What happened with the Nahuatl-Speaking People after the Conquest of Mexico?

  By Hugoestr, October 2006; Revised
Most of us know the story: The Aztecs had a mighty empire, which in 1521 was destroyed by the Spaniards, creating the beginning of New Spain. The Aztecs civilization came abruptly to an end. As a corollary, most of us believe that the Aztecs, as a people and culture, disappeared as well. Suddenly, all Nahuas became Christianized and became Mexican “Indians.” The result of the conquest was the total cultural destruction of the previous civilization. Most of us never question this historical narrative. We just accept it, and move on.

Yet when we start questioning this plot, one realizes how this story doesn't hold up to scrutiny. And a lot of the misconceptions about the destruction of the Aztecs comes from a bias in history that encourages us to see the nation-state as the basic historical unit.

When thinking about history in terms of nation-states, the Aztec nation indeed died in 1521. The Aztec Empire and the Nahua nations, as political entities, were in fact destroyed.

However, if we borrow from social anthropology the term “culture” to describe the Mesoamerican people, we can see how even though their political independence was brought to an end, their culture survived. And there is plenty of evidence that attest to the fact that Nahuatl-speaking cultures have survived to the present.

First, the Spaniards didn't engage in genocide against all Nahua speaking people. And to truly destroy a culture, one must destroy all of the people who belong to it. The Spaniards had an economic interest in keeping enough native alive since they could server as slaves or serfs to the Spaniards, and this way make the new colony profitable for themselves and for mother Spain.

Second, we know there were many survivors because they, together with Spanish and Africans, were the parents of modern Mexicans, and to this day Mesoamerican foodways, dances, worldview, and way of life survive in the lives of most Mexicans. Can we claim that modern Mexicans prove the survival of the culture? Probably not. Most Mexicans today speak Spanish, a significant cultural difference Furthermore, neither Mexicans nor modern Nahuatl-speaking groups recognize each other as part of the same group, although they do recognize the origin of most Mexicans customs as Native. Still, the existence of the modern Mexican mestizo is an indirect proof of how, at the very least, Native cultures survived beyond 1521.

The key proof of the survival of the Nahuatl-speaking people is that today there are still people who speak a variant of Nahuatl as their mother tongue.

Language is a key element for the transmission and survival of cultures. In many cases, language defines an ethnic groups, such as the Scots, the Irish, or the Welsh. In some cases, it defines a nation or the goal of nation forming, as it is the case of the Basque or the Catalonians.

And if mestizos, who lack the ancestral language, have been able to bring to the present many cultural traits from their Mesoamerican past, it is expect that those who speak the language have been able to retain their culture as well.

Finally, the last argument used when insisting that the conquest brought an end to the Mesoamerican culture is remarking that the culture of modern Nahuas is not the same as the one they had in the 16th century. To this one must point out, as a historian once did, that Europe itself is not the same as it was in the 16th century either, and that European life change as a result of the conquest too. If we allow historic change to European cultures, it is only fair to grant it too to Mesoamerican ones.

I hope that by now it will be clear that those cultures not only didn't die suddenly in 1521, but that they still survive to this day. So what has happened in those almost 500 years?

We get glimpses here and there of what happened. A rebellion here; a footnote there. They were transplanted to different places. At some point, they were marginalized. All of these are sketches, more or less vague. And most of them are not very specific, since they are mentions of “indios” with only the vaguest mention of their actual group.

What is sorely need at this point is a history of Native American groups from Mesoamerica. I hope that there is already work out there on the topic, but it needs better diffusion. There are many questions that arise once we realize that the whole of the Nahuatl people were not erased with the Conquest.

For example, what happened with the Mexicas? Were they indeed destroyed in an early exercise of genocide by the Spaniards and rival groups? What happened with the other groups? At what point did they become more marginalized than the mestizos? Why did this erroneous narrative survive for so long?

Unfortunately I do not have the answers to these questions yet. But they do open the doors to an interesting historical topic for research.