Friday, March 9, 2007

What is a Chichimeca?

Some of you have been wondering what exactly is a Chichimeca, other than one of those strange, long Mesoamerican words that pop out every now and then. Those of you who aren't interested in my archaeologist/professorial side may want to skip this entry...

Chichimec is a word used by Mesoamerican people to describe the foreigners who lived to the north of their civilization. Some archaeologists have named the general region that these peoples came from the "Gran Chichimeca". In modern geographical terms this area begins roughly around Jalisco, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, and continues north through Zacatecas, Durango, Chihuahua and Sonora. It then jumps the modern political border, running through Arizona and New Mexico and ending somewhere in southern Colorado. The puebloan people of of the US Southwest, such as the Anasazi would have been considered "Chichimecs" by the Aztecs, Toltecs, Tarascans and Maya. In northern and northwest Mexico, the many historic groups encountered by European explorers (Guachichiles, Tarahumara, Huichol, Zacatecos, Opata, Pames, Seris, Yaquis, etc) would have been considered Chichimecs too.

What you have to bear in mind is that while these groups had contact with Mesoamerican cultures, through trade and probably some exploration on both sides, shared a similar diet, and had certain ideas and religious principles in common, they weren't Mesoamerican. According to 16th century Spanish accounts that record the views of indigenous people from the highlands of Central Mexico, these groups were considered mostly uncultured foreigners who could often be violent and dangerous. They had a reputation for being nomads who roamed a barren desert that only the truly tough of spirit could survive. Interestingly, despite this view that almost borders on contempt, the historical chronicles of the Aztec and Tarascan cultures (the two great empires that had held power in Mesoamerica for about 200 years when the Spanish arrived in 1519) insist that their kingdoms were founded by members of these groups who arrived in Central Mexico after a long and mythic pilgrimage/migration from the northern deserts. The rulers of both groups were descended from these Chichimecs. Basically, the uncouth country bumpkins made good in the big city, write very large.

I'm not going to get into all of the particulars that this idea entails, but suffice it to say that the word "Chichimec" was an over generalization by Mesoamericans to refer to all of the diverse groups that lived throughout northern Mexico and the southwestern US. It's sort of like saying "Mexican" to refer to all Latin American people from Mexico down to Chile and Argetina. Some "Chichimecs" lived in small groups that hunted and gathered and moved around quite a bit. Some did this but also raised some crops on the side. Others settled down for years at a time in adobe houses and farmed for a living. Some archaeologists further complicate this picture by pointing out evidence that some of the people being called Chichimecs may have actually been Mesoamericans who reasons that are not completely understood moved north and mingled with the foreign population. This point is that these groups covered an enormous range of territory, were culturally and linguistically diverse, and shouldn't be considered a single culture.

All this being said, there's something about the iconic image from the Mesoamerican perspective of the Chichimec as an uncouth, uncultured foreigner from the north with a bit of a temper that speaks to the imagination. Outsiders that are rough around the edges, yet who made their way south to the "civilized" world, threw themselves into learning the ins and outs of the political and economic systems, and eventually successfully worked their way from the bottom (mercenaries for hire that were forced to live on the worst land) to the top (emperors) based on their unflagging ambition. Kind of a Machiavellian spin on the "American Dream". And being that I myself am an (occasionally) uncouth foreigner from the north who has chosen to "invade" a new country, studying the archaeology of the Gran Chichimeca based out of a university located IN the Gran Chichimeca, I do fit the profile of a Chichimec pretty well. So why not go with the flow and use the screen name? Who knows, maybe a little of the Chichimec good fortune will rub off on me too...

2 comments:

Kristi said...

Thanks! I had been wondering! :-)

Christian said...

Hey, my parents are originally from Durango, MX. I guess we're Chichimecs, no?