As a region in mythical geography, Aztlán (the land of the [white] herons) has a long history. According to the Náhuatl myth, the Aztecs (whose name is derived from Aztlán) were the last remaining tribe of seven, and they were advised by their god Huitzilopochtli to leave Aztlán in search of the promised land, which they would know by an eagle sitting on a cactus, devouring a serpent. They found it, and there they built Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. Later the Aztecs remembered the region of their origin as an earthly paradise. Wanting to know more about it, Moctezuma Ilhuicamina (r. 1440–1469) sent his priests in search of Aztlán. They found it and gave the ruler a hyperbolic description of the place, as told by Diego Durán (1537–1588) in his Historia de las Indias de Nueva-España y Islas de Tierra Firme, a work finished in 1581 and translated into English in 1964 as The Aztecs. Although other early historians mention Aztlán, Durán presents the most elaborated description of the utopian nature of the city.
With few exceptions, the topic of mythical Aztlán was forgotten until the 1960s, when the rebirth of the myth flourished in Chicano thought. The cultural nationalists—one of the most important branches of the Chicano movement—appropriated the term Aztlán to establish the indigenous nature of their culture, a characteristic central to their philosophy. The appropriation of the myth took place during the "Crusade for Justice Youth Conference," held in Denver in March 1969. It was there that for the first time the myth of Aztlán was mentioned in a Chicano document, "El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán."
"El Plan," which owes its creation to the poet Alurista, became the cultural nationalists' manifesto. First, it establishes the unique nature of Chicano culture, since La Raza (the Bronze race) has an Aztec origin. The Spanish word raza means "the people," and raza de bronce means "the brown people," who claim to be descendants of the Aztecs. Second, it identifies Aztlán as the Mexican territory ceded to the United States in 1848—that is, present-day California, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado. Third, following one of the basic ideas of the Mexican Revolution, it recognizes that the land belongs to those who work it. And fourth, it identifies the Chicano nation with Aztlán.
Aztlán became the symbol most used by Chicanos and Chicanas—activists as well as authors—writing about the history, the culture, or the destiny of their people. In April 1969 a group of concerned activists met in Santa Barbara and drafted El Plan de Santa Barbara: A Chicano Plan for Higher Education. Recommendation number nine deals with students' organizations: "The various students groups, MAYA, MASC, UMAS, adopt a united name as symbol and promise; such as CAUSA (Chicano Alliance for United Student Action) or MECHA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Azatlán)" (p. 22). The name MECHA was adopted and is much in the news, as during the 2003 elections for governor of California one of the candidates, Cruz Bustamante, was attacked for having belonged to MECHA during his student days.
During the spring of 1970 the first number of the journal Aztlán (still in existence) was published, and in it the plan was reproduced in both English and Spanish. The prologue consists of a piece by the Chicano poet Alurista (b. 1947), "Poem in Lieu of Preface," in which he unites the mythical Aztec past with the present. From that year on books based on the concept of Aztlán multiplied. The myth of Aztlán was popular not only among academics, but also among the common people. According to Michael Pina:
A cultural renaicense inspired by the powerful ideological thrust of cultural nationalism swept through the barrios of the Southwest.… Chicanos turned to pre-Hispanic myths and symbols.… The most outstanding example of this practice is illustrated by the vital role that the Aztec myth of Aztlán played in the development of Chicano nationalism. (Anaya and Lomelí, p. 40)
Artists and dramatists also took up the concept. In 1971 Luis Valdez (b. 1940), who had helped César Chávez organize the farm workers, published his collection Actos (one-act plays). In the preliminary piece, "Notes on Chicano Theater," Valdez states, "The concept for a national theatre for La Raza is intimately related to our evolving nationalism in Aztlán" (p. 3).
The myth has been utilized with advantage for political purposes. The novels of Miguel Méndez (b. 1930) and Rudolfo Anaya (b. 1937) are examples representative of two aspects of cultural nationalism based on the concept of Aztlán. In Peregrinos de Aztlán (1974) Méndez depicts the plight of the Yaqui Indians of the border in their peregrination back to Aztlán. The narrator, the old Yaqui Loreto Maldonado, tormented by the memories of his fallen and abused people, wants to take them back to Aztlán, the lost paradise.
Anaya's Heart of Aztlán (1976) is also a novel about the search for Aztlán. Clemente Chávez, a man of some years, goes to the mountains, guided by the blind minstrel Crispín, on a truly imaginary pilgrimage: "They walked to the land where the sun rises, and … they found new signs, and the signs pointed them back to the center, back to Aztlán" (Anaya, pp. 129–130). For Anaya, Aztlán is not a political concept but a personal one. Clemente finds Aztlán in his own heart. "Time stood still, and in that enduring moment he felt the rhythm of the heart of Aztlán beat to the measure of his own heart.… A joyful power coursed from the dark womb-heart of the earth into his soul and he cried out I AM AZTLAN!" (Anaya, p. 131). This spiritual interpretation of Aztlán has been criticized by writers who believe that Chicano literature should be social, that literature of this type "didn't contribute to that movement, or to bettering the life of the people in any way" (Johnson and Apodaca, p. 424).
For Clemente the search for Aztlán has ended. In a similar way it has also ended for the followers of cultural nationalism, as the movement—like the social movements of other ethnic groups—came to an end in the early 1980s. Even Alurista, the creator of the nationalist concept of Aztlán, in an interview with Wolfgang Binder agreed about the danger of idealizing the Aztecs and their myths. "Yes, without question, and I see it now" he said in 1981. "At the moment we are talking of a period during which the call of arms was the cry for self determination. So it was very important to be proud of everything we had been" (p. 4). In the early 2000s younger Chicanos and Chicanas considered the idealization of Aztec mythology as belonging to a romantic period in the history of their culture. While the symbolism of Aztlán still resonated in the literature, art, and political legacies that it helped inspire, few idealized that aspect of their historical past.