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The Mexica (Nahuatl: Mēxihkah, Nahuatl pronunciation: [meːˈʃiʔkaḁ] (listen); singular Mēxihkatl) were a Nahuatl-speaking indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico who were the rulers of the Aztec Empire. The Mexica established Tenochtitlan, a settlement on an island in Lake Texcoco, in 1325. A dissident group in Tenochtitlan separated and founded the settlement of Tlatelolco with its own dynastic lineage. In 1521, they were conquered by an alliance of Spanish conquistadors and indigenous people including the Tlaxcaltecs led by Hernán Cortés.
The Mexica are eponymous of the place name Mexico (Mēxihco [meːˈʃiʔcoˀ]), originally referring to the interconnected settlements in the valley that is now Mexico City. The group was also known as the Culhua-Mexica in recognition of its kinship alliance with the neighboring Culhua, descendants of the revered Toltecs, who occupied the Toltec capital of Tula from the 10th to 2nd centuries. The Mexica of Tenochtitlan were additionally referred to as the "Tenochca," a term associated with the name of their altepetl (city-state), Tenochtitlan, and Tenochtitlan's founding leader, Tenoch.
The name Aztec was coined by Alexander von Humboldt, who combined Aztlán ("place of the heron"), their mythic homeland, and tec(atl) "people of". The term "Aztec" often today refers exclusively to the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan, Mēxihcah Tenochcah, a tribal designation referring only to the Mexica of Tenochtitlan, excluding those of Tlatelolco or cōlhuah.[nb 1][nb 2] The term Aztec is often used very broadly to refer not only to the Mexica, but also to the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of the Valley of Mexico and neighboring regions.
After the decline of the Toltecs, about 1200 CE, various Nahua-speaking nomadic peoples entered the Valley of Mexico, possibly all from Aztlan, whose location is unknown. The Mexica were the last group to arrive. There they "encountered the remnants of the Toltec empire (Hicks 2008; Weaver 1972)." According to legend, the Mexica were searching for a sign which one of their main gods, Huitzilopochtli, had given them. They were to find "an eagle with a snake in its beak, perched on a prickly pear cactus," and build their city there. Eventually, they came to Lake Texcoco, where they finally saw the eagle and cactus on an island on the lake. There, "they took refuge..., naming their settlement Tenochtitlan (Among the Stone-Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit)." Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325, but other researchers and anthropologists believe the year to be 1345. The city was described by conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo as a grand, well-ordered metropolis. However, the story of its rise from the muddy lake beds in the Basin of Mexico is one of unrelenting struggle, rivalries, conflict, and suffering.
A dissident group of Mexica separated from the main body and built another city on an island north of Tenochtitlan in 1337. Calling their new home Tlatelolco ("Place of the Spherical Earth Mound"), the Tlatelolca were to become Tenochtitlan's persistent rivals in the Valley of Mexico. After the rise of the Aztec Triple Alliance, the Tenochca Mexica, the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan, assumed a dominant position over their two allied city-states, Texcoco and Tlacopan. Only a few years after Tenochtitlan was founded, the Mexica dominated the political landscape in Central Mexico until being defeated by the Spanish and their indigenous allies, mainly enemies of the Mexica, in 1519.
Once established in Tenochtitlan, the Mexica built grand temples for different purposes. The Templo Mayor (Main Temple) and nearby buildings are rich in the symbolism of Aztec cosmology that linked rain and fertility, warfare, sacrifice, and imperialism with the sacred mission to preserve the sun and the cosmic order. The Templo Mayor was "the site of large-scale sacrifices of enemy warriors which served intertwined political and religious ends (Berdan 1982: 111–119; Carrasco 1991)." IIt was a double pyramid-temple dedicated to Tlaloc, the ancient Central Mexican rain god, and Huitzilopochtli, the Mexica tribal nomen, who, as the politically-dominant deity in Mexico, was associated with the sun. Over time, the Mexica separated Huitzilopochtli from Tezcatlipoca, another god that was more predominantly idolized, redefining their relative realms of power, reshaping the myths, and making him politically superior.
The Mexica of Tenochtitlan were conquered by the Spanish conquistadors under Hernán Cortés in 1521. The area was expanded upon in the wake of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and administered from the former Aztec capital as New Spain.
Like many of the peoples around them, the Mexica spoke Nahuatl which, with the expansion of the Aztec Empire, became the lingua franca in other areas. The form of Nahuatl used in the 16th century, when it began to be written in the Latin alphabet introduced by the Spanish, became known as Classical Nahuatl. Nahuatl is still spoken today by over 1.5 million people, mostly in Mexico.
- Smith 1997, p. 4 writes, "For many the term 'Aztec' refers strictly to the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan (the Mexica people), or perhaps the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico, the highland basin where the Mexica and certain other Aztec groups lived. I believe it makes more sense to expand the definition of "Aztec" to include the peoples of nearby highland valleys in addition to the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico. In the final few centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519 the peoples of this wider area all spoke the Nahuatl language (the language of the Aztecs), and they all traced their origins to a mythical place called Aztlan (Aztlan is the origin of the term "Aztec," a modern label that was not used by the Aztecs themselves)"
- Lockhart 1992, p. 1 writes, "These people I call the Nahuas, a name they sometimes used themselves and the one that has become current today in Mexico, in preference to Aztecs. The latter term has several decisive disadvantages: it implies a quasi-national unity that did not exist, it directs attention to an ephemeral imperial agglomeration, it is attached specifically to the pre-conquest period, and by the standards of the time, its use for anyone other than the Mexica (the inhabitants of the imperial capital, Tenochtitlan) would have been improper even if it had been the Mexica's primary designation, which it was not"
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- Carrasco, Davíd. The Aztecs: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. US: Oxford University Press (2012), p 17.
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- Berdan, Frances F. "Mesoamerica: Mexica." In Encyclopedia of Mexico: History, Society & Culture, edited by Michael S. Werner. Routledge, 1998.
- Evans, Susan Toby. "Postclassic Cultures of Mesoamerica." In Encyclopedia of Archaeology, edited by Deborah M. Pearsall. Elsevier Science & Technology, 2008.
- Keber, Eloise Quiñones. "Nahua Rulers, Pre Hispanic." In Encyclopedia of Mexico: History, Society & Culture, edited by Michael S. Werner. Routledge, 1998.
- León-Portilla, Miguel (1992). Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-2441-4. OCLC 243733946.
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- León-Portilla, Miguel (2000). "Aztecas, disquisiciones sobre un gentilicio". Estudios de la Cultura Nahuatl. 31: 307–313.
- Peregrine, Peter N., and Melvin. Ember, eds. 2002. Encyclopedia of Prehistory: Volume 5: Middle America. 1 online resource (XXIX, 462 pages) vols. Boston, MA: Springer US. 
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- Umberger, Emily. "Antiques, Revivals, and References to the past in Aztec Art." RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 13 (1987): 62–105.
- Willermet, Cathy, Heather J.H. Edgar, Corey Ragsdale, and B. Scott Aubry. "Biodistances Among Mexica, Maya, Toltec, and Totonac Groups of Central and Coastal Mexico / Las Distancias Biológicas Entre Los Mexicas, Mayas, Toltecas, y Totonacas de México Central y Zona Costera." Chungara: Revista De Antropología Chilena 45, no. 3 (2013): 447–59.