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The fall of the Aztec Empire: A 500-year-old open wound

Generations of people are the byproduct of a soul-crushing and tragically romantic clash of cultures

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Alvaro Amador Muniz
Alvaro Amador Muniz describes himself as a Rednexican who hails from Ciudad Juárez, an adopted Tennessean, an amateur historian, and an average basketball player currently living in Costa Rica. He can be contacted at alvaroamadormu@gmail.com or via Twitter @AlvaroAmadorM.
Jorge Gonzalez Camarena’s “La Fusión de Dos Culturas” represents the birth of Mexican culture as a product of the clash of Nahuatl culture, flourishing in Mesoamerica, and that of the Spanish. Image: Wikipedia

At some point in early 1520, Aztec emperor Moctezuma must have had a eureka moment and understood that the bearded guests he had kindly hosted for months in the best palaces of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, were not the gods he had been faithfully waiting for.

The Aztecs finally realized that Cortés and his army were up to no good, a gang of buccaneers looking for gold and glory. On June 30, 1520, the Aztecs launched a fierce attack on the invaders and Cortés lost half of his army and most of his native allies. Cortés was overpowered (at least temporarily) and was expelled from Tenochtitlan.

According to the legend, Cortés ran away from the attack, and once in a safe place, he spent the entire night crying over his dishonor and disgrace under an ahuehuete tree. This infamous tree where Cortés supposedly mourned his loss is still standing in Mexico City and, until a couple of months ago, it was officially known as “the tree of the sorrowful night.” Last month, among the activities to commemorate 500 years since the fall of the Aztec empire, Mexico City’s government renamed it “the tree of the victorious night” in honor of the bravery of the Aztec warriors who expelled the Spaniard invaders.

A name-changing event for a semi-dead old tree might seem like a trivial occasion, but this event triggered numerous debates on TV, opinion pieces in the most important newspapers and news platforms, and caused political friction. This incident reverberated hard in the hearts and minds of many Mexicans. But why? Because this insignificant affair rubbed salt into a wound, a wound that had been opened for 500 years.

We have lived with this deep predicament not knowing which of our two halves was the villain and which one was the victim.

So this is how it all started: The origin of the Aztec civilizations is still not accurately known. We know they came from an island called Aztlan but its location is still a mystery. The Aztecs left Aztlan and started the pilgrimage following the wishes of their god, Quetzalcoatl. After almost two centuries of nomadic life, the Aztecs finally found the sign they were looking for: an eagle devouring a snake while standing on a cactus (yes, as in the Mexican flag). As instructed by Quetzalcoatl, the Aztecs established there the city of Tenochtitlan where they quickly prospered and expanded their domains. By the beginning of the 16th century, the Aztecs dominated a vast extension of territory, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, and as far south as the border of what is now Guatemala. The rapid success of the Aztec empire was fueled by the atrocities they committed against tribes under their domain. Their mastery of war, slavery practices and the taxes imposed on conquered tribes quickly turned them into the most powerful empire compared only to the Incan empire in South America.

The glory of the Aztec empire was widely known and it was not long until false rumors of temples made of gold and streets made of precious rocks reached the ears of the greedy Spanish settlers already established in Cuba.

On Feb. 18, 1519, Cortés led an expedition to explore new territories to the west and departed Cuba with a fleet of 11 ships, 600 men, numerous firearms, and 16 horses.

Along with Cortes in this travesty came along the future conquistador of Yucatán, Francisco de Montejo. While coasting across the Yucatán Peninsula, Cortes picked up Jeronimo de Aguilar, a Spaniard stowaway who had survived the sinking of his ship in the Caribbean and lived among the Maya for several years. Later, on his passage through Veracruz, Cortes received 20 female slaves as a gift from the native tribes. One of these slaves was the infamous Malinche who spoke Mayan and Nahuatl and quickly learned Spanish, becoming later the official translator and the unofficial wife of Cortés, maybe the mother of the first Spanish/Indigenous Mexican.

On April 22, 1519, Cortes and the Conquistadors disembarked in Veracruz and established their fort. Cortés profited from the resentment of the native tribes against the Aztec dominion and added many volunteers to his cause. Only six months later, Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan where he was welcomed by the Aztecs who, at that point, believed that Cortés was their god Quetzalcoatl returning home.

But the idea of the bearded god did not last long. The avarice and disrespect for Aztec symbols, especially if they were made of gold, soon signaled emperor Moctezuma about the bad intentions of the newly arrived. In 1520 the Aztecs, tired of the abuses of the Spaniards, fought them out of Tenochtitlan, Cortés abandoned the city defeated but did not give up on his ambitions. A year later, Cortés went back to Tenochtitlan and got his revenge. On Aug. 13, 1521, Cortés captured the newly appointed Aztec emperor Cuauhtémoc and the Aztecs stopped fighting. This marked the definite and official victory of the Conquistadors, the fall of the powerful Aztec empire, and the birth of the biggest colony of the Spanish kingdom, The New Spain.

Regardless of the label we allocate to the Aztecs or the Spaniards in this pyrrhic battle and like it or not, we are the byproduct of this soul-crushing and tragically romantic clash of cultures. We are the descendants of the victims and villains and we do not know how to reconcile that fact. 

We grew up with this predicament, we learned an Aztec-romanticized version of history from our public education system while exposed at the same time to the Eurocentric and whitewashed version offered by the Catholic church.

We are proud and brag about the legacy of the Aztecs, the Maya, and all our pre-Hispanic cultures but we also discriminate against those of us who look indigenous. It is about time we make peace with our past so we can embrace our future.

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