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September 16th

¡Feliz Día de la Independencia! / Happy Mexican Independence Day!

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February 28th 1525: Cuauhtémoc executed

On this day in 1525, the Aztec ruler of Tenochtitlán Cuauhtémoc was executed by Hernán Cortés’s Spanish forces. Cuauhtémoc began his reign in 1520 soon after his relative Moctezuma II died in battle with the Spanish. Becoming ruler at the young age of 25, he came to power over a land besieged. He faced the threat of the Spanish invasion and a smallpox epidemic, and battled bravely to save Tenochtitlán. However Cuauhtémoc was captured on August 13th 1521, along with his family and most of the remaining Tenochtitlán nobles. The king asked Cortés to kill him, but the conquistador refused and initially let him go. However, lust for the fabled Aztec gold was too much, and Cortés’s forces eventually recaptured and tortured Cuauhtémoc to find its whereabouts. In 1525, Cortés ordered Cuauhtémoc executed for supposedly plotting to kill leading Spaniards, Cortés included. This claim has never been verified, but Cuauhtémoc is remembered in Mexico as a brave warrior who fought to save his country from the invaders.

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A quick look at: Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of death and lord of the underworld.

Mictlantecuhtli was believed to live in Mictlan, the cold, damp and gloomy underworld of the Aztecs, or lower part of the cosmos, where the remains of humans were kept.

This Templo Mayor Museum figure of Mictlantecuhtli, which is perhaps one of the most famous representations of the god, was found in the House of Eagles. Here he wears a loincloth, and stands grinning. Some have suggested that this grin of Mictlantecuhtli, who once harassed Quetzalcoatl on his journey to the underworld, may suggest his desire to torment. His claw-like hands are posed, as though ready to attack someone.

The holes on his scalp would have once been filled with black, wavy hair -which the Aztecs associated with chaos. Parts of his flesh has been teared off, and his liver falls from his chest cavity. This organ was connected to Mictlan, and housed the Ihiyotl soul (see Aguilar-Moreno 2007, chapter 7). Recent residue analysis has found traces of human blood on the statue. 

Artefact courtesy of the Museum of the Templo Mayor, Mexico City. Photos taken by Travis: oosik.

Recommended reading: Handbook to Life in the Aztec World (Oxford University Press, 2007) by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno. This is a very good overview and introduction to the Aztec culture, and expands on many of the points I briefly mentioned here.

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Aztec masks.

The Walters provides an excellent overview of the significance of skeletal masks to the Mexica, which I have included below.

Throughout Mesoamerica, the wearing of masks was central to the performance of religious rituals and reenactments of myths and history. The face is the center of identity, and by changing one’s face, a person can transcend the bounds of self, social expectations, and even earthly limitations. In this transformed state, the human becomes the god, supernatural being or mythic hero portrayed.

Masks of skeletal heads, whether human or animal, are relatively common, for death played a central role in Mexica religion. Death was one of the twenty daysigns of the Mexican calendar, indicating its essential place in the natural cycle of the cosmos. Death also was directly connected to the concept of regeneration and resurrection, which was a basic principle in Aztec religious philosophy.

A key Mexica myth recounts the journey of Ehecatl, a wind god who was an aspect of Quetzalcóatl (“Feathered Serpent”), a powerful Mesoamerican deity. Ehecatl travels to Mictlán, the land of the dead, where he retrieves the bones of long-dead ancestors. He grinds their bones and mixes the powder with his blood, offered in sacrifice. With this potent mixture, the god formed the new race of humans who, according to Mexica cosmology, inhabit the present fifth age of Creation. Thus, death and rebirth are intimately connected in Aztec thought and religious practice.

The mask represents the concept of life generated from death with visages animated by lively eyes and painted skin. The mask was probably worn during rituals, covering the performer’s face or attached to an elaborate, full-head mask, and transforms the person into a new being that symbolizes the pan-Mesoamerican belief in life springing from death as a natural, and inevitable, process of the mystical universe. (Walters)

Courtesy of & currently located at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA, 2009.20.1212009.20.1.

your blue and baby pink zig-zag phone cover is not aztec.
your short shorts with the patterned pockets are not aztec.
your fingernail designs are not aztec.
your laptop case is not aztec.
your hipster, photoshopped pictures of you posing, dramatically, in a field or a desert or wherever;
is definitely not aztec.

you know what is actually aztec? multiple ethnic groups of central mexico. the nahuatl language is aztec. the archaeological remains of tenochtitlan are aztec. 

here, if you’re being ridiculous and offensive to cultures that have been oppressed and stepped on for centuries, you can expect to be called out on it. 

your cute and hipster patterned knick-knacks are institutionalized racism.


