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Stories of Emancipation: Aztecs and Israelites

Growing up as a Jew in Mexico exposed me to two narratives of brutal oppression—and peoplehood

Alan Grabinsky
April 05, 2017
"The Conquest of Tenochtitlan" from the Conquest of México series, representing the 1521 Fall of Tenochtitlan in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire.Wikimedia
"The Conquest of Tenochtitlan" from the Conquest of México series, representing the 1521 Fall of Tenochtitlan in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire.Wikimedia

Every Monday morning, in elementary school in Mexico City, I would line up next to my classmates in the main yard. As we looked up the red, white, and green flag we would sing a hymn to the Mexican flag, with our hands to our chests. The ritual was, and still is, repeated across Mexico. Atop the flag is a ubiquitous Mexican emblem: an image of an eagle, standing on top of a cactus, devouring a snake. The story behind this image is known to everyone in Mexico but to me, as a Mexican Jew, the symbol has taken on an added meaning with time, especially around Passover.

The Mexicas, later called the Aztecs by the Spaniards, escaped oppression from their tyrannical rulers called the Azteca Chicomoztoca in northern Mexico because they heeded a calling from Huitzilopotchli, a Mesoamerican deity who promised them a glorious and powerful empire if they left the region. Their priests led them out and, after roaming around the Central Mexican Valley for 150 years, they finally found the sign—an eagle eating the snake on top of a cactus—that would show them where to build their future capital, Tenochtitlan, thus laying the foundations for what is now Mexico City.

The parallels between the liberation of the Children of Israel and the Aztecs, both of whom were oppressed, became obvious as I grew up. It was not only the tales of a people wandering that drew me in, but the fact that both stories end in massive violence, reflecting the trauma that historically (and religiously) comes with establishing sovereignty. Joshua enters the land of Israel triumphantly after the slave generation—and thousands of idolatrous Jews—are left behind to die in the desert. The Aztecs gained power after working for decades as mercenary warriors for the nearby Tepanecas, whom they later subverted mercilessly.

Yet it was only recently, in an article by the Mexican-Jewish historian Enrique Krauze, that it dawned on me that these two stories actually collide, in a sense, into one. According to Krauze, writing in the prestigious magazine Letras Libres in 2010, the stories of the Israelites and the Aztecs were so similar that the Spanish priest Diego Duran, one of the first chroniclers of the New World—and according to some historians, a crypto-Jew himself—went so far as to assert, based on what he heard from the Aztecs, that they were descendants from Jews. Like many chroniclers, Duran thought that the Exodus was a historical fact and that the indigenous people of the Americas were connected to the biblical tribes: “This is not a symbolic interpretation. Duran really believes, or seems to believe, that the Aztecs had Hebrew linage,” writes Krauze.

The story of the Aztecs’ Exodus was the ultimate proof on a common background. In his most famous book, The History of the India’s of New Spain, Duran goes so far as to state, dubiously, that the indigenous tale of expulsion also included a scene of parting waters. In fact he is so keen on drawing connections between the Aztecs and the Jews that he even frames Aztec idolatry in Jewish terms: “What really forces me to believe that these Indians have Hebrew linage is their strange persistence in not letting go of their idolatries and superstitions—they part and come back again to them, just like their ancestors. David says in Psalm 105 that the Jews would first ask for God’s clemency and forgiveness, yet as soon as they felt lost they would go back to idolatry and to sacrificing their sons and daughters to demons.”

If the Aztecs ever descended from Jews I can tell you one thing: it wasn’t though my family. Mine arrived in Mexico City a little less than a century ago, and the first Jews to come to Latin America, as proven by a recently found manuscript by Luis Carbajal, came as crypto-Jews during the 16 century. Still, there’s something that remains relevant about these foundational myths, specially in the context of Mexico, a country whose third largest source of income is generated by nationals living abroad. They are both stories of migration, violence, and— ultimately—emancipation.

Alan Grabinsky is a freelance writer and journalist based in Mexico City, covering Jewish life and urban issues for international media.