Five centuries ago, at a spot that is today marked by the intersection of two major streets in downtown Mexico City, the Aztec ruler Montezuma II and the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés met for the very first time. The extraordinary encounter between the New World and the Old took place on Nov. 8, 1519, and its consequences are still being felt today.
The details of what actually happened during that historic meeting are still somewhat controversial. Two slightly different versions of the surrounding events have emerged from the historical record.
As soon as Montezuma heard that a foreign expedition had landed on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, he did everything he could to prevent it from reaching Tenochtitlán, the grand capital of the Aztec Empire built on the site of what is now modern-day Mexico City. His efforts failed. In fact, he ended up ensuring the opposite of the outcome he had desired: The gifts he had sent the Spaniards only served to spark their curiosity.
Cortés, then 34 years old, arrived in Tenochtitlán with hundreds of soldiers, a little more than a dozen horses, guns and the support of about 1,000 Totonac and Tlaxcaltec natives, traditional enemies of the Aztecs who had joined up with the Spanish expeditionary forces.
The Spaniards were overwhelmed at the sight of Tenochtitlán, with its canals and central market. It was far bigger than any European city at the time. “We were in complete awe,” wrote Bernal Díaz del Castillo in his “True Story of the Conquest of New Spain.”
This is how Cortés recalled his encounter with Montezuma in a letter sent to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, almost a year later: “Señor Mutezuma came to welcome us, with some 200 men, all of them barefoot and dressed up … in rich clothing according to their uses. … Mutezuma was in the middle of the street … and there he took my hand and led me to a huge room … where he invited me to sit on a richly decorated platform.”
However, in his recent book “Hernán Cortés: Más Allá de la Leyenda,” the anthropologist and historian Christian Duverger describes a more strained meeting: “Great Motecuzoma descends from his luxurious chair carried on the shoulders of his men; he’s surrounded by 200 gentlemen. The entire government of Mexico is there. Cortés gets off the horse, takes off his helmet and tries to hug the emperor.
“Motecuzoma’s security detail stops him. Keeping a few meters between each other, they exchange gifts, valuable necklaces. Without uttering a single word, in a tense atmosphere that can be easily pictured, Motecuzoma leads the Spaniards to a huge house near the great temple, the palace of former Emperor Axayácatl.”
At the palace, Cortés and Montezuma engage in a long conversation, assisted by two interpreters: Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest who after being shipwrecked had spent several years with the Mayan people, and Malintzin, the daughter of a Nahua chief, who had been given to Cortés as a slave before his arrival in Tenochtitlán. This young woman, also known as La Malinche, translated from the Nahuatl tongue into Mayan, while Aguilar translated from Mayan into Spanish, and then the pattern was reversed. This is how Montezuma and Cortés communicated.
In his letter to Charles, Cortés reported that Montezuma had said: “Here you see me who am in flesh and bone just like you and every other person … mortal, palpable. … See how you have been lied to. The truth is that I have a few things made of gold, passed on by my grandparents. Everything I have is yours any time you want it.”
Montezuma was eventually kidnapped by the Spanish, and was killed soon after (either stoned to death by his own people or murdered by his captors; accounts vary). After many battles, Tenochtitlán fell to the Spanish in August 1521.
The conquest of Mexico was brutal. Millions of native inhabitants died violently, suffered from terrible illnesses or were enslaved.
Despite this tragic history, it’s nearly impossible to say which heritage — that of the indigenous people or that of the Spanish — has proved to be more influential for Mexicans now living in the 21st century. We simply are who we are; we were born out of conflict.
History often seems to evolve without logic or direction. There’s no way these two men could have imagined how far-reaching the consequences of their encounter would be.
And yet, here we are. Many of us on this side of the world are here because of that meeting between Cortés and Montezuma 500 years ago.
At the corner of República de El Salvador and José María Pino Suárez streets in downtown Mexico City is a mosaic mural, proclaiming the spot where that singular event took place.
The moment of our birth.