trendy, ethnic prints; mass produced roxy ripcurl,
hip native american colors. patterns. 
of symbolism. of ancient wisdom. but, where the natives at? 
you are vultures on our culture. capitalize and mass produce prints,
that you do not understand.
you exploit our painted roots. 


sincerely, 
a mescalero apache and opata indian that to this day still wonders how her ancestors managed to squeeze her between the cracks of this fucked up genocide land;
that spread the legs of her ancestors and raped them of their culture. 
white male supremacy patriarchy land. aztlan. treaty of guadalupe hidalgo.
la raza. arizona. anaheim. illegal alien. racism. rape. 
ghost dance. 
wounded knee. 
i spit on your gentrified streets.  

Carved head thought to represent Quetzalcoatl found at Teotihuacan, similar to the type seen at the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. Such sculptures adorned the doorways and patios of temples and dwelling units, as well as the facades of the latter.

Teotihuacan (‘the place where the gods were created’) is about 50 km north-east of Mexico City, and was built between the 1st and 7th centuries AD. A prominent feature at this archaeological site is the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (sometimes also referred to as the Temple of the Plumed Serpent), which is where this carved head likely came from.

One of the most important gods of the Aztec pantheon, Quetzalcoatl is a creator god, and the patron of merchants, knowledge, and crafts.

Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, is a very complex god, with many aspects and spheres of influence. 

According to an Aztec myth of creation there were four suns (or worlds) before the present one. Each sun was created and destroyed in a different way, and inhabited by a different race of people. Each sun was also presided over by a different deity.

After the destruction of the Fourth Sun, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca created the earth and the heavens by tearing apart the earth monster, Tlaltecuhtli.

-Clara Bezanilla, A Pocket Dictionary of Aztec and Mayan Gods and Goddesses.

Artifact courtesy & currently located at the Teotihuacan Museum, Mexico. Photo taken by Travis S.

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November 8th 1519: Cortés enters Tenochtitlan

On this day in 1519, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés entered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan where he was greeted with a celebration by king Moctezuma. At the time, Tenochtitlan is believed to have been one of the largest cities in the world, dominating most great European cities. Cortés and his men were expelled from the city in 1520 after some Spanish massacred Aztec civilians during a festival. They later returned with Tlaxcalan allies to siege Tenochtitlan. The attack almost completely destroyed the great city, and the Spanish took Tenochtitlan in 1521. This was a major event in the Spanish conquest of the Americas and the fall of the Aztec Empire.

There are creepy Aztec ruins, and then there are ruins that creeped out the Aztecs.

5 Mysterious Structures With Creepy Unknown Origins

#5. Teotihuacan, the Real Temple of Doom

Teotihuacan is not its original name, but rather one invented by the Aztecs, who gave it a title that would dislocate the tongue of anybody trying to speak it in order to hide it from the civilized world. You see, the Aztecs did not build Teotihuacan, they discovered it … 500 years after it had been completely abandoned.

Read More

Fierce Historical Ladies post: Malintzin

If you’re Mexican, of Mexican descent, or live in a culturally Mexican area, you may know the story of La Llorona.

La Llorana is the tale of a woman named Maria who drowned her children for a chance to be with the man she loved. However, he spurned her affections, and in her heartbreak, she drowned herself in a lake. Upon ascending to the gates of heaven, St. Peter asked her, “Where are your children?” and she had no response. He sentenced her to an eternity of wandering the mortal realm unless she could find her children. Even today, the story goes, she can be found weeping on stormy nights near lakes and rivers. She is said to kidnap wandering children, or children who disobey their parents, in the hope of being able to present them as her own at the gates of heaven.

In some retellings of this story of the mother who murdered her children, Maria has a different name: La Malinche. The name La Malinche is a pejorative name used for the Nahua woman, Malintzin. She later went by the name Doña Marina, which she chose for herself before her baptism.

Malintzin—as I will be referring to her in this post—was a noble of the Nahua people. Her actions take place in the very complex historical setting of the end of Aztec hegemony in what we now refer to as Mexico, and the beginning of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and South America. The relationship between the Aztec Empire and its subsidiary peoples and neighboring polities—which included Mayan groups—informed Malintzin’s contextualized actions, and the actions of other Mexican peoples.

The Nahua were the group from which the Aztec emerged, and were thus privileged within the Aztec sphere of influence. As a noble, Malintzin was afforded a phenomenal education, including an in-depth language instruction. Her father died when she was still quite young, and her mother remarried and soon bore a son to her new husband. For reasons which can never be determined, but which were probably to do with issues of wealth transference, Malintzin’s mother sold her to Mayan slave traders soon after the birth of her son.

