"The Broken Spears" and the Nahua and Aztec Identity

Updated on June 2, 2018
Kent Adams profile image

Nicholas Weissman is a student at Georgetown University. This essay includes some of his ideas from his World History II class.


The contemporary application of the term “Hispanic” is a prime example of imperial erasure and re-identification of indigenous peoples of the Americas with their colonizers. Those referred to as Hispanic are designated as tied to Spain or the Spanish language, but may be of any race, ethnicity, or culture; furthermore, this term is often incorrectly used interchangeably with more specific terms like Latinx that denote origins in Latin America. Many people of mixed native and European blood have no connection to their ancestry to the former. Before the indigenous people of the Americas were stripped of their language and culture, they were unique civilizations and spanned empires, like the Nahua peoples whose point of view is recorded in The Broken Spears. The Nahuas of the Aztec Empire were an advanced society and had a history of power and victory, as they were the largest unified people in the region at the time of Cortes’s invasion. Fortunately, many of these indigenous cultures survive today within the borders of present North and South American states. In addition to the ancient artifacts presented, León-Portilla compiled modern-day Nahua poetry in order to display the perseverance of the indigenous group despite the genocide they faced. The Nahuas, who now number around one and a half million (León-Portilla 168), have maintained and reimagined their cultural, social, religious and linguistic identities despite them being largely fractured by the Spanish conquistadors.

Territorial Organization of the Aztec Empire - 1519
Territorial Organization of the Aztec Empire - 1519 | Source

What was their society like before European influence?

The society and culture of the Nahuas documented by León-Portilla was complex and distinct from European culture, although these people did not live like savages. Their practice of human sacrifice was brutal at the very least, but served a purpose in the grand scheme of their hegemony. They dominated neighboring nations and sacrificed prisoners of war, believing that “the source of all life, the sun, would die unless it were fed with human blood” (León-Portilla xxxviii-xxxix). A strong component of the Nahua identity was this status as a military power in present-day central Mexico, reinforced by an education system in which fathers vowed to send their sons to school to be taught “the fundamentals of religion and ethics, and were also trained in the arts of war” (León-Portilla xlv). This identity was challenged when the Spaniards arrived with alien technology such as metal armor, cannons, and arquebuses. Though the natives used canoes, the idea of a massive fleet of seafaring ships was foreign to them. In terms of class, the Aztec Empire exhibited a system consisting of landowning nobles, the middle class divided into familial clans, a class of slaves and indentured servants, and a body of wise men who served as religious scholars (León-Portilla xlii). This structure would be lost as the empire fell and was exploited by the distant land of Spain. The government was headed by a king of noble blood and based in the elaborate capital of Tenochtitlan. The Spanish were understandably astounded by the city’s complexity and required portable wooden bridges to cross the network of canals that the natives traversed with canoes. The Nahua identity in regard to lifestyle was tied to their historic transition from bands of nomads into an urban collective.

Nahuatl People Today
Nahuatl People Today | Source

What was the status of Nahua women?

It is important to note the role of women in Aztec society and how the Spanish turned this upside down in favor of European norms. Even an ally of Cortes, Prince Ixtlilxochitl of Tezcoco, felt for his fellow natives and “kept his followers from maltreating the women and children as cruelly as did Cortes and the Spaniards” (León-Portilla 122) throughout the conquest. There was less of a place for women as the empire grew more militarized, although females were respected and had vital roles to play in society as weavers, maize grinders, mothers, and worshippers. When the Nahuas demanded to celebrate the fiesta of Huitzilopochtli while under siege, it was the women who had fasted for an entire year and who “ground the [chicalote] seeds in the patio of the temple” (León-Portilla 71) for the rituals. The application of Catholic social values onto indigenous society affected women as the institution of marriage was altered, seeing as Nahua nobility practiced polygamy. The encomienda system harmed women as much as it did men, forcing them into harsh agricultural labor for the Spanish crown.

What were their religious practices?

The people of the Aztec Empire were deeply religious, best exhibited by the omens recorded before the first appearance of Europeans, as well as Motecuhzoma’s cowardice after his magicians and religious leaders warned him of the invasion. Their polytheistic religion clearly made them heathens in the eyes of the Spanish who taught them of Jesus Christ. Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, was their main deity who they invoked as the Spanish attacked, exclaiming “Mexicanos, the power of Huitzilopochtli resides in this finery. Loose the sacred arrow at our enemies…” (León-Portilla 113). Gold, so desired by the Spanish, played an important religious and social role; Motecuhzoma wished to prepare gold as tribute to these pale men believed to be the gods and had craftsmen forge gold jewelry and fans with images of golden half-moons and suns to adorn him (León-Portilla 19). The Spaniards held no value for the divine importance of the golden artifacts they stole and they were shipped back to Europe to be melted down for the sole benefit of the Spanish economy. As Tenochtitlan fell, Nahuas fled with the clothes on their back and many hid “objects of gold behind his shield or under his clothing” (León-Portilla 141). The surviving refugees were looted by the Spanish of their lip rings and plugs, nose rings, and any other valuable ornaments that identified them with the grandeur and wealth of their nation. Of equal sentimental value to their gold was jade, turquoise, and quetzal feathers that they similarly attempted to escape with -- this feat proved to be simple as the Spanish saw no worth in these items. As their city fell, so did the faith they held in their cultural objects.


What is the status of the Nahua language?

The Nahuatl language united the inhabitants of the Aztec Empire and cemented their view of history in manuscripts, partially due to the efforts of Franciscan missionaries who developed and taught one unified grammar system. The earliest native accounts of the Spanish conquest were songs and poems, detailing “the grief of the Mexican people over their defeat” (León-Portilla 179). In addition to codices, pictographic records were employed as “the traditional Indian manner of writing history” (León-Portilla 180). The beauty of Nahuatl texts and paintings is stained by the focus on death and destruction in a final effort to protect the truth. The tongue, “spoken since at least the fourth century by some of the inhabitants of the metropolis of Teotihuacan,” (León-Portilla 151) has endured and even given way to “a renaissance that includes the production of a new literature, aptly named by them Yancuic Tlahtolli, the New World” (León-Portilla 168). The use of a unique language, once important to the facilitation of an indigenous empire, now serves as a message to the colonizer that their language will not stamp out the past.

Concluding Thoughts

In the aftermath of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, the establishment of the viceroyalty of New Spain, and subsequently the independent state of Mexico, the indigenous people were left devastated and without full autonomy. Those who assisted the Spaniards as translators or guides, such as La Malinche, are now more often seen as traitors to the people. They survive either as scattered and integrated citizens of North or South American states or remain banded together with some semblance of their rich culture. The Broken Spears reveals the way of life of the Aztec citizens through codices and texts, unfortunately focusing on the tragedies. The urban center they established, the gold with which they adorned themselves and worshipped, the language they spoke, and their unique belief system was maimed in a blaze of disease and gunfire. Christianity was quickly written over their former religion, leaving only memories of the gods formerly worshipped. The Nahua women were raped and otherwise married to European men, diluting their ancestry in favor of an assimilated people. Nevertheless, the Nahuas persist to this day, holding tightly to their history and maintaining their language even as Spanish spread over the continent. Before these people are Hispanic or Latino, they are Nahuatl. The atrocities of the Latin American holocaust cannot be undone, but in spite of that, indigenous Americans such as the Nahuas have carried their identity into the modern era and will not be redacted from history.


Work Cited

Miguel León-Portilla, editor. The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Beacon Press, 1992.


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