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The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City

The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City

Presenting a radically new interpretation that reorients Spanish-centric historiography and recognizes indigenous agency, this visually compelling book maps the continuities between Aztec Tenochtitlan and sixteenth-century Mexico City.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

February 2018
Not yet available
256 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 5 b&w illust, 22 maps, 72 color illust, 62 color photos, 1 b&w photo |

The capital of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan, was, in its era, one of the largest cities in the world. Built on an island in the middle of a shallow lake, its population numbered perhaps 150,000, with another 350,000 people in the urban network clustered around the lake shores. In 1521, at the height of Tenochtitlan’s power, which extended over much of Central Mexico, Hernando Cortés and his followers conquered the city. Cortés boasted to King Charles V of Spain that Tenochtitlan was “destroyed and razed to the ground.” But was it?

Drawing on period representations of the city in sculptures, texts, and maps, The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City builds a convincing case that this global capital remained, through the sixteenth century, very much an Amerindian city. Barbara E. Mundy foregrounds the role the city’s indigenous peoples, the Nahua, played in shaping Mexico City through the construction of permanent architecture and engagement in ceremonial actions. She demonstrates that the Aztec ruling elites, who retained power even after the conquest, were instrumental in building and then rebuilding the city. Mundy shows how the Nahua entered into mutually advantageous alliances with the Franciscans to maintain the city's sacred nodes. She also focuses on the practical and symbolic role of the city’s extraordinary waterworks—the product of a massive ecological manipulation begun in the fifteenth century—to reveal how the Nahua struggled to maintain control of water resources in early Mexico City.


2017 Conference on Latin American History Elinor Melville Prize for Latin American Environmental History2017 Latin American Studies Association Bryce Wood Book Award2016 Latin American Studies Association Colonial Section Book Prize2016 Latin American Studies AssociationMexico Humanities Book Award Honorable Mention2015 Association for Latin American Art Margaret Arvey Foundation Award


List of Illustrations


A Note on Spelling and Translations

Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: Water and the Sacred City

Chapter 3: The Tlatoani in Tenochtitlan

Chapter 4: The City in the Conquest's Wake

Chapter 5: Huanitzin Recenters the City

Chapter 6: Forgetting Tenochtitlan

Chapter 7: Place-Names in Mexico-Tenochtitlan

Chapter 8: Axes in the City

Chapter 9: Water and Altepetl in the Late Sixteenth-Century City

Chapter 10: Remembering Tenochtitlan





Barbara E. Mundy is Professor of Art History at Fordham University. She coedited Painting a Map of Sixteenth-Century Mexico City: Land, Writing and Native Rule with Mary Miller, and, with Dana Leibsohn, is the author of a pioneering digital work, Vistas: Visual Culture in Spanish America, 1520–1820. Her first book, The Mapping of New Spain: Indigenous Cartography and the Maps of the Relaciones Geográficas, won the Nebenzahl Prize in the History of Cartography.


Chapter 1


Todo ella en llamas de belleza se arde,
y se va como fénix renovando . . .
(All of it blazes in flames of beauty,
and renews itself like a phoenix . . . )

Bernardo de Balbuena, La Grandez a Mexicana

In 1518, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was one of the world’s largest cities. Built on an island in the middle of a shallow lake, its population numbered perhaps 150,000. It was the hub of an urban network clustered around the lake whose total population was perhaps half a million, as well as the cynosure of an indigenous empire that held power over much of central Mexico (figure 1.1). The collective size of these lakeshore cities exceeded European contemporaries: in the early sixteenth century, Paris had about 260,000 residents, Naples about 150,000, Seville and Rome, 55,000 each, and that of the latter would ebb to about 25,000 following the Sack of 1527.

In 1521, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan died. In 1521, Mexico City was born, and it lives today.

The death of Tenochtitlan is documented in the Third Letter of the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés to Charles V of Spain, where it is equated with the city’s physical destruction. The letter was written after the siege and the surrender of the city’s rulers, and Cortés, in describing his own victory, recounts how even distant indigenous rulers in Mexico had heard that Tenochtitlan had been “destroyed and razed to the ground,” and later in his account, he claims “it was completely destroyed.” Cortés’s letter gives eyewitness evidence of the demolishment of Tenochtitlan, the reduction of this city to a field of rubble in the wake of his siege and the sack of vengeful armies in 1521. He is echoed by Bartolomé de las Casas, the Dominican firebrand, who decries the physical destruction of this city and the execution of its political leaders in 1521 in his widely read Brevísima relación of 1552: “There followed the battle for the city, the Christians having returned in full strength and they created great havoc. In this strange and admirable kingdom of the Indies, they slew a countless number of people and burned alive many great chiefs. Later when the Spaniards had inflicted extraordinary abominations on the city of Mexico [i.e., Tenochtitlan] and the other cities and towns, over a surface of fifteen or twenty leagues, killing countless Indians, they pressed forward to spread terror and waste the province of Pánuco, where an amazing number of people were slain.” Such representations would have profound implications for the shape of later historical narratives.

If the death of Tenochtitlan can be metered via physical destruction and political decapitation, its death as an indigenous city can also be traced in the disappearance of its name, not an imprecise index given how loaded the name was to early residents, who more commonly called themselves the “Mexica,” a term preferred here, comparable to the more recognizable moniker “Aztecs.” In Nahuatl, the indigenous language of central Mexico spoken by the Mexica, “ Tenochtitlan” roughly means “next to the nopal cactus fruit of the rock,” from the Nahuatl nochtli, for “nopal cactus fruit,” and tetl, for “rock.” Residents of the city held that their great migrations of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were brought to a close by their tribal deity, Huitzilopochtli (hummingbird of the south), in 1325, when he sent the Mexica tribal leaders a potent sign. Taking on the form of an eagle, he flew to a perch on top of a nopal cactus where the exhausted and harried tribe was resting, on a rocky outcrop in the center of the great lake of Tetzcoco. These leaders founded their island city on this spot and gave it the name Tenochtitlan, a name drawn from the topography of the site of this miraculous event. Thus the name is not just a descriptive toponym but the location where Huitzilopochtli, a powerful warrior deity, chose Tenochtitlan as the island home for the Mexica, confirming their sense of themselves as his chosen people.

But this name, central to the history of the Mexica city from its foundation, was erased by the name of the city that was founded upon it after its conquest in 1519–1521. When the Spanish-born Bernardo de Balbuena published his well-known epic poem about the city in 1604, he called it “la famosa Ciudad de México” (the famous city of Mexico) and made no mention of Tenochtitlan. The city Balbuena wrote about seemed to have little connection to its Aztec forebear. It stood at the pivot of a new, now global, empire. It was home to the viceroy of New Spain, second only in power to the Habsburg king himself, and was the hub of a vast trading network that threaded out to ports in Antwerp and Seville and reached as far as China. Because of these networks, Chinese merchants would pay their debts with silver coins minted in Bolivia, natives in the Valley of Mexico would plant grafted peaches from Spain, and courtiers in Nuremberg would decorate their salons with Japanese folding screens. The American center of this empire was Mexico City’s great Plaza Mayor, one of the largest urban plazas in the world, dominated by the red-roofed Parián, a market named after the one in Manila, another Habsburg domain. In Mexico City’s Parián, one could buy silk and porcelain from China, wool from Spain, and wines from Portugal.

A painting created at the end of the seventeenth century captures, in both form and format, the early global empire that Balbuena had known some two or three generations earlier (figure 1.2). This work is a biombo, a Japaneseinspired folding screen popular among painters and their patrons in Mexico City, who encountered such Asian works firsthand because of the brisk transpacific traffic of goods on the Spanish fleet known as the Manila galleon. It is an eight-paneled work (perhaps two central panels are missing, which would originally have made a screen of ten panels), and the five panels on the right show us the eastern side of the Plaza Mayor with the palace where the viceroy lived as its backdrop, one of the many such nodes of royal power across the empire. Its architecture was comparable to other Habsburg seats built in the seventeenth century, a reminder of the centralizing pull that Spain exerted on its far-flung domains. A carriage approaches the door of the palace, as black-garbed courtiers watch from second-story windows at the approach of the viceroy; golden clouds, inspired by Japanese works, float lazily over the surface of the scene.7 In this pictorial space, the world of indigenous Tenochtitlan has vanished.

