I wrote the last edition of this series – la bandera – on Mexican Independence Day.  Of course, the major event which led to a craving for Mexican independence in the first place was the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas and the subsequent colonisation of the territory that we today call Mexico but in colonial times was known as New Spain.

Hernan Cortes led the Spanish forces and at the end of 1519 the Spaniards arrived to the site of the city that we today know as Mexio City but at the time was Tenochtitlan, widely considered to be the largest city in the world at the time.  Moctezuma II, the tlatoani or leader of the Mexica people recieved Cortes and the Spaniards amiably, they exchanged gifts and the Spaniards were allowed to enter the city. 

However, the cordiality between the pair did not last and Moctezuma II was imprisoned by the Spanish.  On the night of June 30 1520, Moctezuma was asked or forced by the Spanish to address his people from a palace balcony and urge them to stop fighting.  It is believed that Moctezuma’s own people, angered by Moctezuma’s percieved complicity with the Spaniards, did not take kindly to his request and peppered him with stones which caused his death. A different explanation for his death, believed by others is that Moctezuma died at the hands of the Spanish.

With ire raising in the Mexica city-state, Cortes and Pedro Alvarado – another conquistador – took the decision to flee Tenochtitlan under the cover of darkness.  It didn’t turn out well.  Tenochtitlan was built on the Lake of Texcoco so in order to leave the city the Spanish had to head to a causeway.  While attempting to flee across the Tlacopan causeway, weighed down by gold, silver and other treasures they had managed to loot, the Spanish were attacked and lost hundreds of men and hundreds or thousands of their native Tlaxcalan allies also were killed in the fighting, some drowned along with their horses in the lake.

Cortes and other conquistadores who were successful in leaving the city, many injured, made it to a large ahuehuete tree where they rested and Cortes broke down in tears, devastated at the loss of life.  This night became known as ‘la noche triste’ or in English, the night of sorrows.  The tree, el árbol de la noche triste.  It is this tree, reduced to a large stump that features in this, the fourth drawing of cards in la lotería mexicana.  If you are in Mexico City you can visit the site of this famous tree, situated near the metro station Popotla, north of the city centre on Line 2.  I recently did just that, 495 years after the fateful night described in this post.

El Árbol – The Tree

El que a buen árbol se arrima, buena sombra le cobija

He who approaches a good tree finds a blanket of good shade


Peter W Davies

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