López Portillo and Weber supported the thesis, although with flimsy arguments.

That is why dissenting voices did not take long to emerge, such as those of the philologist Cecilio Robelo, the writer and journalist Luis Castillo Ledón or the German Mexicanist Hermann Beyer, who does not give the myth of Aztlán any more true value than that of Rómulo and Remo; that seems to be the general opinion today. But we are going to leave a little space for illusion by remembering the words that Wigberto Jiménez Moreno, then director of Historical Research at the INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History) said in 1968: “We have no proof (…) But it may be that the answer is found somewhere under the foundations of Mexcaltitán.”


Brief history of the Aztecs (Marco Antonio Cervera)/Mexcaltitan-Aztlan. a new myth (Jesús Jáuregui in Mexican Archaeology)/Aztlán. Essays on the Chicano homeland (VVAA)/Mexico history (Gloria M. Delgado de Cantú)/relationship letters (Hernán Cortés)/Unknown Mexico/Riviera Nayarit