Last updateFri, 01 Aug 2014 4pm

The last Mexica Emperor, Cuauhtemoc, hung by Cortez lives on in myth and controversy

It has often been pointed out that the institutional reverence accorded Cuauhtemoc, the last Mexica (Aztec) emperor, is the result of Emperor Moctezuma II’s poor showing against the Spanish.

Numbed by the ancient religious prophecy that the banished god Quetzalcoatl — fair-haired and fair-featured — would return to Mexico from the east in One Reed, the year (1519) that Hernan Cortez showed up in what is today Veracruz, Moctezuma vacillated in deciding whether the conquistador was a deity coming back to claim what was rightfully his, or simply a strange and awesome invader. By the time he made up his mind, it was too late.

Birth and other confusions

Both Cuauhtemoc’s birth and death have been the subject of much tugging and hauling among Mexico’s anthropologists, historians and scholars. There seems little doubt that he was the son of Ahuizotl, the eighth king of the Mexica Empire. However, the year of his birth has come in for some pushing and pulling. Most Mexican authorities seem settled on 1496, though one has put the date at 10 Tochtli, or 1502. There also has been fencing among scholars concerning who Cuauhtemoc’s mother was. Many historians have chosen Cuauyatitlali, a Chontal princess from Guerrero, as Cuauhtemoc’s mother. However, others claim his mother was Princess Tilalcapatl of Tlatelolco.

What seems clear is that his father died in 1502, and at 15 Cuauhtemoc entered Tenochtitlan’s Calmecac, an academy noted for its severe military discipline and rigorous religious and scientific training.

Shortly after Moctezuma was killed, March 1, 1521, while pleading with his people to put down their arms and promising that the Spanish would leave Tenochtitlan (today’s Mexico City), Cuauhtemoc was crowned emperor. The new monarch conducted a gallant and stubborn, if ragged, defense of the Empire’s capital. But Cortez’s men, equipped with horses and swords, shields, muskets and artillery and aided by a vengeful force of Indian allies, overwhelmed the Tenochtitlan defenders. The last Mexica emperor was 26 years old when he was captured while trying to escape. Cortez had him tortured in a vain effort to find Mexica stores of gold.

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