Cuauhtémoc (Mexico-Tenochtitlan, 1496-Hibueras, 1525), known to the Spanish conquistadors as Guatemuz, was the last Mexica tlatoani of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. He assumed power in 1520, one year before the capture of Tenochtitlan by Hernán Cortés and his troops.

The name Cuauhtémoc which literally means ”Eagle that descended (alighted)” (Nahuatl: kwāw(-tli) ”eagle”, temō ”descend”, -k PAST). The honorific form of Cuauhtémoc is Cuauhtemoctzin (the suffix -tsin is used to designate a dignity similar to “Don” or “Señor” in Spanish).

Cuauhtémoc, son of Ahuízotl and cousin of Moctezuma Xocoyotzin and Tecuichpo (Nahuatl: ”cottonflake”), when the latter reached cloud nine. When he assumed power, the conquistadors had already been expelled from Tenochtitlan, but the city was devastated by famine, smallpox, and lack of drinking water. Cuauhtémoc arrived at this moment after having been tlakatekohtli (chief of arms) of the resistance to the conquistadors, given that, since the death of Moctezuma prior to the so-called “Sad Night” by the Spaniards, he is identified as the military leader of the Mexica.

After the death of Cuitláhuac, Cuauhtémoc was elected Huey Tlatoani in the month of July 1521, during Izcalli, which is the last month of the year “2 tecpatl”.

Cuauhtémoc set himself the task of reorganizing the Mexica army, rebuilding the city and fortifying it for the war against the Spaniards, as he assumed that they would return to fight against the Mexica. He sent ambassadors to all the towns requesting allies, decreasing their contributions and even eliminating them for some.

The Spaniards returned a year after being expelled and with them came a contingent of more than one hundred thousand native allies, most of them Tlaxcaltecs, historically enemies of the Mexica.

After besieging Tenochtitlán for 90 days, on August 13, 1521, the Spaniards, who were commanded by Hernán Cortés, captured him in Tlatelolco.

According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo in his Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España, Cuauhtémoc was captured. The canoe in which he, his family and his closest warriors were fleeing Tenochtitlan was overtaken by a Spanish brigantine piloted by García Holguín. Cuauhtémoc demanded to be taken to “Malinche” (this is what the Mexica called Cortés, a patronymic term for Malintzin or Doña Marina, his indigenous translator).

Once in his presence, pointing to the dagger that the conqueror carried at his belt, he asked him to kill him with it, since he had not been able to defend his city and his vassals, he preferred to die at the hands of the invader. Among the Mexica warriors, like Cuauhtémoc himself, it was assumed that the defeated and captured by the enemy should accept to die in sacrifice to the gods in order to reach as a final destiny to accompany the sun in his daily journey, so Cuauhtémoc”s request to Cortés may not have been simply a request for execution, but the interpretation of the fact by the European chroniclers who did not consider the rules of honor of the indigenous armies prevails. This fact was described by Hernán Cortés himself in his third letter of relation to Carlos I of Spain:

…he came to me and told me in his language that he had already done all that was obligatory on his part to defend himself and his family until he reached that state, that I should now do with him what I wanted; and he put his hand on a dagger that I had, telling me to stab him and kill him….

According to the chronicler Francisco López de Gómara:

…Cuauhtémoc then threw his hand on Cortés” dagger, and said to him: “I have already done all my power to defend me and mine, and what I was obliged to do was not to come to such a state and place as I am; and since you can now do with me as you wish, kill me, which is the best thing to do…”.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, in his Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España, described the event as follows:

Lord Malinche: I have already done what I am obliged to do in defense of my city and my vassals, and I can do no more, and since I come by force and prisoner before your person and power, take that dagger that you have in your belt and kill me with it”. (and Guatemuz himself was about to take it).

The importance that the Spaniards attached to the capture of Cuauhtémoc, the Mexica Tlatoani, can be seen in the dispute between García Holguín and Gonzalo de Sandoval to take credit for the capture, which was already reflected in their coats of arms, as was the head of Cuauhtémoc, according to Madariaga, in the coat of arms of Cortés himself.

Cortés was not interested in Cuauhtémoc”s death at that time. He preferred to use before the Mexica his dignity of Tlatoani, now subsidiary of Emperor Carlos V and Cortes himself. He did so successfully, taking advantage of Cuauhtémoc”s initiative and power to secure the collaboration of the Mexica in the work of cleaning and restoring the city. In the four years that followed, the greedy administration on the part of the Spaniards, the distrust of Cortés, and Cortés” own fears, led him to approve the torment and death of the last Mexica tlatoani.

