A history of the Aztec people, compiled using recently-available sources in the Nahuatl language that tell the story from their own perspective. The word “Aztec” was never used by their own people, instead they called themselves either the “Mexica” when referring to the political entity (centered in Tenochtitlan), or the “Nahuas” when referring to people that spoke the Nahuatl language.
The Nahua people originated in the southwestern US and migrated southward into central Mexico over many generations, as supported by archeological and linguistic record. They were subjugated by more powerful neighboring tribes, until they settled in an unoccupied spot on the shore of Lake Texcoco (present-day Mexico City).
From then on, the Mexica people grew in power and received tribute from neighboring tribes in exchange for peace, and Tenochtitlan grew into one of the biggest cities in the world. The author describes many generations of power struggles among factions of the royal families, as well as various aspects of life in their pre-contact society.
The year 1519 marked a turning point for Aztec history, as that was the year that Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico with an invasion force of 500 men. They first landed in Mayan-controlled territory around the Yucatan peninsula, then made their way towards the Mexica capital; they were aided by Malintzin, a slave girl who happened to speak both Nahuatl and Mayan and acted as a translator. Since the area was politically fragmented, the Spanish were easily able to ally with Indian tribes who were the enemies of the Mexica. Their superior technology made the Spanish nearly invincible in battle, so most tribes decided it was better to ally with them rather than fight them.
As the Spanish advanced closer to the Mexica capital Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma realized his military inferiority and tried to pay tribute to get them to leave. Contrary to popular belief, they didn’t believe that the Spanish were reincarnations of gods or anything like that; this myth was invented by later generations to make sense of how their mighty empire was so easily defeated. Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish in 1521, after a three-month siege.
After the conquest, the Spanish exerted control by appointing friendly local rulers to govern each region, although the balance of power was always uneasy since the Spanish were so vastly outnumbered and feared a rebellion could remove them from power at any time. The Spanish imposed their catholic religion and the native Aztec culture mostly died out, but a few scribes, after learning the Latin script, adapted it to write in their native Nahuatl language all they could remember about their past so it would not be lost.
The book concludes with an essay about how Nahuatl sources have changed our understanding of Aztec history. Since the language was so difficult, many scholars used Spanish-only sources to understand what happened, resulting in a distorted view of history. This book is overall quite a dense read with many references to the historical literature, while still weaving together a compelling story of the rise and fall of the Mexicas. The parts on the pre-contact period was difficult to follow since they were about the internal struggles of dozens of long Nahuatl names; for me, the post-contact sections were more familiar and easier to follow.