The Mexico Podcast: History & Present











October 2020
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Part 7

Tenochtitlan was the largest city in the world, according to some of my sources. The Spanish conquistadors described it as being more beautiful and organized than anything in Spain at the time. You can look up artist renditions online of how the city might have been in the early 1500s. You’ll see paintings of massive pyramids with temples on top. You’ll see floating bridges. You’ll see palaces. None of that exists today. The Spanish completely destroyed the city.

So, supported by nearly 150,000 native warriors, they crossed the causeways again and got to work. They battled the remaining Aztecs for a few days. The enemy had now holed up in the marketplace, where they were about to make their last stand.

Cortes feigned a retreat to lure them into an ambush. Ten cavalrymen got their attention. The Aztecs chased them to an open square, where 30 more cavalry were waiting. Cortes gave the attack order. The horses were devastating. Great numbers of Aztecs fell.

Meanwhile, Alvarado was attacking the marketplace. They encountered heavy resistance even though the opposing army was divided and starving and literally losing their minds. The Tlaxcalans burned Cuauhtemoc's palace to the ground.

On July 1 Alvarado sent up smoke, indicating that he had taken the marketplace. All that was left to do now was to slaughter the holdouts, including women and children.

Cortes climbed the temple and saw the severed heads of his soldiers and allies on skull racks. He stood at the edge of the pyramid, hoping that any Aztecs who saw him there would give up. But pockets of Eagle and Jaguar knights still resisted. They were the most elite members of the Aztec military. For them, surrender was simply not in their vocabulary. They refused to submit.

The siege had gone on for three months, but the Aztecs remained defiant. They had taken refuge in houses on stilts along the lake shore.

A man in Cortes’ army knew how to build catapults, and he thought they could easily use one to tear down the buildings on the lake. They built it on top of a pyramid for dramatic effect. But as they loaded stones into the sling, the catapult failed. The stones fell out and tumbled uselessly to the ground. They tried some repairs, but they just couldn't get it right. Cortes ordered  them to dismantle and hide it. Not wanting to look like fools, the Spanish taunted the Aztecs by saying they removed the catapult out of compassion for them, sparing their lives.

By now so many of the city's inhabitants had died from hunger or thirst that the stench of decomposing bodies filled the air. In the ensuing days the Spanish claimed to have killed or enslaved more than 50,000 Aztec men, women, and children. Several Spanish accounts claim that 12,000 people were killed or captured in one day. Most of them put up no resistance.

Cortes sent several messages to Cuauhtemoc, wanting to speak with him, but was rebuked every time. So they continued their raids.

Houses all over the city were filled with the dead and dying. Children wandered the streets crying. Women screamed and pounded their fists on walls.

It was a city in its final throes. One of the world's biggest and, in some ways, most advanced civilizations had faced torture and starvation for months and was now dying.

In the ransacking of Tenochtitlan, the Tlaxcalans were more than happy to brutalize their historic enemy. They murdered anyone they found in the streets.

Cuauhtemoc must have known his empire was done. It had been happening for months. His army was forced out of their own city while the Spanish smashed everything. But he sent one of his greatest warriors to... I don't know... maybe strike fear into the enemy. Maybe display power. The warrior was dressed elegantly in the green feathers of the Quetzal bird. Portilla translates:

“Cuautemoc consulted with a group of his captains and then called in a great captain called Opochtzin, who was a fabric dyer by trade. They dressed him in the finery of the Quetzal owl. Then Cuautemoc said to him 'this regalia belonged to my father, the great warrior Ahuitzotl. Terrify our enemies with it. Annihilate our enemies with it. Let them behold it and tremble.'

When our enemies saw him approach, they quaked as if they thought a mountain were about to fall on them. The quetzal owl climbed up onto a rooftop. When our enemies saw him, they came forward and prepared to attack him, but he succeeded in driving them away. Three of the enemy soldiers were taken prisoner.

Suddenly the battle ended. Neither side moved against the other, the night was calm and silent, with no incidents of any kind. On the following day absolutely nothing took place, and neither the Spaniards nor the Indians spoke a word. Each side watched the other closely but made no plans for launching an attack.”

