Kings and Queens of Tlacōpan

Okay, so I’ve looked at the tlahtohqueh (kings) of Tenōchtitlan and Tetzcohco, two of the centers of power in the Triple Alliance or Aztec Empire.

But it’s a TRIPLE alliance. What was the third āltepētl (city-state)?

Tlacōpan, more commonly known as Tacuba.

Tlacōpan means ‘place of the stalks’ (see the name glyph below).

It was part of an empire controlled by the Tepanēcah in the 14th and early 15th centuries. The Tepanēcah spoke Nahuatl. Legend named them one of the seven tribes that migrated from Chicomoztoc (the seven mythic caves of origin, from which the Nahuas emerged either before or after leaving Aztlan).

They would’ve been called something else originally, because “Tepanēcah” means “people of Tepanōhuayān,” their legendary homeland, a city through which Ce Ācatl Topiltzin (Quetzalcōātl incarnate) passed.

By the 14th century, their capital was Āzcapātzalco (“on the anthill”).

The glyph for Āzcapātzalco

As for Tlacōpan, some legends speak of a founding figure called “Tlacomatl” or perhaps “Tlacōmatl.”

The name doesn’t appear to mean anything. “Tlaco-” means “stalk,” we’ve established, and “matl” is a unit of measure (an arm’s length).

Maybe it should be “Tlahcomatl.” “Tlahco” means “middle” or “middling,” as in the verb “tlahcomati” … to do something in a half-assed way.

Again, we know basically nothing about this figure other than his name & the fact that he supposedly founded the city in the late 14th century.

So who was the first official king?

Ahcolnāhuacatl Tzacualcatl. He was a son of Tepanēcah Emperor Tezozomoc, who installed him in 1400 CE. That first tlahtoāni ruled for about 28 years.

His name derives from two places: Ahcolnāhuac, a city on the shore, and “tzacualco” which means “place of the pyramid.” So he was basically “man from the sacred precinct of Ahcolnāhuac.”

His wife was Tlacochcuētzin (“spear-breaker”), daughter of the king of Tiliuhcān, a man with the lovely name “Tlācacuitlahuatzin,” or “Lord of Human Shit.”

She bore the tlahtoāni two sons.

HOWEVER, neither matters. You see, Emperor Tezozomoc died in 1426. His brutal son Maxtla forcibly took the reins of the empire, and when the king of Tlacōpan also passed away in 1428, the new emperor put his little brother Totoquihuāztli on the throne.

And, damn, would the Tepanēcah come to regret THAT decision, heh.

Because Totoquihuāztli? He helped overthrow the empire.

Not long after Maxtla seized control of the empire, he tortured and killed Chīmalpopōca, tlahtoāni of Tenōchtitlan.

It was the last straw.

Chīmalpopōca’s uncle Itzcōātl became king of Tenōchtitlan. Under his protection was Nezahualcoyōtl, heir to the throne of Tetzcohco. Advising him was the greatest mind Mexico has ever known, his nephew Tlācaellel. Leading his armies was the great Motēuczoma Ilhuicamīna.

Holy shit.

When they approached Totoquihuāztli with their plan to bring down his half-brother’s empire, he didn’t think twice. He signed right the hell up.

(Reader, they won. They kicked the Tepanēcah’s collective ass.)

Totoquihuāztli took a new title. Tepanācapan tlahtoāni. “Ruler of the Tepanēcah Lands”

I’m frankly not sure what his name means (I need to do more research, heh), but it sounds like it might derive from the verb “tōtoca,” meaning either to pursue someone or to rush quickly.

Note: Tlacōpan only got one-fifth of the tribute. Tetzcohco and Tenōchtitlan split the other four fifths they received from tributary nations. But Totoquihuāztli was good with this arrangement.

Totoquihuaztli was a poet. Three pieces are attributed to him in the codex Cantares Mexicanos. I translated one of them in my book Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Maya Poetry.

Here’s a snippet.

He definitely made an impression. Kind of the last king of Tlacōpan to do so, however. The emperors in Tenōchtitlan weakened their ally bit by bit down the years.

Here’s the bronze casting of Totoquihuatli in the Garden of the Triple Alliance, in Mexico City.

He was succeded by his son Chīmalpopōca, named for the Mexica king his brother had killed.

That name is straightforward. “Chīmal-” is a noun meaning “shield” & “popōca” is a verb that means “emits smoke.” So “chīmalpopōca” means “shield-smokes,” more idiomatically either “[his] shield emits smoke” or “[he] emits shield smoke.”

This may be a reference to the sun.

After Chīmalpopōca died, his son Totoquihuāztli II took the throne and ruled until the arrival of the Spanish in 1519.

But it was Tlaīhualcan (“envoy”), the daughter of this tlahtoāni, who would make her mark on the world. She married Motēuczoma II and bore him many children.

One of them would be Tēcuichpōchtzin, later known as Doña Isabel Moctezuma.

(Yes, there’s some controversy over who her mother is, but I find Alva Ixtlilxóchitl credible.)

You can read about her life in my article on Mexica queens.

Alva Ixtlilxóchitl claimed that Isabel / Tēcuichpōchtzin’s birth name was Miyāhuaxōchitl or “corn tassel flower.”

Hernán Cortés would eventually Isabel Tlacōpan as her hereditary estate, drawing men’s greedy affections.

Miyāhuaxōchitl with her father.
Alva Ixtlilxóchitl explains her parentage.

The last tlahtoāni of Tlacōpan is known as a coward.

Infamous as the “rey de Tacuba” tortured with Cuāuhtemōc, Tētlepanquetzatzin had quite a name: “he who ensorcels people,” from the verb “tlepanquetza” (bewitch, ensorcel) and the indefinite object prefix “tē-” (people).

The verb LITERALLY means “to place on the fire.”


When the Empire fell, Cuāuhtemōc, Tētlepanquetzatzin, and Cōānacochtzin (tlahtoāni of Tetzcohco) were taken captive. They were held for years. The Spaniards, obsessed with the supposed treasure of Motēuczōma, decided to torture the once mighty kings of Tlacōpan and Tenōchtitlan.

Cuāuhtemōc and Tētlepanquetzatzin were strapped down, the soles of their feet coated with oil.

Then the Spaniards applied fire.

Cuāuhtemōc suffered in silence, claimed Bernal Díaz del Castillo.

But the tlahtoāni of Tlacōpan couldn’t take it. He began to writhe.

“The pain is great, my Emperor,” he moaned.

Cuāuhtemōc turned his head impassively to regard the lesser lord. Disgust filled his eyes.

“Do I look like I am enjoying myself?”

A 19th-century historical novel written by Spanish author Eligio Ancona changed this line to the famous, “¿Acaso estoy yo en un lecho de rosas?”

“Am I perchance in a bed of roses?”

The last Aztec emperor would finally tell the Spaniards that the empire’s treasure was in the lake.

They didn’t get it. That lake, that isle, the cities that surrounded it … they were the most precious jewels in Mesoamerica.

The Spaniards found nothing, no matter how deep they dredged.

The tlahtohqueh of the Triple Alliance were hanged on suspicion that they were secretly fomenting a rebellion.

So ended Tetzcohco, Tenōchtitlan, and Tlacōpan.

The last one is now the barrio mágico of Tacuba.

A Mexican-American author and translator from deep South Texas, David Bowles teaches literature and Nahuatl at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley.

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