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Alfredo's Aztlan

A 73-year-old man with no formal training says he has found the lost homeland of the Aztecs in the mountains around Blythe. Amid the scoffing, there are smart people who think he may be right.

December 24, 2006|Ann Japenga | Ann Japenga is a Palm Springs journalist and essayist who writes about California deserts and the West. Her work also appears in the book "The New Desert Reader."

On a two-lane highway along the Colorado River near Blythe, a vehicle bearing the Figueroa family merges into a stream of RVs and sand buggies. The 73-year-old patriarch, Alfredo Acosta Figueroa, tips the passenger seat back so he can keep an eye on the surrounding mountains: the Big Marias and Little Marias, the Mules, McCoys and Palens. His daughter, Patricia, is at the wheel; I share cookies in the back seat with Figueroa's wife, Demesia.

When Figueroa spots something he wants to show me--a rift, a knob, a shadow on the mountains--he bounces straight up and calls out: "Oh stop . . . you see that guy's face? The eye and the mouth? That's the same guy I showed you on the codices. He's got the beak of a hawk. You get it now? You think it's clear?"

Patricia mashes the brake with little heed to the traffic. Figueroa becomes more excited. "Get it?"

I can't make out what has him so keyed up, so Figueroa takes my notepad and draws outcroppings that look like noses, gullies that look like eyebrows. "Get it now?" When I finally discern the shape in the hills, Demesia nods approvingly and the old man and his daughter whoop and cackle.

What the family is trying to show me are the gods of the Aztec creation story--Tlaloc, Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilopochtli--reposing right here in the mountains. It's a difficult concept to grasp, and I have an added disadvantage. An Anglo who grew up in Covina, I know nothing about the Aztec deities or their homeland--Aztlan. It's not just me. The figures are well known to kids schooled in Mexico, but to most Californians these characters--if they're known at all--are cartoon warriors emblazoned on T-shirts and on video games. As for the mysterious land of Aztlan, it's the utopia from which the Aztecs supposedly departed on their trek south to what is now Mexico City. The migration, according to various stories, was spurred by earthquakes, oppressors or a command from a cosmic spirit. The majority of U.S.-born folks have never heard of this abandoned homeland, or if they have it's as a symbolic "place in the heart."

So why am I here, driving around with people who watch the mountains instead of the road, who see dubious gods in the hills and make constant reference to matters I don't understand? It's all because of Robert Gonzales Vasquez, director of Inland Mexican Heritage, a group that has chronicled life along Interstate 10, among other projects. Gonzales Vasquez notices things that others don't, so I was intrigued when he said he believed that Figueroa, a sixth-generation resident of Blythe, had found Aztlan in (of all places) homely Blythe and the surrounding lower Colorado River basin, an area encompassing roughly the southeastern border of California along the river from Needles to Yuma. "It's a hell of a thing to grasp," says Gonzales Vasquez. "Alfredo has found Atlantis, basically."

Though the news is--on the surface--incredible, Gonzales Vasquez's belief in Figueroa prompted me to ask around about the father of nine and grandfather of 26. Other folks I respect--Joshua Tree activists Donna and Larry Charpied, retired Bureau of Land Management archeologist Boma Johnson--also believe there's substance to the man and his theory. Johnson knows the lower Colorado River basin as well as anyone, having studied its archeology and history for 25 years. Of Figueroa he says: "I think he's on to something."

But could there even be a real land called Aztlan? During the Chicano movement of the 1960s and '70s, Aztlan became a rallying point for Mexican Americans, but it was embraced more as a symbol of pride and belonging, not an actual place. The prevailing view among historians is that Aztlan is mythical, but there always have been scholars and explorers who claimed Aztlan was real. For about 500 years believers have been seeking the homeland's physical location, looking for clues in ancient Spanish texts called codices. To a man like Figueroa, finding Aztlan would be the equivalent of a Christian finding the glade where Eve dropped the apple core--a profound discovery that elevates legend to fact.

The possibility that Aztlan actually existed was reason enough to pursue Figueroa, who truly believes he has found it. But there was something else. For the last decade, since moving to the desert, I've immersed myself in the local canyons, legends and vocabulary. In an era of disembodied information, there's nothing I trust as much as a person with a long knowledge of a specific terrain. When I heard about Figueroa, his dedication to the hometown gods and his generations-deep connection to Blythe and the Colorado River basin, I knew I wanted to meet him.

Driving from palm springs on the I-10, I know I've reached the outskirts of Blythe when I see signs warning drivers not to pick up hitchhikers because they may be escapees from the local prison. My routine when I'm en route to Arizona is to stop here for fuel and a snack, but like most travelers I never venture the few blocks into town.

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