Tenochtitlan: A Retelling of The Conquest : Throughline In a sense, 1521 is Mexico's 1619. A foundational moment that has for a long time been shaped by just one perspective, a European one. The story of how Hernán Cortés and his small army of conquistadors 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. This is the story that for centuries was largely accepted as the truth. But in recent decades researchers have pieced together a more nuanced, complicated version based on indigenous accounts, a version that challenges many of the bedrock assumptions about how European Christians came to control the Western Hemisphere. In this episode, the story of the fall of Tenochtitlán.

Tenochtitlan: A Retelling of The Conquest

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Many years ago, it is said that the god of sun and war instructed the people of a valley in what's now Mexico's capital to build a new city wherever they saw an eagle perched on a cactus, eating a snake. They searched and searched until finally they came across that eagle on an island in the middle of a lake. And it was there they built the floating city - Tenochtitlan.


Over the next 175 years, this city grew, becoming an economic and political powerhouse. And by the year 1500, Tenochtitlan was the beating heart of a great civilization - the Aztec Empire.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing in non-English language).

BARBARA MUNDY: So in the year 1500, Tenochtitlan is one of the largest cities in the world at that time. It has probably about 150,000 people. At this point, London might have, like, 60,000. Rome has maybe 25,000.

ARABLOUEI: Tenochtitlan hummed with life.


MUNDY: It had enormous markets, where tons of goods were bought and sold.

ABDELFATAH: Traders and customers came for the goods but stayed for the gossip.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in non-English language).

ARABLOUEI: Festive celebrations marked the calendar, inspiring song and dance.


ABDELFATAH: Valiant warriors traversed the countryside, conquering village after village, expanding the reach of this great city. It's said you would know the Aztec warriors were approaching your village when you heard this whistle.


MUNDY: And like all great cities, it had temples and places for worship.

ARABLOUEI: At the center of the city, these temples, pyramids, rose so high, you might feel the winds of paradise blow through your hair at their peak.


ARABLOUEI: Many met their end here - humans who were sacrificed to please or plead with the gods.

ABDELFATAH: And not far from their stood a lavish palace that housed the emperor...

MUNDY: ...Who was Moctezuma.

ABDELFATAH: Moctezuma and his close circle of ruling elite. These elite lived better than most. Whereas the commoners of the city ate corn, beans and avocados and wore clothes made of cotton, the elite ate plenty of meat and wore the finest gold necklaces.

ARABLOUEI: But no matter who you were - a man or a woman, wealthy or poor - if you lived in Tenochtitlan, education was a key part of your upbringing. And you would have thought of yourself not as Aztec, a term popularized in the early 19th century by a German explorer, but as Mexica.

ABDELFATAH: Some speculate that the name Aztec refers to the mythical valley from which they came - Aztlan - and that outsiders wanted to draw a clear distinction between present-day Mexico and the ancient civilization. And for those outsiders, Mexica was just too similar to Mexican. So Aztec is the word most of us are familiar with today.


ABDELFATAH: Perhaps the most extraordinary part of the city of Tenochtitlan was its elaborate network of waterways.


MUNDY: It had a system, like Venice, of canals that were used for transport. The people of Tenochtitlan understood that the canals could be used to irrigate their fields as long as they were kept clean. So they also had an incredibly elaborate system of composting, where boats would pass by households every night and collect all of the human waste, the urine, and they would take it out, and they would compost it.


ABDELFATAH: This sophisticated system kept the city humming along. But things began to change when a few hundred strangers bearing the flag of a distant land called Spain arrived in the floating city.


MUNDY: And when the Spaniards come, the first thing they notice is how wonderfully sweet the city smells.

ABDELFATAH: After all, cities back in Europe, were...

MUNDY: Fetid. They smelled horrible.

ABDELFATAH: Rats and other critters everywhere.

MUNDY: Garbage and human waste in the streets.

ABDELFATAH: Baths were rare.

MUNDY: And there were disease pits, too.

ABDELFATAH: So when the people of Tenochtitlan first met the Spaniards...

MUNDY: They were probably overwhelmed by how terrible they smelled.


