Money, honor: Aztec emperor Moctezuma's divisive legacy

Money, honor: Aztec emperor Moctezuma's divisive legacy

Moctezuma is seen by some as a superstitious man who capitulated by confusing Cortes with the god Quetzalcoatl

A reproduction of 'The encounter of Cortes and Moctezuma'. Credit: AFP Photo

Five centuries after the fall of the Aztec empire, some of emperor Moctezuma II's descendants strive to defend his honor, while others want compensation from the Mexican government.

They number in their hundreds and include the Mexican ambassador to the United States, Esteban Moctezuma, as well as members of Spanish nobility.

And until decades ago, some were even paid a "Moctezuma pension."

At her home in Mexico City, Blanca Barragan Moctezuma displays centuries-old documents showing the money that her family used to regularly receive.

The payment to Moctezuma II's descendants through his daughter Isabel was worth an estimated $60,000-$90,000 a year in today's money -- until it was scrapped in 1934.

"Perhaps there was no more money. It was post-revolutionary Mexico," said Blanca's husband Jesus Juarez.

Some descendants sued to try to have the pension reinstated, but without success.

The payment "was compensation for the right to use the lands belonging to Isabel's descendants," said Alejandro Gonzalez Acosta, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.


After the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan on August 13, 1521, Spain granted Isabel perpetual ownership of territory consisting of the city of Tacuba.

"According to chroniclers, it contained more than 300 towns," said Gonzalez Acosta.

So why was Isabel, who died in 1550, given such privileges?

"Moctezuma had many children, but Tecuichpo Ichcaxochitl was the only legitimate one," Blanca Barragan Moctezuma said, calling Isabel by her Aztec name, meaning "daughter of the ruler" and "white flower."

Some scholars believe that it was more about quelling a rebellion.

Isabel was married five times -- twice to Moctezuma's relatives and successors and three times to Spaniards.

She also had a daughter out of wedlock with conquistador Hernan Cortes, whom her descendants and historians accuse of raping her.

Most of her seven children came from her fourth and fifth marriages which produced the Andrada-Moctezuma and Cano-Moctezuma lineages.

Despite the Aztec blood running through his veins, Pablo Moctezuma, a historian and brother of the ambassador in Washington, was once embarrassed by his roots.

Moctezuma is seen by some as a superstitious man who capitulated by confusing Cortes with the god Quetzalcoatl.

"That was an invention," said Pablo Moctezuma, who has also found contradictions in accounts of the emperor's death in July 1520.

"The conquistadors say that the Mexica (Aztecs) killed him, but religious and indigenous chroniclers say it was the Spanish," he said.


Moctezuma's lineage in Spain came through Pedro -- his son with a concubine -- who was taken to Europe as a child, probably to prevent an uprising, according to historians.

In 1627, a great-grandson living in Spain was granted the hereditary title of count, which was later elevated to the duke.

The current holder, Juan Jose Marcilla de Teruel-Moctezuma, criticizes Mexican President Andres Lopez Obrador's demand for Spain to apologize for the events of the conquest.

"There's no point in demanding that the king apologize for something that happened five centuries ago," he said.

The Cano-Moctezuma branch arrived in Granada and holds the title of the Count of Miravalle.

"They're one more family among the descendants," said Gonzalez Acosta, the researcher, who met the 12th Countess of Miravalle, Maricarmen Enriquez de Luna, before her death in 2014.

Some in Spain, however, have bestowed a higher status on them.

One newspaper declared that Mexico had a "new empress" when Carmen Ruiz Enriquez inherited the title -- a claim that Gonzalez Acosta attributes to an overimaginative press.

Together with some Mexican descendants of Moctezuma II, the Miravalles tried to get the pension reinstated in 1991 and again in 2003.

But such behavior draws scorn from other heirs of the Aztec emperor for whom honor comes before money.

"They're ridiculous claims," Pablo Moctezuma said.