The death of Tenochtitlan and, with it, the destruction of the Aztec world has been an enduring topos of both New World and urban history. The Spanish historical narratives about the “abominations” inflicted on the city, the killing of its political leaders and the dispersal of its residents, might allow us to read the first clause of this book’s title, “the death of Aztec Tenochtitlan,” as a simple historical fact. The brutal war of conquest of 1519–1521 included a crippling siege led by Spanish forces on the island city, and after the Mexica emperor Cuauhtemoc surrendered, he ordered an evacuation. Its death was confirmed when a new city, this one called Mexico City, was founded within the island space it once occupied. But while Tenochtitlan as an indigenous imperial capital certainly came to an end with its conquest, the death of Tenochtitlan as an indigenous city is a myth. This book will argue that while the Conquest changed an indigenous New World capital, and it was remade into the hub of the global empire of the Habsburg kings in the sixteenth century, it did not destroy indigenous Tenochtitlan, either as an ideal, as a built environment, or as an indigenous population center. Instead, indigenous Tenochtitlan lived on. Looking beyond the triumphant accounts of Cortés and the despairing accounts of Las Casas to other representations of the city, and focusing on ones created by and about its indigenous occupants, will reveal the endurance of the indigenous city once known as Tenochtitlan within the space of Mexico City.

Cities as Metaphor

In my first forays into the city’s past, I carried with me the assumption—as do many others—that the great city of Tenochtitlan had died with the surrender of its Mexica ruler Cuauhtemoc to Hernando Cortés in 1521, its rulers in chains and its population dispersed. Its successor, Mexico City, was founded within a year or two by Spanish political leaders, a new city laid out on the purportedly vacant island, soon to be populated by the Spanish conquistadores, Cortés included, who had laid waste to Tenochtitlan. The Spanish ruling elite of Mexico City certainly promoted this view in subsequent centuries by commemorating the 1521 founding of Mexico City on August 13 of every year. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, Balbuena would liken the city to a phoenix, a mythical bird in Ovid that was believed to die in fire and then be miraculously reborn from the ashes. Balbuena’s choice of metaphor also implies the city’s death as a result of the siege of 1521, after which the phoenix-like city was reborn in the decades following the war. But just as many other certainties pixilate upon close view, the notion of the death of Tenochtitlan with the Conquest did too when I began to read historical narratives and look at images of this great city. It was not just that the sharp edges of historical facts (death and birth) tend to blur when one sees the competing and conflicting accounts that comprise them. Instead, the very idea of rebirth seemed to be founded on an even more fundamental ontological error. Can cities die?

Our idea that they can rests on the idea of the city as a biological entity, capable of both birth and death, a notion spurred in modern times by the title of Jane Jacob’s famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, of 1961. In the case of Aztec Tenochtitlan, where the city’s “death” was coincident with its physical destruction and, more importantly, the overthrow of its political leadership, it also rests on another biological metaphor. This is the idea of the city as a body, a politically constituted one, at whose head are its leaders, whose capitulation or decapitation brings the death of the whole. In a European context, such a notion of the city corresponds to emergent early-modern ideas of the state, where the political nation was closely identified with the body of the king. We even know of maps that show the spatial expanse of the realm in the form of the monarch’s body. But Tenochtitlan’s death is also indebted to indigenous political philosophy, which traditionally understood a charismatic and semidivine supreme leader, the tlatoani (plural tlatoque), as a metonym for the larger community or city-state, the altepetl (plural altepeme); in the case of Tenochtitlan, the identification of this leader with the city was particularly potent, the result of a successful strategy of imperial propaganda engineered by the city’s ruling elite before its conquest.

The annealing of the figure of the ruler to the city of Tenochtitlan is clear from the opening image of the Codex Mendoza.8 This book was created by native scribes in Mexico City about a generation after the Conquest and contains a pictorial history of the city almost certainly drawn from pre-Conquest indigenous manuscripts that recorded the officially sanctioned history of the city. The manuscript’s name was affixed only around 1780, reflecting the idea that it was created at the behest of the powerful Spanish viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, who arrived in the city to shore up the authority of the Spanish Crown in 1535. Whether or not the work was Mendoza’s commission, it was undoubtedly a high-status project, with expert native scribes clustering over unbound folios to draw up an ambitious three-part history of the Mexica rulers and the empire they had built over two centuries. These artists worked in tandem with Spanish-language scribes to translate the visual information into alphabetic form; thus their images are accompanied by explanatory texts written in Spanish. From its inception, the Codex Mendoza was a work of translation, mediating between two writing systems (indigenous pictography/Spanish alphabet) and two concepts of the book.

Folio 2r is one of the two pages of the book that are dominated by a single image, and so are visually distinctive within the larger volume (figure 1.3). Its Mexica creators, who could draw on a long tradition of indigenous bookmaking wherein one could find important full-page statements like this one, were likely to have also been influenced by the illustrated frontispieces of printed European books that had been imported into the country. These too offered visual introductions to the content that followed. Thus the Mendoza folio 2r serves as both an introductory statement and an opening scene, a painted preamble to the history on the pages that follow. It shows in simplified graphic form the city of Tenochtitlan, not as the full-grown city of ca.
1542 that its makers knew firsthand, but as the city at the moment of its foundation in 1325. It is a simple settlement, a small island surrounded by a rectangular band of blue water, with canals dividing the space of the nascent city into four triangular plots. Rudimentary architecture is included: a little green thatched-roof hut is at top, while a skull-rack (tzompantli), where a skull is pinioned at center right, shows the residue of ritual sacrifice. The early city is unlikely to have had such an ordered appearance; instead, the artists employed the quadripartite scheme because it was conceptually and aesthetically important within the larger world of Nahuatl speakers, whom modern scholars call the Nahua. They held that quadripartite arrangements in politics and architectural design, as well as urban spaces, were conducive to harmony in those entire arenas. At the center of the page, we find a concise icon of the city’s foundation. Here the eagle of Huitzilopochtli is seen alighting on the nopal cactus to tell his people to found their city on that spot. Thus, as told by the Codex Mendoza, the history of the Mexica people began only with their establishment as an urban people in a carefully manipulated space, this city brought into being through being named: Tenochtitlan, whose distinctive glyph, combining the symbols for “rock” and “prickly-pear cactus,” is set at the center of the page.

This city’s political elites figure prominently in the image. In the quadrants, the ten tribal leaders of the Mexica cluster, each marked with a pictographic or hieroglyphic name written in the iconic script developed in the preHispanic period. The black-faced figure at the center left is named with a hieroglyph whose central component is the nopal cactus. The nopal rises from the glyph for “stone,” an oval shape with foliate ends painted yellow and gray. Together, these hieroglyphs (for te and noch) yield the name of Tenoch, the tribal leader and priest who was the leader of the ethnic chiefs shown here as city founders. As such, Tenoch would lend his name to the city itself. This connection is made clear by the central icon of the page that anchors the page’s whole design at the crossing canals. Here, in the same horizontal register as Tenoch’s name, we find another, similar name comprising a nopal and stone written in iconic script, and that is the name of the city, Tenochtitlan. To emphasize that this is indeed a place-name, one of the scribes who worked on the manuscript has written the name in the Latin alphabet below. The name of Tenoch, the tribal leader, is one with the emergent city. His reign is also set into a near-ideal cycle of time. Around the edge of the page is a band made of fiftyone small squares, all colored a brilliant turquoise, each one representing a year in the native calendar; Tenoch’s rule falls one short of the auspicious Nahua century of fifty-two years.

On the most basic level, the page, with its encircling turquoise band, points to the Mexicas’ own historical tradition, wherein they kept written records in a time-line presentation, or annals format. The brilliant band of turquoise years introduces another point: that the writer of this history has chosen to divide the continuous and seamless flow of time into even units of solar years and then to group those years irregularly, according to the lifespan of a seated ruler. Such division enables the imposition of a particular narrative shape and limit to the potentially infinite number of events a history could include. Here, its arc is determined by a ruler’s life. As the subsequent pages of the Codex Mendoza show, the focus of Tenochtitlan’s history falls almost exclusively on the figure of the ruler and his conquests.

Folio 15v is the first of three pages to document the reign of Moteuczoma II (r. 1502–1520), whom the Codex Mendoza presents as the last ruler, the end of the series of nine who followed Tenoch (figure 1.4). This page is like the other pages that chronicle these rulers in format and information: the figure of the ruler, contained within the general grid-like schema of the page, is seen at the middle left. He is distinguished by seat and crown, and a glyph for his name is attached to his head. In this case, the leftmost band of the page gives us the count of the first sixteen years of his reign, the bright blue year symbols corresponding in the Gregorian calendar to 1502–1518 ce. In front of Moteuczoma is a round shield decorated with seven tufts of eagle down, with four spears visible behind it, a symbol of his prowess as a warrior. His abilities are further attested to by the sixteen icons of temples on this page—their yellowgold thatched roofs set ajar and flames emerging from the right—that show Moteuczoma’s conquests (they continue on the pages that follow). Each one of them is attached on the left to a place-name that identifies it as a distinct city or town, once independent but now being brought under the sway of Tenochtitlan and its ruling lords.

