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Numerous Nahuatl-speaking communities (as well as those populated by other linguistic groups) existed throughout Mesoamerica during the late pre-Hispanic period, and they were governed by a host of different rulers from local lineages. In the widespread communities of central Mexico the structure of rulership, succession practices, and the exercise of power and privilege were not uniform but showed a certain amount of variation. Although in many ways atypical, or at least not universally applicable to other centers, the most documentation on pre-Hispanic Nahua rulership is available for the leading polities in the Basin of Mexico. The most prominent of these were the neighboring Mexica cities located on the western side of Lake Texcoco: Tenochtitlan (the "Aztec" capital and the site of modern Mexico City), and Tlatelolco, site of the city's great marketplace, as well as the Acolhua capital of Tetzcohco (Texcoco) near the eastern edge of the lake. In many ways these cities tended to dominate events not only in their immediate environs but in those towns that came under their sway.
Research on Nahua rulers has traditionally tended to focus on these major centers of power, especially Tenochtitlan, which steadily increased its sphere of influence throughout Mesoamerica from the time of its founding in the early fourteenth century to its final downfall nearly two centuries later. In recent years, however, a more complex picture of Nahua rulership slowly has begun to be pieced together through ongoing field work and archival investigations directed not only at these renowned power centers but also at local communities, both within the Basin of Mexico and beyond, and to the relationships that existed among them. Also noteworthy are the increasing number of collaborative efforts among specialists trained in different disciplines (archaeology, anthropology, ethnohistory, art history, religious studies, and linguistics, among others), from the colonial as well as pre-Hispanic periods. Their shared efforts are also contributing to a more complete understanding of late pre-Hispanic central Mexico, its rulers, and its people.
The chief ruler of a community or altepetl ("waterhill"; town, city, or province) was called a tlatoani or "speaker" (pl. tlatoque). As head of his city's highly stratified political, military, and priestly hierarchies, the huey tlatoani (great speaker) of Tenochtitlan wielded immense power. He controlled tribute, lands, labor, property, and materials inaccessible to others, even members of the royal family, and he held other aristocratic privileges common to the nobility, such as having multiple wives.
The tlatoani's duties were correspondingly weighty. He was responsible for governing the city by overseeing its maintenance and ensuring its economic prosperity. To this end, he undertook such essential civic construction projects as building causeways and canals to provide efficient transportation and aqueducts to ensure fresh water supplies for the population. Aside from collecting and distributing the raw materials and finished products that flowed into the city from periodic tribute levied on conquered territories, he also sustained local and long-distance trade to procure other goods. He also undertook periodic expansions of religious structures such as the Templo Mayor (Main Temple), the city's ritual center.
Highly trained artisans, particularly featherworkers and creators of luxury goods using precious materials such as gold and jade, were at the tlatoani's disposal. Unlike the Maya, the Mexica left surprisingly few overtly historical sculptural artworks commemorating individual rulers. Yet, like the Maya, Nahua rulers utilized visual means to express the aspirations and accomplishments of their reigns, and it seems likely that many of the monumental or highly crafted artworks that have survived—to say nothing of the vast numbers that have perished—were created in connection with tlatoque and their manifold concerns.
The tlatoani was also the chief commander of the military forces, personally leading his troops into battle to consolidate or expand the Mexica tribute empire. In fact, the newly chosen ruler's first official campaign took place soon after his election. A victorious initial foray not only obtained