Yesterday a blogger posted a lengthy review of Saturday’s America Unearthed episode, and while I don’t agree with all of the points made in it, I did appreciate that it was harsher and meaner than anything I’ve written—going so far as to describe Wolter’s normal mode of operation as “belligerent.” Somehow, however, no fans of Scott Wolter have visited her blog to complain about her handling of the program or to insist that it’s only entertainment.
The blogger rightly focused, as did I, on Dr. Roberto Rodriguez, and his bizarre claims about maps. I find his claims fascinating—not because they’re true but because they are so designed to twist history in order to further a Mexican immigration-reform agenda. I’d like to explore Dr. Rodriguez’s ideas a bit more.
Rodriguez earned a PhD in Mass Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008, but before this he spent several decades as a journalist and a newspaper columnist. He is not a trained Aztec migration expert as America Unearthed asserted. His wife Patrisia Gonzalez was also a newspaper columnist, and together they published a collection of their writings on race and immigration issues called Gonzales/Rodriguez Uncut & Uncensored (1997). Rodriguez must also be the same Roberto Rodriguez who wrote Justice: A Question of Race that same year, detailing his two-decade struggle to understand white anti-Mexican racism following his beating by (white) sheriff’s deputies in Los Angeles while serving as a journalist in 1979, and the subsequent civil suit he attempted to bring against the officers involved.
Following this event, Rodriguez devoted his life to advocating for the rights of Mexican and Latino immigrants to the United States. This took a turn into fringe history in 1998 when Rodriguez accepted fringe historical ideas in order to promote the political idea that the United States was the natural and original homeland of the Mexicans and therefore should not restrict immigration from Latin America, particularly Mexico.
In 1998, Rodriguez and his wife learned about an 1847 map made in conjunction with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (it be viewed at large size here), which would end the Mexican-American War with the cession of a large area of Mexican territory to the United States in 1848. Under the terms of the treaty, Mexicans living in newly-American territory could become U.S. citizens, and 90% did.
Rodriguez claimed that the map “indisputably” shows the ancient homeland of the Aztecs, the “Antigua Residencia de los Aztecas,” in the Four Corners region of what is now the U.S. The map does indeed show this, but it shows it in 1847, which is more than three decades after Baron Alexander von Humboldt popularized the Aztec myth (known in scholarly literature long before) that the Aztec had come from the north. The map applies the name to what is very likely the ruins of Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde, which had then been known for at least twenty years. (Chaco Canyon was officially discovered in 1823.) I would consider it more than likely that the mapmaker was applying the Aztec myth to the Anasazi (Ancestral Pueblo) cliff dwellings in an attempt to explain the brick ruins in terms of a known high culture rather than attributing them to the Native Americans, whom America had just removed from their lands under the theory that they were culturally backward and benighted savages who lacked the rudiments of high culture.
A second supposed Aztec homeland (“Ruinas de las Casas 2das de los Aztecas”) is also marked on the map along the Gila River, correlating very closely with the Casa Grande ruins, known since 1687 and explored by the Spanish in 1694 and the 1700s and by the United States in 1846. This correlation helps to prove that the U.S. mapmaker was attempting to name Anasazi ruins in terms of the Aztec migration myth. Additional Aztec sites are listed further down in Mexico.
Rodriguez, however, points to a 1771 Spanish map by Nicholas de Lafora, which depicts the “Casas de Montezuma” in the same location on the Gila River. He claims this proves that the U.S. mapmaker wasn’t making up an Aztec connection to America, but given that this site correlates very closely to the known ruins of Casa Grande, described in Spanish literature back to the 1600s, this doesn’t really prove what he thinks it does. It only shows that the Spanish assumed that the ruins had belonged to the Aztecs when they first stumbled across them.
Indeed, when we review the relevant literature, we find that indeed the Spanish historians of the 1700s had wrongly attributed the Gila ruins to the Aztecs, as the U.S. Department of the Interior reported in its official report on the Gila Ruins in 1913. The confusion occurred because the Spanish missionary who found Casa Grande in 1687, Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, mistakenly believed Casas Grande was Chichilticalli, a semi-mythical city seen by Coronado and wrongly though to be the northern stronghold of the Aztecs (not their homeland). Later historians followed Kino and associated the Aztecs with Casas Grande, and thus also with similar Pueblo ruins across what was then the Mexican northwest, now the U.S. southwest. The U.S. government itself published what Rodriguez claims as his own “discovery,” that old Spanish and Mexican maps assigned the “Aztecs” to various Pueblo sites. By the time of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, there was apparently a wrongheaded idea that the Anasazi and Pueblo sites were the successive occupations of the Aztecs on their mythical southern journey from Aztlán.
This was an artifact of the colonial period, not a genuine Aztec belief. We know this because we have the documentation of who first saw each ruin and what they called them. The Aztecs themselves said nothing of the Pueblo, though there was obviously influence from Mesoamerica in the desert southwest, such as the Mexican-style ball court at Hohokam. It was this cultural diffusion that helped cement the idea that the “Aztecs” had once ruled the southwest. Later, as knowledge grew, scholars recognized that the Aztecs were too recent to have been associated with these pueblos and instead assigned them to the Toltecs, from which we find the fringe history idea that the Jews who cast the Tucson Lead Artifacts battled the Toltecs!
