28 Jan 2008
Fifty years before Columbus discovered America, the Aztec Empire had become the new Mexican nation. With an army often exceeding 200,000 men, they were the most powerful and feared civilization in the Americas. They conquered or formulated alliances with the Mixteco, the Zapateco, and other groups of people.
They founded the city of Tenochtitlan, now known as Mexico City, the largest city in the world.
They built huge pyramids and offered up human sacrifices to appease their gods.
They saw active volcanoes as a place where some of their gods lived. The 18,000 ft. Mount Popocatepetl near Puebla was believed to be the home of their rain god, Tlaloc. The frequent plumes of steam, smoke and ash from the huge volcanic crater were considered as signs from this rain god.
By the time the Spanish colonists arrived in 1519, the Aztecs were in firm control of Mexico. But things quickly changed. The well-equipped band of Spanish soldiers destroyed this vast empire.
Today, there are about 2-1/2 million descendents of the Aztec scattered throughout central and southern Mexico but they are no longer called Aztec. Instead, they are called speakers of Nahuatl or simply the Nahuatl.
Their power and prestige gone, the remnant now survives as subsistence farmers. Some live in the lowlands tending large irrigated farms while others work the soil along the steep mountain slopes.
Prickly pear cactus, known as nopal is an important cash crop. The dry sandy soil provides ideal growing conditions for this plant, which is used as a vegetable in soups, salads, and as a stand-alone plate.
Fields of pineapple, like that of the nopal, are common in the lowlands. This too is an important cash crop and is sold in markets throughout Mexico. Roadside stands cater to tourists eager for fresh picked pineapple ripened to the peak of flavor.
Sugarcane is grown in places where irrigation water is available. Much of the harvesting is done by hand and then loaded onto large trucks that haul the stalks to a sugar refinery in one of the nearby towns.
Corn is the staple food crop for the Nahuatl and is grown in large irrigated fields as well as small plots of land on the steep mountain slopes. Most often it is cultivated and harvested by hand. The dried and shelled corn is ground and then used to make tortillas, the favorite staple of all Mexico. The stalks are used as animal fodder and often carried out of the fields on the backs of burros.
Tlaloc, the rain god, is still worshipped by many of these farmers as they take food offerings up to the crater rim of Mount Popocatepetl. They pray to this god asking that the offering will bring a bountiful harvest. Hundreds of thousands of people live around the base of the smoking mountain but few fear another major eruption as occurred in 1994. The tourist facilities at 13,000 feet, and within walking distance of the crater, are always filled with curious visitors and vendors alike.
The Catholic Church became the central focus of the communities from the time of the arrival of the Spanish missionaries despite the Nahuatl pagan worship activities. It remains so today. Large churches, sometimes only one other times several are located in each town. The Aztecs, the same people who built huge pyramids as worship places for their pagan gods, were conscripted by the Spanish priests to build these new places of worship.
At first, the indigenous people of Mexico were not accepted into the new religion but, in 1531, an Aztec who became known as Juan Diego displayed an image to the Catholic priest. This image, later celebrated as the Virgin of Guadalupe, was the unifying force between the Spanish colonists and the indigenous population of Mexico.
The Virgin of Guadalupe has been given titles such as the Queen of Mexico and the Celestial Patron of Latin America. Each year hundreds of thousands of devout followers from all over the country make the pilgrimage to Mexico City in expectation of a special blessing at the Basilica of Guadalupe. Some go by bus and truck while others walk. Many ride bicycles but, regardless of the mode of transportation, all carry some type of likeness of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The Nahuatl feel that through sacrificial practices and devotion to the saints they are assured of salvation. Most do not have a personal relationship with Jesus.
It is estimated that even though 95% of the 2.5 million Nahuatl call themselves Christians less than 4% of this group know Jesus as their Savior. There are over 25 dialects of Nahuatl spoken. Some of these dialects have very few believers or churches
and their buildings are not as impressive as that of the Catholic Church, but they will sing of the joy of knowing Jesus as their Lord and Master.
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