Hernán Cortés’ 1521 conquest of the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán was part of my Spanish teaching when we studied Mexico, and I visited its ruins in what is now Mexico City many times with students I took to Cuernavaca for summer Spanish study.

However, until my friend and A.C. Jones classmate Eloy Rodríguez sent me a recent San Antonio Express-News article about the quincentennial of the conquest, I had not realized that this was the 500th anniversary of that event.

When I asked if the quincentenario was observed in Cuernavaca, my friends there replied that the observance was only in Mexico City—and they supplied additional newspaper articles about the anniversary and television coverage of the Sept. 15 Mexican independence ceremonies. 

Mexico actually has two big anniversaries to observe, this also being the 200th anniversary of gaining their independence from Spain. Padre Hidalgo gave his famous Grito de Dolores, declaring Mexico’s freedom, in 1810, but it wasn’t until 1821 that Spain finally granted independence to its long-time colony.

The government of Mexico has added still another observance: 700 years since the Aztecs arrived on the island in the middle of several lakes, saw an eagle devouring a serpent while sitting on a cactus plant—now the country’s symbol on its flag—and established Tenochtitlán there. 

Although the date for their arrival is generally thought to be 1325, it could have been 1321. The Aztecs had approximately 200 years to establish their rule over the area from what is now Central America to central Mexico before Cortés arrived. However, the many different indigenous groups under Aztec control had to pay tribute and even provide victims for religious sacrifices for the Aztecs. 

The Aztecs’ name for themselves was “Mexica,” which provided Mexico’s name. “Aztec” came from “Aztlán,” the mythical place of origin of the group who came to Tenochtitlán from the north, possibly from the Four Corners area of present-day United States.

When Cortés arrived at Tenochtitlán with his small army of Spaniards and many indigenous allies in 1519, he was amazed to see a beautiful city with architecturally impressive buildings and a population of 150,000 people with around a half-million more in surrounding areas. The city itself, larger than Paris, Rome, Sevilla or any other European city, was located on an island in the middle of several large lakes, with causeways connecting it to the mainland. 

Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor, welcomed the Spaniards and offered them luxurious lodging and “sumptuous meals,” according to Bernardo Díaz del Castillo, chronicler of the conquest. However, Cortés thought this might be a trap, and soon ordered Moctezuma held hostage in their quarters of his palace. 

A few months later, some of the Spaniards attacked a group of unarmed Aztecs, and Moctezuma was killed. The Aztecs fought back, killing some 400 Spanish and many indigenous allies, pushing Cortés and his army out of the city on June 30, 1520—a date known in Mexican history as “La Noche Triste” (the Sad Night).

Cortés regrouped and recruited thousands more Tlaxcalans and other disgruntled indigenous groups, eager to see the Aztecs defeated. By the time they reached Tenochtitlán, smallpox, which the Spaniards had brought, had ravaged the city. Cortés and his allies cut the supplies of water and food to the island city, then attacked, with their horses and artillery providing some advantage. 

The Aztecs surrendered Aug. 13, 1521, and Cortés began establishing Spanish dominion over the area, providing special favors for the indigenous groups who had been a huge part of the conquest. Although the Spaniards are given credit for the victory, the indigenous allies had actually made up over 90% of the conquering army.

Cortés destroyed the Aztec temples and constructed Christian churches over or near their locations. The cathedral on the Zócalo, Mexico City’s large central plaza, was built on the ruins of the Temple of the Sun, and other Spanish constructions covered additional temples. 

In the 1970s, electrical excavations near the cathedral located the ruins of the Templo Mayor, the most important Aztec structure dedicated to their gods of rain (Tlaloc) and war (Huitzilopochtli). Buildings were removed so that the historical ruins could be uncovered and the many artifacts found were collected in an adjoining museum. I have visited this site, as well as the Cathedral and Palacio Nacional, many times with students.

Likewise, in Cuernavaca, where Cortés received huge landholdings as a result of the conquest, he destroyed native temples and over their ruins constructed another cathedral—and his own residence, the Palacio de Cortés, now the Regional Museum for the state of Morelos, another site I know well.

Cortés eventually returned to Spain, where he died in 1547, after requesting burial in Mexico. His remains now rest in the walls of a small church, said to be the area where Cortés and Moctezuma met for the first time. But he—and his conquest—continue to be a controversial topic in Mexico.

Well-known Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes wrote, “We were all born from conquest, no longer Aztecs, no longer Spaniards, but Indian-Hispanic-Americans, mestizos…We are what we are because Hernán Cortés, for good or for bad, did what he did.”

This year’s celebration of Mexican Independence featured a reconstruction of the Templo Mayor (at 35% the original size) in the Zócalo, a sound-and-light depiction of the history of Tenochtitlán, dancers and singers in traditional indigenous costumes and spectacular fireworks.

There was no mention of Hernán Cortés.

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