The idea of a more distant migration for the Aztecs than the (current) Mexican-U.S. border derives from Alexander von Humboldt, who in 1810 wrongly calculated mathematically from a literal reading of the Aztec origin myth that they had walked from the forty-second parallel; from Josiah Priest, who popularized the claim; and from Joseph Smith, who made it part of the teachings of the Mormon church in his “Traits of the Mosaic History Found among the Aztaeca Nations.” As mentioned, when the U.S. began surveying the Pueblo ruins in the 1840s, officials recognized they were not culturally connected to the Aztec and the Aztec name dropped off the maps. It wasn’t a conspiracy but science; it is only the failure of Rodriguez to connect the older map sites to Anasazi or Pueblo ruins that makes it look like one.
Rodriguez, however, admitted in his 2008 PhD dissertation, whose subject was trans-continental indigenous corn myth communication over the past 7,000 years, that the site of Casas Grande was likely the site identified as an Aztec habitation on the maps, but he denied that this had anything to do with Spanish exploration or historiography. Instead, he asserts that the idea came from “pre-Columbian codices (and oral traditions) and chronicles that recorded these oral traditions.” He can’t name any, however, and instead points to a map made in 1940 (!) as showing the Olmec migrating to Mexico from Michigan, which I have not seen and cannot evaluate on its merits. Perhaps it was attempting to show very early migrations from Asia and the peoples who much later arose from their descendants.
Rodriguez concluded that Eurocentric bias prevented Western scholars from recognizing indigenous maps, many of which were destroyed. What remains, in the form of picture-writing, looks to Westerners like art. Therefore, he explains, indigenous maps can only be understood in terms of myth, specifically corn myths, allowing him to follow Humboldt in assigning geographic correlates to each aspect of the Aztec migration myth based on what I can only describe as “looks like, therefore is.” But even Humboldt recognized this didn’t work very well since there are no palm trees in the northern lands where he wanted to put Aztlán despite the appearance of palm trees on indigenous “maps” of the mythic location.
All of this, though, received a preview in 1998, when Rodriguez and his wife reported on the 1847 map: “To us, it’s as if the map has lifted an oppressive aura of ‘suspicion’ from the psyche of Mexicans/Central Americans—populations that have been deemed to be illegitimate by some in U.S. society.” For them, identifying the Aztecs with the United States legitimized Latino presence in America as natural and sanctioned by history.
But there was more.
The two authors took inspiration from Cecilio Orozco, a professor of education at Cal State, who used what he called “archaeo-astronomy” and a photograph of four rivers in Utah to determine that the Great Salt Lake must be the original Aztec homeland. He had based his work on that of the Mexican scholar Alfonso Rivas-Salmón. The short version is that for him the Aztec words Nahuatl (four waters) and Huehuetlapallan (place of many colors) meant the four rivers that cut across the “colorful” rocks of Utah. (Remember: “looks like, therefore is.”) He further asserted that Quetzalcoatl was the “Egyptian” phoenix, and that all of this was encoded in “mathematical formulae” in Utah petroglyphs—despite the phoenix being a Greek myth, possibly distorting the Egyptian solar benu bird. He turned this into a one-hour course he provided, for a fee, to those interested in learning about the “greatness” of Native Americans. Orozco died in 2012.
Here’s how Rodriguez and Gonzales discussed Orozco and the 1847 map in 1998:
The moral argument used against Mexicans in the immigration debate -- that they are invading aliens -- has been rendered completely baseless by Orozco's research and the  map. It ends the debate. He [Orozco] related that he spends lots of time presenting this information to children so that they know that "our roots are absolutely here in the United States." […] No child should ever be made to feel like an alien anywhere in the world. This map, to the chagrin of xenophobes, moves our society in a better direction.
In short, Rodriguez and Gonzales wanted the map to serve as proof that Mexicans were indigenous to the United States and therefore were rightful occupants of the land.
In his PhD dissertation, Rodriguez took this still further, directly asserting that the maps he claimed to be evidence of Aztec occupation of America serve as inspiration for Chicano/a people and “proclaimed Indigeneity to lands in which Mexicans had traditionally been framed by the U.S. master-narrative as aliens and unwanted strangers.” Further, these maps have “created a new narrative and a new identity for peoples who, a generation ago, still accepted the imposed alien frames of mainstream society” and declared the story of the Aztec and Toltec origins of America “an ancient one.”
That’s a lot of weight to place on a Spanish map mix-up, and it’s also vaguely imperialistic in a new direction, creating a modern myth to situate Latinos in a modern American context while, again, denying the Native Americans their own heritage since in this reading they are simply adjacent to the superior cultures of Mexico. It also shows that mass communication programs have no concept of history and let all sorts of unjustifiable fringe history nonsense pass through under the guise of “communication” studies. Such claims have largely escaped the notice of archaeology because they are sequestered in the morass of communication and ethnic studies.
How does one get a PhD in Mass Communication writing about Aztec origin theories and prehistoric, trans-continental corn myths? This research really ought to be anthropology, not communication (mass or otherwise), but I suppose if he tried to do so, anthropologists would be unlikely to accept it, not least for the reasons outlined above.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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