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Montezuma in the Popular Imagination

Posted On October 26, 2020 | 11:24 am | by mayw | Permalink
Norman Storer Corrada uses ephemera to challenge representations of Montezuma

Norman Storer Corrada, a master’s student in museum studies at George Washington University, was a 2019–2020 humanities fellow. His research report, “Imagining Montezuma: Representations of the Huey Tlatoani in Popular Culture,” detailed the preparations for the upcoming exhibit Imagining Montezuma.


Q&A with Norman Storer Corrada

Who was Montezuma and what will Imagining Montezuma depict of him?

Montezuma—or Moctezuma or Moteuczoma Xocoyotzin—was the huey tlatoani (literally, “great speaker”) or emperor of the Triple Alliance, commonly known as the Aztec Empire. He was the ninth tlatoani of Tenochtitlan, the dominant city-state in the Alliance. Montezuma and Hernán Cortés infamously met in Tenochtitlan in 1519, which was a defining moment for centuries of European colonialism and ongoing encounters between Indigenous people of the Americas and Europeans. 

The exhibit explores how Montezuma is remembered through images. There is one heavily damaged portrait of him, so to speak, carved in stone, but we don’t really know what he looked like. So all the images that have been produced of Montezuma are reconstructions based on descriptions and details from manuscripts and conventions of the time. This exhibit focuses on ephemera, which are items that were printed with no intention of longevity, like brochures, trading cards, postcards, tickets, posters, and other pieces of popular culture, merchandising, and marketing. Montezuma also appears in a lot of entertainment; as part of the music series, there was even going to be a concert of Antonio Vivaldi’s opera Montezuma.


How and why have chocolate, tequila, and beer companies advertised with Montezuma?

One section of the exhibit, “Selling Montezuma,” is about advertising. A lot of companies have used Montezuma to advertise products that come from Mexico originally, like chocolate and tequila; products from the Americas generally, like tobacco; or products that are today manufactured in Mexico, like Dos Equis beer. Very often these companies have used the exoticized image of Montezuma to represent authenticity, quality, nobility, or tradition.

For example, in a 1970s ad, Montezuma Tequila called it “the noblest tequila of them all.” Montezuma is literally a representation of this nobility—he’s a royal figure, so the tequila must be just as good. Prince Albert Tobacco advertised that their tobacco was so nice and smooth that even Montezuma himself would love to smoke it. Hershey’s, in the 1960s, produced a poster that narrated the history of chocolate and described the manufacturing process. At the very top is a representation of what they call “the gift of Montezuma,” which was Montezuma sharing a cup of chocolate with Cortés. Chocolate comes from Mesoamerica: the Mexica, Nahua, and many people in Mesoamerica drank it as a cold, frothy beverage that was very richly spiced. It’s possible Montezuma did offer the Spanish some chocolate when they arrived because it was a royal reception, but it’s not clear that Cortés and Montezuma happily drank chocolate together as the Hershey’s poster suggests. Here chocolate is a manifestation of the encounter between Europeans and Indigenous Mesoamericans, and Montezuma meeting Cortés is a specific event that represents this wider encounter, so they all come together in this poster and advertisement.


Why haven’t places named Montezuma been examined, and what does this geographical approach add? 

There are fourteen cities or towns or places in the US named Montezuma, which shows you how widespread the name, image, and idea of Montezuma is. People haven’t really looked at these places because it’s information that’s mostly been lost, and what does come down is often folk history that may be very accurate but is hard to confirm because it usually comes from a single source. But you do see certain patterns, even if we can’t know for certain how accurate these stories are of how places came to be known as Montezuma.

One common reason places are named Montezuma is in association with palaces or wealth on this “new” continent. For example, Montezuma, New York, may have been named that because the rich guy who built a mansion on top of a hill compared it to Montezuma’s palace. Another common reason is the name evoked memories of Mexico for veterans of the Mexican-American War who were among the first to establish new cities like Montezuma, Iowa, and Montezuma, Georgia. Also, when it comes to the Mexican-American War, Montezuma-as-Mexico and Montezuma associated with surrender is later used to legitimize Mexico’s surrender and to reinforce ideas of US superiority in the Americas. 

A lot of my work was heavily influenced by the scholar Matthew Restall. I hope the exhibit helps illustrate how much of what we think of as a given historical fact has actually been informed by centuries of reproducing traditional, and often racist, narratives based on only one perspective and constructed on purposeful misrepresentations of events to serve different ends. I’m hoping showing how fanciful and contradictory many of these images of Montezuma are gets people to think critically about how history is produced, reproduced, and imagined.


Interviewed and edited by Postgraduate Writing and Reporting Fellows Julia Ostmann (2018–2020) and May Wang. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, 2018–2020 postgraduate digital media fellow.