On this page as on others previous, the death of a ruler is marked by the cessation of the year symbols. Once all a ruler’s conquests have been registered, a new page begins with the newly inaugurated tlatoani and the temporal count picks up again. It hardly needs saying how much the narrative structure and scale chosen by the historian determine our understanding of past events, what moment is chosen as a beginning and what is chosen as its close. This part of the Codex Mendoza, which begins with the founding of Tenochtitlan by Tenoch in 1325 and ends with the death of Moteuczoma, offers a neat historical package of 16 folios and 196 years, and fuses the history of the city with the lifespans of it rulers. Given the close alliance the Codex Mendoza forges between Tenochtitlan and its Mexica rulers, it would appear, from a Mexica perspective, that with the death of a monarch and the shutting down of the ruling line, the city and empire of which he was the embodiment would die with him. Or so it would seem. Because if we turn to the bottom of the neat band of turquoise years on this page, we see a prevarication, an uncertainty on the part of its artists about this tidy narrative linkage between city and political leadership promoted by the official history (figure 1.5). The artist painting the dates in black ink ended the count with the date 1 Reed, which is 1519, to show that Moteuczoma’s reign ended with the arrival of the Spaniards. But the artist coloring the pages subsequently must have disagreed, considering only the years before the Spanish arrived as part of Moteuczoma’s reign, for he or she extended the precious turquoise pigment only to 13
Rabbit (1518). And then another of the manuscript’s scribes countermanded these as end dates; one can see how the count has been extended to the right as an uncertain hand has added two more years: 2 Flint (1520) and 3 House (1521). The presence of the year 2 Flint is explained with a gloss in Spanish that reasserts the connection between the city and the living ruler: “Fin y muerte de Motecçuma” (End and death of Moteuczoma), and wrapping around the final glyph of 2 House (the year in which Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish) is a line of text that reads: “paçificaçion y conquista de la nueva españa” (pacification and conquest of New Spain).

While we could dismiss these added year dates as simply the by-product of the rushed circumstances of this manuscript’s creation, from my view, the ambiguous presentation of these dates is highly significant. The scribes creating this manuscript were living in Mexico City, the city whose history the book laid out, around 1542. They well knew of the death of Moteuczoma in 1520. But they also knew, firsthand, that the city it purported to chronicle had not ended, given that they had (likely) been born in it and walked its streets daily. This tiny moment of irregularity on the page registers the scribes’ crucial uncertainty about the actual subject of this historical section, and brings us back to the ontological question. If indeed this history of the city and its empire was fully embodied by rulers, then there should have been no uncertainty about its end with the death of Moteuczoma in 1520, and with the cessation of an indigenous ruling line. The gloss in Spanish seems to offer a definitive answer to the question, the words “y conquista” blocking the count from proceeding any further; the placement of the text suggests that the end of the political regime is also the end of the history of the city that begins on folio 2r. But if this is the history of an empire as embodied by its principal city, irrespective of the political class, then the scribes themselves seem to be grappling with a version of our ontological question: if the history of the city is not simply the history of its political elites, contingent upon their being seated in power, but instead is something else, perhaps the history of the Mexica as a people, then can it so neatly end?

In considering another history of Tenochtitlan produced, like the Codex Mendoza, in Mexico City by indigenous scribes, the death of the city seems, as in the humorist’s quip, exaggerated. The Codex Aubin, named after a nineteenth-century owner of the manuscript, offers an annals history of Tenochtitlan and Mexico City. Like the Codex Mendoza, the backbone of this history is a count of the years, but its text is written in Nahuatl, rather than in Spanish. This native-language text that was written between 1576 and 1608 does not insist that the history of the city is absolutely coincident with that of its rulers; instead, its writers were keenly attuned to the experiences of the urban populace: its images and text chronicle the famines, the plagues, the consecration of new buildings, the building of new waterworks. Opening the book to pages 44v–45r reveals 2 Flint and 3 House, the same years that Codex Mendoza folio 15v shows us ambiguously as the years of the death of Moteuczoma (figure 1.6). In the Codex Aubin, however, the even count of the years has not been ruptured by the Conquest. Instead, these years are followed by 4 Rabbit, 5 Reed, 6 Flint, 7 House, and so on in the following folios. While the dense text on folio 44v registers an indelible remembrance of the Conquest year, the Codex Aubin refuses to break the temporal count into the periodization of preand post-Conquest; moreover, its writers link the city with the experiences of its populace, not just its rulers. The writer (or writers) of the Codex Aubin has unwittingly pointed us to the origin of our ontological error. While Mexica rulers tried to forge an unbreakable relation between their presence as a political class and the city of Tenochtitlan, city dwellers after Moteuczoma’s death were clearly not so convinced. They show in a work like the Codex Aubin that the city is not embodied by its ruler and thus cannot simply arrive at a mortal end, no matter how much the Mexica rulers themselves would have liked to convince their people of this point. Instead, the flow of history across the pages of the Codex Aubin, one that seems not to proclaim the city’s death, compels us to locate the city elsewhere, beyond its ruling elite.

Locating the City

In the case of Tenochtitlan, Cortés describes the city as “destroyed and razed to the ground,” and it would be fair to equate total physical destruction with the city’s death, if we were to understand the city as coterminous with the built environment. Ironically, Cortés probably did not understand the city as this; to him, as to other Spaniards of his era, the city was both a physical entity and a collection of citizens. However, Cortés’s immediate circumstances, most of all his aspirations to consolidate Spanish political control of territory, made it expedient to claim that Tenochtitlan had been destroyed, and with it, indigenous political power. His claim is echoed by traditional architectural history, with its focus on the built environment, and within its terms, the erasure of a city’s built environment is its death. The death of Tenochtitlan, along with other indigenous cities, as measured by its built forms, figures in many conventional histories of Mexico’s built environment, which posit its destruction or nonexistence. Consider Robert Mullen’s architectural history of the viceregal period, in which he writes, “Soon after the Conquest, however, the need for both civil and religious architecture became imperative as new cities were founded and native communities were urbanized. . . . Administrative centers, schools, hospitals, water supplies, defenses and above all, churches were needed where none had ever existed” (italics mine). While Mullen’s claim is true for a newly founded city like Puebla, most of the post-Conquest cities in the population-dense Valley of Mexico had deep temporal roots, continuing to employ long-established transport networks, aquatic infrastructure, and building technologies after the Conquest, as they had done before; most changes that resulted from the Conquest were registered in monumental architecture alone. In other words, cities endured. The question of just how much of the built environment of Tenochtitlan survived in the wake of the Conquest will be explored in the following chapters, but using destroyed temples—pre-Hispanic monumental architecture—as an index of the city’s death is, I think, as limiting as equating the death of a ruler with the death of a city. So how should we think of the city?

If we turn to an early page of the Codex Aubin, which offers a history of the city seen from the bottom up, unlike its top-down counterpart, the Codex Mendoza, and look at the page that marks the beginning of a new fifty-two-year period in the year 2 Reed, the glyph in the upper right, we see one way the Mexica thought of cities (figure 1.7). Here, we see the green bell-shaped hill (tepetl), and streaming from it is a flow of blue water (atl); at the top is the grasshopper (chapolin) that serves as a logograph for the place named Chapultepec, where the Mexica once lived. And below is a shield and club, the necessary instruments for Mexica expansion. Like other Nahuatl-speaking peoples of central Mexico, Mexica identified the city with the term altepetl, a word that translates directly as “water hill.” The altepetl rather than the larger state was the primary focus of affiliation and loyalty; recently, Federico Navarrete has pointed out that “the concept of the altepetl makes direct allusion to two elements essential to any Mesoamerican political entity: a sacred hill that was considered to be the residence of the patron deity, and often ancestors, as well; the spring or other source of water, which permitted the subsistence and agriculture of its residents.” In addition, but not exclusively, an altepetl was closely identified with its ruler, whose own political positions were solidified by such a connection, as we saw in the Codex Mendoza. Such identification helped clarify the rules of the political life of central Mexico, particularly in the conquest state that the Mexica led. The death or capitulation of the ruler meant the defeat of the altepetl, which would then be required to pay tribute to conquering overlords.

