Árbol de la Noche Victoriosa, Mexico City

May 21, 2024 0 comments

In the Popotla neighborhood of Mexico City, there is an ancient cypress tree called Árbol de la Noche Victoriosa (Tree of the Victorious Night). Previously, it was known as the Árbol de la Noche Triste (Tree of the Sad Night), in reference to a historical event during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, wherein Hernán Cortés and his army of Spanish conquistadors, along with their indigenous allies, were driven out of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. According to legend, Hernán Cortés wept under this tree on the night of the retreat, mourning the heavy losses suffered by his troops. Hence, the tree became known as the Árbol de la Noche Triste.

The ahuehuete and behind it, the hermitage of San Esteban Popotla. Painting by José María Velasco

In late March 1519, Hernán Cortés landed with a force of Spanish conquistadors at Potonchán on the coast of what is now Mexico. Cortés had been appointed by Governor Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar of Spanish-controlled Cuba to lead an expedition in the region, which was dominated by the Aztec Empire. However, at the last moment, Velázquez revoked Cortés's commission. Despite this, Cortés decided to proceed with the expedition.

Using a combination of military force and political strategy, Cortés managed to secure the allegiance of the Totonacs and the Tlaxcalans (who were subjugated enemies of the Aztec Empire), among other groups, as he advanced towards the empire's main settlement, Tenochtitlan. In November, the Spanish force entered the city and was received by its ruler, Moctezuma II.

Initially, the conquistadors were treated well by the Aztecs while they stayed in the city. However, Governor Velázquez, angered by Cortés's disobedience, sent an armed force under the command of Pánfilo Narváez to apprehend Cortés and claim the lands and riches he had conquered. Cortés was forced to leave a small garrison in Tenochtitlán under the command of his lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado, while he led a small force to confront Narváez. After securing a swift and brilliant victory, Cortés incorporated Narváez's forces into his own and marched back to Tenochtitlán upon hearing that the city was in turmoil against the remaining Spaniards.

Upon his return, Alvarado informed Cortés that he had preemptively attacked the Aztecs during a ritual ceremony, believing they planned to assault the Spaniards. This action incited outrage in Tenochtitlán. The Aztecs named a new emperor to replace Moctezuma, whom they now viewed as weak and easily influenced by the Spaniards. Cortés attempted to negotiate peace and, as a last resort, urged Moctezuma to address his people to achieve a truce. However, the enraged Aztecs struck down Moctezuma with a hail of rocks.

Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma in Tenochtitlán, November 8, 1519.

By the end of June 1520, the situation had deteriorated drastically. Desperate to escape the city and spurred by an omen allegedly received by one of the Spaniards, the conquistadors resolved to flee. On the night of July 1, 1520, Cortés's large army headed west, toward the Tlacopan causeway. The causeway was apparently unguarded, and the Spaniards made their way out of their complex unnoticed, winding through the sleeping city under the cover of a rainstorm. But before they could reach the causeway, they were detected by elite Aztec soldiers, and the alarm was sounded.

As the alarm spread, numerous Aztec warriors, noblemen, and commoners alike emerged from their houses and began attacking the Spaniards from all directions, using canoes or assaulting the causeway with swords, spears, arrows, and stones thrown from slings. The Spaniards fought their way across the causeway in the rain. Weighed down by gold and equipment, some of the soldiers lost their footing, fell into the lake, and drowned. Amid a vanguard of horsemen, Cortés pressed ahead and reached dry land at Tacuba, leaving the rest of the expedition to fend for itself during the treacherous crossing.

An undated photograph of the Árbol de la Noche Victoriosa. Photo credit: smallcurio

Cortés, Alvarado, and the strongest and most skilled men managed to fight their way out of Tenochtitlan, though they were all bloodied and exhausted. Cortés himself had been injured in the fighting. All the artillery had been lost, as had most of the horses. Seeing the wounded survivors straggle into the village, Cortés is said to have broken down and wept. This event came to be known as La Noche Triste (The Night of Sorrows).

The sources do not agree on the total number of casualties suffered by the expedition. Cortés claimed that 154 Spaniards were lost along with over 2,000 native allies. However, historians estimate that around 450 Spaniards and approximately 4,000 allies were killed.

There is no historical evidence that Cortés wept under a cypress tree. Historians and scholars specializing in the subject even doubt that this tree existed in 1520 and that the Spanish conquistador stopped to mourn his defeat, considering the confusion in the middle of a military retreat. Contemporary texts indicate Hernán Cortés's sadness over the event but do not mention any tree or specific place. Hernán Cortés himself does not reference a tree in the letter he addressed to Emperor Charles V.

The Árbol de la Noche Victoriosa in 2021. Photo credit: Secretaría de Cultura de la Ciudad de México

The ahuehuete, or cypress tree, became associated with the episode of the sad night only around the 19th century. An iron fence was erected around the tree after an arson attack in 1872, and a stone plaque was installed identifying the tree as the one Cortés wept under. Over time, the legend of the tree grew turning the ahuehuete into a symbol of the fall of the Aztec Empire.

The ahuehuete is no longer alive. The tree has endured significant deterioration over the centuries, with most of its original structure no longer standing. However, the site where the tree once stood remains a historical landmark in Mexico City.

In 2021, as part of the commemoration of the five hundredth anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlan, the government of Mexico City changed the tree’s name to Árbol de la Noche Victoriosa (Tree of the Victorious Night) emphasizing the Aztec victory during the battle rather than the Spanish defeat and mourning. This name underscores the importance of viewing historical events from multiple viewpoints, recognizing the triumph of the Aztecs in defending their city, even if temporarily.


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