ABDELFATAH: And it was probably only after they got over that smell that they began to wonder why the Spaniards were there and whether they came in peace. Before long, they would have the answer. Violence, disease, betrayal would all lead to the downfall of a once-great city and help propel the new world into an era of European domination, which the Europeans marketed as a sign of their clear superiority.


MUNDY: What happened in the 16th century was the birth of the great illusion that Europeans were more sophisticated, more cultured, more civilized than other peoples of the world. And that plays out today when we look at things like our immigration policies. Who does the United States let in, and who do they not let in? We live in a certain world order where we have a first world and a third world. All of these myths - these myths of a kind of second-class status, of what is Latin America from the view of white, European or Anglo American culture. This great mythology was all founded in the 16th century. And it really comes down to this very important event of the Spanish conquest and how that story got told and retold and replayed over centuries.


MUNDY: My name is Barbara Mundy. I'm an art historian, and I'm a professor at Tulane University.

ABDELFATAH: Barbara is the Martha and Donald Robertson chair in Latin American art. Her research focuses on the interaction between native peoples and settler European colonists in the Americas.


MUNDY: I wrote a book called "The Death Of Aztec Tenochtitlan, The Life Of Mexico City."

ARABLOUEI: The book uses Indigenous text and art to counter the traditional colonialist narratives about Tenochtitlan.

MUNDY: And the title is a little bit deceptive because, in fact, what I'm arguing in the book is that Aztec Tenochtitlan never died.


ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: And on this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR, the battle to redefine the fall of Tenochtitlan and reimagine the origins of an entire world order.


BRENT: This is Brent (ph) from Beirut, Lebanon. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's one of the world's busiest megacities. But five centuries ago, when Mexico City was called Mexico Tenochtitlan, it was perhaps the most advanced metropolis on Earth. In the summer of 1521, tensions between the Spanish and the native population reached a boiling point.


MUNDY: I was just in Mexico City, and they're having a commemoration for the fall of Tenochtitlan. I was there on August 13, which was the day of the fall.

ABDELFATAH: Mexico City sits on the same island, atop the same lakebed where Tenochtitlan once stood. And art historian Barbara Mundy has spent years trying to understand exactly how this thriving civilization fell 500 years ago, back in 1521, not long after the Spaniards first arrived there.

MUNDY: The official narrative is - that's promoted by the government, is that this event, this clash of cultures, brought about the modern nation-state, which is a mestizo state, that this led to a seamless blending of cultures that is Mexico. That's the official narrative.

ABDELFATAH: This narrative isn't necessarily the one accepted by the current government in Mexico. They've been grappling with this history in a way that's more inclusive of the Indigenous perspectives. They've renamed public spaces that were dedicated to conquistadors and have even demanded apologies from the pope and the King of Spain. Yeah, by the way, Spain technically still has a king. Anyway, the pope gave the apology, and the King of Spain didn't. But historically, in Mexico and much of the western world, this grappling with history hasn't been very common. The conquest of Tenochtitlan has mostly been recounted as a triumph of civilized Europe over the uncivilized Indigenous people of the Americas, of technological advancement over backwardness and Christianity over paganism. This was the event that opened up the Americas for European settlement. And that story - the one many of us have been taught - goes like this.


MUNDY: A group of Spaniards - a very small group of 500 soldiers - march into one of the greatest cities in the Americas. And unassisted, they take down the largest Indigenous empire to date.

MIGUEL MACIAS: (As Hernan Cortes) As soon as it was day, I caused our whole force to be in readiness and the heavy guns to be brought out.

ABDELFATAH: It's said they were led by a noble conquistador, Hernan Cortes, who, by his own accounts, miraculously managed to lead those few hundred men against thousands.

MACIAS: (As Hernan Cortes) I knew of no middle course to take with them in order to rid ourselves of so many dangers and hardships without utterly destroying both them and the city, which was the most beautiful object in the world.

MUNDY: The myth says that they do it because they are smarter, because they are technologically superior, because they have better weapons.

MACIAS: (As Hernan Cortes) They had given us occasion and compelled us utterly to exterminate them.