So how can we account for the city in a way that takes into account these sometimes competing, sometimes complementary vantages—the city as a political domain and the city as an ethnic community, bound by descent from a common ancestor? It is useful to remember that, in addition to the ways its historians described it in political or ethnic terms, the city of Tenochtitlan was also a space, and a very unusual geographic one at that, an island set in a shallow, salty inland sea, connected to the surrounding lakeshore by causeways. And while rulers can die, spaces cannot. And while ethnic communities are conquered or ravaged by disease, spaces endure. Shifting our focus to the city as a space allows us a critical vantage onto this city that will be productive on a number of fronts. First, treating the space of Tenochtitlan and Mexico City will allow us a temporal continuity that is denied us if we imagine the city as simply the political domain of a ruling class: by these lights, Tenochtitlan—ruled by an indigenous tlatoanidid die, and Mexico City—ruled by a Spanish town council— was born. Secondly, as an interpretive category, space has the capacity to contain both of these culturally specific political ideologies of the city, the Nahua altepetl and the Spanish ciudad, just as the spatial expanse of the island contained them both after the Conquest. It also allows us to bring together the different historical narratives that fundamentally disagree about the definition of the city (Cortés’s letters vs. the Codex Aubin) and treat them as different vantages onto a single entity, the island space called Tenochtitlan in the fifteenth century, and Mexico City by the seventeenth.

Lefebvre and de Certeau

To treat the city as a space demands that we define what interpretive approach we are to take, given the nearly infinite number of meanings that “space” can have, both concrete and metaphorical, an elasticity that can render it shapeless. In his attempt to rescue space from the natural and transparent position to which the Western philosophical tradition had relegated it, Henri Lefebvre argued for the social construction of space, “at once a precondition and a result of social superstructures.” Such a position seems unconsciously sympathetic to Mexica understandings of their city, where the altepetl was the result of actions of both a ruler and an ethnic group. Moreover, approaching the city, which is a geographic space, as a socially created product allows us entry into some of its complications. “The city of the ancient world,” Lefebvre wrote, “cannot be understood as a collection of people and things in space; nor can it be visualized solely on the basis of a number of texts and treatises on the subject of space. . . . For the ancient city had its own spatial practice: it forged its own—appropriated—space. Whence the need for a study of that space which is able to apprehend it as such, in its genesis and its form, with its own specific time or times (the rhythm of daily life), and its particular centres and polycentrism (agora, temple, stadium, etc.).” His invitation is compelling: not just to think of the city as a collection of people, or buildings, but also to focus on those daily practices as fundamental to that creation of the social space that constitutes the city.

It is taken up in Michel de Certeau’s essay “ Walking in the City.” In this short work, the French Jesuit philosopher begins as his narrator looks over Manhattan from the vantage point of the 110th floor of one of the towers of the (then-standing) World Trade Center. To see the city from the distance that the building provides “is to be lifted out of the city’s grasp. . . . [The viewer is] an Icarus flying above these waters, he can ignore the devices of Daedalus in mobile and endless labyrinths far below. His elevation transfigures him into a voyeur.” But Certeau sees the limits of this seemingly omnipotent position: the city is experienced only as an image, an “optical artifact,” captured and bounded by “the imaginary totalizations produced by the eye.” The city from afar, separated from lived experience, is turned into a mental representation akin to a bird’s-eyeview map that offers us, like the gaze of Icarus, a similarly voyeuristic view.

In contrast to the city as representation or mental image is the city as experienced by a walker on its streets. Certeau continues,“The ordinary practitioners of this city live ‘down below,’ below the thresholds at which visibility begins. They walk—an elementary form of this experience of this city; they are walkers, Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it. . . . The networks of these moving, intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces: in relation to representations, it remains daily and indefinitely other.” In turning his focus to the city as a lived practice, constituted not by urban planners or by the built environment, but by the inchoate and quotidian actions of its inhabitants, Certeau posits the city as also being located in the daily practices of its dwellers.

Certeau’s way of conceptualizing the city in this essay sets up a tension between two poles: the representations of the city on one hand, like maps or the urban planner’s schema, and the lived experience of its “walkers,” urban residents whose own daily trajectories define what the city is, on the other. His identification of the latter—who could be nameless and politically powerless—as constituting the city was written to counter the ideas of Michel Foucault, whose focus was on “the structures of power” that arose in the wake of the Enlightenment and the rise of the modern centralized and bureaucratic state, which exercises a “disciplinary” control over its citizens. By turning attention to “multiform, resistance, tricky and stubborn procedures that elude discipline,” that is, individual human action within the urban space, Certeau was able to allow for individual agency within Foucault’s totalizing theories about the structure of power.

In Manhattan, close to where I write now, one need only walk down 43rd Street near Times Square to see the dichotomy in action. On a grid laid out by the maps of nineteenth-century urban planners, commercial buildings follow legally prescribed street setbacks, and surveillance cameras set on façades track the movements of every passerby. But the actions of those contained by such spaces are often uninhibited: office workers jaywalk; West African immigrants create illicit shops-without-walls by setting out knockoff goods on the sidewalk; and tourists film their own personal on-the-spot experience of their singular New York.

The two spheres that Certeau suggests constitute the city—on one hand, the representations of the city, be they maps or urban plans, those “imaginary totalizations,” and on the other hand, the itineraries and practices of urban dwellers—provide useful conceptual categories to study urban spaces of the past like Tenochtitlan, allowing us to move, when possible, beyond the static representations that are the urban historian’s principal archive (like folio 2r of the Codex Mendoza) to take into account the lived practices and experiences of the streets. Lefebvre, in fact, offers an equivalent schema for the study of space, contrasting “representations of space” with spatial practice. To him, the former draws on a wide body of precedents. About the medieval city, he explains, “As for representations of space, these were borrowed from Aristotelian and Ptolemaic conceptions, as modified by Christianity: the Earth, the underground ‘world,’ and the luminous Cosmos, Heaven of the just and of the angels, inhabited by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. A fixed sphere within a finite space, diametrically bisected by the surface of the Earth; below this surface, the fires of Hell.” But by this dualistic approach, the dynamism of those representations is unaccounted for; the tourist walking into Times Square along 43rd Street for the first time undoubtedly carries in his or her head memories of TV images of everything from brilliant neon billboards to the grainy tape from surveillance cameras used to track crime along the square, and these images inflect what Times Square is as a lived space.

It is Lefebvre who offers a third sphere, as he sketches out a “conceptual triad” to aid in the analysis of space. Together this triad will be invaluable to us in looking at Tenochtitlan and Mexico City. In addition to “representation of space” and “spatial practice,” Lefebvre posits a sphere of what he calls “representational spaces,” and by this he means actual spaces in or features of the urban fabric (a church, a market, a graveyard). In the traditional sphere of architectural or urban history, this category would envelop what we call the built environment—streets, buildings, plazas, and parks. But Lefebvre insists that such spaces cannot be treated separately from the “representations of space” that have been formed of them (those “imaginary totalizations” of Certeau). In Lefebvre’s schema, “representations of space” contain ideologically coded, and culturally specific, ideas about space that are articulated in both objects and ideas, from an urban planner’s exact scale map to the medieval cosmic schema. And what he calls “representational spaces” (at whose base is the built environment) are deeply colored by representations of space. In turn, the built environment cannot be bracketed off from the practices of urban dwellers (those walkers of Certeau). So this third sphere, “representational spaces,” postulated by Lefebvre triangulates the dualism defined above (image vs. walker), encompassing the built environment, but also holding that the built environment is not a static physical entity, but one inflected both by representation and by practices. Lefebvre would use somewhat different words to discuss the spheres defined by Certeau, as he wrote of the equivalent of Certeau’s walker, using the term “spatial practice,” a term used throughout this book. For Certeau’s “imaginary totalizations,” he uses the term “the representation of space,” the second term used throughout. He calls these two categories “the perceived, the conceived” and then adds a third category: “the lived,” which he calls “representational space.”

For my readers, who will encounter this triad frequently in the pages that follow, I ask forgiveness in advance for departing in one instance from Lefebvre’s terms: “representational space.” Although useful because it is so carefully defined, it has proven cumbersome to both eye and ear in the writing of this book, and so I will modify the third term of our triad and call the category “lived space.” For the initial purposes of urban analysis, we can take the spheres as separate entities, but as we will see in the chapters that follow, they intersect and inflect each other.

