The Fall of Mexico-Tenochtitlan

Exactly five hundred years ago, on August 13, 1521 the magnificent City of Tenochtitlan fell to the siege of a powerful army composed by a handful Spanish invaders combined with thousands, perhaps more than a hundred thousand, indigenous allies. Conventional accounts of this critical moment in the history of Mexico are usually based on self-serving narratives of the European participants, starting with the letters of Hernán Cortés to the King of Spain. Those chronicles captured the imagination of people in the old world, who imagined “rivers of gold” and a fancied European superiority assisted by “guns, germs and steel”.

Conquistadores and their companions, including friars, African slaves, a few women, as well as colonial administrators, often make the process appear devoid of anything resembling indigenous agency. Perhaps Cortés was seen at the time as a victorious captain, and future chroniclers, who knew the eventual outcome, gave him the conventional preeminent role. But indigenous peoples probably considered themselves victors too, defeating a most powerful Empire that had been expanding and conquering neighboring peoples for the past two hundred years. From their perspective, Cortés might only have been an expedient auxiliary to their purpose.

The so called Nuremberg Map of Temixtitlan, printed to accompany the publication of Hernan Cortez Second Letter to the King in 1524, JCB Library (07128). The left side depicts the Gulf of Mexico, including landmarks known to European coastal navigators. The right side, although represented following European conventions, must have been based on an indigenous cartographic source (or sources). See Mundy (2015) for more details, particularly her interpretation of the site of Culhuacán, the bulge noticeable on the left of the lake. A Habsburg flag flies on the town of Coyoacán, the provisional seat of government. Although the City was temporarily abandoned after the siege, the map is meant to depict the city before the arrival of the Spaniards. Notice the depiction of human activity in the lake, the aqueduct bringing fresh water from Chapultepec, the barrier (albarrada) separating the salty and freshwater lakes, as well as human sacrifices in the central plaza, and the system of surrounding cities on the banks of the lake.

Post facto accounts, even those sympathetic to the native populations, usually turn indigenous peoples into helpless victims, instead of considering their remarkable resilience, continuous resistance, and the complex political processes unfolding within indigenous society. The few times when indigenous peoples are described as valiant warriors in the European sources, it is often only to enhance the feat of the “brave” conquistadores who defeated them. Even when the chronicles are written by friars, they highlight a diminished capacity by indians: they were like children, incapable of making their own choices or to understand the wrongness of their ancestral “ways of the devil”, involving human sacrifice and other ritual practices.

The few surviving indigenous sources, however, tell an altogether different story.

One should start from a logical premise. The sheer impossibility of the eventual outcome of the fall of Tenochtitlan, had it not been for Huejozinga, Tlaxcalteca, Chalca, among other indigenous warriors, who fought the war. All these indigenous warriors fought willingly, without being coerced by the colonists. The Tlaxcalteca may have suffered important losses when Cortés ruthlessly slashed and burned all the villages in an area that even today remains uninhabited, next to the fortified wall that separated the independent lordship of the Tlaxcala Republic from the dominions of the Triple Alliance. The most famous indigenous translator, Doña Marina Malintzin, was also a willing participant in the military campaign perhaps, because the war was waged against an Empire her own peoples probably detested. She was no stranger to war, herself having been sold or gifted to a lord in the Gulf or Mexico as a form of tribute payment. Mesoamerican societies waged wars, they did not need Europeans to teach them how to fight them.

If we were really able to read the images the indigenous sources describing this historical moment, we may perhaps understand better who the main protagonists of this epic moment really were. Indigenous warriors continued campaigning in wars of conquest, well after the fall of Tenochtitlan, to expand their military victories. They waged those wars in partnership with the newfound European mercenaries, to the the West, North and South of the Colhua-Mexica Empire. This alliances would eventually cost them dearly. Colonial invaders eventually succeeded in their domination intent. In the end, indigenous communities were decimated by a combination of war, disease, overwork and famine. But from the vantage point of 1521, it is unlikely that indigenous communities and their leaders perceived such tragic future.

Lienzo de Quauquechollan (ca. 1530). The figures to the left, under the Habsburg emblem, are embracing in a military alliance. The two headed eagle has been transformed into two eagles, one indigenous, holding a native sword in its talons, another Spanish holding a European steel sword. The paths in the right represent the military campaign, starting in the Huaquechula area in modern Puebla, Mexico, ending in Guatemala. A digital reconstruction of the Lienzo is available at the Universidad Francisco Marroquin.

The Lienzo de Quauquechollan, kept in the Museo Casa del Alfeñique in Puebla, clearly depicts a vary different process of war making. The central space in the map narration is given to an embrace of a European leader, presumably the brother of Pedro de Alvarado, with an indigenous lord, probably a Nahua leader from Huaquechula, in what is today the Puebla region. These leaders are shown as equals, cementing a military alliance, setting as their joint goal to conquer the Maya lands of the Quiche and the Kakchikel in Guatemala. The Memoriales of the Kakchikel peoples actually mention these events as part of a series of wars and conquests with their rivals. The military campaigns after 1521 were perhaps unique, in that the Memoriales do highlight the leadership of Tonatiuh, the sun, the distinctive Pedro de Alvarado with his blonde hair. But it is clear from indigenous sources that these fights were not remarkable, just one more event within a chronology of wars, conquests, victories and defeats. The indigenous chronicles do not consider the conquistadores to have a divine origin or a privileged superiority. In that sense, the event of “The Conquest” were perhaps more remarkable for the Europeans participants than for the indigenous peoples accustomed to live in societies ready and prepared for war.

