Cover image for The Native Conquistador: Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s Account of the Conquest of New Spain Edited and translated by Amber Brian, Bradley Benton, and Pablo García Loaeza

The Native Conquistador

Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s Account of the Conquest of New Spain

Edited and translated by Amber Brian, Bradley Benton, and Pablo García Loaeza


$24.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06685-1

152 pages
5.5" × 8.5"
4 b&w illustrations/3 maps

Latin American Originals

The Native Conquistador

Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s Account of the Conquest of New Spain

Edited and translated by Amber Brian, Bradley Benton, and Pablo García Loaeza

“This excellent translation accomplishes a ‘decentering’ of the conquest of Mexico. It makes available a text with an alternate indigenous view of the fall of Tenochtitlan that not only reveals the social, ethnic, and regional divisions in preconquest society but also makes clear the religious and political imperatives in the creation of the new colonial regime. No one who reads this will be able to explain the conquest any longer as a simple matter of winners and losers.”


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For many years, scholars of the conquest worked to shift focus away from the Spanish perspective and bring attention to the often-ignored voices and viewpoints of the Indians. But recent work that highlights the “Indian conquistadors” has forced scholars to reexamine the simple categories of conqueror and subject and to acknowledge the seemingly contradictory roles assumed by native peoples who chose to fight alongside the Spaniards against other native groups. The Native Conquistadora translation of the “Thirteenth Relation,” written by don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl in the early seventeenth century—narrates the conquest of Mexico from Hernando Cortés’s arrival in 1519 through his expedition into Central America in 1524. The protagonist of the story, however, is not the Spanish conquistador but Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s great-great-grandfather, the native prince Ixtlilxochitl of Tetzcoco. This account reveals the complex political dynamics that motivated Ixtlilxochitl’s decisive alliance with Cortés. Moreover, the dynamic plotline, propelled by the feats of Prince Ixtlilxochitl, has made this a compelling story for centuries—and one that will captivate students and scholars today.
“This excellent translation accomplishes a ‘decentering’ of the conquest of Mexico. It makes available a text with an alternate indigenous view of the fall of Tenochtitlan that not only reveals the social, ethnic, and regional divisions in preconquest society but also makes clear the religious and political imperatives in the creation of the new colonial regime. No one who reads this will be able to explain the conquest any longer as a simple matter of winners and losers.”
“Amber Brian, Bradley Benton, and Pablo García Loaeza have made an invaluable contribution to the field. We have long needed a state-of-the-art English translation of any of Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s works, and these three have chosen one of the most revealing of his texts. Their thoughtful introduction and careful explanatory notes will render the text especially useful for teaching, but even scholars who are not planning to teach with the book will want to have it and read it, reminding themselves of the extraordinary richness of this colonial mestizo historian’s mind.”
“The conquest of Mexico once again. But this time the history of the Spanish invasion is related one hundred years after the fact and from the perspective of the inhabitants of Tetzcoco, the second-in-rank polity in the infamous Aztec Triple Alliance. Don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s ‘Thirteenth Relation’ exalts his ancestors, especially King Ixtlilxochitl, for never was there a more exemplary ruler, a more devout Christian, a more stalwart enabler of the Spaniards, or another Nahua leader who participated in all the many conquests and lived to tell about it. This is ethnopatriotism at its finest, and this splendid scholarly translation into English is a welcome, invaluable contribution to the new conquest history genre.”
“An excellent translation and critical edition.”
“A fine translation and well edited. It adds greatly to our understanding of the complexity of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Clearly the conquest of Mexico was a Rashomon-like episode in which each of the participating groups told its story from its own perspective and bias. The result is a conflicted narrative in which the broad outlines are known, but clarifying the details remains a work in progress. The Native Conquistador provides one more step forward in that enterprise.”
“While Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s work has received critical attention in recent years from the editors of this volume and others, such as Jongsoo Lee and Galen Brokaw, his writings have not been available in English translation. Hence the present volume is very welcome. The editors’ selection from Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s corpus is the best choice for reaching a wide audience of students and nonspecialists. . . . For classroom instructors, I recommend this above Cortés’s letters or Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s account for its succinct, action-packed, and indigenous-centered telling of the Aztec-to-Spanish imperial transition.”

Amber Brian is Assistant Professor of Spanish at the University of Iowa.

Bradley Benton is Assistant Professor of History at North Dakota State University.

Pablo García Loaeza is Associate Professor of Spanish at West Virginia University.


