The notion that politics is an unchanging play of natural passions, in which particular institutions of domination are but so many devices for exploiting, is wrong everywhere…the passions are as cultural as the devices, and the turn of mind…that informs one informs the other.
The city as imperial symbol, though real enough, cannot catch the texture of life as lived within it, nor those informal arrangements that crucially shape social life. The accounts of public institutions as presented by native lords exalting their ancestors, or Spanish clerics eager to draw the Christian moral (‘consider how disciplined these pagans were even without God’) can tempt us to exert a subtle censorship over much of what they casually reveal in favour of their more deliberate pronouncements. Yet a city is a complex of experiences, and we violate our own experience to pretend it is not. In what follows I want to point to those experiences, associations and activities, referred to only glancingly in the more formal record, which infused life in Tenochtitlan with its distinctive qualities. There is also the issue of the degree to which generalizations regarding a commonality of experience are legitimate within that fast-growing, socially complex place. A major concern will therefore be to discover where most Mexica found their most basic sense of community, and how widely their most compelling and defining experiences were shared. While ‘community’ is seated in the mind, it should be visible on the ground, in patterned interactions grounded in common understandings, or (shifting the metaphor) sharing a particular discourse or idiom.