There is no question that indigenous societies were radically transformed by the conquest, with their cultures and religions violently changed against their will. As subjects of the Spanish Crown, they would never enjoy the political autonomy of pre-hispanic times. But it is important to remember that indigenous noble lineages sometimes survived, and they behaved no better than their Spanish overlords. Colonialism was indeed a ruthless and remorseless enterprise.

But a more nuanced understanding of these historical events is possible, that is not based on the colonial Spanish or the Mexican nationalist official story. We should be incorporating a version of the events and outcomes, not from the perspective of the defeated, but of survivors, both victorious and vanquished ones. The Codex Mexicanus, kept in the Bibliotheque Nacional de France, packs two pages of pictographs showing the quick succession of events, from the landing of the ships in the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, to the men wearing armors, the exchange of gifts, the initial smallpox epidemic, war with the Chalcas. It is interesting to note that if one reads the pictographs independently from the European chronicles, the story that emerges is one of joint conquests after 1524. One may note that the fall of Tenochtitlan can be considered a Spanish victory, as denoted by the shield that includes a Spanish sword and helmet. Previous military events in this chronicle are shown only with an obsidian shield.

Codex Mexicanus. BNF. The rapid sequence of events develops at the top, with the arrival of a Spanish ship to the coast, gifts given to Cortes in a posture denoting his lordship, a hanged Moctezuma, an armored soldier with a flag and the burning of the temple in defeat, accompanied by the smallpox epidemic, leading to more fighting against the Chalca. Int he bottom tributes are accounted and Texcoco lords continue their lineage.

The next page of this chronicle depicts a Spanish ruler seated in a European chair, giving commands or speaking to three indigenous lords, accompanied by a friar on his side. The submission of the three Tenochca lords (including Cuauhtémoc) is shown next to a fire, perhaps the fire used to torture them. But perhaps it is more telling to notice the steps moving towards the indigenous palace, the Tecpan, where the cactus clearly depicts a return of the Tenochca peoples to their city. On the bottom the succession of indigenous lords, specifically in the case of Texcoco, continues to be recounted. From this point onward, further military victories combine the traditional obsidian shield crossed by an indigenous spear and a Spanish sword.

The Tecpan, or indigenous palace, depicted by the precious circles on the frieze, would continue to be the space of authority and governance during the 16th century. In the so called Uppsala Map, an indigenous cartographic depiction of Mexico City at around 1550, we can learn with great detail some of the characteristics of the politics of the territorial landscape that was being created by the surviving populations. The Center of the map is not the palace of Cortes, but the Convent and School of Tlatelolco, where indigenous peoples were producing arguably the most important scholarship of the Americas at the time. The trilingual (Latin, Nahuatl and Spanish) scholars that produced this map understood medicine, rhetoric, history and philosophy, perhaps better than their European counterparts, because they also possessed the indigenous knowledge of their ancestors.

The map of 1550 shows a rich system of roads connecting the valley of Mexico, and the City with its characteristic canals, is shown full of newly erected buildings, both civil and religious edifications. But even though this map may be thought of as a depiction of a Spanish City, the capital of the colonial possession, the space is truly an indigenous geography.

The map of Mexico City in the 1550s, produced by indigenous scholars in Tlatelolco, kept in the University of Uppsala. The surrounding towns of the Valley of Mexico are connected by a dense network of roads, traversed by indigenous peoples depicted in all sorts of economic activities. Two Spaces are privileged in the description of this detailed geography, the Tlatelolco convent and square, and the first mission of of Vasco de Quiroga in Santa Fe. The map also shows Mexico City with detailed depictions of the blocks and specific buildings.

The map depicts indigenous palaces, Tecpan, in precise locations, both within the City in the lake and in the surrounding towns. It is a political map, as much as a social commentary. It includes, for example, scenes of Spanish abuse and mistreatment of indigenous peoples. In terms of the political landscape, the map clearly marks 47 indigenous Tecpan. These structures are often far more prominent than any Spanish structure or building. A specific one, the Casa de Tapia, is located on the lower left corner of the island, including a distinctive chicken wind vane. This was probably the home of Andrés de Tapia Motelchiuhtzin. Another neighboring home is labeled as the Casa de Pablo, probably the home of don Pablo Xochiquentzin. The Tecpan of Coyoacán is shown exactly in the location where it was “discovered” by archeologists a few years ago. These were the places for the dispensation of rule and justice by indigenous governors of the city in the 1530s. Of the 170 buildings that are depicted in the central blocks of Mexico City in the map, 31 of them are indigenous palaces.

