Tollan / Polis. The City, the Country and the Resurgence of the Disavowed

by Walter D. Mignolo

Today, global processes of re-existence and re-emergence are demanding that the universalising impulse of Western vocabulary – which includes such terms as ‘democracy’ – is reduced to size. Is it about time?

Cities live on the exploitation of the land and natural resources of the countryside. On August 31, 2006, in Asuncion, Paraguay, peasant organisations, women, neighbourhoods, NGOs and individuals protested about the monocultural agricultural production model (monocultures of the minds, Vandana Shiva’s famous formula) promoted by the government and major national and International multinational corporations, which meet at the Golf Hotel Yacht Club, in the city.


The Aztec word ‘Tollan’ can be translated as ‘city’: meaning not just the place but also the significance of the place. ‘Tollan,’for the people of ancient Anahuac (today the state of Mexico), referred to a place of particular relevance to the community and its surroundings. So the expression ‘Tollan Tenochtitlan’ was used to underline the relevance of such large centres of communal life as religious centres, markets and government. Today, however, we understand ‘polis’ to be the universal name for city. This is because of the imperial trajectory of Western civilisation since the European Renaissance. When the Spaniards dismantled Tollan Tenochtitlan at the beginning of the sixteenth century, they also had another word for city: the Latin Civis, a translation of the Greek Polis. Civis also encompassed the inhabitants of the place, that is, the citizens (civis, civitates) who constituted the social body of the place. From civis was derived civilisation:

civilisation (n.) 1704, “law which makes a criminal process civil,” from civilise +-ation. Sense of “civilised condition” first recorded 1772, probably from French civilisation, to be an opposite to barbarity and a distinct word from civility. Sense of a particular human society in a civilised condition, considered as a whole over time, is from 1857. Related: Civilisational.[1]

Tollan – Miguel Leσn Portilla[2] tells us – literally meant “the place of abundant reeds”. Metaphorically, it meant a place with abundant water and vegetation. By extension, it was understood as an ideal place for the settlement of a population or community. Further uses and mutations of the word alluded to a large and (non-capitalist) prosperous community. Thus, it came to be used as a general term for large communal centres like Tollan Tenochtitlan, which could be translated as ‘City of Tenochtitlan’. In Greek, it would have been translated as Metro (Mother) Polis. In reverse, and as far as Tollan Tenochtitlan became the centre of a given socio- economic-religious and cultural formation, metro-polis could have been translated as Tollan Altepetl, which would be translated as ‘city-state’ in modern European imperial languages. Polis and derived expressions (metropolis, cosmopolis) as well as its translation into Latin (Civisoccupied and successfully displaced all other equivalent words and universes of meaning in co-existing socio-economic-religious configurations that today are identified with the imperial word ‘civilisation’. And this is an aberration.[3] Altepetl was the basic structure of a politico-economic-religious community. For that reason it is often translated into English as ‘city-state’ without requiring the word Tollan next to it.[4] An altepetl was formed by a series of calpulliCalpulli is generally translated as ‘large house’ (household, a clan-type of community)and each altepetl was a compound of several calpulli. But there is more. Derived from the word Tollan was the word Toltecαtl, which refers to a person who inhabits a given Tollan. In Rome, the name they used was cives, and it was translated to vernacular languages as citizens, ciudadano, citadinocitoyen: “Civis romanus sum” (Cicero). In addition, toltecαtl is the name for a refined person, a person of wisdom, an artist or intellectual in our vocabulary. All in all, it may be what Cicero had meant when he pronounced his well-known sentence. Last but not least, the most abstract concept Toltecαyotl (something like ‘Toltequity’) was formed to describe all that belongs to and defines the people who live in a Tollan, that is, in a city: its citizens. Today, then, we should refer to Aztec Toltecαyotl instead of Aztec Civilisation. Or, we could refer to Western Toltecαyotl to underline and undermine the imperial dimension of a word such as ‘civilisation’.


