Stella Pope Duarte

The last great Mexica

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Tenochtitlán was the last to fall. The Spaniards had launched three months of destruction on the cities of Anáhuac, each city devastated in turn, until only Tenochtitlán stood isolated, the pride of the Mexica (Aztec) empire. The battles had been bloody, the dead on both sides forming mounds of decaying flesh. The Spaniards had vowed to destroy every temple, idol and pyramid dedicated to the gods of the ancient world. And still, the Mexica fought on, at one point, capturing over sixty Spanish soldiers and sacrificing them to their war god, Huitzilopochtli, in full view of Cortés and his men. During the siege of Tenochtitlan, the Mexica were imprisoned in their once-splendid island city and had been reduced to eating worms, insects and the bark of trees. No fresh water flowed, and still the people would not surrender. Then, as if to mark the end of a great nation, a single canoe sailed silently out of Tenochitlán carrying the last great emperor of the Mexica nation, the 19-year-old Cuauhtémoc, a rebel of great bravery and fortitude who had led his people through their darkest time. 

Cuauhtémoc had risen to power after Moctezuma had been stoned to death by his own people for giving into the Spanish invaders. Moctezuma’s fears had gotten the best of him, and he assumed Cortés was his nemesis, Quetzalcoatl, come back to take over his kingdom. This had been the prophecy uttered by the priests of Huitzilopochtli, and it was realized by Cortés’ arrival on the predicted date, 1519, a One-Reed year. Married to one of Moctezuma’s daughters, Cuauhtémoc rose to power by sheer will and his desire to conquer the Spanish invaders and protect his beloved land. Yet, he was a military strategist and knew he was up against not only the Spaniards, but the native peoples who had become their allies. One by one, the cities of the great empire had fallen, first Texcoco, followed by Ixtapalapa, Chalco, Tacuba, Tepeyac and Coyoacán. The canoe carrying Cuauhtémoc was intercepted by the Spanish and the young emperor was abducted and put in chains. Only then were the Spaniards able to enter the great city to witness its last effort at resistance and final destruction. Bernal Diaz described the horrific scene in his memoirs: “We found the houses filled with the dead. The entire city had been dug up for roots, which had been cooked and eaten.” According to Diaz and other historians, the defeat of la gente del quinto sol was a profound blow that would crush them for generations to come.

Cuauhtémoc’s name became forever connected to what it means to bravely resist against all odds. Mexican mothers often said to their children, “Aguántate como Cuauhtémoc” (Endure like Cuauhtémoc). This saying referred to the story of Cuauhtémoc suffering greatly as his feet were thrust into a vat of boiling oil by the Spaniards. Sitting next to him, a deposed king cried out, “This pain is unbearable!” Cuauhtémoc, at his side, calmly answered, “Do you think, perhaps, I am enjoying the pleasures of my bath?” 

In addressing Malinche (also known as Doña Marina, Cortés’ translator), Cuauhtémoc related a most urgent message. He commanded her to record these words to his Spanish captors: “I NEVER surrendered; I was taken by force.” And, thus, his words were recorded for all time.

According to the records of the Chontales of Tabasco, Cuauhtémoc was forcibly baptized by the Spaniards, then beheaded, and his head displayed on a ravaged temple, a symbol of Spanish supremacy. Yet, the young Cuauhtémoc’s legacy has never been surpassed, for he was the last great Mexica.

Editor’s note: Details of the Conquest of Mexico included in this essay are those favored by the author, and do not necessarily represent the consensus of ethnohistorians. The documents that chronicle the Conquest were written at different times and from different points of view; only a handful are eyewitness accounts. Many inconsistencies exist among the extant descriptions of events surrounding the Conquest.

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