In its heyday, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) was a huge and beautiful place, featuring wide causeways, bustling markets and navigable canals. For the Aztec rulers, the city was also a land of many amusements. Montezuma II, the first Aztec emperor who had the misfortune of meeting Europeans, devoted great amounts of resources to collecting and maintaining items, creatures and people that he found entertaining. Several villas and palaces, located both in and outside of Tenochtitlan, were reportedly used to house the Aztec emperor’s collection of oddities. From birds, to snakes, or weapons and armors, the emperor had space set aside for all sorts of animate and inanimate interests—including certain kinds of humans.
Hernán Cortés, in a letter to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1520, mentioned a “palace that contained a number of men and women of monstrous size, and also dwarfs, and crooked and ill-formed persons, each of which had their separate apartments” (Second Letter to Charles V, 1520). Each apartment had its own care team, tasked with seeing to the needs of those who were housed in the building. The residents of the apartments were brought out as entertainers when Hernán Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan. The Spaniards likened the role these people played in Montezuma’s feasts as something akin to the jesters back in Europe.
In a different palace, where Montezuma kept his huge collection of birds, the Aztec emperor also housed another type of people who caught his interest—albinos. At that bird-adjacent apartment, wrote Cortés, “are men, women and children, whose faces, bodies, hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes are white from their birth” (Second Letter to Charles V, 1520). In his letter, Cortés was not explicit about the care given to these people, but the birds, alone, had a crew of reportedly over 300 Aztec keepers.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Map of Tenochtitlan, printed 1524 in Nuremberg, Germany, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.
- https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1520cortes.asp (Cortes’ Second Letter)