ABDELFATAH: Tenochtitlan crumbles, Cortes and his fellow soldiers are victorious, and a new, better world is born. At least, that's been the official narrative.

MUNDY: And of course, like all official narratives, it papers over a lot of, you know, uncomfortable truths in the same way that in the United States our national mythology of the melting pot ignores the great original sin of the country, which is slavery.

ARABLOUEI: In a sense, 1521 is Mexico's 1619, a foundational moment that has for a long time been shaped by just one perspective - a white, European one. And in her book, "The Death Of Aztec Tenochtitlan, The Life Of Mexico City," Barbara Mundy digs into an alternative perspective - that of the Indigenous people of Tenochtitlan. She credits a few important phenomena for this shift in perspective - the birth of the American Indian Movement in the U.S. and the rise of feminism and ethnic studies.

MUNDY: All of these intellectual movements, social movements, drew us to rethink the ways conventional histories were told. So there was that. And then on just a nitty-gritty historical level, starting in - oh, maybe 50 years ago, historians who worked on the New World started to understand that there are Indigenous language archives and that in order to work in them, you would have to learn Indigenous languages.

ARABLOUEI: Because how can you decode a past you don't even understand the code to?

MUNDY: So now lots of universities in the United States, in Latin America are places you can learn Indigenous languages.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking non-English language).

MUNDY: I'm a lifelong student of Nahuatl.

ARABLOUEI: Nahuatl was the language of the peoples of central Mexico, including the Mexica.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking non-English language).

MUNDY: And that gives you access to archives that we didn't have access to before. And through those archives, we can hear the stories of Indigenous people as they were told and written down in these - in the 16th century, in these moments of conquest.

ARABLOUEI: It's worth noting that Nahuatl is still spoken in Mexico, so it wasn't just the language barrier keeping the story hidden for all those years. For a long time, written records of the Indigenous perspective were suppressed.


MIRANDA MAZARIEGOS: Ten years before the Spaniards first came here, a frightening omen appeared in the sky. It was like a large, glowing blaze. It seemed to pierce the sky itself, very white at the base and narrow at the top. It extended to the very middle of the sky, to the very heart of the heavens.

MUNDY: There's a book that was written in a - kind of an encyclopedia of the Mexica and Mexica life. It's compiled in the 1570s, about two generations after this all happened.

MAZARIEGOS: When it shone in the east in the middle of the night, it burned so bright one could believe it was dawn.

MUNDY: It's called the Florentine Codex. It's online. You can go look at it at the World Digital Library, and it's written both in Spanish and in Nahuatl.

MAZARIEGOS: This omen was visible each night for a year, beginning the year 12 House.

ABDELFATAH: A Franciscan priest who had made the voyage to the New World decided to create this encyclopedia alongside a group of Mexica writers and illustrators to capture what life was like in Tenochtitlan - everything from how the economy worked to what they ate, who they worshipped and what histories they told. He thought it would be helpful in future missionary work. And in the late 1500s, the encyclopedia was completed and sent back to Spain.

MUNDY: One of its books - there are 12 books - the 12th book is about the conquest.

MAZARIEGOS: The second omen which appeared was that the temple of Huitzilopochtli burst into flame...

MUNDY: But the full description is only in the Nahuatl. It's not translated into the Spanish part.

MAZARIEGOS: The third omen was that a temple was struck by a lightning bolt.

ABDELFATAH: Soon after this encyclopedia made it to Spain, it was acquired by the Medici family, who ruled Florence at the time. The exact reasons why are unclear, but the Medicis filed it away somewhere, and it was there that it became known as the Florentine Codex.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Nahuatl).

ARABLOUEI: As more historians like Barbara learned Nahuatl and dug into the archives, more of the Indigenous accounts came to light.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Nahuatl).

ABDELFATAH: They discovered Nahuatl poems and songs written around the same time as the Florentine Codex.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Nahuatl).

ARABLOUEI: And with the help of these Indigenous records, a new vision of what happened in Tenochtitlan emerged. And for Barbara Mundy, correcting this record isn't just an academic pursuit. It's a personal one.

