Cuauhtemoc: Defeated But Unconquered

One of history's recurring ironies is the spectacle of figures who die in defeat or disgrace, but emerge in future generations as heroes while the people who defeated them are downgraded to villains. Miguel Hidalgo, executed as a "traitor" to the Spanish crown, is today considered Mexico's George Washington. Nathan Hale, hanged by the British as a spy, has become a symbol of resistance to tyranny. Helmuth von Moltke, judicially murdered for his anti-Nazi activities, is now hailed as a noble representative of the "other Germany" that opposed Hitler.


Then we have the example of Cuauhtemoc, last emperor of the Aztecs. Today, Cuauhtemoc is a universal object of veneration in Mexico. Streets, parks, stadia -- even a brewery -- are named after him. Yet Hernan Cortés, the man who defeated him, is so little celebrated that I have only encountered one street that bears his name. In Orwell's term, Cortés has become an "unperson" -- not "nonperson," as the word is so frequently misquoted.


Though the exact year of Cuauhtemoc's birth is uncertain, most historians agree that he was born around A.D. 1495. In his History of the Conquest, Bernal Diaz de Castillo writes that in 1520, the year he became emperor, Cuauhtemoc was "not more than twenty-five years old, and elegant in his person for an Indian."

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