Water was the best soldier of Hernan Cortes in his conquest of Tenochtitlan, the current Mexico City, in the inner heart of the country. Yes, the water. When Cuauhtemoc is arrested, on August 13, 1520, after more than two months of siege, terrible naval battles with very unequal forces had been waged in the Venice of the Mexica. Cortes attacked thousands of indigenous armored canoes with shields to repel arrows with 13 brigs. The Moctezuma Empire (prior to Cuauhtemoc) settled on an islet of the archipelago that stretched over five huge lakes. The Mexicans perfectly controlled the sophisticated system of canals that allowed them to take advantage of the great wealth of the water, but the naval tactics and engineering of the Spaniards were unknown to them. The liquid soldier was fatal.
Who today arrives in Mexico City and walks through the Templo Mayor de los Mexicas, next to the Christian cathedral and the great Zocalo where the National Palace and the City Hall look, will not be able to match his impression with that of Hernan Cortes when a November arrived 500 years ago, a date that today is remembered with the premiere of some expected series and the publication of several books that stop at various aspects of the conquest. What they now call the valley was always a geological pot of volcanic origin with five lakes and up to 2,000 seasonal rivers, “an area populated from the 10th century until the Mexica descended around 1325,” explains Miguel Pastrana, able to tell life everyday and battles of the time with admirable fluency in its cubicle of the Institute of Historical Research of Mexico. “The Mexicans, who arrived from Aztec territory to what is now the historical center of the capital, never dedicated themselves to agriculture. Their harvest was water: from it they obtained hunting, fishing, all kinds of vegetation and hundreds of insects, very rich in protein ”, a food habit that has come to this day. The lakes harbored such an immensity of birds that the Extremaduran conqueror found no words to describe that colorful fauna in his letters to the king. Of birds, feathers, eggs, meat, guano and religious rites. "In season there were so many that came to those lakes, that the natives did not see the water," says the doctor in History.
Water and war were the occupations of that population. The outline of the city combined firm roads with canals through which the narrow canoes made their way through supplies. Two large aqueducts mainly supplied the city, Chapultepec and Guadalupe (later named). That civilization "did not know the tunnel system, but handled the dykes with skill," explains Manuel Perlo Cohen at the Institute of Social Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). With the albarradones they controlled the floodwaters and also the separation between the sweet and the salty. "There is not a single ruler who has passed through this city that has not had to fight against water," says the economist expert in urban planning. Floods or droughts, everyone has tried to take it to their mill with better or worse fortune. The Mexica did not do it wrong. “Carlos I sent an expert from the Netherlands to put order in those floods and his recommendation was that they return to the ways of the natives,” laughs Perlo.
But years before that, Cortes is greeting Moctezuma honoring his last name. He has known the lake, which nourishes its habitat with the sun's rays, because its bottom barely reaches 3.5 meters deep. The military knows what is going and soon orders to build the first three brigs of this story, which will eventually burn in enemy fire. Documents from both sides tell about what happened next: the conqueror's return to Veracruz to face the governor of Cuba who had been chasing him, the massacre that, in his absence, perpetrates "the madman" Pedro de Alvarado in the Temple Indigenous Major When the captain returns, the bridges clear the entrance along with an army that has been recruiting, but the city becomes a trap for all of them who quickly flee. In which the Castilians baptized as the Sad Night, Pastrana continues, “they lost half of the soldiers and there the three brigs burned. The Tlaxcalans received the troops in their flight. If they had faced them, the days of Cortez and his adventure would have ended there, but this town will be an ally of the Spaniards until the conquest is completed, ”continues the historian.
He who does not succumb learns. Cortes did not sink his ships in Veracruz, as the songs say and he learned in school. "It just ran aground." There begins his story Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, the great archaeologist of the Mexican zero zone, in the heart of the capital, the man who began the excavations that have given more light and treasures to the indigenous past. Those usable rigs of the abandoned naos in the Gulf of Mexico now serve the conqueror to build another 13 brigs with their small cannons, but artillery, after all. On their return to the city the warriors have multiplied. "They walked more than 10,000 Tlaxcalans for each firm road, so between 30,000 and 40,000 combatants advanced along with Spanish troops," describes Matos Moctezuma. The siege lasts weeks.
“The Mexicans made pillars underwater so that the enemy ships were trapped between them. They were persecuted to lead them to those water traps, ”says Miguel Pastrana, but there was no way. "Cortes didn't want to destroy the city, but the resistance left him no other way out." Cannon shots, crossbows, fires and shortages crushed the indigenous attacks. Cuauhtemoc, the last Tlatoani (Emperor) Mexicans died in 1525. He was tortured and hanged but the exact details are unknown and archaeologists still dream of finding his remains.
Water has not ceased to be the protagonist of Mexico City since its founding as Tenochtitlan. The Spaniards were not interested in the labyrinth of canals with which the indigenous people governed the rich liquid habitat. “Since the 16th century everything has dried up. Those gelatinous clays of the subsoil that amplified the shock waves in the earthquakes are losing their humidity ”. Dry foundations are even worse for earthquakes. “Nature only forgave the Spaniards for 25 years. In 1555 they suffered a great flood. Cortes was recommended not to settle in a city where he could not rule the waters, but he did not want to. There was greatness, ”says Dr. Perlo Cohen.
The legend says that the Mexicans sought in that lake a mystical destiny for their people, others see it as a simple migration in search of a better life. Who can think of settling in a lake? "They were not the first, it was a very rich area," says Pastrana. "There were floods, of course, but they evolved technologically, economically and militarily around water." The water that finally ended its empire.
The relationship that the Mexicans established with water had no equal throughout the continent. "The lake of Mexico was lower and in the rainy season it was more vulnerable to flooding than the others, so it built the albarradones, which also prevented the salt water from mixing with the sweet," continues Castaneda. “One of the things that most impressed Cortes was the double water conduit that circulated to one side and another of one of Tenochtitlan's firm roads. When the one was in use they used to clean the other ”. It was just a water channel because the aqueducts with arches came later, with the Spaniards.