Mexico’s Pre-Hispanic Heritage Lives on in Today’s Names

By Brooke O’ Connor

When we think of Mexico and language, most people think of Spanish; certainly, it is the predominant language. However many indigenous languages are still spoken, like sleeper cells waiting to be called back into the mainstream. One way these languages stay relevant is through names. In fact, Mexico was not this great country’s original name. Anahuac (land surrounded by water) was the Náhuatl name given to this land during pre-Hispanic times.

Names for People

In modern times, pre-Hispanic first names are still very popular. They honor indigenous heritage and show pride in these ancestors. Here are some popular female pre-Hispanic names:

Ameli – Water
Citlalli – Star
Erendirani – Happy, happy to awaken
Itzel – Bright Star
Ix Chel – Moon
Malinalli – Goddess of grass
Nayelli – Love
Quetzal – Jewel, beautiful feather
Xochitl – Flower
Yunuen – Half Moon

And some popular male pre-Hispanic names:

Tonatiuh – Sun
Moctezuma – Stern prince
Ikal – Spirit
Nezahualcóyotl – Coyote who fasts
Canek – Black serpent
Cuauhtemoc – Descending eagle

Names for Places

Many towns and cities have maintained their pre-Hispanic names as well.

Oaxaca, comes from the Náhuatl word Huāxyacac (place of the guaje). The guaje is a tree (Leucaena leucocephala) found around the capital city.

The meaning of Huatulco (Guatulco, Coatulco) is “where they worship the tree” or “wood,” which refers to an ancient legend. During the first century A.D. a bearded white man arrived on a small boat to the beach we now call Santa Cruz. The man was carrying a gigantic log, that somewhat resembled the shape of a cross. Once he got to the beach, he found Zapotec and Mixtec people. The white man planted the log upright without any help from the locals. He then spent some time teaching the local people new agricultural techniques and cultural improvements.

At some point, he left in the same boat he came in on, never to be seen again. Some say that this man was Quetzalcoatl (the god of, among other, more fundamental things, learning, reading, writing, and books).

Two hundred years before the Spanish conquered Mexico, the Huatulco area was colonized by the Mexicas, whom we call the Aztecs. When they noticed the locals worshiped the wooden cross, they called the place Cuauhtolco, a Náhuatl word meaning “the place where the wooden log is adored.”

Later, after the Spanish came, Thomas Cavendish looted and pillaged the entire region. This included many failed attempts to destroy the mysterious log that apparently couldn’t be cut, sunk, or burned. Soon Spanish Catholics took this opportunity to call it a Christian cross and gave it the name Santa Cruz (Holy Cross). One more cultural appropriation to lure the submission of the locals.

Coyula, located west of the national park, represents versatility, enthusiasm, agility, and unconventional methods.

Cacaluta, located to the southwest of Santa Cruz, received its name from the Zapotec word cacalote (blackbird, including a variety of crows or ravens). In this case, Cacaluta has also been interpreted to mean vulture (zopilote in Spanish).

Tangolunda is a Zapotec word meaning “pretty woman.”

From Náhuatl to Spanish to English

As English speakers, we constantly use words borrowed from Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish, and many other languages, but did you know we even have a few words from Nahuatl?

Because Nahuatl is still a living language, English speakers are borrowing various words from Nahuatl. For example:


And last but not least – Shack

The others may seem plausible, but “shack”? Etymologist David Gold traces this word back to the Nahuatl word xacalli, (note that the ‘x’ = ‘sh’), also spelled jacalli, meaning “hut with a straw roof.”

There are other words you probably know that may seem Spanish, but come from pre-Hispanic origins. Thanks to John Pint, a writer from Jalisco, we have the following list:

Amate: the ficus tree, and also paper made in pre-Hispanic times out of the tree’s bark. Still used today by artisans, ancient peoples used it for communication and religious ceremonies. A crumpled piece of amate paper found in the Huitzilapa shaft tomb in Jalisco dates back to the year 70 CE.

Atole: a thick drink made from corn flour and water, then sweetened with piloncillo (brown cane sugar) then flavored with cinnamon, vanilla and maybe chocolate.

Cacahuate: a “peanut.” The ancient Mexica used to refer to this ground nut as a tlacáhuatl or “earth cocoa bean.”

Canica: a “marble,” as in the glass balls kids play with. The word supposedly comes from the Náhuatl expression Ca, nican nican! meaning “This is mine right here!” You would shout this if you thought your marble was the winner.

Cuate: from the Náhuatl, “twin.” Today it is used much like “buddy” or “dude.”

Escuincle: the short form of xoloitzcuintle, the Mexican hairless dog breed. Today, the derivative escuincles refers to children. This is not necessarily pejorative, as xolos were considered protectors from evil spirits and the guides who take our souls to the next life.

Mitote: may originally have referred to dancing and drinking. In modern times it means “a mess” or “chaos.” Armar un mitote is to make a fuss.

Petatearse: a petate is a mat woven from reeds or palm fronds. It was also used to roll up a corpse for burial. From this comes the verb petatearse. So, se petateó means something like, “He kicked the bucket.”

Pochote: also called a ceiba, this is the silk-cotton tree, considered divine in ancient Mexico because its branches, trunk, and roots represent the cosmos’ three levels. Many Pochote varieties can be recognized by their trunk’s thick spikes.

Popote: a “drinking straw,” and is derived from the Náhuatl popotli, referring to the hollow reeds which grew all around the ancient city of Tenochtitlán.

Tejuino: a nonalcoholic beer made from sprouted corn. The ancient Nahua viewed it as the “drink of the gods.” If you drink it regularly, they said it will replace the pathogenic bacteria in your colon with probiotics – great idea for someone looking to add to the local organic market!

Tianguis: a street market, or tianquiz(tli) in Náhuatl. A tianguis is referred to as a mercado if it is enclosed. In that case, the name of the Mercado Orgánico Huatulco, held on Saturdays in Santa Cruz, ought to be Tianguis, although mercado most likely clarifies the event to foreigners.

Tlacuache: a possum. This word comes from tlacuatzin, meaning “little fire-eater.” Why is a possum a fire-eater? Let me tell you!

In pre-Hispanic mythology, the tlacuache stole fire from the gods. He grabbed a piece of burning wood with his tail and gave it to humans. So, that’s why the tail of a possum is hairless.

Tecolote: comes from the Nahuatl word for “owl” and is found in the common Mexican saying, “Cuando el tecolote canta, el indio muere” (When the owl hoots, the Indian dies). It’s interesting to note that Native Americans in the US also think the owl brings death.

Zanate: a bird called the great-tailed grackle in English. Legends say it has seven distinct songs, all of which it stole from the sea turtle. It is thought that in these songs you can hear the seven passions: love, hate, fear, courage, joy, sadness, and anger.

Pre-Hispanic languages are redolent with a rich heritage and deep connection to nature. Names provided descriptions, rather than adornment. We can see today how many Mexican people have several names, yet can go by nicknames that have nothing to do with their official, legal ones. I have yet to understand this phenomenon, but it has something to do with how they feel about themselves and the family names they were given.

In my observation, pre-Hispanic names seem to carry more pride and grounding. Although they are harder for English native speakers to pronounce, I’m sure the people with pre-Hispanic names would be happy if we did our best to (try to) learn!.

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