Today in the Americas, Cortés and Tenochtitlan

statue to tenochtitlan

In order to understand Mexico, one must understand the ancient civilizations of the Aztecs and Mayans, among others, as well as the story of Hernán Cortés. This week is the anniversaries of two seminal moments in modern Mexican (and Latin American history): Cortés’ claiming the land of Mexico for Spain in 1519 (490 years ago) and the founding of Tenochtitlan in 1325 (684 years ago).

Readers do not need a retelling of Cortés’ journey across Mexico or what happened as a result, much of which has now passed into myth and fantasy. Lest we say, one can mention, if one will, the Spaniards who founded the New World and they pale in comparison to what Cortés did, good or bad.

Tenochtitlan, however, is still interesting because of how much we still don’t know about it. The founding of Tenochtitlan is depicted on the Mexican coat of arms and provides for Mexico a symbol (which is intertwined with the legacy of Cortés) of its founding.

The city was a part of the growing Aztec empire, located on an island in Lake Texcoco, where Mexico City now lies today (it is believed that the city was one of the largest in the world at the time: Paris, Venice, Constantinople on the short list, with a population of 200,000). tenochtitlanThe city must have been a marvel to witness, with bridges and canals and defenses – it would have been a surprise, I feel, for the Spanish soldiers stuck in hovels in Cuba only years back before their New Spain expedition with Cortés. The city had aqueducts and the Aztecs, under Moctezuma I, build a dam to conserve and distribute water more evenly. They cleaned their city, they used their waste for fertilizers, they had extensive market activities – their is evidence that Tenochtitlan became the center for trade in Mesoamerica, including possible trade routes as far as the Inka (I use the traditional, not Spanish, spelling) Empire in Peru. Tenochtitlan has served modern Mexico with much of its imagery and serves as if delineated directly from the Aztec peoples. As mentioned before, the coat of arms (and the Mexican flag) also features the ancient Aztec prophecy of an eagle eating a snake while atop a cactus.

Cortés would not be known to this post unless he deposed of Moctezuma and brought the Aztec empire down, including the ransacking of Tenochtitlan. The city was conquered on August 13, 1521. Cortés had the city razed and rebuilt in the typical Spanish style. Lake Texcoco was drained and Mexico City, as it is known today, was built on top of the ruins of Tenochtitlan, which are still being discovered to this day. In fact, the Zócalo and the Plaza de la Constitución were built on Tenochtitlan’s original central plaza mentioned above. As we approach the 500th anniversary of Mexico’s finding, it is important to recall Tenochtitlan and its contribution to world history.


~ by Daniel on March 8, 2009.

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