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NPR's history podcast 'Throughline' revisits the fall of Tenochtitlán

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Let's turn to a story from more than 500 years ago to the Spanish conquest of Mexico. For years, the story of European dominance has been largely accepted as historical truth. But a closer look at Indigenous records suggests there's more to it than that. NPR's history podcast Throughline takes us back to the year 1521 to understand the rise, fall and resilience of one of the great cities of the Aztec empire. And a note before we begin, this piece contains descriptions of violence. Here are Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: 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.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: Over the next 175 years, this city grew, becoming an economic and political powerhouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

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

ARABLOUEI: But then in the year 1521, it fell. For centuries, the story went that a tiny band of Spanish soldiers was able to vanquish the mighty Aztec empire because they were inherently superior.

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

ARABLOUEI: Mundy's also studied Nahuatl, one of the Indigenous languages of Central Mexico, and her work draws on Nahuatl writing and art to fact-check the conquistador's story.

MUNDY: I wrote a book called "The Death Of Aztec Tenochtitlan, The Life Of Mexico City," and the title's a little bit deceptive because, in fact, what I'm arguing in the book is that Aztec Tenochtitlan never died.

ARABLOUEI: To understand what she means, we need to go back to before the Spanish even arrived in the great city to 1519, when Hernan Cortes arrives in what Spain calls the new world.

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

ARABLOUEI: So he sets his sights on this new empire to the west that everyone is whispering about, the great Aztec - or Mexica, as they call themselves - Empire.

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

ARABLOUEI: Cortes and his men become allies with the rival Tlaxcala people. This is important because by the time they finally made it to Tenochtitlan, Mundy estimates there are around 20 Indigenous soldiers marching alongside every Spaniard.

MUNDY: So it's really a Indigenous-majority army composed mainly of Tlaxcalans and their allies.

ARABLOUEI: Not just a tiny band of Spaniards at all. The Aztec emperor Moctezuma initially welcomes the newcomers as guests. But Cortes has other intentions.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: (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 their city, which was the most beautiful object in the world.

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.

ARABLOUEI: Such as the fact that the two sides actually live for a time in an uneasy truce until Cortes' men unexpectedly struck.

MUNDY: And now we really understand that this was equivalent, in my mind at least, to a terrorist attack. The Spanish accounts of this, they speak almost nothing of it, 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.

ARABLOUEI: After the massacre, the Mexica people kicked out the Spanish and their Indigenous allies, but they'd left behind disease. Smallpox decimated the city. By the time Cortes returned, the empire was weak. In the end, Tenochtitlan held out for 93 days. On August 13, 1521, Cortes declared victory.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: (As Hernan Cortes) I had conquered Mexico and all of the other lines, which I held subject and have placed beneath Your Majesty's command.

ARABLOUEI: That's normally where the story ends. Tenochtitlan becomes a Spanish city, but Mundy says that's actually not where it ends at all.

MUNDY: 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 I think a lot about those people.

ARABLOUEI: Mundy says that 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 was actually very much an Indigenous, or Mexica, city.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: That was Barbara Mundy, a historian at Tulane University, speaking with Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei, the hosts of NPR's history podcast Throughline. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.
Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.
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