To see how these three spheres, the perceived (called “spatial practice” by Lefebvre), the conceived (“representations of space”), and what we will call “lived space,” operate, let us turn to a space in Tenochtitlan’s southwest corner that on a map of the city in 1500 might appear largely as a void or might be marked with the symbol for tianquiztli, or “market” (figure 1.8). This symbol, one representation of space, is itself significant. It is composed of concentric circles, one of them filled with smaller disks. These disks connoted preciousness: when colored blue-green, they are the symbol for “jade,” the most valuable gemstone of the Americas; appearing on the entablature of a building, disks representing jade marked it as the dwelling of a lord. Inflecting the sphere of lived space, this symbol conveyed ideas of the market as being a place of preciousness (indeed, precious items were for sale in indigenous markets) and a space of lordly authority; its concentric circles also connoted origin and order (we find them also in symbols of navels, that biological sign of origins). Moreover, another representation of the market space was to be found in the heavens. Residents of Tenochtitlan called an important constellation Tianquiztli—it may be what we know as the Pleiades—and its closely observed passage in the night sky marked the moment that a new fifty-two-year cycle would begin. Within the city of Tenochtitlan, of course, it was the quotidian and unremarkable actions of urban dwellers that consecrated this space called tianquiztli as the market, as they came by foot or in low-slung canoes across the lake, carrying baskets laden with greens plucked out from an urban plot, or pitch-pine torches harvested from the surrounding forests, to buy and sell: our second sphere of spatial practice.24 The physical space of the market itself is the third sphere. Created out of the actions of urban dwellers, its meaning and character inflected by the ideologies encoded in the symbol, the market was not a mere physical expanse, a void in the urban fabric, but what Lefebvre would call “representational space,” and what we will call “lived space,” given how it carried in it the larger ideologies of the marketplace as well as the traces of its own historical creation and existence.

Lefebvre’s triad, these intersecting spheres, gives us purchase on the complex and messy matter of urban space, and this interpretive framework will guide us in the chapters that follow. As an art historian, I will be dealing most frequently with the first sphere, what Lefebvre would call “representations of space”—and the reader will see this in the strong focus on maps, plans, and other images that run through the book. The emphasis on the image is also necessary in dealing with Tenochtitlan and Mexico City, because through the sixteenth century the peoples of central Mexico expressed themselves through images and a largely pictographic script, as they had before the Conquest; one can see in the pages of the Codex Mendoza the central role that the images play. The alphabetic text, a post-Conquest introduction, is at times meant only to explain the images to its assumed European reader. In order to reencounter the heretofore occluded history of the indigenous city, I turn frequently in the pages that follow to a group of rare pictographic-alphabetic manuscripts produced in the city in the sixteenth century: the Codex Mendoza (ca. 1542), the Codex Aubin (ca. 1576–1608), the Map of Santa Cruz (ca. 1537–1555), Genaro Garcia 30 (1553–1554), the Codex Osuna (ca. 1565), the Tlatelolco Codex (ca. 1565), and the Florentine Codex (ca. 1575–1577). While these alphabetic-pictorial manuscripts are crucial to understanding sixteenth-century representations of urban space, alphabetic texts also offer us descriptive representations, and I will be drawing on period texts written in both Spanish and Nahuatl selectively, often as complement to the image, to discuss the nature and history of this city in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

But representations of space, of course, represent something, and my real quarry is that elusive referent. On the simplest level, it is the built environment, actual spaces in the urban fabric. But Lefebvre reminds us that the built environment is just one component of the category of lived spaces of the city, as the built environment is defined by quotidian practice and inflected by ideologies supplied by representations of space; we will see that our three spheres, when in use, are not like hard-edged solids, but more like radiant bodies emitting colored light—blue and yellow and pink—their appearance changing as they mingle, touch, and intersect. Thus, in dealing with the built environment, I will also be attentive to these mutually constituting inflections. In using representations of the city to better understand the city’s lived spaces, we will find that historical continuities, rather than ruptures, reveal themselves. That is to say, if the powerful master narrative of “death” and “birth” as coincident with its political leadership is lodged in the representations of the city’s space, lived spaces offer countering—and abundant—evidence of the city’s continuities before and after the Conquest, irrespective of who claimed political authority. I suspect that a close-grained analysis of urban practices would reveal even more such continuities. But since practice—so quotidian, so ephemeral—is often best encountered through archeology and in the historical archive, an archive that is highly fragmentary in the case of indigenous Tenochtitlan and Mexico City, the present study is just a first step toward understanding the lived spaces of the city. If Lefebvre’s spheres can be imagined in order of visibility as we look back in time to the historical city, the representations of the city (“the conceived”) loom large in the foreground, with lived spaces in the blurred midground, and practice (“the perceived”) hovering at the horizon line.

How are these lived spaces to be encountered, given the looming endurance and historiographical primacy that representations of the city’s space have had? I would contend that, often, their traces are hidden in plain sight. Let us return to the marvelous biombo, with its scene of palace and plaza, and bring our gaze closer to the bottom of the work (figure 1.2). Here, we see the city’s original residents: Nahuatl-speaking women wearing traditional clothing, selling food, which might include the leaves and fruit of the nopal cactus, avocados, and pomegranates. Their husbands and sons work nearby, selling freshwater from wooden barrels or transporting goods on their backs. While this painting does include these residents, it shows them as the city’s underclass, the visual hierarchy echoing a social one, with popular classes at the base and the ruling class, in the form of the royal palace and viceroyal retinue, above. Nonetheless, their inclusion in this representation of space points to their practices that shaped the urban fabric, practices that took them beyond the frame of this particular image as they followed their daily routines, inflecting other lived spaces in the city. The daily paths of the female sellers set into the biombo’s foreground may have led to the city’s indigenous markets, where Nahua women sold beans, corn, and chile to provision the teeming city. In the biombo, the Habsburg palace that dominates the background is the only urban palace that made its way into this representation of space, but it was one of two such palaces in the city. The other, never pictured, as far as I know, by a biombo painter, sat in the city’s southwest, and within its walls gathered the indigenous men who also served as the city’s rulers—an indigenous government would exercise power in the city, along with the city’s Spanish cabildo, “town council,” until around 1820. Thus, using representations of space as a starting point, and amplifying what they show (and sometimes, what they omit) and drawing on other data, can lead us to the lived spaces of the city.


While I have treated the three intersecting spheres, representations of space, lived spaces, and spatial practices, in a largely synchronic fashion, it is worth underscoring their diachronic nature, and what a conservative force a relationship to past representations and practices can be. For instance, a city map, that representation of the space par excellence, is indebted to earlier models of maps for inspiration to its creator and for legibility to its audience. A volume by one of Mexico City’s leading historians, Sonia Lombardo, serves to make the point. Her Atlas histórico de la ciudad de México discusses major maps of the city in chronological sequence, and on its pages one can see visual connections between many of the maps reproduced therein, like links in a chain, as their makers updated previous maps to better conform to the expectations of their audiences about what a map should be, as well as to changes in the urban form itself.26 In other words, each map of the present is indebted to a map of the past.

On an individual level, it is the capacity for memory that ties urban dwellers to the city’s past, often through habitual memory (this is the place to which I return to buy beans and corn), an aspect of memory that has its greatest impact on practices. But the past might also be drawn into the present as urban dwellers remember specific occurrences via mental retrieval and revival. This kind of memory might be activated by an encounter with a specific place—thus engaging the capacity of memory that Aristotle called “anamnēsis”—the effort to recall. In fact, in elaborating on the ways that memories are constructed and reinforced, scholars have emphasized the key role that spaces have.

While one’s first field of associations might be created through deeply personal experience and lodged in individual memory, like those one might have of the childhood home or of the landscape of adolescent wanderings, other place memories are shaped by collective social practices and shared by a wider body of people. One trigger for place memory is the commemorative monument or marker, which declares a particular spot as the place where something happened. Place memory goes beyond the physical monument; the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs underscored the role of commemorative rituals in shaping a sense of the past, as did Paul Connerton. Such collective rituals make their mark on lived space and contribute to the social nature of space, as underscored by Lefebvre: “Itself the outcome of past actions, social space is what permits fresh actions to occur, while suggesting others and prohibiting yet others.”30 Much of this capacity of spaces to shape future action has to do with the memory of urban dwellers.