Malintzin then disappears from the historical record until a group of Spaniards purchased her in 1519—most estimates put her in her mid to late teenage years at this point. Though Cortes gave her as a gift to one of his men, he decided to keep her at his side as a translator because of her fluency in Mayan and Nahuatl. Sources from this period also speak highly of her looks, which may have also influenced Cortes’ behavior towards her. According to similar sources, she mastered the Spanish language within two weeks of the purchase of her person.

With Cortes, she helped to inform him of revolts against Spanish rule, accompanied him as an interpreter as he put down a rebellion, and acted as a translator between him and Mexican peoples hoping that he would defend them against Aztec hegemonic oppression. Indeed, Adelaida R. Del Castillo argued that the Aztec Empire fell in part as a result of a coalition of their subsidiary peoples acting in concert with the Spanish conquerors.

image

Cortes and Malintzin meet with Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II in 1519, from the Historia de Tlaxcala. Image courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

In 1521, soon after the fall of the Aztec Empire to Spain, Malintzin gave birth to a son fathered by Cortes. As a mark of esteem for her within the Spanish hierarchical system, he married her to Spanish noble Juan Jaramillo before his first return to Spain. Some scholars argue that Malintzin died in 1529, however, others argue that she is alluded to as though she is alive in letters found in Spain dated 1550, and referred to as though she was deceased in letters dated 1551.

Her role as translator and helper to Hernan Cortes, the man who destroyed the Aztec Empire and began the Spanish Empire in the New World, has caused her to be remembered primarily as a traitor, a whore; the woman who handed her people over to the man who slaughtered them and destroyed their civilization. Others remember her as a woman who liberated the Mexican peoples from the oppressive rule of the Aztecs, some characterizing her as the founder the modern Mexican nation. Chicana Feminist literature beginning around the 1960’s sought to attempt to reconstruct her life separated from the actions assigned to her over the past four centuries, and the most recent attempt to reconstruct her life devoid of myth and in historical context was penned by Camilla Townsend.

A problem, however, in the reconstruction of her life and the analysis of her actions is that most of what we know of her comes from Spanish sources; sources penned by Malintzin’s buyers, sellers, owners, and conquerors. Therefore, even the very sources from which she can be reconstructed exist within a colonized context—the academic/theoretical term for the instance in which the only record of a person, or a people, was penned by their oppressor or conqueror is “subalternity,” with the study of these people, or groups, being “subaltern studies.” I use quotes not to imply that I am mocking this form of post-colonial criticism, but because I am introducing the term to those unfamiliar with it.

I chose to write about Malintzin not because I want to reconstruct her life or meditate upon her motivations, but because she is an indigenous American woman whose name has become synonymous with “whore” and “traitor.” Because the most famous indigenous women in North and South American white historical memory* are the ones who Westernized, the ones who aided Western men in their colonialist actions, the ones who were baptized, the ones who married European nobility, and the ones who spent time in Europe. They are the ones who were labeled as traitors to their people and are the ones who have layers of mythologized meanings attached to their names.

These women were acting within a context in which two or more highly complex civilizations encountered each other for the first time. Pocahontas never sat down and thought “Hmmm time to assimilate to European cultural norms and sing songs about the wind,” Sacagawea never thought “Whooo time to accelerate the process of American expansion and the destruction of the life my people have been living for hundreds of years,” and Malintzin never thought “I think I’ll destroy my civilization and betray my people today.”

Malintzin was interacting with the intricate historical circumstances in which she lived, and must be understood within that context. And within that context, I would argue that she was a highly educated, highly intelligent member of the nobility who was able to become a political actor for both Spaniards and Aztec subsidiary peoples by virtue of that intelligence.

And that is pretty fierce.

*I don’t want to drag this post across the threshold from history into post-colonial theory, however, “North and South American Europeanized historical memory” or “North and South American colonized historical memory” could work here as well. What all of these turns of phrase mean, or imply, is that these women are the ones remembered outside of American indigenous communities for a specific set of reasons, all to do with the nature of the European conquest of the Americas.

Previous Fierce Historical Ladies posts may be found on this page, alongside a few other posts about groups of historical women.

ETA: This post contains problematic elements, and for that I apologize to Latina readers. For more detail, please see this post.

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Aztec skull with mosaic inlay of turkois, shells and mother-of-pearl, Mexico. 

On the forehead of the skull a snake has been depicted. Probably this person had a special connection to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, the feathered snake. Mixtec craftsmen were very skilled in the art of making mosaics -only a few objects of their work remain.

Courtesy & currently located at the National Museum of Ethnology, the Netherlands. Photo taken by ease.

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