This book is about how the Aztecs, in less than a century, carved out an empire that incorporated most of ancient Mesoamerica, about their conquest by the soldiers of Hernán Cortés, and about what happened to their descendants. Its author, Fernando Horcasitas, is a respected Aztec ethnohistorian and Mesoamerican ethnologist. The approach Horcasitas takes is descriptive. He tells the story of the Aztecs, from their earliest beginnings as a tribe in search of a homeland to modern times. The text is oriented to the lay reader. Thus, a background in Aztec archaeology and ethnohistory is not required to appreciate the feats of this remarkable people.
The Aztecs Then and Now is divided into seven parts. In the first, Horcasitas presents a brief summary of Basin of Mexico prehistory. His concern is not with describing the archaeological record. Rather, he wants to show how the earlier civilizations of Tula and Teotihuacán figured into Aztec cosmology and mythology. The Quetzalcoatl myth, in particular, is discussed in detail. Horcasitas then presents a history of the Aztec empire. He describes the Aztec migration from legendary Aztlán, their life as a subject people to Culhuacan and Azcapotazlco, the period of empire-building, especially during the reigns of Moctezuma Ilhuicamina and Ahuitzotl, and the conquest-period Aztecs of Tenochtitlán. Horcasitas takes care to point out that the Spanish forces were successful not so much because of technological superiority, but because the empire was only a loose collection of tributary provinces that turned against the Aztecs.
The remainder of the book describes what parts of their cultural heritage were preserved after the conquest, how Aztec culture was transformed during colonial times, how the Indians were manipulated by the Spaniards, and the impact of Christianity on value and belief systems. Also presented is a summary of the Nahuas (Nahuatl speakers) of today. Horcasitas’s intent is to contrast what we know about preconquest lifeways with those same elements of Nahua culture that still persist in rural Mexico.
Horcasitas’s account of Aztec history and lifeways is concise and well written, and the book is well illustrated, with photographs from archival sources and line drawings (by Alberto Beltrán). This book should be read by all of the lay public interested in Aztec culture. It should also be required reading for all Latin Americanists touring the Aztec world who are unfamiliar with the accomplishments of this most astonishing of pre-Columbian civilizations.