A Tragic Romance

Two of Mexico’s highest volcanoes are visible from Mexico City, a city with a population of 22,085,000. The two volcanoes share a tragic love story known by almost every resident of Mexico’s capital. The two volcanoes not only dominate the vista, they have inspired myths, stories, lovers and artists. There are numerous photos and paintings of these two nearby snowcapped mountains, the most famous painting is not of the mountains themselves, but of the two tragic lovers, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, as humans before being reincarnated into smoldering volcanic mountains. The 1940 painting, La Leyenda de los Volcanes by Jesús Helguera has been reproduced almost as many times as the story of the two tragic lovers. Through Huelga’s brush strokes Princess Iztaccihuatl’s ample breasts are transformed into snowy mounds that comprise Mount Iztaccihuatl. Her diaphanous flowing cape devolves into the misty clouds and fog that often surround the mountain´s peaks. Unlike the lifeless Iztaccihuatl, Popocatepetl continues to breathe fumaroles and occasionally belches hot lava. Legend says the warrior Popocatepetl (Aztec for Smoky Mountain), and Princess Iztaccihuatl (Woman in White), were Tlaxcaltecas and subjects of the Aztecs. Popocatepetl loved the beautiful Princess Iztaccihuatl and so with the blessings of the princess´s father, the two were betrothed. Before the marriage could take place the warrior Popocatepetl was to lead the Tlaxcaltecas in battle against the Aztecs, who had previously subjugated the Tlaxcaltecas and demanded constant tribute.

Princess Iztaccihuatl promised to wait for the return of her handsome brave warrior. As in most legends, tragedy occurred—think Romeo and Juliette—when a rival of Popocatepetl told the princess that the man she had promised to marry lay dead on the battlefield. Distraught and anguished, the princess died in sadness without knowing that her unwanted suitor had lied.

When the victorious Popocatepetl returned to the Tlaxcaltecas kingdom, he learned of the death of the beautiful princess who was to be his wife. For some time, he wandered about the kingdom distraught, agitated and forlorn until he decided he must do something so that Princess Iztaccihuatl would never be forgotten. Piling ten hills together he carried the corpse of Princess Iztaccihuatl in his arms as he ascended the summit where he lay her lifeless corpse. He knelt before Iztaccihuatl´s body to watch over her. Then, taking a torch, he lit a funeral pyre.

From that day on they remain together as two snowcapped mountains facing one another until the end of time. Legend tells us that although Princess Iztaccihuatl died first and that is why no smoke nor lava raises from her lifeless form. Whereas Popocatepetl recalls his dead betrothed and the eternal passion of his heart is evidenced with lava, smoke and shaking as he sobs over the lifeless form of his beloved. Both Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl are part of the Volcanic Ring of Fire which is characterized by active and dormant volcanoes.

This Ring of Fire passes through Mexico and is felt with frequent earthquakes and active volcanoes. Seventy-five percent of earth´s volcanoes, approximately 450 in number, are located along this 24,900 mile (40,000 kilometer) plate. Thankfully, these two mountains no longer rain down fire on surrounding inhabitants, although Popocatepetl has erupted fifteen times since 1519. The most recent September 9, 2022, which caused air traffic to be rerouted. Geologically speaking Iztaccihuatl, a 17,126-foot-high shield volcano, is the elder at 900,000 years old. Her companion, Popocatepetl, a stratovolcano is younger at approximately 750,000 years old and taller with a summit at 18,045 feet.

The painter Jesús Helguera, who painted the often-reproduced La Leyenda de los Volcanes, was born in 1910 in Chihuahua, Mexico. Helguera spent his youth and married in Spain where his parents fled because of the Mexican Revolution. He returned to Mexico with his wife and two children during the 1930s because of Spain´s Civil War. He taught art in Mexico City and was a commercial artist who produced mostly calendar and advertising art  for cigar and cigarette boxes. Much of his art reflects Aztec mythology, Catholicism, Mexican landscape and pinup girls, a truly diverse and eclectic assortment that reached schools, businesses and households throughout Mexico.

Footnote: I truly enjoy researching articles and usually read at least half a dozen books, articles or theses in both English and Spanish before writing my own version, also trying to be aware of discrepancies. I was particularly disturbed to read the same error several times while researching the legend of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl. Only the English articles erroneously stated that the Aztec Empire lasted for a thousand years. The Aztecs Empire began in 1300 and ended in 1521 a time span of 221 years. Writing should always be accurate, no matter the genre. An author can create a history for his fictional character, but if they are set in the real world, that history must be correct, particularly if they participate in events. The writer could insert Princess Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl into Aztec legend; however, the author cannot alter the timeline of the Aztec Empire. No matter, whenever I visit Mexico City and see these two snowcapped mountains, I shall always recall their legend and their eternal love.

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