Music and dance during a One Flower ceremony, from the Florentine Codex.
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The Mexica (Nahuatl: Mēxihcah, Nahuatl pronunciation: [meːˈʃiʔkaʔ] (listen) (singular Mēxihcatl [meːˈʃiʔkat͡ɬ]) or Mexicas are a Nahuatl-speaking indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico who were the rulers of the Aztec Empire. This 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 tenth through twelfth centuries. The Mexica 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 Mexica established Mexico Tenochtitlan, a settlement on an island in Lake Texcoco. A dissident group in Mexico-Tenochtitlan separated and founded the settlement of Mexico-Tlatelolco with its own dynastic lineage. The name Aztec was coined by Alexander von Humboldt who combined "Aztlan" ("place of the heron"), their mythic homeland, and "tec(atl)", 'people of'. The term Aztec is often used very broadly to refer not only to the Mexica, but also to the Nahuatl-speaking peoples or Nahuas of the Valley of Mexico and neighboring valleys.
After about 1200 CE, various nomadic peoples entered the Valley of Mexico, including the Mexica. When they arrived, they "encountered the remnants of the Toltec empire (Hicks 2008; Weaver 1972)." There were other groups, but all are believed to have the same origin in Aztlan. Given the Mexica's religious beliefs, it is said that they were actually searching for a sign which one of their main gods, Huitzilopochtli, had given them. 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 were to find "an eagle with a snake in its beak, perched on a prickly pear cactus." Wherever they saw that was where they were meant to live. They continuously searched for the symbol. Eventually, they happened to stumble upon 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.
A dissident group of Mexica separated from the main body and settled in a location slightly to the north of Tenochtitlan. 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. The Mexica were a Nahua people, who founded their two city-states, Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco, on raised islets in Lake Texcoco in 1325 and 1337, respectively. 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.
The Mexica, once established in Tenochtitlan, built grand temples for different purposes. The Templo Mayor, nearby buildings, and associated sculptures and offerings 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 particularly special for many reasons, specifically since it was "the site of large-scale sacrifices of enemy warriors which served intertwined political and religious ends (Berdan 1982: 111–119; Carrasco 1991)." The Templo Mayor was a double pyramid-temple dedicated to Tlaloc, the ancient Central Mexican rain god, and Huitzilopochtli, the Mexica tribal numen, who, as the politically-dominant deity in Mexico, was associated with the sun.
The Mexica are eponymous of the place name Mexico Mēxihco [meːˈʃiʔko]. It refers to the interconnected settlements in the valley that became the site of what is now Mexico City, which held natural, geographical, and population advantages, as the metropolitan center of the region of the future Mexican state. In the end, "the Mexica of Tenochtitlan were conquered by the Spanish conquistadors under Fernando (Hernán) Cortés in 1521."
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, dominating the Tarascan language, Purépecha. 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.