The complex relation between representation, practice, and memory can be seen in a street sign in today’s Mexico City that names the spot as the “Puente de Alvarado,” after a bridge that no longer exists, once standing at the site of the “Salto de Alvarado” (Alvarado’s leap, figure 1.9). This event occurred during the first phase of the city’s conquest, at the end of June 1520; when the Spaniards were first routed from Tenochtitlan, Cortés’s second-incommand made a daring leap to safety across a canal. The name on the street sign is a representation of the space, installed and maintained by Mexico City’s government. Well-schooled residents of the city today who take note of the sign might carry its meaning downward into the lived space of this street’s edge, drawing from an internal cache of memories of a lesson learned in a history class. In post-Conquest Mexico City, however, a practice in the form of a procession also shaped the space, as on August 13th, the feast of San Hipólito, the city’s residents marched toward this spot from the Plaza Mayor to celebrate the day on which Cuauhtemoc was defeated and Mexico City was founded. Thus, individual memories—of participation in this parade or of viewing it as a spectator—also play a role in shaping the meanings of lived spaces. The theme of memory will reoccur later in the book.

Past Studies

When representations of the city’s spaces are probed with an eye to indigenous presences, they yield a different understanding of the city’s sixteenth-century history. By emphasizing indigenous presence, rather than assuming its absence, in representations of space and lived spaces, this book makes a novel contribution to both the history of Mexico City and early modern urbanism. It draws inspiration from a slim volume and map that the architect Luis González Aparicio published in 1973 on the pre-Hispanic city, in which he laid out the extensive environmental manipulation—the building of dikes and causeways, roads and aqueducts—undertaken by the peoples of the Valley of Mexico to make their highland lacustrine environment habitable, paralleling a similar study of the hydraulic environment published by Ángel Palerm the same year. González Aparicio posited that the pre-Hispanic builders of the valley cities consciously connected the urban nuclei—the urban network clustered around the lake— with great visual axes that tied together the built environment and in turn connected urban dwellers to the sacred mountain peaks that surrounded the valley. In doing so, he underscored both the genius of indigenous hydraulic engineers as well as the ideological drives behind their great urbanistic feats, as they created a built environment in harmony with the natural one, particularly the mountains and bodies and currents of water. His work has been confirmed and amplified by others. Archeologists working on the Templo Mayor, the main temple of the Mexica that was revealed in the center of Mexico City in 1978, have underscored the manifold ways that the ideal concept of the altepetl (a word that means the ideal sociopolitical community and translates literally as “water hill”) was given expression in the architecture and urban design of pre-Hispanic Tenochtitlan, discussed in chapter 2. The geographer Alain Musset has explored the ideologies of water and the manipulation of the lacustrine landscape in the Valley, as has the anthropologist Gabriel Espinosa Pineda, among others.

A decade before the publication of González Aparicio’s work, Charles Gibson’s masterful history of 1964, The Aztecs under Spanish Rule, looked at the social and political history of the post-Conquest valley and underscored the enduring presence and practices of indigenous peoples in the Valley of Mexico.33 Gibson’s enterprise was furthered by James Lockhart, particularly in The Nahuas after the Conquest, of 1992; Lockhart worked through the vast archive of documents written in Nahuatl to construct a new history about the indigenous past, one that underscored indigenous agency in the colonial period.34 More recently, historians have homed in on Mexico City and given us a better picture of the workings of the indigenous city and its government in the post-Conquest period. William Connell’s After Moctezuma looked at the history of the indigenous government that was set up in the capital in the wake of the Conquest, a government that was structured similarly to the Spanish cabildo that ruled over the center of the city: publications by María Casteñeda de la Paz, Emma Pérez-Rocha, Perla Valle, and Rafael Tena have focused on the actions of indigenous elites, bringing to light new understandings of these key players and new documentary sources.35 Ethelia Ruiz Medrano, who has studied the role of Crown officials in shaping the early economy of the region around Mexico City, has also turned her attention to the role of indigenous elites in the city, revealing the complicated political currents among them, Franciscans and Spanish encomenderos (who held Crown grants of indigenous labor); a recent collection edited by Felipe Castro Gutiérrez, including essays by him, Rebeca López Mora, and Margarita Vargas Betancourt, has focused attention on the indigenes of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco, as well as their counterparts in other cities of New Spain.

Yet these two avenues of study have not yet come together: archeologists and architects have amply revealed the extraordinary feats of the Mexica in creating the preHispanic city and the compelling ideologies that drove them; at the same time, historians have brought new understanding of the actions and agency of indigenous peoples, particularly elites in the post-Conquest city. But to date, no one has focused extensively on the role of indigenous peoples in shaping the built environment and lived space in sixteenth-century Mexico City. In order to fully understand the lived space of the indigenous city, this book avoids a periodization that posits a definitive break between the pre-Hispanic and post-Conquest city—a corrective to the trope of the death of Tenochtitlan—and treats the creation of the indigenous city as an ongoing process that spans the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with new challenges—but not insurmountable ones—introduced by the occupation of the center of the city by Spaniards beginning in the 1520s. There are precursors to such an approach in the work of Edmundo O’Gorman, who brought up the question of spatial continuities between the pre-Hispanic and sixteenth-century city in an article published in 1938; Alfonso Caso also offered strong evidence for the colonial continuities of the pre-Hispanic spatial and social categories in the city in his landmark study of its neighborhoods. Caso’s interest was not in the sixteenth-century city, but in the quotidian spaces of pre-Hispanic Tenochtitlan, and to this end he identified the locations of the tlaxilacalli (neighborhoods) that were the component elements of the city. However, all of his supporting data was drawn from post-Conquest sources, some of it directly describing the post-Conquest city. As a result, Caso’s article and accompanying map (see figure 7.3) underscored continuities of indigenous lived space before and after the Conquest, particularly in the arrangement of sixteenth-century religious buildings and other features of the built environment.38 And the work of Edward Calnek has, over decades, contributed immeasurably to our understanding of Mexico City as an indigenous city.

Evidence of continuity is revealed by the map in figure 1.10, which shows how pre-Hispanic Tenochtitlan was divided by roads that radiated from the central temple precinct. These were practical conduits: the ones running south, west, and north led to the great, wide causeways that connected the city to the lakeshore. Another map of the city, this one published in 1524 with Cortés’s Second Letter, shows much the same. It is the earliest European printed map of the city and offers a bird’s-eye view of the valley, oriented to the west, with a separate map of the Gulf Coast, oriented to the south, included at left (figure 1.11). The 1524 maps were created by a European artist, but the city view at right was likely drawn from a Mexica source, and shows us Tenochtitlan at center, as a porous disk surrounded by a larger ring of water of the lake; canals thread through the city and once served to irrigate raised fields called chinampas that supplied food to city’s residents. The blocks of houses that appear to float on the water may be the artist’s imaginative evocation of these urban atolls. The ceremonial precinct at the center of the city is pictured as a walled square, and from the center of each of its four sides, one can see the starting points of four broad causeways, three of them (to the west, south, and north) connecting the city to the encircling lakeshore. Along the western causeway, running vertically upward from the city, one can even see the bridges spanning the breaks in the causeways that allowed the lake water to circulate. The four causeways that cut through the city also divided it politically, and the resultant four parts—Moyotlan, Teopan, Atzacoalco, and Cuepopan—were each a distinct sociopolitical entity, or altepetl. In the pre-Hispanic period, each seems to have had its own ruling lineage and its own religious complex dedicated to the altepetl’s particular deity; Lockhart describes the larger city of Tenochtitlan as a “complex altepetl” comprising these four component altepeme, which in turn had one huei tlatoani (supreme leader) and a central sacred complex in the Templo Mayor, seen as the square at the center of the map.

Despite the destructions of the Conquest, the causeways remained, as did the quadripartite sociopolitical arrangement of the indigenous city. Tenochtitlan’s post-Conquest inhabitants divided themselves into four parcialidades, “parts” (also called barrios, “neighborhoods”), of Mexico City, which largely respected the preexisting arrangements of the quadripartite city, including the nomenclature of places and the placement of sacred architecture. An indigenous government ruled over these areas, headed, through the sixteenth century, by members of the Mexica ruling family. And a number of pre-Hispanic Mexica monuments—including ones that proclaimed the cosmic centrality of the Mexica state—were publicly visible in Mexico City into the seventeenth century, adding another provocative counter to the widely held notion of the erasure of the indigenous city.

