In the churning debate over immigration, there are perhaps no words as loaded or controversial as Aztlan, the name of the mythical Aztec homeland.
For many it carries potent political overtones, for others it is a romantic ideal, and to those most opposed to illegal immigration it represents a strategic effort to reclaim land that was once part of Mexico.
“Aztlan is a state of mind for some people. It’s a point in history. For some it’s a political place. For some it’s a separate nation,” said Armando Navarro, chairman of UC Riverside’s Ethnic Studies Department, whose views have generated controversy. “It represents land lost. You are sitting in a city, Riverside, that used to be in Mexico. That gives us a sense of entitlement. This was our land.”
Though its very definition is murky, the term has found use in today’s immigration battles -- mostly by those demanding a crackdown on the undocumented.
In Aztec folklore, Aztlan was believed to have been in northern Mexico, possibly along the western coast. Other accounts put it farther north, perhaps in what is now Arizona, Colorado or New Mexico.
During the Chicano rights movement of the 1960s, Aztlan became a powerful rallying cry for militants who spoke of a reconquista, or reconquest, of the U.S. Southwest, turning it into an independent homeland for Latinos.
Now, a generation later, the word has largely lost its radical edge among Latino activists but continues to trigger strong emotions on both sides of the immigration debate.
“Up until recently I dismissed the idea as a kooky fringe element, but if you look at the demonstrations and see the flags and hear people chanting that this is stolen land and ‘We are reclaiming our lost land,’ it sounds more serious,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports tough immigration enforcement.
John Kobylt, co-host of the “John and Ken” talk radio program on KFI-AM 640 in Los Angeles, said listeners often express concern about a reconquista.
“They see an invasion,” said Kobylt, who strongly opposes illegal immigration. “I think economic opportunities drive them here, but what gives them the spiritual lift is they feel the land is theirs.”
That feeling may stem from Mexico’s huge territorial losses after its defeat in the Mexican-American War. In 1848, it signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ceding California, Utah and Nevada, and parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming to the United States.
Demographer Wayne Cornelius said he had seen little evidence that immigrants are looking to take back anything.
“The overriding goal for Mexicans coming into U.S. today is, ‘How can I succeed in this society?’ There is no incentive for them to behave in the ways that the anti-immigration people allege they are behaving,” said Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego. “There is no economic point to it.”
But Aztlan is now about more than lost land. It’s about identity. Over the decades its name has been tacked onto Latino organizations such as MEChA -- Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan -- which has more than 300 chapters at U.S. colleges. The group has been attacked by those who claim its 1969 “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan” is a separatist call for reconquest.
“Aztlan belongs to those who plant the seeds, water the fields, and gather the crops and not to the foreign Europeans,” the plan said. “We do not recognize capricious frontiers on the bronze continent.”
MEChA leaders say it is a historical document from a more radical time distorted by critics who focus on a few lines while missing the broader picture.
“When did we say we wanted a separate nation? We never did,” said Graciela Larios, who recently retired as head of the UC Riverside MEChA club. “We know about the spiritual plan for Aztlan. It reflects the time it was written in. We are not ashamed of it. We stand by it.”
Some Latino scholars and activists see Aztlan as the birthplace of the Mexican people, a real place with a real history, not some romanticized legend.
“For us it represents the migration of our people from the northern area,” said Olin Tezcatlipoca, director of the Mexica Movement, an indigenous-rights group based in Huntington Park that believes all of North America is occupied by illegal immigrants from Europe. “The migration is a reality, the language is a reality, the reasons people migrate are a reality.”
Even the definition of the word is debated. Some say Aztlan means “land of egrets,” “land of herons” or “land of whiteness” in the Nahuatl language, spoken throughout Mexico and related to Hopi, Comanche and Paiute.
“It is a real place. It is also a cry from young Chicanos in America who go to school and never hear about their ancestry,” said Cecilio Orozco, a retired professor of education at Cal State Fresno, who spent 27 years exploring the rivers and canyons of the American Southwest in search of Aztlan.
Orozco, 77, said he believes these early people migrated from the Great Lakes to southern Utah near the Four Corners region, where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah meet. Perhaps spurred by drought, they eventually moved into Mexico, he said.
Roberto Rodriguez, an expert on indigenous geography and human migration at the University of Wisconsin, has used old maps and oral tradition for his own study of Aztlan. He also believes early Mexicans migrated from the north but hesitates to draw any conclusion but one.
“There is no doubt people have migrated and clear evidence that ancient Mexicans lived in the north,” Rodriguez said. “Mexicans can never be alien because we are native people. We are part of a civilization that never went away. We all belong here.”
But he dismisses talk of reconquista.
“The right wing thinks there is some massive superstructure out there trying to retake Aztlan,” he said. If that were true, such activists “would need a huge organization.”
Or just time.
UC Riverside’s Navarro said his research showed that in 10 to 25 years, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas and Utah will be 50% Latino.
“I call that re-Mexicanization, not reconquista,” said Navarro, 64. “A new majority is forming. Everything will change. The White House will be within our reach. We might have to change the name to the Brown House.”
That kind of talk -- along with his latest book, “Mexicano Political Experience in Occupied Aztlan” -- has made Navarro the chief suspect for those who see reconquest afoot.
“We are keenly aware of the aggressive, militantly anti-American approach of many leaders of the Latino movement,” said Chris Simcox, co-leader of the Minuteman Project, a volunteer border watch group. “Armando is one of the most militant leaders of that movement. They openly advocate violence.”
Navarro denies advocating violence. But his demonstrations against the Minutemen, his fight against a San Bernardino initiative to ban landlords from renting to illegal immigrants, and his predictions of a showdown between whites and Latinos have earned him a file of hate mail the size of a phone book.
In David Horowitz’s book “The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America,” Navarro gets his own chapter. Horowitz writes that he “advocates the overthrow of the U.S. government by Latinos and reclamation of the southwestern United States by Mexico.”
Navarro, in his office surrounded by photos of himself with Fidel Castro and former Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega, shakes his head.
“I never said that,” he said.
Still, he tries to allay fears of a resurgent Aztlan.
“There is no reconquista conspiracy. I have no CIA -- no Chicano Intelligence Agency. There is no evidence to suggest there is some secret plan,” he said. “We are returning as a people to a place that was once ours. Does that mean I have dual loyalty? I was an officer in the U.S. Army for eight years. This is all a fabrication of fear mongers.”
He paused for a moment.
“We are only doing what any good Jew would do for Israel.”