La Malinche

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Hernan Cortes and La Malinche meet Moctezuma II in Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519. Facsimile (c. 1890) of Lienzo de Tlaxcala. Cortez & La Malinche.jpg
Hernán Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma II in Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519. Facsimile (c. 1890) of Lienzo de Tlaxcala .

La Malinche (Spanish pronunciation:  [la maˈlintʃe] ; c. 1496 or c. 1501 – c. 1529), known also as Malinalli [maliˈnalːi] , Malintzin [maˈlintsin] or Doña Marina [ˈdoɲa maˈɾina] or Malintze, [1] was a Nahua woman from the Mexican Gulf Coast, who played a key role in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, acting as an interpreter, advisor, and intermediary for the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés. She was one of 20 women slaves given to the Spaniards by the natives of Tabasco in 1519. [2] Later, she gave birth to Cortés's first son, Martín, who is considered one of the first Mestizos (people of mixed European and indigenous American ancestry).


The historical figure of Marina has been intermixed with Aztec legends (such as La Llorona , a ghost woman who weeps for her lost children). [3] Her reputation has been altered over the years according to changing social and political perspectives, especially after the Mexican Revolution, when she was portrayed in dramas, novels, and paintings as an evil or scheming temptress. [4] In Mexico today, La Malinche remains iconically potent. She is understood in various and often conflicting aspects as the embodiment of treachery, the quintessential victim, or simply as symbolic mother of the new Mexican people. In his 2018 book, [5] ethnohistorian Matthew Restall views La Malinche as representative of one of the darkest aspects of the Conquest in which Spaniards "acquired funds" by participating in the local slave traffic by acquiring or capturing young women and selling them to other native nations as slaves, including sex slaves.[ citation needed ]

The term malinchista refers to a disloyal compatriot, especially in Mexico.

Because of her controversial symbolization, a statue of La Malinche, Cortés, and their son Martín was removed soon after it was erected in Coyoacan, in the outskirts of Mexico City, in 1982. The statue was intended to be respectful of her trials and to emphasize the mestizo (or mixed-blood) character of the nation. However, student protests erupted: the protesters wanted no monument that presented La Malinche in a positive light, for in their minds she was too closely associated with domination by outsiders and with betrayal. [6]


La Malinche (also known as Malinalli, Malintzin or doña Marina) was born sometime between 1496 and 1501, [7] in the region between the Aztec-ruled Valley of Mexico and the Maya states of the Yucatán Peninsula. She had come into a world that existed on the fringes of the political influence exerted by the particular group of Nahuas known today as the Aztecs (they called themselves "Mexicas"). [8] Malintzin was named after the Goddess of Grass, and later Tenepal meaning "one who speaks with liveliness." [9]

In her youth, her father Cacique of Paynala died, and her mother remarried another Cacique and bore a son. Now a stepchild, the girl was sold as a slave to a group of Mayan slavers [10] from Xicalango, an important commercial area. [11] :85 Bernal Díaz del Castillo claims Malintzin's family faked her death by telling the townspeople that a recently deceased child of a slave was Malintzin. The slavers sold her to Chontal Mayans, [12] where she learned their language. After a war between the Mayas of Potonchán, and the Mexicas of Xicalango, Malinalli and other slaves (arguably sex slaves [13] ) were given as tribute to Tabscoob, the cacique of Tabasco. This change of ownership forced her to learn several languages, especially the Maya-Chontal of her new owners, as well as Náhuatl. During her time as a slave she befriended Jerónimo de Aguilar (a Spanish priest that spent eight years as a slave/prisoner of the Mayas until he was rescued by Cortés), from whom she learned Spanish.

