AUGUST 13, 1521: AN AGE OF RUIN BEGINS
Today, August 13, marks the date that the Great Tenochtitlan succumbed to the convergence of forces against it in the year 1521. I say “succumbed” and “convergence of forces” because, contrary to the Hispano-centric narrative of this event, it was way more complicated than the usual regurgitated nonsense that is usually spewed by historically challenged writers—journalists and commentators in particular.
One only has to do a Google-news search today for the term “Tenochtitlan” to find the same rubbish parroted year in and year out. Many years ago, I would take the time to contact a few of the more reputable websites to politely inform them of their dated narrative, only to find crickets on the other end, so I no longer bother talking to deaf ears. I do, however, want to at least mark the occasion and acknowledge this important date in Mexican history, a day that has even more significance for those of us immersed in the Mexika identity.
This day is really the second half of what in essence is a two day remembrance for us Mexikah. In our estimation, August 12th—when the young, brave leader Kuauhtemok is purported to have delivered THE mandate for us Mexicans to keep—is the last day “we were free as a people.” The 13th, on the other hand, is the day our ancestors, after a long hard fought resistance, finally accepted defeat. There is really no other way to honestly describe it, although Mexika apologists will often try to downplay the fact. I make no such attempts to sugarcoat the event. As a historian, it’s incumbent upon me not to “brown-wash” the account, but I am critical of the old and tired story that is repeated over and over again, including by some academics that are not caught up on the latest literature on the subject.
Let’s look at some of these misconceptions. First of all, the simplistic black-and-white notion that a handful of gallant Spanish knights rode into town and conquered all by awing the children, enamoring the women, and defeating the men is complete hogwash! Recent scholarship (within the last 15 years or so) has complicated this Hispanophilic version of events, and the facts are a lot more thorny and interesting. Historians, like Matthew Restall and Felipe Fernández-Armesto, have shown that what in effect happened in 1521 was a successful revolution. The Spanish only happened to play the catalytic role that fully ignited the already smoldering flames.
In the process, the Tlaxcaltekah and the Huexotzinkah (both mortal enemies of the Mexikah) became the main indigenous allies to the Spanish. Most estimates suggest that Cortes managed to garner around 200,000 Native soldiers. Moreover, the numerous disgruntled and tributary peoples offered little to no resistance to the advancing rebel army (headed by Cortes) as they made their way to the capital. Presumably, these same people also didn’t offer any substantial assistance to the Mexika in their time of need. What’s more, when the Mexikah sent for help from their other archenemies, the Purepecha (pejoratively called Tarascan), their request was denied and scoffed at. Had the Purepecha—who were a vast and powerful nation that rivaled the Aztecs—considered their plea and sent troops to assist them, history would undoubtedly be tremendously different. The notion of an easy “conquest” would have never even been considered as an explanation, and Cortes, had he survived, might have faced charges and even prison for disobeying orders.
The above is a counterfactual. They are fun to think about, and they do serve their purpose in historical writing, but one cannot dwell too much on them. What we must focus on instead is fixing the errors that continue to rear their ugly head in spite of new information that dispels those…well, myths, really. For instance, take the tiresome myth that Motekuhzoma believed that Cortes was the god Quetzalcoatl. I know some of my fellow Mexikah will protest the idea that our ancestors believed in gods altogether, and I acknowledge that debate, but that’s not the point here. Whether you agree that they believed in them or not, the fact remains that the Cortes-Quetzalcoatl myth has been presented since the beginning as a key factor in the demise of the powerful, yet “superstitious,” Aztecs. Never mind that there’s no actual evidence supporting the premise that the supposed prophecy predicting the return of a white-bearded god predates the revolution.
In fact, Camilla Townsend, a historian that’s looked into the life of both Malintzin and Pocahontas, posits that the myth was invented post-revolution. It’s been a while since I looked at her work, but I do recall her stating that the so-called “omens” found in the Florentine Codex were reminiscent of European stories, especially biblical ones. Those that cite them never bother to inform the reader that the Native informants were by then well trained by the priests in biblical and European tropes. Furthermore, the Cortes-Quetzalcoatl myth set the stage for even more preposterous ideas that came soon thereafter, like the Atlantis-Aztlan connection and the whole “lost tribes of Israel” claptrap. If you think for one minute that those things are irrelevant, just consider that there are still people out there, such as the Mormons, who cling to the moronic notion that Native Americans descend from Nephites and Lamanites (Hebrew tribes). Not to mention the Afro-centrists that adamantly maintain, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, that the Olmekah were African.
In any case, let’s return to the title of this post. What do I mean by suggesting that the fall of Tenochtitlan initiated Mexico’s ruin? If you think about it in (pre)historical terms, Mexico’s political and financial economy has been unstable ever since then. Mesoamerican specialists have pointed over the years that most of the region’s major societies—be they Olmekah, Maya, Teotihuacan, or Tollan—lasted for several hundred years to millennia while maintaining relative stability. Since the European invasion, I can’t think of any Mexican period that was not deeply mired by corruption, political intrigue, and various forms of dysfunction. The only possible exception would be a few decades during the colonial period, but you can hardly consider oppression, subjugation, and slavish conditions ideal.
I don’t want to imbue the idea that I’m an ethnocentric extremist, although, I’ve been down that road before; but as Xicano with a Mexikah view of himself, it does strike me curious that the land of my forbears still hasn’t shaken the Spanish yoke. Add to that the overbearing Anglo behemoth to its north, and it’s understandable how things came to be what they are. Before I am accused of apologizing for Mexico’s troubles, let me just say that there is plenty of blame to go around in Mexico, but I’m not the arbiter of such things. What I will say is that, until Mexico comes to terms with the last 500 years of history; until it decides to outwardly embrace its indigenous heritage with pride, instead of trying very hard to minimize it in an effort to seem modern and relevant; only then will that nation and its people begin to heal the gaping wound that the Spanish ripped open in 1521.
Today is the anniversary of that historical rip, and perhaps I’m way off base here, but this is how I currently feel about the whole thing. Today marks 494 years since that fateful day in history, a day that ethnic Mexicans should never forget, and with this short piece, I wish to remember it.
 Mexika, the way I use it, is the adjective form of the noun “Mexikah.” For those that don’t know, that is what the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan called themselves. Another label used interchangeably is “Mexica-Tenochca.”
 For more on this more sound interpretation of the so-called “fall and conquest” see Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); & Matthew Restall and Felipe Fernández-Armesto, The Conquistadors: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
 I’m using “revolution” instead of “conquest” since the evidence suggests that’s a better assessment.
 For a thorough explanation o f this interpretation see Camilla Townsend, “Burying the White Gods: New Perspectives on the Conquest of Mexico,” The American Historical Review 108, no. 3 (June 1, 2003): 659–87. Of further interest: Camilla Townsend, Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006); Camilla Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005).