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Part 9 Part 11

The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (10)

Chimal-popóca: How Being Cute Changed History

Dramatis Personae


His name was Chimal-popóca ("smoking shield"), and he must have been about as cute as a little kid could possibly be, for his grandfather, old Tezozómoc, became completely infatuated with him, suddenly changing his guarded hostility to his Mexica clients into a jovial acceptance of them, to the great distress of his advisers.

Now that Tezozómoc had become friendly with Tenochtítlan through his devotion to little Chimal-popóca, the marriage alliance between Emperor 2 and Tezozómoc's daughter was less important, and in 1406, when Chimal-popóca was 10, his mother mysteriously died, just his father's former wife, the pricess from Tlacópan, had mysteriously died. This allowed Emperor 2 Huitzilíhhuitl, to marry a princess (named Miyahua-xíhuitl —"maize flower turquoise") from Cuauh-náhuac, a city to the south of the Valley of Mexico just over a mountain pass. The people living in Cuauh-náhuac, like most other people in their region, had little use for the powerful and demanding imperialists from around the lake. Having had their fill of Tepanecs and Culhua, an alliance against them with the scrappy but third-rank Mexica probably struck people in Cuauh-náhuac as rather appealing. For Emperor 2, the first Mexica alliance outside of the valley of Mexico represented an expanded resource base, both political and economic. It was too bad about Chimal-popóca's mother, but Princess Miyahua-xíhuitl from Cuauh-náhuac was nice too, after all.

In 1411 Huitzilíhhuitl's forces briefly captured Chálco, but it was liberated by a coalition of other states, including Azcapotzálco, Huitzilíhhuitl's putative ally and patron. Our sources say nothing about how anyone involved felt about all of this, but it seems clear that the Mexica settlements of Tenochtítlan and Tlatelólco were becoming significant players among the towns around the lake, and that they were coming to be seen as a nuisance. (That may have been what made them attractive in Cuauh-náhuac.) It seems likely that they were feeling strong enough to ignore the advice of Tezozómoc and his advisers, or that they felt they had Tezozómoc in their pocket because he was an old man interested only in his cute little grandson. (And nobody could deny that Chimal-popoca was cute. Very, very cute.)

Chimal-popóca grew up. At the age of about 18 he suddenly became Emperor 3. (Tezozómoc was still fond of him, but history does not record whether he was still cute.) Three years later, in 1418, an event occurred that was to unbalance the entire region and set the Mexica on the path of world conquest. Tezozómoc decided to attack the growing town of Tetzcóhco (Texcoco), more or less directly across the lake, and the forces from Azcapotzálco succeeded in driving the ruler of Tetzcóhco out of the city and killing him.

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The king whom they killed was the father of a certain Nezahual-cóyotl ("hungry coyote," 1402-1472), who is mentioned in the appendix on sources because his poetry has come down to us, and who is regarded as one of the finest Náhuatl poets. Nezahual-cóyotl at the age of sixteen (and also a poet) succeeded his murdered father as king of Tetzcóhco, but he could not enter the city because it was occupied by Azcapotzálco. Instead he was forced to hide and bide his time in exile while he plotted his return.

As it happened, Nezahual-cóyotl's mother was from the newly created Mexica nobility, and he therefore had some sympathy for his mother's people, the Mexica. With her son now the exiled king of Tetzcóhco because of Tezozómoc's attack from Azcapotzálco, and with her original family at Tenochtítlan chafing under the overlordship of King Tezozómoc, she was happy to join in any plotting she could that might overturn Azcapotzálco.

17. Some say Máxtla came to power by murdering his older brother Táyauh, whom he regarded as soft on Mexica.

In his city of Azcapotzálco, Tezozómoc was busy helping his beloved grandson Chimal-popóca (Emperor 3) construct an aqueduct that would bring water to Tenochtítlan from the shore. This engineering work, although a technological marvel (the first aqueduct in Mexico to cross a lake), infuriated Teozómoc's subordinates, who could see no reason in the world why anyone would want to provide this kind of assistance to the Mexica. The Mexica might be allies, but they were getting stronger all the time and showed every sign of turning into enemies. After all, they had attacked Chálco against Azcapotzálco's wishes, and had required stopping. As Tezozómoc's courtiers and advisers tried to organize opposition to him, the old man died, plunging Azcapotzálco into chaos.

