Toward a poetry and poetics of the Americas (33)

'The Fall of Tenochtitlán,' 1521

The Great Tenochtitlán by Diego Rivera
The Great Tenochtitlán by Diego Rivera

[It’s now the 500th year exactly since the conquest and sacking of the imperial Aztec city of Tenochtitlán by Hernán Cortés and allies, concerning which the following segment from the gathering of “The poetry and poetics of the Americas,” assembled by Javier Taboada and me, as it will appear in the final version.

            A work still in progress.]


Anonymous, Nahuatl, sixteenth century




Our cries of grief rise up
and our tears rain down,
for Tlatelolco is lost
The Aztecs are fleeing across the lake;
they are running away like women.

How can we save our homes, my people?
The Aztecs are deserting the city:
the city is in flames, and all
is darkness and destruction.

Motelchiuhtzin the Huiznahuacatl,
Tlacotzin the Tlailotlacatl,
Oquitzin the Tlacatecuhtli
are greeted with tears.                 

Weep, my people:
know that with these disasters
we have lost the Mexican nation.
The water has turned bitter,
our food is bitter!
These are the acts of the Giver of Life

Translated by Lysander Kemp




(1) The invaders here are confronted by the city itself: the ancient capital unknown before this to the European interlopers, rising up before them as a new-world wonder. So, one of them, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, reports their first entry to the city, close to two years before they set it to the torch, the Aztec Tenochtitlán buried and the renamed Mexico erected in its place:


We proceeded [he writes] along the Causeway which is here eight paces in width and runs … straight to the City of Mexico [Tenochtitlán] … It was so crowded with people that there was hardly room for them all, some of them going to and others returning from the city, besides those who had come out to see us, so that we were hardly able to pass by the crowds of them that came; and the towers and temples were full of people as well as the canoes from all parts of the lake. Gazing on such wonderful sights, we did not know what to say, or whether what appeared before us was real, for on one side, on the land, there were great cities, and in the lake ever so many more, and the lake itself was crowded with canoes, and in the Causeway were many bridges at intervals, and in front of us stood the great City of Mexico.


Translated from Spanish by A. P. Maudslay


(2) From elsewhere in New Spain, the following from Diego de Landa’s Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán:


I, Diego de Landa, say that I saw a great tree near the village upon the branches of which a captain had hung many women, with their infant children hung from their feet. At this town, and another two leagues away called Verey, they hung two Indian women, one a maiden and the other recently married, for no other crime than their beauty, and because of fearing a disturbance among the soldiers on their account; also further to cause the Indians to believe the Spaniards indifferent to their women. The memory of these two is kept both among the Indians and Spaniards on account of their great beauty and the cruelty with which they were killed.

Translated from Spanish by William Gates


And from the conquered again, in a further lamentation:


Let me not be angry that the grandeur of Mexico is to be destroyed.

The smoking stars gather together against it; the one who cares for flowers is                                 about to be destroyed

He who cared for books wept, he wept for the beginning of the destruction


(from Daniel G. Brinton, Ancient Nahuatl Poetry, 1887)