When she was handed to the Spanish as a present by Tabscoob, in March of 1519, her ability to speak Spanish and her friendship with Jerónimo quickly earned her their trust and a special place in the expedition. [14]

She was called Malintzin by the indigenous allies that marched with them. [8]

The conquest of Mexico

Codex Azcatitlan, Hernan Cortes and Malinche (far right), early 16th-century indigenous pictorial manuscript of the conquest of Mexico Codex azcatitlan222.jpg
Codex Azcatitlan, Hernán Cortés and Malinche (far right), early 16th-century indigenous pictorial manuscript of the conquest of Mexico

Malintzin met Cortés in March 1519. She was among 20 slave women given by the Chontal Maya of Potonchán (in the present-day state of Tabasco) as a present to seal peace, after the Spaniards defeated them in battle. [11] At this time, she was probably in her late teens or early 20s. It isn't clear how she felt about her previous or later captors, or if she was seen as a slave by the conquerors. It seems unlikely. The Spanish sources refer to her with great respect. Bernal Diaz del Castillo constantly refers to her as a "great woman" in his "Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España". The conquerors addressed as "Doña", a title of respect reserved only for nobility, indicating that she was regarded as royalty and not as a slave, at least nominally. [15] Bernal Díaz del Castillo remarked on her beauty and graciousness (He called her Marina, "From the Sea", the Christian name she took upon being baptized in 1519, and a phonetic approximation to her name.) Cortés singled her out as a gift for Alonso Hernandez Puertocarrero, perhaps the most well-born member of the expedition. [11] :82 Soon, however, Puertocarrero was on his way to Spain as Cortés' emissary to Charles V, and Cortés kept her by his side for her value as an interpreter who spoke two native languages: Mayan and Nahuatl.

According to Díaz, she spoke to emissaries from Moctezuma in their native tongue Nahuatl and pointed to Cortés as the chief Spaniard to speak for them. Cortés had located a Spanish priest, Gerónimo de Aguilar, who had spent several years in captivity among the Maya peoples in Yucatán following a shipwreck. Thus, he had learned some Mayan, but he did not speak Nahuatl. Cortés used Marina for translating between the Nahuatl language (the common language of central Mexico of that time) and the Chontal Maya language. Then Aguilar could interpret from Mayan to Spanish [11] :86 until Marina learned Spanish and could be the sole interpreter.

Cortés kept her by his side so much so that Aztec codices always show her picture drawn alongside of Cortés. The natives of Tlaxcala, who formed an alliance with Cortés against Moctezuma, called both Marina and Cortés by the same name: Malintzin. (The -tzin suffix was the Nahuatl equivalent of "sir" or "lady" bestowed on them by the Tlaxcalans.)

According to surviving records, Marina learned of a plan by natives of Cholula to cooperate with the Aztecs to destroy the small Spanish army. She alerted Cortés to the danger and even pretended to be cooperating with her native informants while Cortés foiled their plot to trap his men. Cortés turned the tables on them and slaughtered many Cholulans. [11] In this manner, she is often considered as a traitor by many and her name is not revered among many locals. [16]

Following the fall of Tenochtitlán in late 1521 and the birth of her son Martín Cortés in 1522, Marina stayed in a house Cortés built for her in the town of Coyoacán, eight miles south of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital city, while it was being rebuilt as Mexico City. Cortés took Marina to quell a rebellion in Honduras in 1524–1526 when she is seen serving again as interpreter (suggestive of a knowledge of Maya dialects beyond Chontal and Yucatán.) While in the mountain town of Orizaba in central Mexico, she married Juan Jaramillo, a Spanish hidalgo. [17] Historians such as Prescott generally lost track of Marina after her journey to Central America. Some contemporary scholars have estimated that she died less than a decade after the conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan at some point in 1529. [18] Historian Sir Hugh Thomas in his book "Conquest" reports the probable date of her death as 1551, deduced from letters he discovered in Spain alluding to her as alive in 1550 and deceased after 1551. [19] She was survived by her son Don Martín, who would be raised primarily by his father's family, and a daughter Doña María who would be raised by Jaramillo and his second wife Doña Beatriz de Andrada. [20]