18. The ruler of Tlatelólco, a man named Tlacatéotl, had succeeded Cuacuauh-pitzáhuac in 1407, just after Chimal-popóca (Emperor 3) had lost his mother. Despite their putative royalty, the rulers of Tlatelólco were always clearly subordinate to those in Tenochtítlan.

Tezozómoc's successor was one of his many sons, a man named Máxtla ("breechcloth"), who hated Mexica generally, and who didn't think Chimal-popóca was cute in the least. [Note 17] In the confusion, several things happened. For one thing, Nezahual-cóyotl immediately succeeded in reconquering Tetzcóhco and moving back into his father's palace. For another, Máxtla sent assassins and managed to kill both Chimal-popóca in Tenochtítlan and the ruler of northern island town of Tlatelólco. [Note 18] Some whispered that the death of Chimal-popóca was set up by his Uncle Itzcóatl, who thought he was too subservient to Tezozómoc and the other Tepanecs (or perhaps simply that he was too cute to live).

19. Itzcóatl (Emperor 4) was not only the uncle of Chimal-popóca (Emperor 3), but also the uncle of his successor Moteuczóma I (Emperor 4) and the uncle of Tlacahélel, an advisor to the majority (!) of Aztec emperors. In this text we can therefore justifiably refer to him as "Uncle Itzcóatl."

In 1427, with the death of Chimal-popóca, and everyone still reeling from Máxtla's successful assassinations, Uncle Itzcóatl came to the throne of Tenochtítlan as Emperor 4 (and whispering about his possible role in Chimal-popóca's demise probably became much more secretive). [Note 19]

Máxtla was determined to rid the world of the hated Mexica once and for all, and he laid siege to Tenochtítlan. What he did not anticipate was that anyone would come to their aid. However Nezahual-cóyotl, king of Tetzcóhco, the man with a Mexica mother and a standing grudge against Azcapotzálco, was happy to do so. So were several other Azcapotzálco "allies": Tlacópan under King Totoquíhua, Huexotzínco (modern Huejotzingo), a shrine center south of the mountains, and Tlaxcállan, which ironically was destined to become Tenochtítlan's enemy for the next hundred years.

The coalition succeeded. A year after Chimal-popóca fell before Máxtla's assassins, Nezahual-cóyotl was given the pleasure of cutting out Máxtla's heart and scattering his blood. Azcapotzálco, deprived of its tributary towns, collapsed. The Mexica were free at last.

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photo by DKJ
The death of Chimal-popoca by his enemy Maxtla brought Uncle Itzcoatl to the throne, and with him the foundation of the Triple Alliance against Azcapotzalco. This drawing by Alberto Merino is from Antonio Velasco Piña's fictionalized biography of Tlacahelel, Tlacaelel, el Azteca entre los Aztecas (Editorial Jus, 1979. p. 20)

But neither the death of Máxtla nor the collapse of Azcapotzálco was really the most important effect of all this. It was more significant that the core of the anti-Máxtla alliance became permanent. The central partners in the coalition constituted themselves the "Triple Alliance." The Aztec empire effectively began with this act, and it called itself an "alliance" right up until the Spanish conquest 90 years later. At its inception, the Triple Alliance consisted of:

  1. Tenochtítlan & Tlatelólco on their island in the lake, under the leadership of Emperor 4, Uncle Itzcóatl
  2. Tetzcóhco (Texcoco) on the east side of the lake, under the leadership of the poet king Nezahual-cóyotl
  3. Tlacópan (Tacuba) on the west side of the lake, under the leadership of Totoquíhua

Whatever the name implies, this was never an equal alliance. Tenochtítlan (and with it the adjacent Mexica town of Tlatelólco) was always the dominant player, and Tlacópan, west of the lake, was always in third place. However the Alliance was the biggest force in the region; it was shameless in seeking to extend its power; and the political force it mustered could no longer be dismissed as merely the troublesome "Mexica of Tenochtítlan." They were the masters.

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