Sant Jaume de Toloriu, Alt Urgell, Catalunya
There’s a story—half legend half history, as these things go—that I love and hardly ever see around in English. Mondays are good days for storytelling. Start your week sipping on this: in the part of Spain that isn’t Spain and isn’t quite yet France, there’s a town so tiny that even after it was legally merged with the surrounding villages it still only has 75 households. It’s called Toloriu, and “like all good villages it boasts a peculiar church.” The peculiarity of Sant Jaume de Toloriu is its oddly recent plaque: “To the memory of Xipaguazin Moctezuma, spouse of the noble Joan de Grau, baron of Toloriu, who died in the year 1537.”
Joan de Grau i Ribó was a Catalan nobleman and military captain who arrived in Tenochtitlán alongside Hernán Cortés. As was common among conquistadores, he took a woman. Officially, they never married, and officially, history doesn’t know their relationship. But when a conquistador takes a woman, he leaves little to the imagination.
The woman was one of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II’s nineteen noble children: eleven sons, eight daughters. Her name was Xipaguazin, though she was later baptized María. (“Que derroche de originalidad.”) In her lifetime, her family lost an empire. Her father was killed early in the conquest. (Indigenous sources say the Spanish killed him in battle. Spanish sources say his indigenous subjects stoned him to death. The Spanish version, as it is always prone to do, won.) Most of her brothers were murdered, her sisters carried off as loot, her subjects fractured. Her family’s name is a byword for surrender even now.
In her lifetime, two halves of the world met. She may have been one of the first people in the hemisphere to meet a horse, a mule, a bee. She may have had one of the first meals we might actually recognize as European: Spaniards lounging around over potatoes, tomatoes, paprika, maize.
In her lifetime, the population of the flourishing city-state she grew up in—then the largest city in the Americas, though she had no concept of that—would decline by eighty percent. In her lifetime, Nahuatl got a word for smallpox.
But for most of it, Xipaguazin wasn’t even around. Joan took her back when he was done with his deployment. They made their dwelling in a Toloriu castle, but lived off the fruits of an estate known as Casa Vima. In the late 1530s, they had a son. He inherited Joan’s name, but both his parents’ titles. That was about all that was settled regarding his inheritance. Joan Pere de Grau-Moctezuma kicked off a dynastic tug-of-war that still pops up from time to time today, as the fallen emperor’s thousands of descendants hang on to the validity of sixteenth-century pensions.
More dazzlingly, the stories would have us pine after the treasures Xipaguazin inherited from her father, which she brought with her from Tenochtitlán to this tiny perch in the Catalan foothills, and had buried. Would-be inheritors occasionally turn up to lament at authorities about the lost wealth—one of those very would-be inheritors, a bizarre pretender to an abolished Mexican throne, put up the mysterious French-language plaque that honors Xipaguazin—but most often, it’s treasure-hunters who have a go at it. Four hundred years after Xipaguazin was buried, German treasure-hunters raided the house at Casa Vima, and her grave at Sant Jaume, in search of precious jewels. (They found nothing. But Catalunya was free for the needlessly destroying in the late 1930s.)
Xipaguazin died—officially, “single”—in Toloriu on January 10, 1537.
As far as I can tell, everything I’ve just written beyond the fact of Joan and Xipaguazin’s existences and relationship is pure invention. To me, that’s just as interesting as their reality. Spaniards use the story to “debunk” Catalan nationalists who say they were “excluded from America”; Catalans use it to combat their erasure from imperial history. Monarchists and pretenders use it as a rabbit hole. Local tour guides use it as an ornament. I use it as a blog post. For all this glitter and strangeness, the legendary treasure, the enormity of Xipaguazin’s life experience and circumstances, all I can think about is how she would have felt about this story.
In reading indigenous accounts of the Spanish conquest, the Nahua understanding of history becomes evident. They saw history as cyclical, just as anyone who was periodically, almost repetitively, conquered might. They romanticized the last rulers of ending dynasties: they prayed to Quetzalcoatl, the mythical last ruler of the Toltecs, in the same breath that they unleashed their fury upon the surrendering Moctezuma. They looked toward second, third, fourth, fifth comings. They had an eye for the monumental.
I can’t help but imagine the cycle Xipaguazin thought she was a part of. When history has never quite looked like this, how can you imagine it repeating itself? What worlds were there left to meet and decimate and raid? What diseases were left to ravage? What could possibly ever be on this scale again?
I don’t think she’d have had a hard time answering those questions, a woman taken by a nobleman, the daughter of a woman taken by a ruler. I think Xipaguazin, who learned Spanish the way her subjects were made to learn Nahuatl, would have understood her story just fine. I think Joan would have found his life unprecedented. I think Xipaguazin would have known better. And I think their son, who thought himself the one-day emperor of Mexico, would have been astonished at the belated resurrection of that unfulfilled title. Xipaguazin, though—I don’t think she could have been surprised by the jagged ambitions of men.