A page from the 1540 Codex Mendoza in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.

By Peter C. Herman

The decision to retain the Aztec warrior as a symbol for San Diego State University is probably the right one. While in general it’s not a good idea to use human beings as mascots, the Aztec warrior and SDSU are too closely identified with each other for the university to drop it.

In the survey and comments leading up to this decision, both students and alumni made very clear that they regarded the Aztec warrior as a point of pride, a position backed up by my own unscientific polling. When I did a clicker quiz for my very large (over 100 students) Introduction to Literature class, about 98 percent of wanted to keep the mascot. So for reasons both cultural and financial, on balance, it’s a good idea to keep it. As Interim President Sally Roush says, students become alumni, and with the university increasingly reliant on donations, alienating them would not be smart.

But having made that decision, things quickly start to go sideways. First, Roush writes: “We will ‘effectively embrace and teach positive elements of what is known about the Aztec Empire and its people.’ In so doing, we will rely explicitly on the Aztec civilization’s three pillars of Knowledge, Strength and Prowess, and Giving Back to Community.”

“Positive,” however, is not the same as “accurate,” and as a university, we have a duty to tell the whole truth. While I would be the first to admit that I am no expert on Aztec culture, it does not take a doctorate in the subject to realize that while there are many admirable aspects of Aztec culture, such as universal education, significant architectural achievements, and innovative agriculture (they gave us chocolate), they were also a military empire that used slavery and practiced human sacrifice. Children were also sacrificed, not just prisoners of war.

The famous Codex Mendoza, created by native scribes in 1540 and now housed in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, shows Aztec priests cutting out the hearts of living victims.

Peter C. Herman

Does the “appropriate recognition of and reverence for the greatness of the Aztec civilization” mean that we ignore this aspect of Aztec civilization—central to its religion? It seems so.

Interim President Roush doesn’t mention slavery, militarism, and human sacrifice in her statement, and the task force report relegates the less happy aspects of Aztec civilization to the decent obscurity of a footnote. Still, the task force admits that the phrase, “commitment to community,” really means something considerably less bland: “sacrifice of self and others for the power of the Empire to survive and prosper.” To be clear, this means ripping someone’s heart out to appease the gods and reinforce the empire’s power. But that is not something we are meant to dwell on. Instead, the task force and the interim president say that we should focus only on the “positive” elements of Aztec culture.

More worrisome is the establishment of a committee to police how the Aztec warrior—no longer a mascot, but a “spirit leader” (whatever that means) “is infused into the daily life of the university”:

“This will be accomplished through the creation of a governing authority, chaired by the president of the university and staffed by a dedicated coordinator… The governing authority will oversee a budget of ongoing and one-time university funds to cover the cost of the coordinator, courses offered in an approved curriculum, co-curricular activities, and honorific or educational projects, among other things … The university will formally institutionalize the Aztec Culture Education Committee, which will report directly to the governing authority chaired by the university president.”

At a time when money is scarce and we are begging the legislature to increase funding for the California State University system, is it really appropriate to create yet another layer of bureaucracy and another administrative position? Money is a zero-sum game, and the funds for the coordinator’s salary necessarily mean that something else gets zeroed out. So what will be sacrificed for this position?

Next, what does “approved curriculum” mean? Granted, all courses need to be “approved,” but this sounds more like “official history.” Will anything that doesn’t show sufficient “reverence” for Aztec civilization be forbidden? Only that which presents a “positive” image will be allowed?

As the report makes explicit, the question of the Aztec warrior as “spirit leader” (is this a kind of Potter-esque patronus?) is a highly divisive one. The figure is racially charged, and we need to remember what colonialism did to the Aztecs and other indigenous cultures. The argument for getting rid of it is far from specious.

But having decided to keep the Aztec “spirit leader,” the university does itself no favors by sanitizing the image of this culture and creating a bureaucracy to enforce “positive” representations.  If we can’t tell the full truth about the Aztecs, then maybe we shouldn’t use them as SDSU’s symbol.

Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He works on Shakespeare, Milton, and the literature of terrorism. 

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