On August 12, 1521 an omen appeared in the city. In the years before the Spanish had arrived, the Aztecs allegedly saw several omens predicting the demise of their civilization. This was the final omen. An Aztec source writes:

“At nightfall it began to rain. Suddenly the omen appeared, blazing like a great bonfire in the sky. It wheeled in enormous spirals like a whirlwind and gave off a shower of sparks and red-hot coals. It also made loud noises, rumbling and hissing like a metal tube placed over a fire. It hovered for a while, then it moved out into the middle of the lake where it suddenly disappeared. No one cried out when this omen came into view. The people knew what it meant and they watched in silence.”

The next morning Cuauhtemoc fled the city.

Now... the omens. This is another topic of debate. Did they really appear? Or were they made up? If the omens are just fabrications, who fabricated them and why? Were the people who wrote the codices (years after the events) under pressure to make a narrative that conformed with the religious worldview of Spanish monks who oversaw the writing process? A lot of the things that allegedly predicted Cortes’ arrival seem a little too convenient. And we just don't have a lot of unbiased information to go on. As I said, Mexican history is loosely based on a true story, and that's probably true for most of world history.

Meanwhile, Cortes was planning a final assault on the remaining soldiers and citizens. He instructed his men to find and capture the emperor so they could finally end the war. The armada, infantry, and cavalry all converged on the edge of town where the holdouts were clinging to life.

When they got there the people were emaciated and barely put up a fight, but tried to flee. Cortes writes,             “The people of the city had to walk upon their dead while others swam or drowned in the waters. So great was their suffering that it was beyond our understanding how they could endure it.”

Of course, he himself was the direct cause of their suffering, and starvation was one of his principle strategies. The siege had gone almost exactly as Cortes had planned.

The Aztecs write:

“The flight from the city began and with this the war came to an end. Some fled across the lake, others along the causeways, and even then there were many killings.

Those who lived in boats or on wooden rafts fled by water. Some waded in water up to their chests and necks. Others drowned when they reached water above their heads.

The grownups carried their young children on their shoulders. Many of the children were weeping with terror, but a few of them laughed and smiled, thinking it was great sport to be carried like that along the road.”

Warships were still engaging Aztec canoes, but this time, rather than filling the lake, there were only about 50. In the distance a canoe paddled away, and a warship gave pursuit. As they got closer the men in the canoe yelled at the Spanish not to attack because the emperor was aboard.

When Cortes got word of this he ordered his men not to harm Cuauhtemoc, but to bring the ruler to him right away. He prepared a meeting place and filled a table with food. He laid down a literal red carpet. His translator and mistress Malinche was, as always, at his side to allow the men to communicate.

When the Aztec king saw Cortes, he pointed at his dagger. He said, “I have already done everything in my power to defend my kingdom and free it from your hands. And since my fortune has not been favorable, take my life, which would be very just. And this will put an end to the Mexican Kingdom, since you have destroyed my cities and killed my vassals.”

Cortes responded by saying he wished Cuauhtemoc had surrendered earlier, as they could have avoided so much destruction. He told the emperor to eat and rest so that they could discuss the terms of the surrender.

They met again the following day and Cortes asked for all the gold that they had lost on the Noche Triste. Cuauhtemoc knew he would ask this question, so he told his men to bring forth what little gold they had smuggled onto his canoe. Cortes was not impressed, but Cuauhtemoc told him there was no more, and he had a request: Let my people leave the city and heal in more peaceful towns. Cortes agreed.

The dead were cremated. As people fled the city, the Spanish harassed them, looking for gold. They strip searched people but found very little. The best-looking women and the strongest looking men were grabbed, branded as slaves, and forced into a life of servitude. Again, quoting Portilla:

“The Spanish soldiers were stationed along the roads to search the fleeing inhabitants. They were looking only for gold. The women carried their gold under their skirts and the men carried it in their mouths or under their loincloths. Some of the women, knowing they would be searched if they looked prosperous, covered their faces with mud and dressed themselves in rags. But the Spaniards searched all the women without exception.”

Cortes left 300 men in charge of cleaning up Tenochtitlan while he went to the nearby city of Coyoacan to celebrate victory. Wine and pigs came in from Veracruz, and Spanish women had arrived from Cuba. So many people showed up that they ran out of space. The partying went a little overboard, and the next morning they held mass. Their priests forgave their sins.

