You can walk for hours in the streets of Mexico City’s center, and hear the urban sounds of car engines, scrap metal buyers, and handbells that announce when a garbage truck is coming.
It is hard to believe that these streets are the remnants of Tenochtitlan five centuries ago. This was a sophisticated city built on an island in a lake with bridges where great civilization flourished.
A Spanish-led force seized the city of Mexico City on August 13, 1521, defeating the Aztec emperors that ruled large parts of the land that would become Mexico.
Even though all that was lost 500 years ago in an epic event — an empire, countless Indigenous lives — there is still much of that civilization left long after its fall. Vestiges are under the streets, in people’s minds, and on their plates.
As it is now, the city’s centre was dedicated to commerce. Vendors set up stalls in informal stalls or laid out their wares on blankets as in 1521.
Artists, intellectuals, and the government all want to show the past and present in new ways. They plan to paint a line along the streets of the city with 9 million people to mark the location of Tenochtitlan’s ancient boundaries. This line was erased by the drying up of the lakes that once surrounded it.
Officials also constructed a replica of the Aztecs twin temples in the capital’s main plaza.
This is part of a larger project to save the memory of this world-changing event that has been buried in an outdated and inaccurate vision of Indigenous groups being conquered by the Spaniards for far too long.
“What was the Conquest really? What has the public been taught about the Conquest? Margarita Cossich from Guatemala, an archaeologist, asks, “Who were the victors and who were those who lost?” She is part of a National Autonomous University team. It is more complicated than just talking about the good against the bad, or the Spaniards versus the Indigenous groups.
Execution leader Hernan Cortes, along with his 900 Spaniards, made up just 1% of the army of thousands of allies of Indigenous groups that were oppressed under the Aztecs.
The official projects are nothing compared to the actual-life elements of Aztec life. The old city’s boundaries will be drawn near the place where women sell corn tortillas. These ingredients have not changed since the Aztecs.
Others sell amaranth sweets with honey or nuts. In Aztec times, amaranth seeds were mixed in blood sacrificed warriors to create god-like shapes. Then, they are eaten, according to Hugo Garcia Capistran, historian. But, with a sense ritual.
The Spaniards took the Emperor Cuauhtemoc prisoner on August 13, 1521.
In the difficult neighborhood of Tepito, there is only one plaque that marks the spot.
The plaque on a church wall reads, “Tequipeuhcan”: “The place where slavery started.”
Oswaldo Gonzalez, a few blocks away, sells figurines made from obsidian, the dark-colored, glass-like stone that the Aztecs prize.
Gonzalez states, “Everything that the Spaniards could not see or destroy, is still alive.”
Cortes’ traces are still visible, but they aren’t very prominent or well-known. Mexicans have been taught at school that he is the enemy for many generations. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, President, has advocated telling the Indigenous story and asked Spain to apologise for the Conquest’s murder, disease, and exploitation. Spain has not, and the Spanish ambassador wasn’t invited to Friday’s 500th anniversary ceremonies.
Esteban Miron, an archaeologist, notes that there’s not a single statue of Moctezuma — who was the emperor who welcomed Cortes to the city — anywhere in the city.
There are no statues of Cortes. Miron follows the route the Spaniard took to the city in 1519. The Spaniard was welcomed initially, but the Conquistadores were expelled later. There is also a stone plaque that commemorates the first meeting between Cortes emperor and Aztec.
Another plaque is located in a nearby church and marks the spot where Cortes’ bones are believed be.
He wanted to be buried near his greatest victory, which was made possible by feats such as building a fleet wooden warships that attacked the island-ringed lake.
Tenochtitlan was completely enclosed by a shallow lake, crossed by narrow causeways. The Spaniards constructed attack ships called bergantines (analogous to floating battle platforms) to defeat the Aztecs from their canoes.
Although a street is located nearby, it does not mark the exact spot where Cortes docked these ships.
Tenochtitlan was also a place where the Spaniards suffered some devastating defeats. They had arrived in the city in 1519 but were driven out by great losses a few weeks later. Most of their gold had been left behind.
Cortes fled Spain on June 30, 1520 after the “Sad Night,” which was now known as “The Victorious Night.” Many Spaniards were left behind. Miron writes that the historical record shows they walked through the lake, which wasn’t very deep, and landed on top of their comrades.
A public works project was carried out in the area in 1981. It found a bar of Aztec gold melted. This is a small portion of the loot the Spanish soldiers left behind as they fled.
It’s more than just artifacts. The spirit of ancient Mexico is still very much alive.
Mary Gloria, 41 years old, makes embroidery in a settlement of squatters near the edge the city.
Gloria has just completed embroidering “Mictlantecuhtli”, the Aztec god for death, to commemorate the huge city’s loss to the coronavirus pandemic.
Similar plagues, smallpox and measles, nearly decimated the city’s Indigenous inhabitants after the conquest. The main Indigenous victory was 1521’s survival.
Gloria now wants to redeem Malinche the native woman who served as a translator for the Spaniards. Malinche, long considered a traitor and defender of her family’s rights, ensured the survival for her line.
Gloria states, “It is up for us to rewrite the script.”