MUNDY: My father is Latin American, and for me, there's a real political end to the work that I do because the richness of Hispanic history has been not told or it's been denied. And so, you know, I'm - in some ways, I'm making up for the sins of my fathers.


ABDELFATAH: Barbara Mundy guides us through the revised story of 1521 when we come back.


SHEENA GADAVICH: My name is Sheena Gadavich (ph), calling from McLean, Va. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 2 - Arrival.


ARABLOUEI: On October 12, 1492, three ships from Spain arrived on an island in what we now call the Bahamas. The captain of the expedition, Christopher Columbus, was trying to reach Asia. He was on a mission to find a westward route to the continent.


ARABLOUEI: He and his crew encountered vast beaches with emerald-colored waters, thick jungles littered with unfamiliar fruits and people whose appearance and language seemed otherworldly. Columbus thought he'd reached the Indies. He called the people Indios and named their island San Salvador, or holy savior.

MUNDY: So after Christopher Columbus makes his first voyages, we start finding more and more Spaniards come - are given licenses to come into the Caribbean to make settlements there. Most of the Spaniards who come are really looking to make some money.

ARABLOUEI: Most of the young Spanish men who took on the dangerous voyage to the Caribbean did it because they were looking for adventure and riches. They plundered and enslaved their way to wealth in Spanish colonies like Hispaniola, modern-day Dominican Republic and Haiti, and Cuba. And the Spanish crown, the people underwriting the whole thing, had their own interests in mind. Of course, gaining wealth was a motivation. But there was also something else.

Since the 11th century, European Christians had engaged in various forms of holy wars called Crusades. In Spain, it took hundreds of years for Christians to regain full control of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslims. And what was the year they finally did it? 1492 - the same year Columbus landed in the Caribbean. So naturally, the Spanish crown wanted Columbus' expedition and all the ones they came after to have a religious flavor to them.


MUNDY: The Spanish crown is given the right to colonize, the right to conquer, if they bring Christianity to the people they conquer. So the pope signs off on this. He's like, you can - you have whatever is out there, as long as you make them good Christians. As long as we're making them Christians, kind of whatever we do is OK.

ARABLOUEI: Whatever we do is OK. For the next few decades, this mantra guided the behavior of the Spanish in the Americas. They murdered and enslaved the Indigenous people they encountered. They stole from them, forced them to work in gold and silver mines. And in all of this mayhem arrived a man who would be at the center of everything that happened in 1521 - Hernan Cortes.


MUNDY: He was born in Spain. He arrives in Cuba. He is not badly educated.

ABDELFATAH: Cortes came from a lesser noble family and had even tried to study at university and quit. He was only 19 when he took the journey to the Caribbean.

MUNDY: Basically, he's in Cuba to really try to make a name and a living for himself.

ABDELFATAH: He rose up the ranks in the civil government and even served as the mayor of a city called Santiago for a time.

MUNDY: And a lot of other people are in Cuba at that point, trying to do exactly the same.

ABDELFATAH: But plundering the Caribbean islands wasn't enough. Cortes and others had heard rumors of an empire to the west with immense wealth.

MUNDY: So they've heard of some kind of empire that lies to the west of Cuba.

ABDELFATAH: That empire was in what we today call Mexico City, and Cortes had his eyes set on it.

MACIAS: (As Hernan Cortes) I also mentioned having received information from the natives of a certain great lord called Moctezuma. I proposed to go and see him wherever he might be.

MUNDY: And Cortes is one of the early explorers who, you know, musters some men and ships and makes it over to the mainland.

MACIAS: (As Hernan Cortes) I assured Your Highness that he should be taken either dead or alive or become a subject to the royal throne of Your Majesty.

ABDELFATAH: The governor of Cuba commissioned Cortes to go on an expedition to Mexico. At the last second, probably because of personal jealousies, he tried to replace Cortes with someone else. But Cortes was like, nope, I'm going anyway.

MUNDY: He decides he's going rogue.

ABDELFATAH: In the spring of 1519, Cortes and 500 soldiers arrived on the eastern coast of Mexico, eventually founding the city of Veracruz. He hoped to find treasure and to bring Christianity to the local people.

