Tenochtitlán: A Retelling of the Conquest (2021)


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Retreat of Hernando Cortes form Tenochtitlan, Mexico, 1520.

Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

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Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Retreat of Hernando Cortes form Tenochtitlan, Mexico, 1520.

Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

In a sense, 1521 is Mexico’s 1619. A foundational moment that for centuries has been shaped by just one perspective: a European one. The story of how Hernán Cortés and a few hundred Spaniards conquered the mighty Aztec Empire, in the heart of what’s now modern Mexico City, has become a foundational myth of European dominance in the Americas. And for a long time it was largely accepted as truth. But in recent decades researchers have pieced together a more nuanced, complicated version based on Indigenous accounts: a version that challenges what one historian calls “the greatest PR job in the history of the West.” In this episode, the real story of the fall of Tenochtitlán.


Aztecs and Mexicas

For centuries, we have referred to the ancient civilization of people who inhabited Tenochtitlán as the Aztecs. It’s the more commonly known term, but it’s not the most accurate. If you were living in Tenochtitlán 500 years ago, you would’ve probably thought of yourself as something else: Mexica. The term “Aztecs” was popularized by a German explorer in the 19th century, and it’s often used to describe people who migrated from the mythical homeland of Aztlán. In fact, the term Aztec refers to the broader Aztec civilization of Central Mexico, which broadly means all Mexicas were Aztec, but not all Aztecs were Mexica. The terms are not supposed to be interchangeable, although many use them as such. “This is the paradox, one of many but perhaps the biggest one, that accompanies a city, a nation, that only very recently has started to recognize it’s multicultural and multilingual,” writes Miguel de León-Portilla in his essay Los Aztecas: Disquisiciones de un Gentilicio (The Aztecs: Disquisitions Over a Demonym). So, in this episode, when referring to the people of Tenochtitlán, we used their word: Mexica.

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Read more about the topic:

  • The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlán, the Life of Mexico City, Barbara Mundy
  • The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, Miguel de Leon-Portilla
  • The Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, Camilla Townsend