Riverside, Calif.—In the U.S. debate over immigration, there is perhaps no word as controversial as “Aztlan,” the mythical Aztec homeland.
For many it carries potent political overtones, for others it is a romantic ideal, and to those opposed to illegal immigration it represents an effort to reclaim land that once was part of Mexico.
“Aztlan is a state of mind for some people. It’s a point in history. For some, it’s a political place, for some it’s a separate nation,” said Armando Navarro, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, whose views have generated controversy. “It represents land lost. You are sitting in a city, Riverside, that used to be in Mexico. That gives us a sense of entitlement. This was our land.”
Although its definition is murky, the term has asserted itself in the language of today’s immigration battles—used mostly by those demanding a crackdown on illegal immigrants.
In Aztec folklore, Aztlan was believed to have been in northern Mexico, possibly along the western coast. Other accounts put it farther north, perhaps in what now is Arizona, Colorado or New Mexico.
During the Chicano-rights movement of the 1960s, Aztlan became a powerful rallying cry for militants who spoke of a “reconquista,” or reconquest, of the Southwest, turning it into an independent homeland for Hispanic people.
A generation later, the word has lost its radical edge among Hispanic activists, but continues to evoke emotions on both sides of the immigration debate.
“Up until recently I dismissed the idea as a kooky fringe element, but if you look at the demonstrations and see the flags and hear people chanting that this is stolen land and ‘we are reclaiming our lost land’ it sounds more serious,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports tough enforcement of immigration laws.
But Aztlan is about more than lost land; it’s about identity.
Its name over the decades has been tacked onto Hispanic organizations such as MEChA (Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan) which has more than 300 chapters on college campuses nationwide. The group has been attacked by those who claim its 1969 “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan” is a separatist call for reconquest.
“Aztlan belongs to those who plant the seeds, water the fields, and gather the crops and not to the foreign Europeans,” according to the plan. “We do not recognize capricious frontiers on the bronze continent.”
MEChA leaders say it is a historical document from a more radical time distorted by critics who focus on a few lines while missing the broader picture.
“When did we say we wanted a separate nation? We never did,” said Graciela Larios, who recently retired as head of the UC Riverside MEChA club. “We know about the spiritual plan for Aztlan. It reflects the time it was written in. We are not ashamed of it. We stand by it.”
UC Riverside’s Navarro, a professor of ethnic studies, said his research showed that California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas and Utah will be 50 percent Latino within 10 to 25 years.
“I call that re-Mexicanization, not reconquista,” said Navarro, 64. “A new majority is forming. Everything will change. The White House will be within our reach. We might have to change the name to the Brown House.”
That kind of talk—along with his latest book “Mexicano Political Experience in Occupied Aztlan”—has made Navarro the chief suspect for those who see reconquest afoot.