The story of the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish has been told many times and in many ways.
The names of the Mexican king Moctezuma or the Castilian conqueror Hernán Cortés are familiar to most, but, paradoxically, there is a central character who has been said and written much less.
It is about Cuitláhuac, Moctezuma’s younger brother.
On the death of his brother in June 1520, Cuitláhuac succeeded Moctezuma to the Mexica throne and led the resistance against the European invaders, whom he defeated in the so-called Noche Triste, causing numerous casualties and expelling them from Tenochtitlán, the current Mexico City.
For Patrick Johansson, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and author of the book “Cuitláhuac, Lord of Iztapalapa and Tlatoani of Tenochtitlán”, Moctezuma’s heir “is very important for Mexicans because he was the only one who managed to defeat the Spaniards in the War of the Conquest “.
In 2020 it will be 500 years since the death of Cuitláhuac, who succumbed to the smallpox epidemic that broke out among the Mexican after the arrival of the Spanish.
Although another epidemic, that of the coronavirus, has overshadowed the event, various cultural activities have been organized to remember and vindicate his figure, described in a recent comic as “the undefeated warrior” of pre-Hispanic Mexico.
Who was Cuitláhuac
About Cuitláhuac there are as many doubts as there are certainties and historians have not been able to fully rescue his biography from the mist of the past.
It is known that he was born in the last quarter of the 15th century in Iztapalapa, the son of Axayácatl, tlatoani, or king of the Mexican.
He was tlatoani from Iztapalapa, one of the towns that today make up Mexico City, whose Mayor’s Office now promotes acts in his memory and has declared 2020 as the year of Cuitláhuac.
As captain-general of the armies of his brother Moctezuma, Cuitláhuac stood out in the campaigns to subdue other peoples of present-day Mexico, some of which would ally with the forces of Cortés to fight against the Mexica domain.
Unlike his brother, Cuitláhuac rejected from the first moment of the Spanish contingents and was against Moctezuma, Tlatoani of the Mexican, receiving them in Tenochtitlán, the capital of his empire. But Moctezuma was inclined not to follow their advice and received with honors those bearded and armored strangers.
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How Cuitláhuac beat the Spanish?
According to the traditional account, in Tenochtitlán there was a general revolt after the Spanish Pedro de Alvarado ordered the killing of a group of local warriors taking advantage of the fact that they were celebrating a party in honor of their gods.
The episode, which occurred while Cortés was fighting another Spanish expedition sent from Cuba to capture him, went down in history as the Massacre of the Templo Mayor and provoked the wrath of the Mexicans, who besieged the Spanish in the Palace of Axayácatl.
Like other notable Mexicans, Cuitláhuac had been taken prisoner by Cortés, who soon after would have freed him to return with provisions at a time when the Spanish could no longer find what to eat. Cuitláhuac broke his promise to return and led the Mexican resistance against the invaders.
But Johansson believes in another version: “Although the sources do not say so, probably Cuitláhuac was anonymously behind the uprising and the attack against the Spanish from weeks ago.”
The Spanish chronicles indicate that Moctezuma died as a result of the stones he received from his people when, following orders from Cortés, he went to the top of the Palace to try to appease him, although historians still debate the veracity of this version, which does not coincide. with the one that appears in native sources.
The truth is that Cuitláhuac broke with his brother’s policy and led a fierce resistance against the conquerors.
With Cuitláhuac in command, the Mexica prevailed in what the Spanish called the Sad Night and increasingly in Mexico, they began to call the Victorious Night of June 30, 1520.
The Spanish and their indigenous Tlaxcala allies had to flee the city. Many perished when the bridges that crossed the canals and ditches that surrounded it were blocked.
“Cuitláhuac’s strategy was very smart,” concludes Johansson
Cuitláhuac was proclaimed successor as Moctezuma’s tlatoani and a few weeks later his accession to the throne was celebrated in a Tenochtitlán from which the Christian crosses were placed by the conquerors had disappeared and decked out again with offerings to the indigenous divinities.
As Father Francisco Javier Clavijero wrote in his “Ancient History of Mexico”, published in 1780, “it is to be believed that the sacrifices that were made on the date of his coronation were those of those Spaniards whom he took prisoner.”
But his kingdom was already mortally wounded. Just one week after the triumph in Tenochtitlán, the Mexica were defeated at the Battle of Otumba, an episode that, in Johansson’s opinion, reveals that “the Mexica had a ritual idea of war,” which failed to prevail over the “war. modern day of the Spanish “.
Cuitláhuac contracted smallpox, a disease that arrived with the Europeans that decimated the Mexican population and armies, and died on December 3, or at the end of November according to other sources.
From character to dark to leader to vindicate
In today’s Mexico, institutions such as the Mayor’s Office of Iztapalapa are trying to make this rebellious indigenous person finally achieve the role that, in their opinion, corresponds to him in the story of the Mexican past.
It will not be an easy task. Cuitláhuac’s footprint in history has been affected by the scant information that there is about him in the sources.
Few contemporary texts speak of Cuitláhuac and they are the work of the same Spaniards he fought, such as Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who mentions Cuitláhuac in his “True History of the Conquest of New Spain”, or Cortés himself, who he quotes it in the famous “Letters of relationship”.
For Beatriz Ramírez, chronicler responsible for the Iztapalapa Historical Archive, “writers since the 16th century, especially the most Spanishized ones, preferred to talk about the characters who supported the Spanish Army rather than about someone who inflicted a defeat on them.”
But the researcher recalls that among various indigenous peoples his memory has been honored with floral offerings and other rites that have survived to this day, and it vindicates the Mexican warrior “as an example of the defense of the land from which an example can be taken. . “
Johansson emphasizes that “the Spanish texts describe an intelligent and courageous man.”
“Long before his brother, Moctezuma knew how to see the threat posed by the invaders to an entire culture and a way of life, and that is why he wanted to wage war on them from the beginning.”
That was surely one of the reasons that prompted him to send embassies to other indigenous peoples proposing a confederation against the Spanish, in an attempt in which Johansson appreciates the “first national project of indigenous peoples.”
Why did that attempt fail?
Johansson responds: “The Mexica had been terrible when it came to subduing the other peoples of pre-Hispanic Mexico”.