Decolonizing Aztlan

The inspiration to touch on this topic came from seeing a substantial amount of Chicanos and Mexican Indigenous identifying people still espousing an outdated colonial expression of Aztlan.  The goal here is to ensure that us Mesoamerican and Spanish-speaking Indigenous people keep the understanding of Aztlan rooted in an Indigenous worldview and to do away with the colonial contradiction that many still Chicanx partake in.  This piece is also to provide some clarity for U.S. area/ American Indian people who might be confused or offended by how they see the Aztlan symbol or terminology being used.


Historical Context: Aztlán’s Legacy from Myth to Movement

Aztlán, is the mythic homeland of the Mexica (Aztec) people, symbolizing the origins and identity of a civilization destined to find its promised land, where modern-day Mexico City now stands. Its precise location is debated, but its significance as a place of departure for the Mexica’s epic migration is central to our mythology and cultural identity.

Centuries later, Aztlán was embraced by the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 70s as a symbol of unity and resistance. For Chicanx activists, it represented not just a lost homeland but a reclaiming of our Indigenous and cultural roots, particularly in the American Southwest, a region deeply intertwined with Mexican American history pre-dating the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.

This revitalization of Aztlán connected contemporary struggles for civil rights with a broader narrative of belonging and resistance, transforming an ancient myth into a beacon for empowerment and cultural resurgence. By invoking Aztlán, the Chicano Movement highlighted the deep historical and spiritual ties to the land, asserting a powerful claim to identity, justice, and self-determination.


“Outdated Aztlán”: Re-evaluating a Symbol of Unity

The concept of Aztlán, as revitalized by the Chicano Movement in the 1960s and 70s, served as a potent symbol of cultural identity and political resistance. It represented a reclaiming of our ancestral lands and an assertion of the Chicanx community’s historical and cultural ties to the American Southwest, challenging the marginalization and erasure of our Mexican American histories and rights. This mobilization around Aztlán was driven by a combination of political and cultural motivations, seeking social justice, civil rights, and educational equality while also fostering a renewed sense of communal identity rooted in Indigenous heritage.

However, the adoption of Aztlán by the Chicano Movement, while revolutionary, carried within it the seeds of what some now critique as an “outdated” vision. This vision, primarily focused on the territorial and nationalist dimensions of identity, mirrors the colonial constructs it aimed to resist. The emphasis on reclaiming land based on historical grievances and nationalistic fervor risked overshadowing the deeper, more nuanced connections to place and heritage that characterize Indigenous relationships to land. Furthermore, the delineation of Aztlán as encompassing specific modern geopolitical borders inadvertently reinforced the very colonial legacies of border-making and exclusion the movement sought to challenge.


Outdated Aztlan Concept

The concept of Aztlán I’m addressing is the notion, held by some within the Chicanx community, that the U.S. Southwest should be reclaimed as the “Mexican homeland.” It’s crucial to distinguish this interpretation from the rich heritage of the Aztec-Mexica people and their capital, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the historical and cultural heart from which the modern nation of Mexico derives its name.

Often, this broader, land reclamation-oriented view of Aztlán is represented visually by symbols that incorporate the current colonial, geopolitical borders of the U.S. Southwest (see below). This imagery, rooted in historical claims between New Spain vs United States of America , reflects a colonial worldview that diverges from the Indigenous origins and meanings of Aztlán, emphasizing our need to clarify the understanding of the concept of Aztlan.


Outdated Aztlan


United Aztlan


The above images and flag sum up the colonial worldview oriented concept of Aztlan. Let us be clear that this imposition is not any different from the Eurocentric or Afrocentric political claims over Indigenous lands that many Chicanx claim to be against.


“This All Used to Be Mexico”

I know we’ve all heard this, and probably more often than we would like to. Mexicans who say this are far removed from their Indigenous identity and worldview. When they say “this all used to be Mexico” they are actually speaking about the colonial nation of Mexico which claimed all the southwest states you see outlined in the popular outdated Aztlan flag before it was taken over by the United States.

But let’s be clear, the country of Mexico (former New Spain)  that once “owned” the Southwest back then is oriented in the same colonial, Latin European ruling class that runs it now.  When one waves a flag or promotes an image of the outdated Aztlan they, whether they care to acknowledge it or not, are waving a symbol that implies the recolonization of the Southwest based in Eurocentric worldview and colonial borders.


Aztlan is a Real Place

Where exactly, I don’t know. But it is a real place with an important spotlight in the migration stories of the Aztec-Mexica peoples. It is said to be the place which the Aztec/Mexica peoples originate from before settling in Central Mexico. Migration stories give the impression of it being somewhere in the Southwest. Some also think it is in Northern Mexico while others consider it more of a mythical or spiritual place of origin. Nobody can say with authority where Aztlan actually is. One thing we do know for certain is that it is in the southwest — but it is not the southwest.


Chicano vs Mexica Understandings of Aztlan

Chicanxs with a deep connection to Mexica identity often engage in a sincere exploration of Indigenous knowledge and ways of life. Those well-versed in Mexica history view Aztlán primarily as an ancestral starting point. While some are focused on pinpointing Aztlán’s exact geographical location, they consciously avoid infusing this quest with colonial or nationalist agendas. They recognize the Southwest as an area rich in Indigenous heritage, as evidenced by the local languages and creation myths that tie ethnic Mexicans to these lands. Importantly, Mesoamerican-centric Chicanos refrain from making aggressive claims to the land that mimic colonial attitudes, focusing instead on Aztlán’s historical and spiritual significance.

The intersection of Chicanx and Mexicah identities can be complex, with varying degrees of experience with Indigenous authenticity. It’s been noted that some Chicanx activists adopt Indigenous identities in ways that appear superficial, particularly those who cling to the nationalist ideologies of the 60s and 70s, showing a zealous interest in reclaiming an “outdated” Aztlán. This observation isn’t meant to criticize but to highlight a possible phase in their Indigenosu reclamation journey. There appears to be a gap in embracing the full depth of Indigenous worldviews and practices among some within the Chicanx community, suggesting a need for continued education and reflection on what it means to genuinely connect understand Aztlan and with one’s Indigenous roots.



Keep Aztlan Indigenous 

While that outdated Aztlan may have served a good purpose for that time, the colonial concept it implies is something we need to disconnect from.  Especially if one is claiming Indigenous and Decolonization. You can’t speak of decolonizing and still hold on to this outdated concept and image of Aztlan. There is no way to justify it. If you didn’t recognize it as disrespect to U.S. area Indigenous peoples before then hopefully you can see it now.

Be proud about the true Aztlan. Understand that our Mesoamerican history is interwoven with all the Indigenous peoples of this hemisphere. Study it, try to find this beautiful “place of origins” whether physically or in your heart, but let us make sure we’re not disrespecting any of our Indigenous family and perpetuating a disguised colonial mentality in that process.

Ma xipatinemi. (be well)





About the author

Miguel Quimichipilli Bravo— Chicano-P'urhepecha from Venice, CA. Native-Indigenous spiritual activist, educator, lettering artist, musician, and Native spiritual run organizer since 2002.