Tenochtitlan Becomes Mexico: Rulers, Commoners, and the Petitioning State

Barbara Mundy’s The Death of the Aztec Tenochtitlan/The Life of Mexico City (U of Texas P, 2015) seeks to first demonstrate the role of Aztec tlatoani (rulers) in the technological invention of a city never meant to exist.


The book’s second goal is to show how, after the war of conquest that nearly obliterated Tenochtitlan, Mexico remained a predominantly indigenous town still managed by Aztec elites. Mundy offers a striking account of the remarkable feat of hydraulic engineering involved in transforming a rocky outcrop in the middle of a salty lake (Lake Texcoco) into one of the most productive lacustrine environments for floriculture, pisciculture, and aviculture the world had ever seen.


Map of Santa Cruz ca 1537–1555. Uppsala University

The key to the slow yet miraculous transformation was a series of parallel dikes separating first Lake Xochimilco (naturally desalinated) from Lake Texcoco and then different sections of Lake Texcoco from each other, thus creating gradients of desalination that rendered half of the water of Lake Texcoco useful for irrigation and agriculture. Through systematic land reclamation achieved through dikes, aqueducts, and causeways, a small, barren, swampy atoll became an island crisscrossed by canals, elongated land plots (chinampas) capable of growing staples to feed one of the largest urban markets on earth.

Using archeological objects recently excavated in the templo mayor and extant stelae of Montezuma in Chapultepec, Mundy offers a dazzling account of the religious world of the Aztecs as a metaphor of the masculine battle of rulers over female water deities. The history of Aztec ruling lineages in Tenochtitlan not only kept annals of tributary conquests but also registered the triumphs and defeats of tlatoani over land and water, the very definition of altepetl.

Her study deliberately leaves out Tlatelolco, the second city-state with which Tenochtitlan had long shared the island. Mundy shows how the Tenochtla tlatoani survived in the new-old Mexico. The Spanish conquistadors and their mestizo children took only the old templo mayor complex, which came to be called the Spanish traza. The rest of the city remained Indian. Mundy scours the archive to reconstruct tlatoani rule in the old four Tenochtla altepeme (quarters): Moyotlan, Teopan, Atzacoalco, and Cuepopan. She also finds the persistence of dozens of taxilacalli (subsections) of each altepetl. Mundy demonstrates that indigenous cadastral documents kept on using the same old names for taxilacalli, even the same logographic conventions.


Codex Genaro Garcia 30. 1554. Benson Library. UT Austin. Names of taxilacalli-barrios in logograms and the unpaid debts by the indian city governor.

Not much changed except the names: altepeme became parishes and the taxilacalli barrios. Mundy shows that parishes and barrios acquired also the names of Catholic saints. Franciscans superimposed the names of the four largest Roman basilicas onto the Tenochtla altepeme (San Peter-Paul Teopan, San Juan Moyotlan, San Sebastian Atzacoalco, and Santa Maria Cuepopan) in the hope of creating new Christian cities-palaces of memory in the unconscious indigenous mnemonics of urban lived practice.

Mundy demonstrates that tlatoani allied themselves with Franciscans to rule Tenochtla Mexico from a tianguez (market) and a tecpan (administrative palace), both located in the same plaza where the Franciscans had built their southern city convent (San José de los Naturales).


Codex Osuna. 1565. Biblioteca Nacional. Spain. Four Mexica Tenochtla altepeme and tecpan-palace in San Juan de Moyotlan. Tlatoani Esteban de Guzman demands Viceroy Luis de Velasco restitution for sweepers and cooks taken away from his palace.

This complex of tianguez-tecpan-convent was in the southwestern quarter of the city, namely, the parish of San Juan Moyotlan. There was a northern Franciscan convent also located in a plaza along with tianguez-palace of the ruling elites of Tlatelolco. Straight roads and calendrical visual axes of solstices-equinoxes, which had organized the Aztec city in the past, connected northern and southern plazas in Catholic indigenous processions.

Mundy identifies a succession of indigenous governors, some the descendants of the last Aztec independent tlatoani but also some imposed outsiders. Mundy shows the tlatoani kept meting out justice within altepeme and taxilacalli while seeking to enhance the reputation of the city by properly administering the markets from the tecpan of Moyotlan.

