Editorial by Reporting San Diego
April 17, 2017 (San Diego) it is well past time for San Diego State to leave the Aztecs in the past. But before we go into why San Diego State needs to do that, first the history is important. It is a history that is not well-known, even if it should be known. So why did San Diego State adopt the Aztec as a symbol to begin with?
The administration of what was known at the time as the San Diego State Normal College wanted an identity in 1925. At the time there was a confluence of events that led to the adoption of the Aztec as the Normal School identity and later mascot. The dominant theories of where the Nahua people migrated to Central valley of Mexico placed the legendary place of the heron,, Aztlán, at several locations. One was New Mexico, another was the American Southwest. It was that nebulous, and to a point, it remains such. However, It was close enough for government work. The original home of the Aztecs could very well be in San Diego if you follow that logic. The other mythical place was Chicomostoc, the place of the seven caves. According to Miguel Leon-Portilla, an expert in the field, references to both are found in several codices. Yet, the exact mythical location for origin is not known. It is a myth for a reason.
However, linguistics offers a clue to that origin in the geographic space. The first speakers of Nahuatl arrived in the Valley of Mexico coming from the Northeast of the Mexican states of Michoacán and Jalisco. This is nowhere close to the American southwest. We are offering this as both backgrounds, and to show how research, in particular in Mexico, has changed our base knowledge.
The second force was the ideology of the noble savage. An Aztec warrior was seen as noble and with honor. At the time they went even further, adopting Montezuma, the next to last emperor of the Mexica, who welcomed Hernán Cortés to Mesoamerica.
The third force was the ideology of white supremacy, which in the San Diego of 1925 was ever present. Here is where the school colors arguably took form. During those years it was common for theater productions to include people in both red and black face. It was also a time when the Klu Klux Klan walked our streets openly. Not just that. It was an active participant in San Diego politics. This was not just San Diego. The KKK openly participated in American politics.
To judge that administration by modern standards of diversity and acceptance would be silly, and truly a fool’s errand. However, we cannot use that same standard for the current administration. SDSU is an institution of higher learning. They should stop resisting these recurrent efforts to remove what should be seen as an insult from the campus. Nor is the effort by different student bodies to remove this mascot new.
When I was a graduate student at San Diego State, there were leafleting campaigns from the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MECHA) on why using an Aztec Emperor was cultural appropriation, and yes, white supremacy. Their efforts bore fruit. In 2001 San Diego State got rid of the Montezuma Mascot. This was the first time since Art Munzig first dressed in the Aztec Warrior dress in 1941 that the university found itself without that mascot. They were joined in this effort by the Native American Student Alliance.
Depending on who you read, this 2014 Daily Aztec piece is rather comprehensive, there are slightly different versions of events.
The Aztec Mesa has a comprehensive thread about that issue that mentions both groups. From my memory as a graduate student, this was a real thing in the 1990s, that mostly remained within both MECHA and the Native American Student Alliance. Whether there were internal divisions within those Student groups, I don’t know.
The next big push, after President Dr. Stephen L. Webber, commissioned a white paper and had a survey among alumni. Montezuma was replaced as the campus mascot by what is really a cartoon of an Eagle House warrior. Among those lobbying for this were those former students who portrayed “Monty” over the years.
This Aztec warrior was the new mascot and they believed this settled the issue. Then came 2014 when the SDSU Queer People of Color Collective when they submitted a resolution to change the mascot. Now fast forward to today, when it is the Native American Student Alliance.
Like in previous attempts, many alumni, oppose this move. Others are in favor. As a student, I did not say exactly what I thought. As an immigrant to this country from Mexico City, I put my nose to the grindstone. However, both “Monty” and “Aztec” in this context were offensive to me from the first day I walked into the campus in 1984 for orientation. Perhaps because unlike many other alumni, I grew up in the shadow of the once grand Aztec empire. I was surrounded by ruins, of not just Aztecs, but Teotihuacanos, Toltecs, and Maya, to mention a few.
Mexico is proud of this heritage. But Mexicans are also aware that Nahuatl is still spoken, fluently, by one and a half million Mexicans. There is another million who are exclusively Spanish speakers who are also members of this ethnic group. Some of the gods of the Mesoamerican pantheon survive to this day, even if they have taken a very Catholic taste. Mother Coyoaxalqui remains, in the Catholic Pantheon, for example. Corpus Christi is not just a Catholic holiday, and in some ways follows patterns of belief much older than the Aztecs.
The day of the dead traces its roots to well before Cortez landed on these shores and burned those ships off Veracruz almost 500 years ago. There is a connection to that past in the pozolerias and pulquerias that exist to this day in central Mexico. A simple bowl of beans, with epazote, serrano pepper and tortillas is connected to 10 thousand years of history. The dance groups blessing the four cardinal points at demonstrations in San Diego are part of that present reality. There are many other groups in central Mexico who perform the same exact dances and burn the sacred sage, in front of pueblo churches during a saint’s birthday.
It is past time for SDSU to shed that mascot. It is a cultural appropriation and in the worst of cases white supremacy in action. I understand why many alumni want this to continue. It is the tradition. But as somebody who grew up reading Miguel Leon-Portilla, and the poems that emerged from Netzahualpilli, poet king of Texcoco, it is high time. The identity was not chosen to honor a culture, one that survives to this day. Yes, the Aztec Empire is dead, yet it persists.
San Diego State should listen to the Native American Alliance. They speak for the Nahuatl people that still walk this earth. I fully support them.