MUNDY: From the moment he steps foot in Veracruz, he is a person who is winging it. He burns the boats so nobody can get - can - none of his army can go back. And then he starts marching on - towards Tenochtitlan. He does not know what he will find.


ARABLOUEI: The small army Cortes commanded began working their way further inland, towards central Mexico. And along the way, they met and dealt with local leaders, people who were subjects of Moctezuma and Tenochtitlan.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

MUNDY: He is accompanied on that voyage by a woman named Dona Marina, who he has picked up by a Indigenous lord who's gifted this woman to Cortes, along with some other women. And she turns out to be a key player in the - in this march and in the battles of the conquest.

ARABLOUEI: She was a Mexica, or Aztec noblewoman. Also known as La Malinche, her Indigenous name was Malintzin. But the Spaniards gave her a new name - Marina.

MUNDY: She's basically baptized the minute the Spaniards get her, and she's baptized because it is not acceptable for Spanish men to have sex with unbaptized women. So basically, her "conversion" - quoting conversion - or baptism essentially prepares her to be raped.


MUNDY: Dona Marina quickly learns Spanish, so she can directly translate between Nahuatl and Spanish. Cortes is able, through Dona Marina, to communicate with the local lords. And she knows the politics. She knows the way alliances are made.

ARABLOUEI: Central Mexico was, like many parts of the world at the time, a place where identity was very complicated. Most people spoke Nahuatl and shared deep cultural and religious ties but mostly identified with the city they were from. In this context, cities were constantly struggling over power and land and resources and prestige. Cortes had no idea what these dynamics were like, so he depended on Dona Marina to explain it to him. She helped him broker deals and make alliances, and that ability would help her play an important part in what would happen next because soon, Cortes would find out that there were deep resentments from the people of central Mexico towards the city that ruled over the region - Tenochtitlan.


MUNDY: So Tenochtitlan had a tribute empire, and basically, when they - when the armies, the Mexica armies, conquered you, they demanded tribute, a certain amount. There was one special polity called Tlaxcala, and Tlaxcala was never conquered by Tenochtitlan.

ARABLOUEI: Tlaxcala was a city east of Tenochtitlan. They had their own proud history. Even though they were weaker than Tenochtitlan, they'd remained rivals.

MUNDY: And what Tenochtitlan would do with Tlaxcala was they would wage wars against them called flowery wars. Purpose of these wars was to capture valiant warriors who then could be brought back to the center of Tenochtitlan for sacrifice. If you were a warrior and you captured somebody on the battlefield, you brought him back to your home alive so that you can make a spectacle out of his killing.

ARABLOUEI: These were instances of the infamous ritual Aztec human sacrifices that would happen at the Great Temple in Tenochtitlan.

MUNDY: They, over time, of course, grow to really hate the Mexica. And so when Hernan Cortes and his soldiers walk into Tlaxcala, he finds willing allies for his campaign to unseat the Mexica emperor.

MACIAS: (As Hernan Cortes) I was not a little pleased on seeing their want of harmony, as it seemed favorable to my designs and would enable me to bring them more easily into subjection. Every kingdom divided against itself shall be rendered desolate.

ABDELFATAH: Cortes saw a great opportunity and, with the help of Dona Marina, was able to start building an army with the people of central Mexico, who were pissed off at the Mexica rulers of Tenochtitlan.

MUNDY: So there are probably, at this point, maybe 500 Spanish soldiers. Not all of them are with him. But he's got a contingent of Tlaxcala warriors. I did a calculation. There's probably about 20 Indigenous soldiers for every Spaniard at this point. So it's really an Indigenous-majority army, composed mainly of Tlaxcala and their allies.


ABDELFATAH: This combined force of Spanish and Indigenous soldiers arrived in Tenochtitlan in November 1519. Initially, the ruler of Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma, didn't respond with force. He welcomed the Spanish and other Indigenous forces into Tenochtitlan and sought a diplomatic solution.

MUNDY: And they treat them very well. You know, Cortes and his - the other elites are given housing in the central palaces. They're fed well. They're given women. They're given food. They're really treated very well.

