Let’s define who the Aztecs were.
What is today referred to as the Aztecs were the seven tribes of Central America, united by the common Nahuatl language and the nomadic origins in the deserts of North Mexico.
The Tlaxcalteca: this was a small, though fierce tribe. The Tlaxcalteca settled in the hills of Tlaxcala and used painstaking diplomacy to gain the support of the local warrior tribes, such as the Otomí, who had come to the area earlier. Undefeated yet practically besieged by the Mexica, they eventually “hired” the Spaniards to help defeat Tenochtítlan. The Spanish Crown sought to reward them for this and subsequently extended them long-lasting tax benefits.
The Mexica: although they were the last to arrive in the Valley of Mexico, the Mexica eventually came to dominate the land through a combination of military and diplomatic successes. Their intimidating and aggressive state ideology also positioned them as those in charge of maintaining the balance of life on Earth.
- The Acolhua: these were among the first Nahuatl-speaking people who settled in the Valley, although it’s possible that the Acolhua had originally spoken a different language. Their capital of Texcoco became the second strongest partner in the Triple Alliance (after Mexico-Tenochtítlan, the alliance’s most powerful city). Because of their long history of stable life, their main city developed into the cultural center of the empire, producing thinkers, poets, and master craftsmen.
The Tepaneca: at one point the masters of nearly the entire Valley, the Tepaneca were brought down by internal strife and by attacks from the expansionist Mexica and Acolhua. One of their cities (Tlacopan) became the third and the least significant partner in the Triple Alliance—they used to receive only 20% of the tribute won in the Alliance wars.
The Chalca: occupying the fertile south-eastern areas of the lakes, the Chalca fought long and hard against the advance of Mexica warriors. Although in due course they would be conquered and “pacified”, they maintained their vigor and eventually allied themselves with the Tlaxcalteca and the Spaniards to bring down the Mexica, their arch-rivals.
The Xochimilca: mostly known for their floating gardens, some of which remain today as a major tourist attraction just south of Mexico City, the Xochimilca were a strong tribe with long-lasting traditions. The Mexica had to conquer them on three occasions as they put up fierce resistance and rebelled again after each defeat. It was thus a natural step for them to support the Spaniards in subjugating the Mexica.
The Tlalhuica: these people founded the beautiful city of Cuauhnahuac in the 12th century. In one version Cuauhnahuac means Place among Trees, while in another it means Place of Eagles. The glyph above shows a singing tree.
The Tlalhuica had conquered much of the Valley before being pushed back by the Tepanecs. In addition, the Acolhua later conquered them on behalf of the Triple Alliance. Aztec leaders used to come to Cuauhnahuac for recreation, while the Spaniards gave the city the much less romantic name “Cuernavaca”: cuerna, meaning horn, and vaca meaning cow. The Tlalhuica used to be the largest cotton producers in the Nahuatl-speaking lands.