I am aware that the story I just told doesn’t have an obvious correlation with the ‘indignados’ that disrupted the life of large cities in Southern Europe this past year and with the ‘intifadas’that erupted in the Middle East and North Africa. There is, on the one hand, a subterranean continuity in the way Western Civilisation has imposed its names all over the planet. On the other hand, there is a derailing of that continuity that allows us to understand the differences between seemingly similar indignados and intifadas. Naming became derailed at the moment when Western Christianity built, in the sixteenth century, the three pillars of Western Civilisation: Greece, Rome and the Atlantic (Africa–New World). Names come with baggage – there is history behind every name. In that sense, Southern Europe’s indignados and North Africa’s intifadas are, and are not, similar. They are similar in that they can be seen as a manifestation of a ‘Southern state of mind’.However, one is the South of Europe and the other is the North of Africa. There is a long history dividing one from the other. And there is a defining moment: the expulsion of the Moors from the South of Europe to the North of Africa. If Southern Europe and North Africa fit the ‘Southern state of mind’ (and so they are similar), it is because there is something more than water that divides the former from the latter; and there is more than being ‘cities’ that distinguishes Madrid (the locale of indignados) from Cairo (the local of intifada). If the question is about a ‘Southern state of mind’, then life during modern/colonial history of Western Civilisation, since 1500, has to be brought into focus. It is in the city where mainstream media concentrates and the differences between Cairo and Madrid are glossed over. That is why we know a lot about indignados and intifadas, but know much less about La Via Campesina (The Peasant Way) and the daily struggles that communities in Argentina and Peru are waging against transnational corporations engaged in extractivism and poisoning local populations. It is known already that cancer has increased in the developing world, the Global South. That is also part of ‘South as a State of Mind’. There are several reasons why cities are highlighted and the country is played down. One reason is the poisoning underatken by agri-business; another is the creation of artificial lakes composed of cyanide and water used to extract the minerals from the rocks. Less is known also about the African palm plantations in Guatemala and Colombia, where working conditions are possibly comparable to those on the plantations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is the silenced country. The mainstream media rarely covers why so many people leave the country and go to the city. Country is another word for land, and who keeps the land when people move to the city? Before closing I’ d like to come back to La Via Campesina. They are not just protesting, which is important, but also acting: taking charge of their own destiny. This is the Global Coordinator of La Via Campesina: “Good morning. I am Elizabeth Mpofu of Zimbabwe. I am a peasant farmer […] I am committed to building food sovereignty in Zimbabwe, in Africa and in the world. I speak to you as the global coordinator of La Via Campesina, the worldwide movement of peasant and small-scale farmers, farm workers, landless peasants, indigenous people, rural youth and rural women. […] As peasants we believe that we are on this Earth for a reason. And that reason is to grow food – food for our families, food for our communities, food for our countries. Healthy food. Food that is grown with respect for the Mother Earth. While we may not have had a high level of formal education, that does not mean we cannot think for ourselves, and organise ourselves into a powerful global movement of resistance. But we are not just resisting; we are also trying to build something new, a better world; with our ideas, and with our actions.” Self-organisations (not guided by NGOs) are growing as people take their destiny into their own hands, in the city as well as in the country. ‘Democracy’ – a word revamped in eighteenth century secular Europe – has become a good idea, as Mahatma Gandhi said more than a century ago about the word ‘civilisation’. What we are witnessing are global processes of re-existence and reemergence, and these processes are demanding that the universalising impluse of Western vocabulary (meaning Greek and Latin, plus the six modern European and imperial languages) is reduced to size. It have been my goal to decenter the Western appropriation of polis in two ways. First, by showing the polis is local not universal. Its universality is the effect of the coloniality of knowledge. Second, by surfacing the power of the countryside occluded by the recent overwhelming attention to the cities.



1. From the online etymology dictionary for ‘civilizaton’ [sic] –

2. Toltecáyotl, Aspectos de la cultura Nahuatl, Mexico, Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1980.

3. I asked my friend and colleague Weihua He, in Shanghai, what is the Mandarin word for ‘city’ – here is his reply: “The Mandarin words for city-state is Chengbang. In ancient China we do not have city-states; we only have vassal states. As for the conglomeration of people organised in a common space, we usually call them chenmin or zimin, meaning ‘the subjects or people of certain kingdoms’.”

4. Civitates Orbis Terrarum, by Braun and Hogenberg, was published between 1572 and 1617. It is an atlas depicting the cities of the world, orbis terrarium. Tollan Tenochtitlan is not there. Cities live on the exploitation of the land and natural resources of the countryside. On August 31, 2006, in Asuncion, Paraguay, peasant organisations, women, neighbourhoods, NGOs and individuals protested about the monocultural agricultural production model (monocultures of the minds, Vandana Shiva’s famous formula) promoted by the government and major national and international multinational corporations, which meet at the Golf Hotel Yacht Club, in the city.

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