By David Ellison
After Moctezuma II had been murdered and his brother had succumbed to smallpox, the Aztec nobles chose Cuauhtémoc, one of their most distinguished military leaders, to defend the besieged Tenochtitlán and their doomed empire. He was only twenty-five years old. In Nahuatl his name meant “One who has descended like an eagle [to devour its prey]”; and by all accounts, he led decisively, fought courageously (everything Moctezuma II had failed to do). When all was lost, he attempted to flee with his family and other nobles but was captured.
Brought before Cortés, Cuauhtémoc supposedly said, “Ah captain! I have already done all in my power to defend my kingdom and free it from your hands, and because my fortune has not been favorable, take my life, which will be very just, and with this will end the Mexican kingdom.”
Cortés replied magnanimously, “You have defended your capital like a brave warrior. A Spaniard knows how to respect valor, even in an enemy.” (Such nobility! If it isn’t true, it ought to be.)
Cortés’ mercy ended with his words, however. When Cortés couldn’t find the royal treasure, he had Cuauhtémoc tortured. (He never found it.) Four years later, fearing Cuauhtémoc might instigate an uprising, he had him executed (under the dubious charge of conspiring to assassinate him).
Nonetheless, it is Cuauhtémoc’s giant statue that dominates the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City today. His visage appears on coins and bills, his name graces many Mexican streets and even a city in the state of Chihuahua.
Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor, endures as a symbol of heroic defiance before a pitiless fate. It is no wonder Mexicans cherish him.
This is a selection from Ellison’s book-in-progress, Niños Héroes: The Fascinating Stories Behind Mexican Street Name.
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