Dr. Fermin Herrera Interview
July 31, 1999

Q: What is a codex?

A: In my twenty-five or so years experience of teaching Nahuatl, [that question] frequently arises. Very simply a codex is any ancient manuscript. In the case of Mexico and Central America, there are two types of codices. The first type is the amochtli, which is a book written in indigenous, hieroglyphic script, and the other type of codex is a manuscript that is transcribed in Latin letters but that reflects a Meso-American or indigenous language. So that in the case of the hieroglyphic kind of document we have one called the Codex Boturini, which talks about the migration of the Aztecs or Mexica, from their homeland, which is identified as Aztlán. We also have, in the second category, a very important document known as the Florentine Codex, which is a vast compilation that talks about the lifestyle, the culture, of the people of the valley of Mexico, and it is transcribed in Latin letters, but it is actually written in the Nahuatl language.

Q: What is the meaning of the words "Aztlán" and "chicomoztoc," and what do they tell us about where we should be searching for Aztlán?

A: The word "Aztlán" literally means "land of or place of wings." The suffix t-l-a-n or "tlan" in the Aztec language means “land of” and A-z is the root of the word for "wings."
Aztlán being the land of wings, would suggest that there were birds in that area. Now Aztlán can possibly be, also, a deformation of the word "aztaclán," which would mean something like the land of the herons. Or storks. That also would reinforce the idea that we are talking about an area where there were many birds. Finally, we can say that with regard to Aztlán, it could also be a deformation of the word "aztsalán" which means "in the middle of the water." In this case, it would reinforce the idea that Aztlán was actually an island, that is, a place surrounded by water.
The meaning of the word “chicomoztoc” is literally “place of the seven caves.” With regard to any metaphoric extension of these words, we might say that chicomoztoc could refer, perhaps, to the origin of seven peoples, because the term "cave" or "otot" in Nahuatl is often used as a metaphor for the womb, that is, for "origin." [This] could be a reference to the point of origin of seven groups, or at least the meeting place of seven groups, [perhaps meaning] seven populations that had a common ground from which they migrated into the valley of Mexico.

Q: If you could reiterate then, based on this language, what might you be looking for in terms of a site?

A: Based on the linguistic analysis of the name "Aztlán," if we were to ask "where could we find Aztlán?" I would suggest that it could be an island. Second, an island where there are a lot of birds. We do know from documentary evidence, specifically in the Codex Boturini, that Aztlán was an island. That, of course, is corroborated by the meaning of the word itself.

Q: Could you talk about what the Codex Boturini tells us about when these migrations to Mexico City might have occurred?

A: With regard to the migration of the Aztecs or the Mexica into the Valley of Mexico, if we examine the Codex Boturini, and if we correlate the date given there with the Christian calendar, that we’re talking about, perhaps, 1116 A.D. That’s a rough estimate, for the departure date. Now, the Boturini states very clearly that they did not have a straight path into the Valley of Mexico, but rather, that they zigzagged. They went southward, then stopped there for a period of five to ten years, then they went, went eastward, and then southward again then westward, northward, and it took them, perhaps, I’d say, about a hundred fifty years to reach the Valley of Mexico. It’s difficult to pinpoint the actual settlement of these Aztecs, the traditional date that has been accepted for a very long time is 1325 A.D. That’s been disputed by some researchers, who claim that 1345 might be more appropriate. The latest date I think that is plausible is 1369. But let’s take the traditional one, 1325 A.D. That would be the settlement of Mexico-Tenochtitlán by these people called Aztecs. And let me point out that prior to their settlement in this capital city, they called themselves, simply, "Mexitín" which means "followers of Mexicli," who was a cultural hero of theirs. They also called themselves Azteca, which means "people from Aztlán." After their settlement, then they called themselves “people of Mexico,” in other words, "Mexica."

Q: What evidence is there of inter-group communication between the native people of the Valley of Mexico and the American Southwest?

A: There was a great deal of interaction between the peoples of the Valley of Mexico and those in the Southwest. After all, we’re talking about a common territory, despite the fact that now we have international borders.
If we go back to the period before the arrival of the Spaniards, first of all, we see linguistic evidence, of course, [that] indigenous languages of the Valley of Mexico, northern Mexico, and the American Southwest are related. The Uto-Azteca language includes languages from the Southwest, languages spoken in Utah, Shoshone, languages spoken in Mexico, such as Yaqui, and Nahuatl. In addition, the diffusion of agriculture, the practice of cultivating corn and beans and so forth, was a common bond that existed between this entire population, so we can see clear evidence of interaction there. In addition, [there is] the ball court, the game that was so popular in Meso-America. We find evidence of that in northern Mexico and the American Southwest, as well. We have to keep in mind that the merchants of the Valley of Mexico had these vast trading networks in which they traded goods from Meso-America for those from northern Mexico and the American Southwest. Items such as turquoise, cotton, and so forth. We can go on and on with examples, but I think that it’s very clear that there was constant communication, interaction, between the population south of the current Mexican-U.S. border, and north.

Q: Some maps indicate that Aztlán was quite far north. Could you explain that?

A: Based on [the] codices, I would say that there is a distinct possibility that there was not one
Aztlán, but, rather, several. As a matter of fact, if you move farther south, there is a possibility that there might have been another Aztlán called Michoacan, which means “place of the humming bird.” The humming bird, which was so important to the Aztecs, was not very prominent in the Valley of Mexico, but was pervasive in the area of Michoacan.
If we venture father north, I think that the possibilities are very exciting and tantalizing considering the existence of maps that identify sites of the American Southwest as perhaps earlier Aztláns. Considering the linguistic unity that existed, there is every possibility that an earlier Aztlán might have been situated somewhere in the American Southwest.