The tlatoani witnessed the collapse of the desalinization system as Spaniards destroyed the old dikes, and water in the western section of Lake Texcoco became salty and useless again. Mundy argues that viceroys sought the advice and expertise of tlatoani to address the slow-motion degradation of the lacustrine habitat. The solution, however, was not to reconstruct Aztec ecological technologies but to bring water for the irrigation of chinampas via larger aqueducts. Here the learned tlatoani-governor Antonio Valeriano (r. 1573–1599) succeeded where the new Spanish-mestizo city council and its Flemish engineers had twice failed. Valeriano, the polyglot Franciscan-trained-Ciceronian-humanist and factotum, built a completely new aqueduct to Moyotlan from Chapultepec to maintain the productivity of the southern and western Indian chinampas. To pull this off, Valeriano counted only with the reluctant and partial help of the Spanish city council, forced by the viceroy to provide scarce lime for cement. In some of his religious functions as a trainer of the water deities, the Christian Valeriano became the reincarnation of his powerful ancestor Moctezuma.

Yet the Indian city was more than Franciscans and tlatoani. There were “Spanish” encomenderos and macehuales (commoners) too. In one of the most interesting yet not fully developed sections of the book, Mundy explores the brewing dissatisfaction of commoners with tlatoani displays of power, including the monopoly over feather dresses for mitotes (dances) in religious Catholic processions. Commoners used new institutions created by the colonial government, including the residencia to articulate their demands. Using this required investigation of departing authorities, commoners placed anonymous complaints. They also introduced evidence of malfeasance and corruption by the tlatoani. Commoners and artisans kept details accounts of unpaid services, expecting redress (e.g., Codex Genaro García 30).


Codice Genaro Garcia 30. Benson Library. UT Austin. Female weavers’ account of debts by Indian governor.

In 1564, the tlatoani governor Luis de Sancta Maria Cipactzin carelessly announced to the masses outside the tecpan new levies while his daughter got married in an exclusive tlatoani party with dozens of indigenous brass players. Commoners rioted, attacked the wedding, and stoned the palace. The fate of tlatoani was determined by the tribute demands of encomenderos and friars. In the same way that native commoners kept detailed records of the abuses of their own governors, the tlatoani kept detailed “written” accounts of excessive demands by encomenderos and authorities in republic-of-Spaniards residencias (e.g., Codex Osuna).


Codex Osuna 1565. BN Spain. Tlatoani Estevan de Guzman presents an account of unpaid services by Viceroy Luis de Velasco

This incredibly rich book merits every award it has received. Yet it has blind spots. The most significant one is that Mundy does not consider the radical change introduced by the Spanish petitioning state in the very fabric of Tenochtitlan. The Aztec state related to neighboring altepetls as tributary city-states. Differences were settled by either embassies or war. After the conquest, however, Mexico became the capital of a viceroyalty of petitioners, from Zacatecas to Colima to Oaxaca to Veracruz to Manila and beyond. Mexico permanently became a place of pilgrimage, both for petitioning legislation to viceroys and bishops and for litigating before audiencias and ecclesiastical courts. Mexico no longer was just the capital of tlatoani and macehuales; it was also the temporary abode of litigating Chichimec, Purepecha, Otomi, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Filipino, to name just a few. Where did these thousands of foreigners reside? How do they change the city?

Unwittingly, Mundy offers an answer herself. On August 1569, natives from the parish of San Juan de Moyotlan attacked those of Santa Maria de Cuepopan. Mundy describes Cuepopan as the place of residence of Zapotec and Otomies. She, however, blames the attack on the shenanigans of the bishop of Mexico, Alonso de Montufar, then busy transferring parishes held by mendicants into the hands of the secular church. The revolt of Moyotlan was a revolt promoted by Franciscans and tlatoani against the bishop’s deliberate attack on mendicant corporate jurisdiction. Yet the riot signifies something even more profound. It was emblematic of the very transformation of the city into a cosmopolitan urban space attracting thousands of outsiders into the petitioning state. The old Tenochtla, both tlatoani and macehuales, turned against the newly arrived

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