Mon, 3 July 2017
Cuauhtemoc was the last Aztec emperor. I’ve captured one sliver of his life in my series Fall of Tenochtitlan, but obviously he was around before and after the Spanish invaded and destroyed his city. By the way, I’m not making any moral judgements about the Spanish or the Aztecs when I say invaded and destroyed. Invasion and destruction are pretty common themes in history.
Historians don’t know exactly when and where he was born, exactly who his parents were, and they don’t know where he was buried. One town in the state of Guerrero claims to have his bones, but others say it’s not him. He was born sometime around 1500 to a noble family. He was named emperor in 1521, and he was hanged by the Spanish in 1525.
He had a wife and at least one child.
If there were any official documents about him, they were lost or destroyed during the destruction of Tenochtitlan.
After the emperor Cuitlahuac died of smallpox, Cuauhtemoc was named emperor and put in charge of the city’s defense.
When he finally accepted that he couldn’t save the city, he and some advisers tried to flee and find a better place to continue the war. He was captured and brought to Cortes. He asked to be sacrificed, because that was the expectation of any captured soldier. Before the Spanish arrived, the typical battle strategy was to capture as many people as possible rather than killing them. Live prisoners could be sacrificed to the gods. After death, the soldier would ascend to the heavens and accompany the setting sun.
The Spanish soldiers hadn’t been paid yet, and Cuauhtemoc said there was no more gold left. It’s likely that Cortes had kept most of it for himself, and when he did offer his men a bit of gold, the amount was so tiny that they all refused to take it.
There had been a few mutinies and conspiracies before the battles of Tenochtitlan, and now that Cortes wasn’t paying up, his men were getting unruly again. But Cortes had to keep them active, and so he sent them to explore and colonize other parts of Mexico and Central America.
In 1524 one of Cortes’ men, Cristobal de Olid, who had been sent to conquer Honduras, rebelled against Cortes. So Cortes went to put down the rebellion. He needed to take Cuauhtemoc with him because if he had left him behind, the emperor could have started up his own rebellion.
Along the way many of them died of hunger, and others were bitten by venomous snakes.
Eventually they got to a Mayan village in the state of Campeche. Today it’s an archeological site called El Tigre. They were received by the son of the chief. There were about 100 of them still alive. At some point during the stay in that village, Cuauhtemoc was executed.
The motives aren’t completely clear. It’s possible that he was organizing a rebellion, but it’s also possible that Cortes just wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to isolate the emperor from his people and then just get rid of him.
What happened with his body after that is an open question. The tradition for rulers of Tenochtitlan was cremation. It’s possible that his ashes were placed in an urn that his captains and advisers decided to leave in an important building at El Tigre. Or maybe he was buried in a Mayan crypt, which has since been forgotten.
But the sources I’m using are pretty certain about what did not happen to his remains.
An old church in the town Ixcateopan in the state of Guerrero, which has since been converted to a museum, claims to be Cuauhtemoc’s final resting place.
There is a skeleton under glass surrounded by paintings of the emperor. At one of the main entrances to the town there is a statue of him standing next to an eagle with a snake in its mouth perched on a cactus.
The eagle on the cactus represents Tenochtitlan’s foundational myth.
The people of the town don’t much care for the scientific studies showing that the bones are indeed not Cuauhtemoc. The town is, according to the town itself, the place where he was born and where he now rests.
September 26, 1949 is an important date for the town. That was the day that archeaologist Eulalia Guzman publicly declared that she had found the grave of the last Aztec emperor.
(Quick side note, the term emperor is not totally accurate. The word the Aztecs used was tlatoani, which was something more like Speaker. I’ll talk a bit more about that term in a future episode. But for now, emperor works.)
Eulalia Guzman had heard rumors that he was buried there, and she said a local family had documents that pointed to the exact burial location. She organized an excavation at the church and found some bones as well as some objects that appeared to back up the claims of authenticity. There was a spearhead and a plate bearing the inscription “1525-1529. King Coatemo.”
A scientific committee showed up in the same year, 1949, to analyze the findings. Then another study happened in 1950, and a third in 1970. The controversy kept going until a fourth study in 1976 looked at the bones, the spearhead and plate, the grave, and the documents describing where to find the grave. The definitive statement came out: There was no scientific basis to claim that the remains belonged to Cuauhtemoc.
The documents were forgeries, the grave had been recently dug, and the oral histories claiming he was from the town were also false.
Nonetheless, a tradition began in 1949 and has been going on ever since. People leave flowers and offerings at the grave, and dancers in costumes fill the streets. Some people go so far as to call the town the birthplace of Mexicanness.
Some people claim Cuauhtemoc was born on February 23, in that town. The first dancers start arriving the night of February 21st. The following people head to the museum with their offerings. Then there’s more dancing.
The celebration attracts locals, travelers, families, and even representatives of indigenous groups from all over Latin America. The party goes on all night and into the morning of the 23rd.
It’s a small town, and it’s usually calm and quiet. But the festivities completely transform the atmosphere.
It’s a pretty normal festival by Mexican standards, but there is one really unfortunate bit, which is that kids are taught a false version of history where Cuauhtemoc was actually born in their town on February 23 and then his remains were buried there as well. It’s just another reminder that we can’t try to force history to conform to our own personal fantasies. Sure, it would be cool if those bones actually belonged to the last Aztec emperor. But it’s just not true, at least according to the small amount of evidence I’ve found.
But facts don’t move people. Only stories do. And the people of Ixcateopan have found a story they like better than the truth. You are free to use that information as you see fit.
Daniel Diaz. “El dia que asesinaron a Cuauhtemoc.” Relatos e Historias en Mexico #95
Rosalba Quintana Bustamante. “Aqui yacen los restos de Cuauhtemoc.” Relatos e Historias en Mexico #95