One of the first decisions I had to make when writing scripts for the Aztec Empire comic book series was what to call the Aztec and the Spaniards. I went with those names because they’re the most familiar and immediately understandable today. But during the Spanish-Aztec War, the Aztec didn’t call themselves Aztec, and Spaniards didn’t call themselves Spaniards. So why do we call them that?
At the time of Cortes’ arrival in 1519, the Aztec called themselves Mexica. Three centuries earlier, they were known as Aztlaneca or Azteca. They migrated from a place known as Aztlan, along with eight other nomadic tribes, to an island in Lake Texcoco. Legend has it that upon seeing an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its beak, the Azteca interpreted this as a sign from their god Huitzilopochtli and decided to set down roots.
In reality, the nomadic tribe sought the protection of the local lord, Tezozomoc, who permitted them to settle on the island in the middle of Lake Texcoco as tributaries. In 1325 they began building the city of Tenochtitlan and renamed themselves Mexica. By 1428, they controlled the entire Lake Texcoco region.
In the 18th century, Francisco Echegaray wrote The History of Ancient Mexico, using the word Aztec to distinguish the pre-conquest Mexica from contemporary Mexicans. The term gained popularity in the 19th century when it was used by German explorer Alexander von Humboldt in memoirs of his journey to Mexico. It became a permanent label after 1843, when William Prescott published his authoritative and popular book The History of the Conquest of Mexico. Today, Aztec and Maya are the names most commonly used for pre-conquest indigenous Mexicans.
When Cortes landed in Mexico, Spain had only recently become a nation after a long series of wars and consolidation of kingdoms. The new nation’s crown and language, a dialect of Spanish, were both known as Castilian—which was how the conquistadors referred to themselves.
The names of the main characters in the story have also evolved over the centuries. Cortes was never known as Hernan during his lifetime, though that version seems trendy now. He went by Hernando and sometimes Fernando. Similarly, Montezuma was the standard Latin alphabet spelling of the Aztec emperor’s name for centuries, but now Moctezuma is the norm. The most accurate transliteration, according to current scholars, is supposed to be Motecuhzoma.
The most important figure in the epic also has the most appellations. Cortes’ translator Malinalli was supposedly named for the day she was born: the twelfth day of the Aztec month, which is also the Nahuatl word for grass. Unfortunately, it cannot be proven that Malinalli was her original name, a clear historical record of it does not exist. She was baptized as Marina by the Spaniards, who eventually entitled her Dona Marina. She also became respected enough by the Aztec that a nobiliary particle, "-tzin," was added to her name. This made her Malintzin.
Malinche has a convoluted etymology. As Cortes made his way inland toward Tenochtitlan, the locals began to address him by her name Malintzin. It was initially a sardonic comment on the fact that a teenage girl was the appointed spokesperson for such an imposing foreign military leader. The person who Malinali speaks for, was the gist of the sobriquet. One conquistador interpreted it as "the captain of Marina." Malintzin was corrupted by the Spanish into Malinche and, in the centuries that followed, came to be used as the native name of Dona Marina.
Ultimately, the young woman known as La Malinche became a problematic symbol: both the mother of modern Mexico and the great betrayer of her people. Today the epithet malinchista means a Mexican who prefers foreign things and/or disregards their own culture.
It’s all in a name.