The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book Miraflores, San Antonio’s Mexican Garden of Memory, which will be published in 2022 by Trinity University Press. Learn more about Miraflores at quintaurrutia.com.

The walk along Miraflores’ main esplanade ventures back in time to find Cuauhtémoc (kwau-TEH mock), the last Aztec leader, fist perpetually to the sky. His Nahuatl name means “descending eagle,” and he wears a crown of feathers in his headdress. Upon a pedestal, facing east, he marks the exact center of the garden. To the left and right of the figure, atop each set of towering narrow columns, an eagle with outspread wings perches on a cactus. The eagles reference that legendary eagle that long ago perched on a rock in the middle of a lake, signaling the founding of Tenochtitlán, the ancient Ciudad de México, as the homeland of the Aztec people. In [Dr. Aureliano] Urrutia’s time, in a Mexico transformed by conquering forces, and to this day, this eagle remains on the Mexican flag as its most recognized national symbol. In one broad stroke, Urrutia references the seed of his existence and the first scene in the founding of a  nation — eagles on a lake at the foot of volcanoes. 

In 1921, Urrutia commissioned Luis L. Sanchez, a young Mexican artist, to create the statue of  Cuauhtémoc, the first statue placed in the garden. Sanchez had excellent artisanal skills and experience creating cemetery statuary in Monterrey, Mexico. Urrutia worked closely in San Antonio with the sculptor, first providing him with a photograph of a Mexican rendition of the subject. Although Urrutia wanted an exact copy of the Mexican work, he soon found that his photograph did not contain enough  information for Sanchez, and the two set out in collaboration, Sanchez with his creative skills, and Urrutia with his scientific understanding of human anatomy.  

On a larger-than-life scale, the concrete statue of the renowned Aztec ruler crouches with all his energy thrust toward the heavens. His gesture cries of defiance and protest, forming a sacred  connection between earth and sky, reflecting the strength of the man who withstood capture and torture at the hands of Hernán Cortés in 1521 during the conquistador’s quest to learn where Mexico’s riches were hidden. Cortés was impressed with Cuauhtémoc’s resistance and released him from capture. But four years later, overcome with paranoia, the Spaniard would forget his mercy and execute  Cuauhtémoc, Mexico’s last indigenous emperor, as the Aztec Empire crumbled under Spanish conquest. 

As a young man, Urrutia was certainly aware of Mexico City’s classic statue of Cuauhtémoc, created  by sculptor Miguel Noreña. It was unveiled in 1887 not far from the Bosque de Chapultepec, towering  high above the Avenida de la Reforma atop the monument celebrating the presidency of Porfirio Díaz, a man of both indigenous and Spanish heritage. At the time, the Noreña sculpture was considered a  bold representation of indigenous culture. But Urrutia wanted a different representation of Cuauhtémoc, modeled after one he had seen at the Academia de San Carlos. Like Mexico’s more public representation of Cuauhtémoc, the San Carlos version wears an elaborate feather headdress. However, in contrast to the more stoic Reforma statue, which is dressed in robes, the San Carlos Cuauhtémoc wears only a loincloth and sandals, emphasizing his physical beauty and strength. And  unlike the towering monument, the San Carlos version does not hold a spear or arrow with a forward gaze, instead directing his energy, anger, and defiance toward the heavens. Urrutia, in his work with the talented Sanchez, strove to embody this visceral Cuauhtémoc, connecting the forces of earth and sky at Miraflores. 

To this day, Cuauhtémoc is an unofficial but powerful national symbol of Mexico, and Urrutia’s choice  of a relatively more expressive representation may be part of a larger trend of renewed pride in Aztec culture and history. Less understood outside the borders of Mexico, the Miraflores statue emphasizes the survival of the Aztecs in the 400 (now 500) years since Cuauhtémoc’s encounter with Cortés but also, perhaps, seeks to connect the story of indigenous Mexico to San Antonio’s Mexican and Mexican American communities. Even with the decimation of the Aztec tribes, Cuauhtémoc lives on at Miraflores. Urrutia himself took great pride in his indigenous heritage. 

At the statue’s unveiling in December 1921, the well-known writer and exiled journalist Nemesio García Naranjo gave an apt analysis of the work as representing the outrage of Mexico’s indigenous  people. García Naranjo wrote: 

La estatua entera, desde las plumas altivas del penacho, hasta los dedos encogidos de los  pies, está llorando una injusticia, una de las injusticias mayores que registra la historia humana. Basta recordar las opulentas construcciones de Palenque, de Chichen Itzá, de Mitla y de Teotihuacán, para comprender que fue algo grandioso y divino lo que se destruyó. Y aunque los monumentos coloniales proclamen la gloria de una civilización superior, jamás constituirán una argumento convincente para la triste raza sacrificada. … Por eso el indio de mármol protesta: su puño crispado parece el de Cuauhtémoc increpando a los dioses y amenazando al cielo. … Por eso Urrutia ha hecho bien en colocar a la orilla de un lago el mármol conmovedor: las aguas puras recogen silenciosamente la protesta, para quizás mañana elevarse al cielo en forma de nube reivindicadora, que reviente en una tempestad de rayos justicieros.

In translation: “The entire statue, from the highest feathers of the plume to the clenched toes, cries of injustice, one of the major injustices in the history of humanity. Just remember the opulent constructions of Palenque, of Chichen Itza, of Mitla and of  Teotihuacan to comprehend that something grand and divine was destroyed. And even though the colonial monuments proclaim the glory of one superior civilization, never will they constitute a convincing argument for the tragic sacrifice of a race. … For this the marble Indian protests: his clenched fist is that of Cuauhtémoc rebuking the gods and threatening the sky. … For this Urrutia has done well to place the touching marble on the shore of a lake: the pure waters silently collect the protest, for maybe tomorrow a protesting cloud will rise to the sky, that will burst into a storm of the rays of justice.”  

García Naranjo, incidentally, often wrote for La Prensa, San Antonio’s well-known and first Spanish language newspaper, which was founded by Ignacio Lozano. Both men, along with Urrutia, were members of the Mexican exile community. Many artists have since depicted Cuauhtémoc, adding their own interpretations and developing his powerful symbolism, including José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. A 1946 study for the Siqueiros mural is held by the Blanton Museum of Art. In 1969, Texas artist Luis Jiménez created his own sculptural version of Cuauhtémoc, Man on Fire. The McNay Art Museum has a 1999 bronze casting. The Miraflores statue is recorded in the Smithsonian Inventory of American Sculpture. 

Anne Elise Urrutia

Anne Elise Urrutia is a longtime San Antonian and writes on a variety of topics including history, art, and music. She is the author of the book Miraflores: San Antonio’s Mexican Garden of Memory, forthcoming...