The Painting of the Governor, also known as the Osuna codex from around 1555-66, provides yet another hint to the way in which indigenous peoples may have understood the conquest and the fall of Tenochtiltan, as distinct from a Eurocentric perspective. Most of this manuscript is devoted to showing tributes and the Spanish receiving them, as well as the particular allocations of encomiendas in the valley of Mexico. But the last four pages show several important aspects of Mexico City from an indigenous perspective, including the movement of stones for the construction of new buildings, the barrier (albarrada) separating the salt from the freshwater as well as the aqueduct from Chapultepec, and the introduction of new economic activities, including fruit orchards and textile works.

Painting of the Governor, Mayors and Rulers of Mexico (Codice Osuna) The four neighborhoods of Mexico City are depicted at the top, with the Tecpan house of Mexico showing the characteristic frieze. At the bottom the indigenous lord Don Esteban de Guzman and the Vicerroy, Don Luis de Velasco sit in their respective chairs, one in the indigenous Icpalli, the other one in a European seat.

This last section of this document starts with an image of the indigenous palace of Mexico City, the Tecpan Calli, with the four indigenous neighborhoods or barrios of the city. An indigenous lord from Xochimilco, Don Esteban de Guzman, then the Governor of the City, is shown at the same level as the Viceroy, Don Luis de Velasco. Both of them are shown with the sign of speech and sitting in chairs. The indigenous governor and judge sits in an Icpalli, an indigenous seat, with a rod, while the Spanish figure seats in a European chair, and is wearing a sword. The Spanish figure does have an extended hand and an index finger, showing probably an attitude of command. But this image is not one of subjection or defeat. It is more an image of a political equilibrium.

The threat of force is present in the attitude of the European Viceroy, but authority belongs, nonetheless, to the calm semblance of the indigenous lord.

Much would change in the indigenous world during the years after 1521. Colonial rulers extracted rents from tribute and the labor of indigenous communities, through the feudal institution of the encomienda. Indigenous slavery was tolerated and ruthless men like Nuño de Guzmán committed unthinkable atrocities, ravaging vast areas of the newly acquired lands. Social changes in family structures and communitarian systems of self help were disrupted by new institutions brought by the Europeans. Indigenous societies would eventually be decimated by the devastating combined effects of the cocoliztli epidemics of 1545 and 1576 and the ensuing famines. Silver mines would be discovered in Zacatecas and other areas to the North, shifting the European attention to the rich deposits and the extractive possibilities they offered, even though they were located in areas inhabited by hostile nomadic warriors, who continuously fought them in the Mixtón and the Chichimec Wars, well into the end of the century. But from the perspective of 1521, those were not foreseeable events.

The indigenous City of Tenochtitlan fell, the dominance of the Colhua-Mexica Triple alliance in Central Mexico ended, and the future was wide open.

Further reading:

The single most remarkable resource to learn and educate yourselves about the process culminating in the Fall of Tenochtitlan is Noticonquista. This effort led by Federico Navarrete at UNAM in Mexico, and an incredible multidisciplinary team, is the single most informative source I can recommend, producing weekly materials on all aspects related to the events unfolding over the two years since April of 1519. Check the Tonalpohualli by date.

Barbara Mundy. The death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the life of Mexico City. University of Texas Press, 2015. This award winning book is beautifully written and illustrated. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand Mexico City, from the bounty of its open air markets to the specific lake engineering and the dramas of indigenous governance. Translated into Spanish in the beautiful editions of Grano de Sal.

Two fantastic books by Camilla Townsend. Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs. Oxford University Press, USA, 2019. If you want to understand the history of the Aztecs as told from their own indigenous voices (Also translated by Grano de Sal). And for a perspective on Malintzin that takes female agency seriously, everyone should read Townsend’s biography: Malintzin’s choices: an Indian woman in the conquest of Mexico. UNM Press, 2006.

Florine Asselbergs provides an account of the conquest of Guatemala through the visual record in Conquered conquistadors: The Lienzo de Quauhquechollan, A Nahua vision of the conquest of Guatemala. University Press of Colorado, 2008. A wonderful digital reconstruction is available at the Universidad Francisco Marroquin, allowing .

Read more and correct misconceptions about the conquest in Matthew Restall’s books including Seven myths of the Spanish conquest. Oxford University Press, 2004 and When Moctezuma Met Cortes, published in Spanish by Taurus, 2019.

Lori Boornazian Diel has provided a reading and interpretation of this small format book written on Amate paper at a moment of transition, The Codex Mexicanus: A Guide to Life in Late Sixteenth-Century New Spain. University of Texas Press, 2018. The manuscript is packed with miscellaneous news intended for indigenous audiences, and is now available at the World Digital Library, with the original at the Bibliotheque Nacional de France.

Miguel León Portilla and María del Carmen Aguilera García Aguilera have curated a new edition of the Mapa de México Tenochtitlan y sus contornos hacia 1550. Ediciones Era, 2016. A digital version is available at the World Digital Library, and a facscimile with geocoded toponyms from the original kept at the University of Uppsala, can be explored in the visualization tool prepared by Lily Diaz.

Mexicano orgulloso, migrante renuente. Economista ITAM y Politólogo Duke. Senior Fellow en CDDRL y Director Centro Estudios Latinoamericanos Stanford University