While there is a mounting tide of evidence supporting continuities in representations of space and lived space of indigenous Tenochtitlan and Mexico City across the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, spatial practices, those quotidian actions that both create and give meaning to cities’ lived spaces, are both the most important sphere in which to look for more such evidence of continuity and the one of most difficult access to the urban historian. Fortunately, new work being done by historians on Mexico City’s Nahuatl-speaking community promises to further enrich our understanding of the city’s lived spaces: Alejandro Alcántara Gallegos has focused on the spatial configuration of indigenous lands; Jonathan Truitt’s dissertation on San José de los Naturales has looked particularly at the role of Nahua confraternities in creating the post-Conquest city’s religious spaces; and while Richard Conway’s work focuses on Xochimilco, it does shed light on the indigenous market practices within the urban hub, all part, as is this work, of the spatial turn of the humanities.


Let us begin with an exercise in the method of the book, that is, begin with a representation of the space of the city and examine it for the evidence it offers of lived space, as an introduction both to the history of the city as well as to the themes of the chapters that follow. Today, Mexico City has some 8.85 million inhabitants (this is the official count for just the Distrito Federal, as the central urban zone is known; inclusion of the entire urbanized area of the valley pushes the population as high as 23 million), and perhaps the representation of the city that most encounter today is the map of its metro system, whose passengers made 1,606,865,117 trips in 2012, some 4,402,370 trips a day, along a system of 140,733 miles of tracks.44 Metro maps are framed in every station, greeting those who enter, and are set along the platforms (figure 1.12). The metro was designed by urban planners in the 1960s to bring a contemporary system of transport to the city under President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. It was then, and is now, a marker of Mexico City’s urban modernity, still one of the most efficient systems of urban transport ever created. The metro map is a representation of space par excellence; its spidery lines index what happens aboveground, in the fresh air of lived space. In the first phase of the system, opening in 1969, the longest of these lines was route 2, which now stretches over 12 miles, cutting into the city’s broad middle from the west, taking a turn at the center of the city, and then heading south. New lines added in 1999 and in 2012 track the recent expansion of the urban populace to the city’s northeast and southeast. Looking at the map of the system, one can also see traces of the city’s historical development. Five of the fourteen lines (1, 2, 3, 8, and B) thread around the Zócalo, once known as the Plaza Mayor and seen in the biombo painting, the core of the city and one of the world’s largest urban plazas, a plaza that was first shaped by the city’s Mexica founders and is seen at the center of the 1524 map of Tenochtitlan. A few stops away to the left, or west, four of these lines converge around the Alameda, another great open space, this one an urban park whose orderly paths still follow its late eighteenth-century plan, a park that once marked the western edge of what was an island city. A bundle of lines press toward the south, tracing the surge of urban development as once-independent cities—Coyoacan, Culhuacan, Tlahuac—were absorbed into the modern megalopolis.

The names of the stations that mark the map open like windows onto the city’s history. Each of them is designated by a related icon (designed by a team under Lance Wyman), useful in a city with still-high illiteracy rates, and most of the names were chosen because they relate to an aboveground feature or toponym, or a historical figure or event, often one that happened close to the location of the metro station. Appropriately, the map sets them along the lines following their spatial order, but we could easily rearrange them, like playing cards on a table, to follow a different order, this one chronological. Near the contemporary end of our timeline would be “Universidad,” the stop at the National Autonomous University (unam), relocated from the center of the city to a rocky outcropping in the south in 1954, or “Instituto de Petroleo,” built in 1965 as a research arm for the national petroleum industry (Pemex), whose profits have underwritten many of Mexico’s public services, including the unam. Somewhere in the middle of our metro-station timeline would be those stations with names relating to the city’s tumultuous nineteenth-century history, when this former capital of the viceroyalty of New Spain wrested itself from Spain’s control and shaped itself into a nation: the “Hidalgo” stop recalling Miguel Hidalgo, the priest whose rallying cry in 1810 triggered the Mexican War of Independence from Spain; “Juárez” after Benito Juárez, who was born to a peasant Zapotec family and later became president, helping transform Mexico under the liberal constitution of 1857. Clustered in the city’s center, where millions pass through them daily, these stations are as central to the transport hub as they are to Mexico’s own historical narrative, where independence and nation building have pride of place.

At the beginning of our timeline, we would set a small number of stations that bring us even further back in time, to the city’s sixteenth-century history. The city’s violent conquest by Spanish and allied indigenous troops in 1519–1521 has produced a number of traces in the metro map: the station named “ Villa de Cortés” is after Hernando Cortés, the great conquistador, whose deadly siege from May to August of 1521 brought the Mexica city to capitulation; “Cuauhtemoc” is named after the last Mexica emperor, who took the throne of the imperiled city in 1520, surrendered to Cortés the following year, and was executed by him in 1525; “Cuitlahuac” is after Cuauhtemoc’s predecessor, Cuitlahua, who ruled for only eighty days as Aztec emperor in 1520 before dying, likely a victim of smallpox, a European-introduced pathogen whose rapid and terrifying death-sweeps through the indigenous population were the Spanish conquistadores’ most effective avant-garde. And then, of course, there is the station named “Moctezuma.” The icon of this station is evocative and provocative (figure 1.13). It shows us, in simplified form, the great fan made of resplendent green quetzal feathers that, in the popular imagination, Moteuczoma II was believed to have worn as a headdress (figure 1.14). The fan, probably made right before the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519, is one of the great works of Mexica art to survive. The feathers making up the headdress were brought to the city by long-distance traders whose journeys knitted the imperial center to farflung peripheries in places like Guatemala, six hundred miles to the south. As such, it was a material reminder of the large empire cobbled by Moteuczoma’s forebears, mostly in the wake of the Triple Alliance of 1428, begun when the altepetl of Tenochtitlan joined with two other altepeme in the Valley of Mexico, Tetzcoco and Tlacopan. The triumvirate began to wage brief wars against other altepeme, who upon their defeat were required to render tribute—often in the form of feathers or feathered costumes like the headdress—as often as five times a year to their new valley overlords. The geographic expanse of this tribute empire is captured in a modern map in figure 1.15. Upon the arrival of Hernando Cortés, this empire revealed itself to be an unstable one, given that the component altepeme retained a good degree of autonomy after conquest, with none of the nationalist ideologies that would help fragmentary European states adhere.

Material evidence of the successful tribute empire, feathers were both beautiful and highly symbolic to preHispanic viewers. They were appropriate for Moteuczoma’s garb, not only because they signaled his role as imperial cynosure of a far-flung and materially diverse empire, but also because their deep green color was that of freshly sprouted maize, the stuff of life. Jade and greenstones carried similar meanings, and the emperor’s body was often hung with carefully worked jade earrings, necklaces, belts, and bracelets. Feathers were worn in large devices like this one and decorated enormous fans that were carried in public processions, the iridescent feathers of the quetzal being a sign and a reflection of the imperial presence.

But the location of the station “Moctezuma” is, at first glance, perplexing. It sits outside the old urban core, where this powerful emperor lived in grand style in a palace flanking what is today the Zócalo, ruler of a populous city as well as the larger empire beyond. It bears no relation to the site where, in November of 1519, he and a bevy of lords and retainers processed along one of the city’s great causeways to meet and welcome Cortés, that stranger from afar who was treated with great courtesy and hospitality, welcomed into the palace, and given wine and women. Nor does it mark the sites of any of the extraordinary urban features that Moteuczoma constructed: his great zoo, which featured a special section of albino animals; his aviary, which may have occupied an enormous city block; his “house of women,” presumably housing the overflow from his palace of secondary wives, concubines, and their children. Instead, the station“Moctezuma” marks what was once the water’s edge, the limits of his watery city, created through spectacular engineering feats of this ruler and his predecessors.

Along the same metro line where this station is set, two other stations with similar connections to the extensive manipulation of the aquatic environment are to be found: Chapultepec and Pantitlan. On our imagined timeline made of metro stations, these would be the second and third. (The first would be Copilco, a rocky volcanic outcrop in the southern valley that was settled as early as 800 bce.) When the future city was little more than nubs of high ground in the middle of a vast, shallow, salty lake measuring some forty miles north to south, within the enormous volcano-ringed basin that we know as the Valley of Mexico, Chapultepec was a solid hill that rose at its western littoral (figure 1.1). Visible for miles around, it was a life-giving place, its rocky outcrops dripping and oozing with freshwater, the unstoppable gift of internal springs, the physical embodiment of altepetl, water hill. Probably around the eleventh century, that group of nomadic Nahuatl-speakers who called themselves the Mexica had come into the valley, and they first settled here, in Chapultepec. By the thirteenth century, they had moved from the shore and were occupying the outcrops in the middle of the salty lake, and later enshrined the year 1325 as that of their city’s foundation. By the middle of the fifteenth century, they headed a large tribute state. Despite their military and economic successes, the Mexica in their island city remained perpetually tethered to Chapultepec, the site of their early settlement across the lake, as they were dependent upon its freshwater, which they carried across the lake via an ingenious system of double aqueducts. Early emperors had their portraits carved on the rocky outcrops of the hill, and today, vestiges of the portrait of the last Mexica emperor, Moteuczoma, carved directly into the live rock, are still visible. Chapultepec’s life-giving water would provision the city until the nineteenth century.