ABDELFATAH: They spent months living on the royal palace grounds.

MUNDY: Key in all of this is Dona Marina. Because she's the one who understands Indigenous politics. She knows the game. She knows the discontent of these different cities with Tenochtitlan and with the Mexica in the center. And so I suspect that she's probably doing a lot of the negotiating, and she's probably advising Cortes on how to behave.

ABDELFATAH: But behaving isn't what anyone would call what Cortes did next.


MACIAS: (As Hernan Cortes) ...Had observed of the country, that it would subserve the interests of Your Majesty and our own security if Moctezuma was in my power.

ABDELFATAH: Cortes put Moctezuma under house arrest and basically held him as a hostage.

MACIAS: (As Hernan Cortes) I resolved, therefore, to take him and place him in my quarters, which were of great strength.

ABDELFATAH: With Moctezuma in their possession, the Spanish and Tlaxcala warriors proceeded to loot Tenochtitlan. But that was just the beginning of the atrocities they would commit.

MUNDY: This situation changes dramatically at the end of May of 1520.


ARABLOUEI: Remember how Cortes went rogue and came to Mexico in defiance of the governor of Cuba? Well, that governor didn't forget. He was insulted by the insubordination and sent his own military force to Mexico to arrest Cortes and relieve him of his duties. So Cortes was forced to take a portion of his small army back to Veracruz to face the governor's troops, leaving most of his men behind in Tenochtitlan.

MUNDY: He leaves this - the Spanish forces - a kind of skeleton force - in command of Pedro de Alvarado, who was second-in-command. And in the end of May, the Mexica, as they normally would do, are celebrating one of their big festivals. It's called Toxcatl.


MUNDY: Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are coming into the great temple precinct.


MUNDY: There's dancing. There's music.


MUNDY: There's probably great feasts that are about to happen.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

MUNDY: And Pedro de Alvarado decides to shut the gates of the great temple precinct and unleash his men on these unarmed celebrants.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) They stabbed everyone with iron lances and struck them with iron swords. They stuck some in the belly, and then their entrails came spilling out.

MUNDY: This is called the Toxcatl massacre.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) And some they hit on the shoulders. Their bodies broke open and ripped. Some they hacked on the calves, some on the thighs, some on their bellies.

MUNDY: The Spanish accounts of this - they speak almost nothing of it. They talk about how they were threatened and how they had to kind of discipline some Mexica. But we have Nahuatl accounts of this. And when you read that Nahuatl, if you want a kind of gut-wrenching experience of what it was like, that Nahuatl reveals how people were - you know, limbs were severed, how the innocents were literally massacred.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) And there were some who were still running in vain. They were dragging their intestines and seemed to get their feet caught in them. Eager to get to safety, they found nowhere to go.


MUNDY: And now we really understand that this was equivalent, in my mind, at least, to a terrorist attack.


MUNDY: And I think about how a seemingly inexplicable act of horrible violence, horrible killing, can totally unravel a society. And that's what happened in Tenochtitlan in - during the Toxcatl massacre.

ARABLOUEI: The people of Tenochtitlan were enraged by the Toxcatl massacre. They responded by ferociously attacking the compound where the Spanish and their Indigenous allies were holed up.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Stones thrown by slings fell in such numbers upon the garrison that it seemed as if they came down like rain from the clouds.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) And darts and arrows were so thick that the houses and squares were filled with them.


ABDELFATAH: By this time, Cortes had returned from Veracruz and found the city in a state of chaos. Moctezuma was still being held hostage by the Spanish, so Cortes forced him to address his people and demand that they stop attacking. But this just made them angrier, and they attacked again. In the ensuing fighting, Moctezuma was killed. The Spanish said the Mexica did it, and the Mexica accused the Spanish of assassinating their emperor.

MACIAS: (As Hernan Cortes) I determined to quit the city that night. I took all the gold and jewels belonging to Your Majesty that could be removed.

ARABLOUEI: The Spanish were forced to retreat from the city in the dead of night. They later called their defeat Noche Triste.

MUNDY: Or sad night - sad night for the Spanish because they're chased out of Tenochtitlan.


