Why Aztlán Matters
A Hispanic charter school in Chula Vista, California, recently displayed a large mural of an Aztec warrior brandishing Donald Trump’s decapitated head on a spear. A local news station delicately described “concerns about an overly political message,” and the school removed the mural, noting that it did “not align with our school’s philosophy of non-violence.”
This is an example of how the ancient Aztec Empire has become a symbol of Hispanic identity, especially for the revanchist “Chicano” movement. The myth of “Aztlán”—an all-Hispanic nation that would be carved out of the American Southwest—helps Chicanos view themselves as a great nation with a glorious past now suffering under foreign occupation. Violent imagery has always been part of the Aztlán movement.
This is not surprising. Just as schools that were once named for a white person often get a new name when they become majority non-white, so does a school with “community partners” such as the National Council of La Raza and Centro Cultural de la Raza promote symbols of Hispanic identity.
The mascot of the Chula Vista school—officially known as the MAAC Community Charter School—appears to be an “Eagle warrior,” a special class of infantry in the Aztec military. The warrior waving around President Trump’s severed head appears to be a Jaguar warrior, another Aztec military caste. The centerpiece of the mural is a priest holding up a human heart.
Human sacrifice seems like a strange thing for Hispanics to celebrate, but recent findings show it was common. In 2006, researchers found evidence that Aztecs sacrificed and ate hundreds of Indians traveling with the Spanish conquistadors. This was to dissuade other Indians from siding with the Spanish. An international team announced last month that it had found a site where more than 140 children appear to have been sacrificed by the Chimú Empire, a pre-Columbian state that was eventually conquered by the Incas. The “Mexica Movement” condemned Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto as an “ignorant and criminal white supremacist vision of Maya civilization,” but it appears Mr. Gibson was close to the truth.
The legacy of the Aztecs has always been a source of pride for Hispanic activists, especially those who call themselves “Chicanos.” The best known example is the dream of “Aztlán,” or the reestablishment of a mythical Aztec homeland in the American Southwest. It is prominently mentioned in the charter of MEChA, a Chicano student group founded in 1969 that now has hundreds of chapters nationwide and politically powerful alumni such as former Los Angeles mayor and current California gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa. Well known Chicana activist Yolanda Lopez likes to promote a 1978 poster of an Aztec crumpling up papers that read “Immigration Plans,” and growling, “Who’s the illegal alien, PILGRIM?”
Aztec gods have become symbols of ethnic pride for some Hispanics. In 1994, the city of San Jose created a monument to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. One Hispanic demonstrator who attended the unveiling said it was a “symbol that the Latino population is not a transitory population” and that “this population is here to stay.” (Some think the statue looks like a pile of excrement.)
Street protests to support illegal immigration also use Aztec imagery. When a California newspaper dared to identify illegal immigrants as “illegals” in 2015, demonstrators dressed as Aztecs vandalized the paper’s headquarters, a kind of Hispanic version of the Boston Tea Party. Mexica Yolotl, identified by Mercury News as a “traditional Aztec group of Mexico-Americans [sic] dancers and drummers from the Twin Cities,” was a part of the “Day Without Immigrants” protests in 2017. Ce Atl, a similar group, has also participated in protests in favor of mass migration and “traditionally leads” a May Day protest in Seattle. Aztec dancers seem to be a standard feature of contemporary immigration protests.
Some would say that Aztec imagery is simply an expression of regional pride rather than racial identity. Even non-whites sometimes dress up like “Boston Celtics” or “Minnesota Vikings,” since it is understood these names refer to groups traditionally linked to these regions.
Similarly, San Diego State University (SDSU) has the “Aztecs” as a mascot. But in this case, there is a movement by professors and non-whites to abolish the mascot. When one white student expressed her support for the mascot, she was harassed and threatened by an Amerindian university lecturer. An investigation by the California Department of Justice found that this harassment was racially motivated. This suggests a proprietary interest in Aztecs as an exclusive, racial identity.
Until recently, Mexicans, like Hispanics generally, regarded themselves as at least somewhat European. The idealized, pro-indigenous Mexico conjured by Chicano activists has never existed. After securing its independence from Spain, the new state of Mexico had a hostile relationship with the Comanche tribes that lived in “Aztlán.” Mexico also styled itself as a European-style state, with elaborate uniforms and ceremonies borrowed from Europe.
Mexico is still rocked by controversy over “indigenous people,” who are seen as different from ordinary Mexicans. Mexico’s ruling class is still largely white. Chicano activists who wear feathers are certainly out of step with Mexicans back home, and when they ask for recognition of Mexico’s ancient borders, they are relying on the vision of Spanish pioneers, not Aztecs.
Of course, many who dress up in Aztec garb are probably the descendants of the Spanish and/or of the indigenous tribes oppressed by the Aztecs. Nor did the Aztecs unite pre-Columbian tribes; they fought other peoples for regional dominance. Just a few Spanish conquistadors could defeat the Aztecs because of their alliances with tribes eager to throw off the Aztec yoke.
Yet, on a deeper level, the appeal to the memory of the Aztecs makes sense. As an “imagined community,” a nation or people often redefines its past to create the illusion of eternal existence. The Averni did not unite ancient Gaul, nor did the Cherusci rule in ancient Germania, but this did not stop French nationalists or German nationalists from using Vercingetorix or Arminius as symbols of French or German nationalism. White advocates are no different; the inspiring story of Greek resistance against Persia ignores the less heroic reality that many Greeks fought with the Persians or stayed neutral. Nationalist movements often simplify history to create a founding myth.
The real significance is that many Hispanics want to create myths. Until recently, Hispanic groups such as LULAC (the League of United Latin American Citizens) wanted their members to be classified as “white.” Today, an increasing number of Hispanics call themselves American Indians. The economic advantages of redefining themselves in this way are obvious, but the revolutionary potential is more serious. However historically untrue, the idea of an empire-in-waiting ready to re-emerge after the fall of white America is undeniably romantic. Defining all pre-Columbian peoples as somehow “Aztecs” expands this identity’s potential appeal to all Hispanics, not just Mexican-American “Chicanos.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center says any objection to Aztec imagery and “Aztlán” is to subscribe to a “conspiracy theory.” Yet Aztlan has penetrated so far into popular consciousness that it was casually cited in mainstream books such as Max Brooks’s World War Z. It serves as a foundational myth for those who consider themselves the vanguard of a new people.
Aztec imagery is also inherently violent and glorifies revolting practices. It’s especially ominous considering what is already taking place in American streets. During the 2016 campaign, what could be called anti-white riots erupted outside Donald Trump rallies. As immigration becomes ever more divisive, and anti-white animus becomes more mainstream, the bloodthirsty aesthetic of the mural could become more common. Whites should not be surprised if violent imagery and rhetoric turn into violent action. If Hispanic extremists keep calling themselves “Aztecs,” they could start acting like them.