List of Illustrations



List of Abbreviations


Thirteenth Relation: On the Arrival of the Spaniards and the Beginning of the Law of the Gospel





<1>Tetzcoco’s Native Conquistadors

In the autumn of 1520 Hernando Cortés and his men prepared for a second invasion of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Triple Alliance (often called the Aztec Empire). Their first attempt, begun a year earlier, had ended badly; in late June 1520 they were forced to flee the city after dark and sustained heavy casualties in what was later called the noche triste, or sad night. By December 1520, however, they were better prepared. They had spent the intervening year licking their wounds and formulating a two-pronged battle plan in which they would attack by boat and by marching along the three causeways linking the island city to the mainland. And, more important, they had attracted a large contingent of indigenous allies from across the region. These indigenous fighters were crucial to the Spaniards’ eventual victory.

The most famous of Cortés’s native allies were those from the Nahua altepetl, or city-state, of Tlaxcala, which remained independent of the Triple Alliance at the time of the Spanish arrival. The alliance of Tetzcoco, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, and Tlacopan had jointly gained dominance over vast swaths of Mesoamerica. The Tlaxcalteca, as the traditional enemies of this Triple Alliance, were persuaded to join Cortés’s cause fairly easily. But Cortés was also able to attract fighters from the city of Tetzcoco, a founding member of the Triple Alliance and traditionally one of Mexico-Tenochtitlan’s staunchest supporters. Reflecting the factionalism of Nahua politics, the Tetzcoca who chose to fight alongside the Spaniards betrayed their own federation. The version of the conquest presented here, written by don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, represents the perspective of the Tetzcoca who supported the Spaniards and emphasizes the role of the author’s ancestor, Ixtlilxochitl, who appears at Cortés’s side throughout the conquest of New Spain. Alva Ixtlilxochitl laments, however, that “Cortés did not mention Ixtlilxochitl or his exploits or heroic deeds,” and he worked steadily to remedy that omission with his account.

Not everyone in Tetzcoco was eager to join the Spaniards. The Tetzcoca ruler Coanacoch, for instance, fled to Tenochtitlan as the Spaniards approached. But several of Coanacoch’s brothers and half brothers sided with the Spaniards. According to the account of the conquest campaigns that Cortés presented in his October 30, 1520, letter to Emperor Charles V, one of Coanacoch’s younger half brothers, don Fernando Tecocoltzin, “bore a great love for the Spaniards,” and Cortés installed him as ruler in Tetzcoco after Coanacoch’s departure. Cortés wrote that to return the favor, Tecocoltzin “did all he could to persuade his vassals to come and fight against Temixtitan [sic, Tenochtitlan] and expose themselves to the same danger and hardships as ourselves. He spoke with his brothers . . . and entreated them to go to my assistance with all the people in their domains” (Cortés 1986, 220). The Tetzcoca ruling family, therefore, was divided, with some members fighting against the Spaniards and some fighting with them. Cortés himself was aware of the complexity of the situation and the psychological effects of such a division. He asked King Charles to “imagine how valuable this help and friendship of Don Fernando was to me, and what the people of Temixtitan [sic, Tenochtitlan] must have felt on seeing advance against them those whom they held as vassals and friends, relatives and brothers, even fathers and sons” (221). The support from Tetzcoco was clearly important to the Spanish victory.

One of the Spaniards fighting with Cortés, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, confirmed the importance of Tetzcoca support. “Don Hernando [Tecocoltzin],” wrote Díaz del Castillo, “offered all the assistance within his power, and of his own accord promised to send messengers to all the neighbouring pueblos and tell them to become vassals of His Majesty, and accept our friendship and authority against Mexico[-Tenochtitlan]” (2009, 243). Without Tecocoltzin’s support, Tetzcoco and the surrounding region might not have been as sympathetic to the Spanish cause. And had the Triple Alliance remained unified, the Spaniards would have had a more difficult time bringing central Mexico under their control. Such a small group of Europeans could hardly have subdued the region’s large population if all the native peoples had been united in their resistance to the invaders; exploiting fissures within the indigenous political landscape and winning over indigenous supporters was crucial to Cortés’s success. Native allies made the Spanish conquest of Mexico possible. The diverse attitudes of the Tetzcoca toward the Spaniards were emblematic of the larger trend in Mesoamerica: some native people resisted Spanish conquest while others participated as conquerors themselves.