MUNDY: But then the Spaniards regroup. They move over to - they go back to Tlaxcala. They make more - their allies. And they regroup. They start building some warships. And they come back in the spring of 1521.


ABDELFATAH: But another more powerful invader from Europe was already in Tenochtitlan before Cortes' return. And it would be that invader that turned the tide of the war. When we come back, the fall of Tenochtitlan.


SARAH: Hi, this is Sarah (ph) from Traverse City, Mich. I just love listening to THROUGHLINE. It is such a wonderful show. You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 3 - Alien Invasion.


ABDELFATAH: For the past 500 years, most people in the West have been taught that Cortes was able to defeat the mighty empire of Tenochtitlan with a small band of Spanish soldiers because they were better fighters with better weapons and the power of Christianity on their side - basically, the idea that the Spaniards were just superior to their Indigenous opponents. But in reality, the biggest reason Tenochtitlan fell wasn't because of anything that happened on the battlefield. It was because of something we know all too well today - an epidemic of disease.

MUNDY: It's probably smallpox or some infectious disease that the Spaniards have brought and now is just raging through the population. Indigenous peoples of the Americas had no natural immunities to diseases that, in a European context, would have been pretty minor.


MUNDY: But because of this lack of immunities, some of these epidemic diseases in - when they run through, sweep through, central Mexico, they might kill 50%. Sometimes - one, we think, killed more than 50% of the population. That's a lot of people to be dying.

ABDELFATAH: In the months between the Noche Triste and Cortes returning to attack Tenochtitlan with a bigger army, disease had decimated the population of the city.

MUNDY: So you had a city that's in the grips of an epidemic. And of course, we all know how psychologically debilitating being under or living through a pandemic is. So I think we can start to understand something of the experience of the people who were living in Tenochtitlan.

ABDELFATAH: So when Cortes returned to the outskirts of Tenochtitlan in the spring of 1521, the city was in a rapid decline. It had a new emperor after Moctezuma's death, but things weren't stable. They were not prepared for a war. And Cortes' army knew it.


MUNDY: And one of the first things they do is they break the water pipes that are sustaining the city of Tenochtitlan.


MUNDY: And they have a siege cordon around the island city.


MUNDY: And they basically start to starve the population.

ARABLOUEI: Tenochtitlan held out for 93 days, but eventually, the emperor was captured. And on August 13, 1521, 500 years ago, Hernan Cortes declared victory.

MACIAS: (As Hernan Cortes) I had conquered Mexico and all of the other lands which I held subject and have placed beneath Your Majesty's command.

ARABLOUEI: In his letters to the king, Cortes cast himself as the hero. He makes it clear that he should get the credit for bringing down Tenochtitlan.

MUNDY: And what's really interesting about those letters is that Cortes never, ever admits any failures. We don't get a full account of Dona Marina's role at all. He portrays himself as this kind of singular, great leader.

ARABLOUEI: And here's the thing - these communications didn't just stay between him and the king of Spain. They were published and disseminated pretty soon after the events of 1521.

MUNDY: Which is quite unusual. Not - most letters are not published at this point. But Cortes' long, descriptive letters of the city of Tenochtitlan and the fall of Tenochtitlan later - these are all translated - well, first they're published in Spanish, and then they're translated into Latin, and they go through multiple editions. So immediately, all of Europe - or literate Europe - is awash in Cortes' heroic narrative about himself.

ARABLOUEI: But it gets even wilder. Cortes contacted a Spanish historian named Francisco Lopez de Gomara and convinced him to write a history of the conquest of Mexico.

MUNDY: Which is, like, the greatest PR job in the history of the West.

ARABLOUEI: The book was called "La Historia General De Las Indias," or "The General History Of The Indies." The second part of the book was called "Historia De Las Conquistas De Mexico" or "The History Of The Conquests Of Mexico."

MUNDY: Gomara recounts the great tale of Cortes, embellishing it and making him seem even a greater hero in the whole affair.


