Jun 072010

This is the third in our series of guest blogs by Fatimah Araneta.

Fatimah Araneta grew up in Mexico City. After gaining a Masters in City Planning at Berkeley, California, she opted to eschew city life and direct her energy and attention to living in tune with what’s left of Mother Earth before it all gets paved over and criss-crossed with cabled and non-cabled networks. She lives “off the grid” in the shadow of the volcano she prefers to call Chicnautécatl.

Part 3 – How the Spanish colonization of Mexico contributed to its place names

Santiago Tuxtla coat of arms

Santiago Tuxtla coat of arms

The third layer was bestowed by the Spanish colonizers. Some places received the names of cities in Spain, such as León (in the state of Guanajuato) or Córdoba (in the state of Veracruz). Sometimes the original Nahuatl was maintained but mispronounced so much that the name became corrupted, as in Churubusco, which used to be called Huitzilopochco. Some other times the name of a saint was added to the place name, as in Santiago Tuxtla, Santa Teresa Tiloxtoc or San Miguel Chapultepec.

The choice of the saintly counterpart to an already existing place name was hardly ever a frivolous decision. The different religious orders who set out to convert the indigenous populations to Christianity had their preferences. The Franciscans, for example, relied on Saint Michael to be their champion in the battle against the devils of the New World. Luckily for the evangelizing friars, Saint Michael also happened to possess attributes that made it easy for this religious icon to be accepted by the potential converts.

In the Old World, apparitions of Saint Michael had first taken place on mountaintops (high places near heaven from which he had banished Lucifer) and caves (since he was also in charge of assisting departing souls into the netherworld). Later, he would become involved in miraculous apparitions of springs of water, as in Mont Saint Michel in northern France, and was henceforth increasingly associated with the agricultural cycles of sowing and harvest.

At the same time, a very important figure in the prehispanic pantheon was Tláloc, the rain god, venerated too on mountaintops and at the entrances of caves, since it was believed that mountains were the containers of the weather. It was to Tláloc that one turned to ask for abundant rain for the crops, as well as mercy from the snakes of fire, or lightning bolts, that could inflict so much damage. Images of Tláloc depict him holding a bolt of lightning in one hand, not very differently from how images of Saint Michael show him wielding a flaming sword.

Thus, with this third layer of meaning, a place name in Mexico gives many clues to the past. If  “San Miguel” is part of the name it could be telling us that Franciscan friars had been in charge of the place at one time; that there could have been a cult to Tláloc; that the place was and could still be of hydrological importance; and that it could have been and could still be the focus of religious pilgrimages related to agricultural cycles.

The next part will consider how some Mexican places were rechristened during Mexico’s independent era (post 1821).

Click on the word “placenames” or the “placenames” tag for more articles about Mexico’s place names.


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