Later, after contemplating the tiny amount of gold they had been able to steal, Cortes again demanded that Cuauhtemoc produce more or of it. The defeated king said nothing, so Cortes’ men tortured him. They tied him to a pole, poured boiling oil on his feet, and lit them on fire. But the king remained defiant. The men brought the King of Tacuba and tortured him in the same way. This time, Cuauhtemoc said they had dumped it deep in the lake so that the Spanish could never find it. The king of Tacuba died, but eventually Cortes let Cuauhtemoc go free. He limped for the rest of his life.

Cortes sent teams of divers to retrieve the gold, but they found almost nothing. His men began complaining, but he told them that they now owned the entire country that had produced the massive wealth they wanted. If they would be patient, he could grant them lands and slaves to work their fields.

The siege lasted 80 days and the death toll was high. More than 200,000 Aztecs died and 30,000 Tlaxcalans. Word of the devastation spread quickly throughout the region. People flocked from far away cities to see if it was really true, to see if the Aztec empire had really been destroyed.

Cortes was a better expedition leader than public administrator, so in order to get things back to some kind of normalcy they needed the old Aztec bureaucrats to run the city on a day-to-day level. He had people begin to rebuild the metropolis, which was renamed Mexico City.

The rulers needed taxes to keep their system running, but taxes require living people able to produce wealth. Somehow the Conquistadors expected the country to produce the same levels of money and free labor that were possible before the war and before smallpox.

Indigenous people were forced into slavery and worked in gold mines until they collapsed. Everybody needed food, but the farmers were now working in mines.

Taxes had to be in gold or produce. The Spanish wouldn’t accept other traditional forms of taxes like cacao beans and seashells.

Some of the conquistadors were bored by the lack of exploration, pillage, and conquest. So they went to Central America or sailed for Florida.

Martin Lopez, the shipbuilder, and several others sued Cortes for failure to pay wages he owed them.

Cortes led an expedition to Honduras, thinking he could find more gold there. He brought Cuauhtemoc with because he thought the ex-emperor would know how to find the gold. Cuauhtemoc tried to lead a rebellion, but failed and was hanged.

Malinche gave birth to Cortes’ son, Martin. Years later a plot was hatched to overthrow Spain’s viceroy in Mexico and make Martin king. The conspirators were executed and Martin was banished from Mexico.

Cortes was given the title Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca. He didn’t settle in Oaxaca, though. He kept exploring, eventually getting to the land he would name California, after the name of a fictional place in a novel he read.

He went to Spain a few times after the destruction of Tenochtitlan for different reasons. He died in Spain and his remains were shipped to Mexico City.

Richard Grabman sums up Cortes’ legacy in the eyes of most Mexicans of non-Spanish descent.

“Diego Rivera’s mural in the National Palace gave Cortes his Mexican image—malignant, sickly, hollow-eyed, and fanatical. There are no streets or towns named for Cortes in Mexico. The only statue of him in the Republic is in a Cuernavaca hotel lobby, commissioned by a United States citizen, not a Mexican.”

The indigenous religions of Mexico began to mix elements of Catholicism with their own traditions. It’s a strategy that allowed parts of their history to stay alive during the Catholic Church’s reign of terror and fundamentalism, and it’s what always happens in Mexico.

The people here don’t resist things completely. They find elements of foreign ideologies, religions, and economic systems that are already somewhat built into their own cultures, and they mix things together.

Today, if you go to a restaurant for pizza, it’ll come with bottles of ketchup, hot sauce, and soy sauce. Buses don’t go in a straight line down a city with streets in grid format, they make absurd detours, and if there’s too much traffic, the driver will find a way around it. They have universities that feel similar to ones in the US and Europe, but students and teachers arrive when they want. Individualized testing happens, but group projects are where the students really do their best work. Cheating is as much about getting ahead as it is about making sure everyone passes.

Even the Spanish language has been streamlined, modernized, updated, and mixed with a huge amount of indigenous words.

So the Spanish came and destroyed Tenochtitlan and then built something resembling a normal city in Spain, but in Mexico City there are miles and miles of open air markets selling the same stuff today as they sold 500 years ago.

The Spanish tried to impose themselves on every detail of Mexican life, but the people who escaped into the forests and mountains were largely able to protect themselves. To this day they make the same foods, prepare the same drinks, speak the same languages, and practice a lot of the same religious rituals as ever.

And the old enemies of the Aztecs are still forced to pay taxes to an enormous, unresponsive, and unaccountable bureaucracy. So how much has really changed?

Direct download: Fall_of_Tenochtitlan_7_2018.mp3
Category:Podcast -- posted at: 8:37pm EDT

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