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Mexico City Dig Uncovers Traces of Aztec Resistance to Spain

For residents of Tenochtitlan, rebellion didn’t just happen on the battlefield

This dwelling housed resistance to Mexico City's new Spanish conquerors. (María de la Luz Escobedo-INAH)
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Soon after the Spaniards entered Tenochtitlan in November 1519, its indigenous residents rebelled. But resistance to the Spaniards in what is now Mexico City didn’t just take place on the battlefield. As the AFP reports, a recent archaeological find shows quiet resistance occurred in the home, too.

Mexican archaeologists have discovered a dwelling thought to be built by upper-class Aztecs, dated to the time of contact between the two peoples, reports the AFP. Located in the neighborhood of Colhuacatonco, it appears to have been a dwelling in which Aztecs carried out funeral rituals and other rites.

In a Spanish-language press release, INAH, the Mexican institute of anthropology and history, says that the dig provides archaeological evidence of resistance to the Spanish conquest.

That resistance was epic in scope. Though Hernán Cortés, the conquistador charged with taking over what is now Mexico, initially entered the city of Tenochtitlan without resistance, before long, violence broke out and the Spanish staged a nearly three-month-long siege of the city. As the Newberry Library notes, Cortés, “was never able to predict or understand the Aztecs’ willingness to withstand misery, starvation, and massive deaths rather than surrender.” But after rising up again and again, the people of Tenochtitlan ultimately fell, weakened by the superior weapons of the Spanish and a smallpox epidemic, until eventually they were sequestered by Spanish forces and their allies.

Once the capital fell in 1521, the inhabitants of Colhuacatonco moved from violent rebellion to a more understated version. Rather than give up ancestral traditions, archaeologists say, the Aztecs who lived in the Colhuacatonco dwelling continued to perform traditional burials. A bracelet with shells, small knives and a coyote figure found on the site are believed to be traditional funeral offerings that were buried along with seven bodies—three adults and four children.

However, the site also documents how its Aztec residents adapted to Spanish rule. By the 17th and 18th centuries, say experts in the release, the people who lived in the home had objects like representations of nuns that show how they assimilated into colonial culture. The dig even turned up 20th-century items like plastic toys.

Even today, evidence of the resistance of Aztec (also called Náhuatl) people can be heard in the voices of everyday Mexicans. As Nathan Bierma notes for the Chicago Tribune, many Mexicans are fluent in both Spanish and indigenous languages—languages they fought to maintain throughout the centuries.

Remnants of Mexico City’s colonization can be found throughout the city, like the recent find of a massive Aztec temple beneath the city’s streets. The conquest of Tenochtitlan happened nearly 500 years ago, but it’s still part of public life in Mexico—and the new discovery is a reminder of how people dealt with those seismic shifts behind closed doors.

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