For many years scholars of the conquest worked to shift focus away from the Spanish perspective and bring attention to the often-ignored voices and viewpoints of the Indians and to emphasize what some referred to as the “vision of the vanquished.” But recent work that highlights the “Indian conquistadors” has forced scholars to reexamine the simple categories of conqueror and subject, or aggressor and victim, and to acknowledge the seemingly contradictory roles and complex position of native peoples who chose to fight other native groups alongside the Spaniards. This work has demonstrated that the Spaniards relied on native allies in their subjugation of Tenochtitlan and in the later campaigns into the northern and southern reaches of Mesoamerica and that, at times, native peoples even undertook conquests independently of the Spaniards. Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s “Thirteenth Relation: On the Arrival of the Spaniards and the Beginning of the Law of the Gospel” falls within the scope of this recent trend in studies of the conquest. It exposes the complex political reality that moved some of Tetzcoco’s leaders to join the Spaniards against the Mexica. The text also reveals that, in spite of the upheavals wrought by conquest and colonization, ethnic identities endured, as did partisan allegiances—in this case, to Tetzcoco and its erstwhile ruling dynasty. These loyalties were deeply bound up with ways of remembering and recording the past.

Alva Ixtlilxochitl wrote his “Thirteenth Relation” nearly a century after the conclusion of the conquest battles in Mexico-Tenochtitlan. In his telling of the story, Cortés’s success hinged on his alliance with Tetzcoco and, even more important, on his personal friendship with Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s great-great-grandfather: don Fernando Cortés Ixtlilxochitl. This is one of the defining features of Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s version of the conquest, which consistently presents Ixtlilxochitl as the most important of Cortés’s indigenous allies. Ixtlilxochitl was, according to Alva Ixtlilxochitl, “the greatest and most loyal ally [Cortés] had in this land and whose aid in winning this land was second only to God’s.”

Featuring Ixtlilxochitl prominently throughout the text, the “Thirteenth Relation” begins with the arrival of the Spaniards off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in 1519. The narrative then moves quickly through the well-known episodes of the conquest—Moteucçoma’s (also spelled Montezuma or Moctezuma) imprisonment, Narváez’s frustrated attempt to subdue Cortés, the Toxcatl festival and massacre, and the noche triste debacle. The pace slows considerably as Alva Ixtlilxochitl describes the second campaign to conquer Tenochtitlan. Nonetheless, the final surrender of Cuauhtemoc and fall of Tenochtitlan occur before the halfway point in the text. The remainder of the account is dedicated to several expeditions conducted outside of central Mexico.

The Spanish conquests in the New World were organized in relay fashion, whereby newly conquered areas served as staging grounds for further exploration and conquest. The expedition led by Cortés, for instance, arrived from Cuba, whose first European settlement had been established only a few years earlier, in 1511. Similarly, once Mexico-Tenochtitlan had been conquered, the Spaniards fanned out in all directions looking for other places to conquer. In Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s version, Ixtlilxochitl follows the Spaniards on these subsequent campaigns: to Pánuco in the northeast; to Michoacan and Colima in the west; and to Oaxaca, Tehuantepec, and Tabasco in southern Mexico. The “Thirteenth Relation” also includes a summary description of the conquest of Guatemala. The narrative then returns to central Mexico, to highlight the official introduction of the law of the Gospel by a group of distinguished Franciscan friars. The final third of the text is devoted to Cortés’s infamous journey to Las Hibueras (spelled Yhueras in the manuscript) in modern Honduras, during which the deposed rulers of the Triple Alliance capitals, who were traveling with Cortés as hostages, were hanged. As Alva Ixtlilxochitl dramatically portrays it, these kings were unjustly killed by a ruthless and conniving Cortés. Ixtlilxochitl was the only native leader to return alive. The text ends with news of the rebuilding of Mexico City, which in this account is spearheaded by the tireless Ixtlilxochitl.

<1>Multiple Perspectives on the Conquest of Mexico

The primary-source narratives of the conquest of Mexico are remarkable for the variety of perspectives they offer. Cortés wrote extensively of his exploits in five letters to King Charles of Spain. Cortés’s reports were intended not merely to inform the monarch and people in Europe of the Spanish exploits in New Spain but also to justify his actions. Cortés was authorized not to engage in conquest in the interior but only to survey the coastal areas. By embarking on his campaign of conquest, he openly disregarded the orders of Diego Velázquez, the Cuban governor under whom he served. Consequently, his actions in Mexico constituted insubordination, if not treason. In that context, his accounts of the conquest of Mexico had the ulterior objective of bypassing Velázquez, whose authority he had spurned, to appeal directly to the king for his royal approval. In his carefully crafted texts, Cortés represented himself as a loyal vassal and his conquest of Mexico as a great service to the Crown. His rhetorical strategies worked; he was not prosecuted for his insubordination but rather awarded several large encomiendas, or grants of indigenous labor and tribute, in Mexico along with the noble title Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca.

