Mexico City Marks 500th Anniversary of the Fall of Tenochtitlán

The events highlight the complex legacy of 300 years of Spanish rule

A painting depicts the fall of Tenochtitlán in 1521
Approximately 500 years ago, Spanish forces laid siege to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

On May 22, 1521, Spanish forces and their Indigenous allies laid siege to the powerful Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, where Mexico City now stands. The battle lasted nearly three months, ending with the fall of the Aztec Empire and Spain’s consolidation of power in a large swath of North America. Now, Mexico City is marking the 500th anniversary of the conquest with events that highlight the complex ways it shaped the country’s society.

As Mexico News Daily reports, city authorities have planned events including a celebration of the equinox at the Cuicuilco archaeological site and academic discussions of historical myths and realities surrounding the siege. Rather than celebrating the Spanish victory, Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum says, the events will highlight Mexico’s cultural diversity without ignoring its violent history.

“The fall of México-Tenochtitlán started a tale of epidemics, abuses and 300 years of colonial rule in Mexico,” Sheinbaum tells Mark Stevenson of the Associated Press (AP).

In one telling part of the anniversary activities, the city is changing the name of Puente de Alvarado Avenue to Mexico-Tenochtitlán Boulevard, as Sheinbaum revealed on Twitter last week. The Mexico Daily Post notes that the post includes a video recounting a massacre led by the street’s namesake, Pedro de Alvarado, who took part in the conquest of the Aztecs alongside Hernán Cortés. On May 22, 1520, Spanish forces attacked the Great Temple of Tenochtitlán during a religious service—called the Ceremony of Tóxcatl—dedicated to the Aztec gods Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli.

“When the ceremony began, the crowd was gathered in the courtyard of the temple to dance and sing, but the Spaniards blocked the exits and attacked unarmed men, women and children who were celebrating in the Toithualco or sacred courtyard of the Great Tenochtitlán,” the video explains, per a translation by the Mexico Daily Post. “The Spanish killed hundreds of people, noble and common without distinction, with their steel spears and swords; many others were trampled on in a desperate attempt to escape.”

Starting in the 1920s, according to the AP, the Mexican government pushed a vision of the country as a unified nation in which all citizens boast both Indigenous and Spanish heritage. But continued discrimination against Indigenous and darker-skinned Mexicans has made many people skeptical of that framing.

Mexico City Marks 500th Anniversary of the Fall of Tenochtitlán
Modern Mexico City stands over the ruins of Tenochtitlán. Vaaggo via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This summer’s events also mark the 200th anniversary of Mexican independence from Spain. The colonial power officially recognized Mexico as its own country on August 24, 1821. As Michael Sauers reports for Morocco World News, Mexico has excluded Spain from participation in this year’s commemorations—a choice with which Spanish President Pedro Sanchez has expressed “enormous displeasure.” Tensions between the countries are related to both current issues and historical ones. In 2019, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador asked Felipe VI of Spain for an apology for the conquest of Mexico, citing “violations of what we now call human rights.” Spain’s foreign minister responded that it was “weird to receive now this request for an apology for events that occurred 500 years ago.”

Also in recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest, Indigenous members of the Zapatista movement are traveling by boat to Spain, report David Agren and Sam Jones for the Guardian. The group is trying to draw attention to continuing global inequality and Indigenous resistance.

Per the British Museum, the Aztec people, also known as the Mexica, are said to have arrived in the spot that became Tenochtitlán in 1325. Over the next two centuries, they built up the city, constructing pyramids, temples, palaces and aqueducts. The empire conquered most of what’s now central and southern Mexico, building up a long-distance trading network.

Cortés was able to conquer Tenochtitlán thanks partly to alliances with Indigenous people whom the Aztecs had oppressed. These groups provided thousands of troops for the fight, joining 900 Spaniards. A key factor in the battle was the spread of smallpox in the city. Carlos Viesca-Treviño, a medical historian at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, tells the AP that at least half of the city’s 300,000 residents probably died before the Spanish entered the city, leaving Aztec Emperor Cuauhtemoc with “few troops with the strength left to fight.”

The defeat of the Aztecs set the stage for continuing Spanish conquests, including Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca in 1533.

“The Spaniards seemed so convinced this model worked well that [Pedro] de Alvarado was set to go launch an invasion of China from the port of Acapulco when he got tied up in another battle in west Mexico and died,” David M. Carballo, an archaeologist and anthropologist at Boston University, tells the AP.

He adds that the Spanish rule of Mexico “truly made the world globalized, as it connected the transatlantic to transpacific world and all the habited continents. That kicked off what we now call globalization.”