Chapultepec was the place where tamed, potable water was available to the island’s residents, and if we travel along the same metro line in the other direction, past the “Moctezuma” station, we arrive at “Pantitlan,” and we encounter water’s other face. The great salt lake that surrounded the city was seasonally fickle; technically speaking, it was an inland sea, with no natural outlets. During the summer rainy season, torrential rains in the valley and surrounding mountains would pour into the lake; then this swollen monster would threaten to engulf the island city. During the winter dry season, lake levels would drop precipitously, suturing the flow into vital arteries of canals that crisscrossed the valley and allowed provisioning canoes to reach large urban populations. Pantitlan was a site in the middle of the lake, and it seemed to be a concentrated microcosm of the lake’s temperamental ebbs and flows. The large, shallow canoes that plied the lake would avoid it because even on calm, sunny days, when the lake surface could glisten like a mirror, Pantitlan could generate enormous waves that would swallow a boat and its crew. At other times, it seemed to turn into a great drain, generating a huge whirlpool that could suck boats and men down to the depths. The Mexica emperors were eager to mitigate its effects, and so they closely attended to the water deities ultimately responsible for such calamities. Their high priests went to Pantitlan like ambassadors on one of the religious feast days that fell early in the year. During the month of Atlcahualo, they headed out in canoes to Pantitlan to negotiate a favorable relationship with the needy and powerful water deities with offerings of food and vessels. Also included in the gifts to the deities were young children, carefully chosen for the sacrifice. Decorated with jade jewelry that was green, the color of new life, the children were like maize kernels that needed to be buried to ensure the sustenance of all. Throats slit, their small and precious bodies were gently committed into Pantitlan’s watery depths.

Thus even the map of the city’s great metro system, that hallmark of the city’s modernity, carries us, riders and readers, back to the past. Our voyage through the metro has allowed us to glimpse two principal themes of this book, seen as if from the windows of the train speeding in dark tunnels: the figures of the indigenous Mexica monarchs (“Moctezuma,” “Cuitlahuac,” and “Cuauhtemoc”) and the city’s relationship with its watery environment (“Chapultepec” and “Pantitlan”). The book’s chapters are arranged in rough chronological order, beginning in the fifteenth century in chapter 2, “Water and the Sacred City,” to explore the city as it was created and engineered by the Mexica, who took the rocky outcropping in the middle of a shallow lake and transformed it over generations into a densely built island city; as we shall see, they not only engineered the environment, but also articulated their feats of environmental control in their representations of the city. The Codex Mendoza, as we have seen, posited a close identification between the figure of the ruler and the city itself, and chapter 3, “The Tlatoani in Tenochtitlan,” focuses first on Ahuitzotl (r. 1486–1502), the huei tlatoani preceding Moteuczoma II, and then on Moteuczoma himself to demonstrate connections between the flow of water and the figure of the ruler. It also shows how he both functioned as a representation of the city as well as embedded himself in urban spaces, and connected himself to all-important temporal cycles; we will look fleetingly at practices, as the figure of the ruler threaded together the urban fabric. Chapter 4, “The City in the Conquest’s Wake,” takes up the city in the wake of the Conquest, or the trope of Tenochtitlan’s “death” as Mexico City was formally founded within its space in 1522. While Spanish narratives about the city emphasize the destruction of visible monuments of pre-Hispanic religion—the manuscripts, the “idols,” and the temples—we will instead look at the crucial role that indigenous peoples, and the Mexica elite, played in the rebuilding of the city. Chapter 5, “Huanitzin Recenters the City,” continues to look at the role of the indigenous elite as they imagined the new city, focusing on one of the early governors, don Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin (r. 1537/1538–1541), and on a seminal representation of the city crafted out of feathers under Huanitzin’s patronage. Chapter 6, “Forgetting Tenochtitlan,” turns to Huanitzin’s urban partners, the Franciscans, the mendicant order chosen to evangelize the city’s indigenous population, to encounter their complex and ambivalent project as they sought in the 1530s and beyond to both preserve and erase indigenous Tenochtitlan. Their implied analogy of the city to the human mind—with urban erasure akin to forgetting—allowed them to destroy, but mostly preserve, the lived spaces of the city. At the same time, they attempted to fill those spaces with new meanings, creating from old Tenochtitlan a new Rome. Chapter 7, “PlaceNames in Mexico-Tenochtitlan,” takes up one of the primary, but often overlooked, representations of the city, its place-names, and through them looks at the city under the successors of Huanitzin, particularly don Diego de San Francisco Tehuetzquititzin (r. 1541–1554). Above, we noted how important urban practices are in defining the city, and also how difficult these ephemeral traces are to track in the historical record; in an attempt to better understand the city’s lived spaces in the mid-sixteenth century, chapter 8, “Axes in the City,” looks to urban processions and their role in creating lived spaces, with particular focus on the late 1560s and the 1570s. Chapter 9, “Water and Altepetl in the Late Sixteenth-Century City,” returns to the themes of water and the indigenous ruler in its discussion of the construction of a new urban aqueduct under the auspices of the indigenous city’s great late-century ruler, don Antonio Valeriano (r. 1573–1599), underscoring his role in the maintenance of the ancient altepetl of Tenochtitlan, both as an ideal and as a reality.

If we return again to our biombo painting (figure 1.2), we will encounter an image that dovetails nicely with seventeenth-century Mexico City as represented in Spanish sources, centering on orderly urban life around the plaza and the palace, that emblem of Habsburg rule. But such an image can assign the viewer to the role of Icarus, whose daring plumage allowed him to be “lifted out of the city’s grasp” at the same time that his ability to see everything from above deprived him of the experience of being on the ground. By the end of this book, I hope readers will have a greater understanding of the role of the indigenous residents in the creation of this extraordinary place across the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and will come, as I have, to appreciate what the view from the ground has to offer, as we trace canals and walk through markets, raising our heads at times to glimpse the spectacular figure, quetzal-plumed or wrapped in embroidered mantle, of the indigenous ruler as he made his way through the island capital that the world now knows as Mexico City.


“With a cartographer's sensibilities and a streetwise art historian’s presence of mind, Mundy (Fordham Univ.) has produced a formidable reimagining of the Indigenous landscapes that underpin the growth of the largest metropolis in the American hemisphere.”

“Deeply researched, insightfully conceptualized and argued, and written in an engaging style...a book of particular importance.”

“[T]his book is exceptional, poised to make an immediate and permanent impact on the discipline of art history and beyond. The carefully argued, eloquently written, and beautifully illustrated text was well worth the wait. . . . Mundy's monograph exhibits the process of academic maturation in the very best light; she presents herself as a scholar whose sound early work provides a firm foundation for her own midcareer fluorescence, much like the renewal of Mexico City itself. ”
Art Bulletin

“Codex studies and translations of indigenous-language manuscripts have been burgeoning in the past few decades, and yet the fields of history and art history have been crying out for someone to bring them together for a new, overarching view of the crucial center of one of the two most important Spanish colonies in the Americas, especially in the crucible that was the sixteenth century. . . . This book makes a wonderful contribution to our understanding of the colonial evolution of the capital city of what we now call Mexico, giving special attention to the fact that the indigenous population, its leadership, and its culture had greater longevity and made more significant contributions to the city than have previously been recognized. Barbara Mundy synthesizes a tremendous amount of new research, integrating it with what has enduring value in earlier studies, and adds to that sum original research of her own. She provides careful substantiation for her arguments, convincing us of her conclusions.”
Stephanie Wood, Director, Wired Humanities Projects, CORE, College of Education, and Adjunct Professor of Latin American Studies and History, University of Oregon; author of Transcending Conquest: Nahua Views of Spanish Colonial Mexico; and coeditor of Mesoamerican Memory: Comparative Studies in Systems of Remembrance