Cortés was never completely satisfied with his situation, however. What he really wanted was to be named governor of this newly conquered territory of New Spain (a name first used by Cortés, in fact). The king and his council, though, were wary of granting the conquistadors too much power and excluded Cortés from any influential government position. Fearing for the preservation of his fortune and his historical legacy, Cortés asked his chaplain, Francisco López de Gómara, to write a history of the conquest of Mexico based mainly on Cortés’s own accounts. The resulting text, Historia de la conquista de México, would surely have pleased Cortés, had he lived to see it published in 1552, five years after his death. In it, Gómara heaps unrelenting praise on the conquistador, casting him as an epic hero in the Spaniards’ quest to bring spiritual salvation and civilization to a pagan and barbaric people.

Other Spaniards who had fought in the conquest war were unhappy—even angry—with Cortés’s and Gómara’s version of events, which suggested that Cortés had done most of the work himself. The best-known attempt to rectify alleged inaccuracies and exaggerations in those accounts is the True History of the Conquest of New Spain, written by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who participated in the conquest battles of the 1520s and, by the 1550s, was increasingly frustrated by the lack of recognition and compensation that he and other conquistadors had received. Moreover, by the mid-sixteenth century, the Crown was trying to wrest control of the encomiendas from the aging conquistadors and prevent their children from inheriting them. Díaz del Castillo’s history of the conquest was meant to secure economic stability for himself and his heirs, which he did by insisting that the conquest was the result of a collaborative effort and that he had made contributions worthy of compensation. In Díaz del Castillo’s account, the conquest was achieved through consensus decision making rather than as a result of Cortés’s top-down, military-style leadership.

The True History, then, paints a somewhat different picture of the conquest war in Mexico and serves as a useful foil for the versions told by Cortés and Gómara. Their varied perspectives notwithstanding, however, the Cortés, Gómara, and Díaz del Castillo accounts are all characterized by Spanish triumphalism and heroics. Theirs are epic stories, whose Spanish protagonists regularly engage in larger-than-life, even miraculous acts of valor. And this triumphalist perspective is reflected in the English-language histories that brought renewed attention to the conquest in the nineteenth century and has continued to influence popular understandings and portrayals of conquest history ever since.

Since the Spaniards, who had at least a common sense of purpose, could not agree on a history of the conquest campaigns, it should come as no surprise that the versions told by native peoples themselves vary considerably more. The most widely read and studied account of the conquest from a native perspective is found in the Florentine Codex. Written in the mid-sixteenth century by native noblemen from the altepetl of Tlatelolco under the auspices of the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, the Florentine Codex addresses the cultural practices and history of the Nahuas in two-column, side-by-side Spanish and Nahuatl alphabetic texts and nearly two thousand drawings. The final book, Book 12, narrates events of the conquest from a native perspective, but one that is highly specific to its Tlatelolca origin. Built on the same small island, Tlatelolco was Tenochtitlan’s sister city, and inhabitants of both settlements identified themselves as Mexica. Tlatelolco, however, had been conquered and subjugated by the Tenochca in the 1470s. The Tlatelolca point of view in Book 12 is unmistakable. The authors emphasize the bravery of the warriors from Tlatelolco while belittling the fighters from Tenochtitlan. Book 12 also portrays the Tenochca ruler Moteucçoma as incompetent and weak. The Tenochca version was not preserved in any known text, but it must have been very different.

The highly local perspective that surfaces in Book 12 is a hallmark of indigenous texts generally, including Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s. Individual or corporate authors wrote from the historical point of view of a particular altepetl and with specific interests in mind. This very circumscribed vantage point has sometimes been called “micropatriotic” in the central Mexican context (Lockhart 1993, 30). While the Tlatelolca wrote from the perspective of the defeated in the conquest war, they nonetheless managed to insert their disdain for the Tenochca into their account and built the case that they should be given at least as much recognition for their heroics as the Tenochca. Other altepetl, however, who had been faithful allies of the Spaniards offered versions of the conquest that varied significantly from the Mexica as they highlighted their contributions to the Spaniards’ victory.

