Mexico City marks 500 years since conquest battle began

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A ruined Aztec temple, foreground, a Spanish colonial church, top center, apartments, top left, and a modern government office constructed in the 1960s, right, stand in the Plaza of Three Cultures in Mexico City, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The plaza honors Indigenous Mexico, Spanish colonialism and the modern mixed-race Mexico that resulted from the conquest 500 years ago. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

MEXICO CITY – There are two ways of remembering the Spanish siege of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital now known as Mexico City: as the painful birth of modern Mexico, or the start of centuries of virtual enslavement.

The world-changing battle started on May 22, 1521, and lasted for months until the city finally fell to the conquistadores on Aug. 13. It was one of the few times an organized Indigenous army under local command fought European colonizers to a standstill for months, and the final defeat helped set the template for much of the conquest and colonization that came afterward.

“The fall of Tenochtitlan opened the modern history of the West,” said historian Salvador Rueda, director of the city’s Chapultepec Museum.

One way of remembering the event is symbolized by a plaque that stands in the city’s “Plaza of Three Cultures” honoring Indigenous Mexico, Spanish colonialism and the “modern” mixed-race Mexico that resulted from the conquest.

The three cultures are represented by three buildings: a ruined Aztec temple, a Spanish colonial church built atop the ruins and a modern government office building constructed in the 1960s. “It was neither a triumph nor a defeat. It was the painful birth of the Mestizo (mixed-race) Mexico today,” the plaque reads.

That sentiment, preached by the government since the 1920s — that Mexico is a non-racial, non-racist, unified nation where everyone is mixed-race, bearing the blood of both conquerors and conquered — has aged about as well as the 1960s office building.

It is largely roped off because shards of its marble facing regularly shear off and come crashing to the ground, and Indigenous or dark-skinned Mexicans continue to face discrimination by their lighter-skinned countrymen.

A much more enduring and perhaps accurate message is found a few blocks away on the wall of the tiny church of Tequipeuhcan, a place whose very name in the Aztec’s Nahuatl language sums it all up.