ARABLOUEI: Cortes' letters and Gomara's book laid the foundations for the narrative that the Spanish conquered Tenochtitlan because they were technologically and morally superior. And that narrative came in the 16th century, a time where ideas of European superiority were taking shape. But, wow, does it miss the mark when it comes to nuance and accuracy. And perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions it birthed was that after Tenochtitlan surrendered, it was destroyed and automatically became a Spanish city.

MUNDY: So, according to Cortes' letters, Tenochtitlan was destroyed and razed to the ground. And most historians, many historians, have simply accepted that at face value. But I was writing the book thinking a lot about what happened to New Orleans after Katrina, and it really struck me, with the ability of that city to recoup, come back, that it's really, really hard to kill a city. And with that frame, I started to think more and look at different records, particularly Indigenous records, about the city of Tenochtitlan right after its fall. And what's clear is that Cortes decides that he's going to rebuild the capital right there in Tenochtitlan, and he can't do this alone. And so he has to depend on the Indigenous infrastructure to do that, and he has to make alliances with Indigenous elites to rebuild that city.

And so there are some key figures who are powerful Mexica lords, and they are given some power by Cortes to start rebuilding the city right after the conquest. And, again, their role in the rebuilding of the city is kind of suppressed in a lot of the accounts of it. And I think a lot about those people. I think about them because, you know, we have many situations in the world where everybody's compromised. And when we'd like to think, oh, these Indigenous elites should have simply refused, they should have simply said no - but they're responsible for big populations, and I think they want to find a way forward. They want to find a way that people can live in a city that's safe. They want to find a way forward so that people have enough to eat. And the way forward for them is to negotiate with the Spaniards.

ARABLOUEI: Barbara says there's historical evidence that this fresh group of Mexica elites would more or less rebuild and lead Tenochtitlan for at least a decade after 1521.

MUNDY: And, in fact, what we think of as a Spanish city after the conquest of the early 16th century by Spaniards led by Hernan Cortes - what we think of a Spanish city was actually very much an Indigenous or Mexica city.

ABDELFATAH: Today, where Tenochtitlan once stood is one of the biggest cities in the world - Mexico City. And its people, culture and even languages are all born of the events of 1521, a mix of Spanish and Indigenous peoples. And in Mexico, the narrative about what happened to Tenochtitlan has been a source of racism and discrimination for people of Indigenous descent. Yet, as Barbara told us, even the last 70 years of historical findings haven't completely discredited the Eurocentric narrative Cortes and Gomara created.

MUNDY: In Mexico, the pushback I get is largely from people who believe that Christianity was a good thing. They believe that a society is better off without human sacrifice. They think that there were elements of civilization that Europe had that the new world didn't, and it was a good thing that they came to the New World, to the Americas - this kind of legacy of European civilization as being more enlightened and better in some way. It's hard for people to change what they have believed about the world. It's hard to rethink what you were taught in school. So the pushback comes because people want to hang on to the idea that Europe knew it all and that Europe had a better civilization than other places.


ARABLOUEI: Barbara says it's important to know the facts about what happened because the truth is the fall of Tenochtitlan opened the way for Europe to gain immense wealth from all of the Americas. And that laid the groundwork for the material and ideological world we live in today, a world that is still dominated, economically and culturally, by European nations, many of whom were active in the colonization of both North and South America, a world still only a few generations removed from European imperialism and still very much living with its impacts.

MUNDY: And it's really important to understand why - how that came about and how myths, historical myths, can be used to support that world order, a world order that I think is neither just nor fair. And I think if we want to think about new possibilities in the world, we have to understand how these world orders came about. And that's the value of history - is it helps us understand, literally, how we got where we are and perhaps possibilities of how to undo it.


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me and...






ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ARABLOUEI: Thank you to Anya Grundmann, Tamar Charney, Miranda Mazariegos, Adriana Tapia and Carrie Kahn.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

ARABLOUEI: Alex Drewenskus mixed this episode. And thank you to Miguel Macias for being the voice of Hernan Cortes and Miranda Mazariegos for providing the voice of the Florentine Codex.

ABDELFATAH: And finally, if you have an idea or liked something you heard on the show, please write us at throughline@npr.org or hit us up on Twitter at @throughlinenpr.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks for listening.


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