The Tlaxcalteca were renowned as the Spaniards’ primary allies, and, unsurprisingly, histories produced in Tlaxcala emphasize their helpful role. The Lienzo de Tlaxcala is one such history, although the narrative appears in pictorial rather than alphabetic form. Originally produced in the sixteenth century, the Lienzo highlights the assistance provided by the Tlaxcalteca and portrays them as conquistadors on the same order as the Spaniards, fighting together in scene after scene. The Lienzo clearly depicts the conquest of Mexico as a joint venture between Spaniards and Tlaxcalteca. Alphabetic texts from Tlaxcala tell a similar story. The Historia de Tlaxcala (1585) was written by Diego Muñoz Camargo, who as a mestizo historian is often compared with Alva Ixtlilxochitl. Unlike Alva Ixtlilxochitl, however, Muñoz Camargo emphasized the role of the Tlaxcalteca—not the Tetzcoca—as the Spaniards’ indispensable allies in their efforts to conquer the Mexica. Moreover, Muñoz Camargo holds up the Tlaxcalteca ruler Maxixcatzin—not Tetzcoco’s Ixtlilxochitl—as the single most important indigenous ally. Like most conquest narratives, this text also had a pragmatic purpose. The Historia was presented along with other documents to King Philip II by the sixth Tlaxcalteca commission (1583–85) to draw attention to Tlaxcala’s contribution to the conquest as its delegates petitioned for special privileges.

Many other Nahua groups similarly sought to portray themselves as faithful Spanish allies and even to correct what they felt to be excessive acclaim given to the Tlaxcalteca. The town council of the altepetl of Huexotzinco, for example, sent a letter written in Nahuatl to King Philip II in 1560 stating that the Spaniards’ most beneficial conquest-era alliance was the one they made with the Huexotzinca. They vehemently criticized the actions of the Tlaxcalteca, whom they felt to have been better compensated for their support of the Spaniards. The letter asserts that the Huexotzinca efforts in service of the Crown ought to have been remembered and rewarded with a reduced tax burden. Native histories of the conquest, then, differ considerably. These versions were sometimes written with a specific monetary or other reward in mind and systematically underscore the decisive role played by a particular altepetl in the conquest campaigns.

In striking contrast, several native annals neglect to mention the Spanish arrival and conquest, or, if they do, they portray the foreign conquistadors as equivalent to other native conquering groups from the local past. The Spaniards, particularly in the early years of the colony, acted very much like the Mexica had before them: they conquered by force of arms and then expected tribute payments but left many facets of everyday life untouched. The Spanish conquest was not a watershed event for many of the inhabitants of New Spain, especially if they had not been heavily involved in the conquest battles. One annals text that minimizes the Spanish conquest was written in Nahuatl by don Domingo de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin. Chimalpahin has no entry for 1519, the year that the Spaniards arrived in central Mexico. And in the entries for the next two pivotal years of 1520 and 1521, when Cortés besieged and defeated Mexico-Tenochtitlan, Chimalpahin provides information that, while related to the conquest, does not explicitly address it. For 1520, for example, he says, “In this year the tlatoani Itzcahuatzin and Necuametzin died of smallpox” (1997, 1:425). The text does not even hint that these deaths were a direct result of the conquest, since smallpox was introduced to the native population with the arrival of the Europeans. Chimalpahin’s treatment of the Spanish conquest in this particular text suggests that he did not see it as an epic event in the same way that writers like Cortés, Díaz del Castillo, or the Tlaxcalteca did. Conquest was just something that happened in central Mexico, and the Spaniards were simply one more entry in the long list of conquerors in this region’s history.

Chimalpahin’s choice not to highlight the conquest does not imply that he was oblivious to it or disinterested in it. In fact, Chimalpahin rewrote Gómara’s history of the conquest almost verbatim; he only interpolated some additional information related to native people. Gómara’s version of the conquest is also relevant to the “Thirteenth Relation,” since it is clear that Alva Ixtlilxochitl borrowed heavily—at times nearly word for word—from Gómara’s Historia de la conquista de México. Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s reliance on this text is not altogether surprising as it provided a structural model and many details not to be found elsewhere. However, unlike Chimalpahin, who did not alter Gómara’s history in a significant way, Alva Ixtlilxochitl revised the narrative to conform to his particular point of view. For Gómara, Cortés was the main protagonist, and only through Cortés’s bravery, ingenuity, and skill was Mexico won. For Alva Ixtlilxochitl, on the other hand, the conquest of Mexico was the direct result of the sage guidance of his great-great-grandfather and namesake, Ixtlilxochitl of Tetzcoco, whose role in the success of the conquest was second in importance only to God’s.