First came the torment, arising from the greed for gold: Bernal Díaz del Castillo, in his Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España narrates in detail how distrust spread among the Spaniards, as they stubbornly denied the reality of their dreamed riches. The gold they had obtained in total (83,200 castellanos) was not enough to distribute satisfactorily among all the Spanish troops, so they initiated suppositions on the part of the commanders to obtain more gold. Some Spaniards judged that after the Battle of the Channel of the Toltecs, the Mexica had recovered the booty and had thrown it into the lagoon or it had been stolen by the Tlaxcaltecs or by the Spanish soldiers themselves. Hence it was the officials of the Royal Treasury, and especially the treasurer Julián de Alderete, and not Cortés, who limited himself to consenting to it, who ordered -Bernal Díaz and López de Gómara argue so- the torment of Cuauhtémoc and Tetlepanquetzaltzin. According to the books of Díaz del Castillo, López de Gómara and the accusations made to Cortés later in his residency trial coincide in that they were tortured by dipping their feet and hands in oil and burning them. According to Bernal, Cuauhtémoc confessed that four days before “they threw him in the lagoon, the gold as well as the shots and the shotguns that they had taken from Cortés, and they went to where Guatemuz pointed to the houses where he used to live”, from where the Spaniards took “from a large pool of water a sun of gold like the one Montezuma gave us”.

Later sources attributed to Cuauhtémoc, without any support, a full stoicism shown in that trance. The book written by López de Gómara refers that the “lord” who accompanied him during the torture asked him for permission to speak and cease the torment, to which Cuauhtémoc replied: “if he was in some delight or bath”. A historical novel written by Eligio Ancona in 1870 popularized the variant “Am I perhaps in a bed of roses?

After the torture episode, Cuauhtémoc was crippled and limped, Tetlepanquetzaltzin”s wounds were worse. Doctor Cristóbal de Ojeda was the one who cured the tlatoani”s wounds. Years later the doctor declared, during Cortés” residency trial, that in the incident Cuauhtémoc was tormented “burning his feet and hands”. The huey tlatoani surprisingly returns to his role as a respected and well-treated but captive Mexica nobleman, whose prestige and authority Cortés uses to govern the vanquished.

Like all the newly conquered subjects, attempts were made to convert him to Christianity, but they only succeeded until the day he was killed. If we follow Héctor Pérez Martínez, his Catholic name would have been Hernando de Alvarado Cuauhtémoc; other sources cite only Hernando or Fernando. The converts were named after their godfathers, and Pérez Martínez assumes that Cuauhtémoc”s godfathers were Hernán Cortés himself and Pedro de Alvarado.

He was imprisoned; and the Indian, who never smiled, had a smile that turned to gall. -Where is the treasure ? -cried the spokesman-; and a silence greater than the crowd answered…..

In 1524, Cortés set out for the Hibueras (Honduras), in search of one of his captains, Cristóbal de Olid. It is not a journey of rescue, but of persecution: Cortes has evidence that Cristobal de Olid may have colluded with his old enemy, the governor of Cuba Diego Velazquez, to populate, conquer and especially to obtain gold or other riches in the south, ignoring him. Cortes knows that Cristobal de Olid betrays him, just as he betrayed Diego Velazquez six years earlier.

The expedition, enormous and courtly, includes from minstrels (wind musicians of the time) to doctor and surgeon, including sumptuous tableware and cutlery, and a herd that closes the retinue, to ensure the provisioning. The military contingent is, as was the case throughout the conquest, more indigenous than Spanish, and in this expedition more Mexica than Tlaxcalteca or other peoples. It is not surprising, therefore, that several Mexica notables traveled on the expedition, probably as military commanders of the troops, and possibly also as ambassadors and facilitators of relations with the peoples along the route: Cuauhtémoc and Tetlepanquetzal are two of them.

After a year of travel, Cortes makes a controversial decision, criticized by his soldiers according to Díaz del Castillo: rumors reach him that Cuauhtémoc is conspiring against the Spaniards, determined to attack them. According to Cortes, a certain Mexicalcingo, (“Honored citizen of this city of Temixtitlan” writes Cortes to Charles V, also clarifying that after his baptism he is called Cristobal) addressed the Spanish captain to tell him a long, and somewhat fanciful, story of Cuauhtemoc”s conspiracy, which would begin with the murder of Cortes, continue with the rebellion against the Spanish throughout the country, and end with the blockade of Mexico…. “When this was done, they would put strong garrisons of people in all the ports of the sea so that no ship that came would escape them”. It is not known if Cortés magnified in his fifth letter of Relación the scope of the conspiracy, to justify the execution once it was consummated. The fact is that feeling vulnerable, he decided to have Cuauhtémoc hanged and his feet burned, for that is not known, and the cacique of Tacuba, Tetlepanquetzal, who met again before the executioner.

Neither the site nor the exact date of Cuauhtémoc”s death is certain. The two eyewitnesses of the events who left written testimonies, Hernán Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo, did not specify both data.

Four years had passed since the end of the siege of Tenochtitlan, and perhaps the same number of years since the caciques whose feet were now being executed had been tortured by burning them.

Both Spanish sources (Bernal Díaz) and indigenous sources question the motives adduced by Cortés. According to Prescott, Mexicalcingo himself later denied having narrated the story of the conspiracy as reflected by Cortés in his fifth letter to the emperor.

Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxóchitl, a Novo-Hispanic historian of the 17th century, supports the reality of the conspiracy. Diego Lopez de Cogolludo relates in his work “Quauhtemoc confessed to be so, as the others had said; but that he was not the beginning of that consultation, nor did he know if all were in it or it would take place, because he never had the intention of going out with it, that only the conversation referred to had happened. Hernando Cortés ordered Cuauhtemoc to be hanged, and the lord of Tacuba, who was his cousin; but the General History of Herrera says, that sentence was given by legal process, and sentenced to hang Cuauhtemoc, Couanoctzin and Tetepanquetzal.”

…being about to hang Cuauhtemoc, he said these words: “O Captain Malinche, days ago that I had understood, he had known your false words: that this death you were to give me, since I did not give it to myself, when you delivered yourself in my city of Mexico; because you kill me without justice?

Cuauhtémoc is one of the characters most recognized by Mexicans as a national hero. In every corner of Mexico his name is used in toponymy and onomastics, and his imagined effigy appears in monuments, which allude to his courage in defeat, when he asked for death by Cortés” dagger, or in torment, when he demanded stoicism from his torture companions. On February 28 of every year, the Mexican flag flies at half-mast throughout the country, remembering the death of the hero. Since the 19th century, his figure has been used for nationalist purposes, with the maximum example being the inauguration of the Cuauhtémoc Monument by Miguel Noreña during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz.

The Mexican poet Ramón López Velarde calls him the young grandfather of Mexico, and qualifies him as the only hero at the height of art.

The remains

In 1949 the archaeologist Eulalia Guzmán, by means of falsification of data and an incorrect archaeological methodology, discovered human remains that she attributed to Cuauhtémoc, under the floor of the church of the town of Ixcateopan de Cuauhtémoc -denomination that received in 1950- in the state of Guerrero. In addition, the discovery was based on a series of documents of the XVI century kept in the same town by the Juarez family that would prove the transit of the remains from the southeast of Mexico to Ixcateopan, some of them even with the signature of Motolinia.

On September 26, 1949, the archaeologist announced the discovery in the atrium of the church, and the following day the then governor Baltazar R. Leyva Mancilla endorsed the discovery. The following day the then governor Baltazar R. Leyva Mancilla endorsed the fact. Since then there were voices for and against the discovery. The criminologist Alfonso Quiróz Cuarón was the first to contradict Guzmán the same year, to which the archaeologist responded with a commission to support her truth formed by José Gómez Robleda, Luis Chávez Orozco, José A. Cuevas, Alejandro von Wutheneau, Carlos Graef Fernández and Marcos Moshinsky. Even the painter Diego Rivera advocated the authenticity of the remains and accused those who contradicted the version of traitors. In 1950 it was ruled that there was no scientific evidence to determine that the remains belonged to the tlatoani. The State Committee for the Alliance of Indigenous Communities of the State of Guerrero expressed its indignation at the ruling, and the commission determined that the remains and the documentary sources that allegedly supported authenticity could leave the door open for future investigations.

In 1976, the controversy was reopened and a multidisciplinary commission of physical and social anthropology, entnohistory and archaeology was formed to reanalyze all the available evidence. The then governor of the state of Guerrero, Rubén Figueroa Figueroa, declared during the team”s visit:

“Everything falls under its own weight. That”s why we hope they do their job soon and say here is Cuauhtémoc so they can return to the capital, but with a head…”

The investigators determined that all the evidence supporting the findings was manipulated. The documents claimed to be from the XVI century were actually forgeries made in the XIX century by Florentino Juarez. The pre-Hispanic remains in Ixcateopan had no relation with Mexico-Tenochtitlan nor is there conclusive evidence that there was any relation with the tlatoani. Finally, the remains alleged as those of Cuauhtémoc and that are still exhibited as such in the church of Ixcateopan are in reality of eight different persons even in temporality. The skull is of a mestizo woman that is not of the XVI century. The final report of the commission ruled as follows:

There is no scientific basis to support the claim that the remains found on September 26, 1949 in the church of Santa María de la Asunción, Ichcateopan, Guerrero, are those of Cuauhtémoc, the last emperor of the Mexicas, and heroic defender of Mexico-Tenochtitlan.

As Anne W. Johnson notes, “the controversy surrounding the remains excavated at Ixcateopan in 1949 involved rival ideologies about the history and essence of the Mexican people, local, state and national interests, and philosophical and methodological conflicts between antagonistic views of the past. Despite this evidence to the contrary, hundreds of people make annual pilgrimages to Ixcateopan, the town itself retains the appellation Cuauhtémoc, and there are even official commemorative events.


Cuauhtémoc has been occupied in the following places:

On the other hand, Ciudad Cuauhtémoc has been occupied in the following:

Coins and banknotes

The effigy of Cuauhtémoc has been used in the following banknotes:

The bust of Cuauhtémoc has been used on the following coins:


There are several monuments dedicated to Cuauhtémoc, among them are the following:

Cuauhtémoc is a character in the following operas


  1. Cuauhtémoc
  2. Cuauhtémoc
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