Very few is left today of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Most of what is left of this city lies at the bottom of Mexico city's Historical center. The city was largely destroyed during the Spanish conquest between the year 1519 and 1521 A.D, However, some of this remains can still be appreciated in the "Templo Mayor Museum" and in the nearby neighborhood of Tlatelolco. The visitor would normally appreciate the ancient ruins, but How did these people actually lived? How was their every day life and their social structures. This is an extensive topic which I will try to briefly cover in a series of articles. In the present one, I will try to cover the Aztec social divisions and how they evolved from the foundation of Tenochtitlan until the Spanish conquest.
As I mentioned in the previous article, when the Aztecs arrived to the central valley where Mexico City lies today, they were mainly a tribe of nomadic hunters with a very basic social structure. Every head of the family at that time was a warrior and a farmer. These family heads participated of larger discussions with other family heads. These discussions were the political center of the early Aztec "democracy", and were very much influenced by the Priests of the god "Huitzilopochtli", which had overall authority over most public aspects of the Aztec People.
This primitive structure evolved to give birth to more complex, differentiated social divisions during the XVth century. Priests were no longer involved with military and civil actions, and the influence of commerce had a big impact in the social structure, with traders occupying an important place. One man above all used to shine against all others, the Tlatoani, the Aztec emperor. The tribal democracy had finally given up to an aristocratic Monarchy.
The nahuatl word "tecuhtli", mandatory, lord, defines the upper class in the Aztec social division. They are the military, finance chiefs, and judges that solve the important issues. The ancient emperor of a city that was incorporated into the empire received the rank of "tecuhtli". Aztec gods also often receive this denomination: "Mictlantecuhtli", The lord of the underworld and "Xiuhtecuhtli", the fire god. Aztec priests only exceptionally received this rank, they used to have their own hierarchy. The rank of tecuhtli was acquired by election or by designation within a particular family. An analogy can be made with the feudal lords of the middle ages. Similar to the way it happened in Europe, a rural noble lord had a different category to a noble lord close to the king. In Mexico, the Tecuhtli of an isolated village did not have the same social status as one close to the Tlatoani, the Aztec emperor.
In terms of the social divisions, the Aztec city was divided in Calpullis, or neighborhoods, the calpulli is the basic nucleus of the Aztec social division. Each neighborhood had its own chief or "calpullec", elected by the people and assisted by a group of elder counselors, the "huehueteque". Few things of public interest were done without the approval of the huehueteque. The main task of the calpullec was to keep a record of the collective lands that belonged to the calpulli, these lands were distributed by parcels among the different families. Land was given based on certain labour conditions (i.e. agricultural production based on the type of crops) the calpullec and its counselors were in charge of making sure that these conditions were met by each family.