Role of La Malinche in the conquest of Mexico

La Malinche and Hernan Cortes in the city of Xaltelolco, in a drawing from the late 16th-century codex History of Tlaxcala Malinche Tlaxcala.jpg
La Malinche and Hernán Cortés in the city of Xaltelolco, in a drawing from the late 16th-century codex History of Tlaxcala

For the conquistadores, having a reliable interpreter was important enough, but there is evidence that Marina's role and influence were larger still. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a soldier who, as an old man, produced the most comprehensive of the eye-witness accounts, the Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España ("True Story of the Conquest of New Spain"), speaks repeatedly and reverentially of the "great lady" Doña Marina (always using the honorific title Doña). "Without the help of Doña Marina," he writes, "we would not have understood the language of New Spain and Mexico." Rodríguez de Ocaña, another conquistador, relates Cortés' assertion that after God, Marina was the main reason for his success.

The evidence from indigenous sources is even more interesting, both in the commentaries about her role, and in her prominence in the codex drawings made of conquest events. Although to some Marina may be known as a traitor, she was not viewed as such by all the Tlaxcalan. In some depictions they portrayed her as "larger than life", [21] sometimes larger than Cortés, in rich clothing, and an alliance is shown between her and the Tlaxcalan instead of them and the Spaniards. They respected and trusted her and portrayed her in this light generations after the Spanish conquest. [21]

In the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (History of Tlaxcala) , for example, not only is Cortés rarely portrayed without Marina poised by his side, but she is shown at times on her own, seemingly directing events as an independent authority. If she had been trained for court life, as in Díaz's account, her relationship to Cortés may have followed the familiar pattern of marriage among native elite classes. The role of the Nahua wife acquired through an alliance would have been to assist her husband achieve his military and diplomatic objectives. [22] [23]

Today's historians give great credit to Marina's diplomatic skills, with some "almost tempted to think of her as the real conqueror of Mexico." [24] In fact, old conquistadors on various occasions would remember that one of her greatest skills had been her ability to convince other Indians of what she herself could see clearly, which was that it was useless in the long run to stand against Spanish metal and Spanish ships. [8] In contrast with earlier parts of Díaz del Castillo's account, after Marina's diplomacy began assisting Cortés, the Spanish were forced into combat on one more occasion. [25]

Had La Malinche not been part of the Conquest of Mexico for her linguistic gift, communication between the Spanish and the Indigenous would have been much harder. La Malinche knew to speak in different registers and tones between certain Indigenous tribes and people. For the Nahua audiences, she spoke rhetorically, formally, and high-handedly. This shift into formality gave the Nahua the impression that she was a noblewoman who knew what she was talking about. [26]

Origin of the name La Malinche

The many uncertainties which surround Malinche's role in the Spanish conquest begin with her name and its several variants. At birth she was named Malinalli or Malinal after the Goddess of Grass, on whose name-day she was born. Later, her family added the name Tenepal, which means “one who speaks much and with liveliness”. [27]

After being baptized, the 20 slave girls were distributed by Cortes among his Spanish captains. Malinalli then took the Christian name of Marina, to which the soldiers of Cortés added the Doña, meaning lady. [11] :80–82

It is not known whether Marina was chosen because of a phonetic resemblance to her actual name, or chosen randomly from among common Spanish names of the time. A Nahuatl mispronunciation of Marina as Malin plus the reverential "-tzin" suffix, formed the compounded title of Malintzin, which the natives used for both Marina and Cortes, because he spoke through her. [28] Some scholars theorize that Spaniards would have heard the name Malintze as Malinche, thus giving rise to the name. [29]

Today in Mexican Spanish the word malinchismo and malinchista is used to denounce Mexicans who are perceived as denying their own cultural heritage by preferring foreign cultural expressions. [30]

Some historians believe that La Malinche saved her people from the Aztecs, who held a hegemony throughout the territory and demanded tribute from its inhabitants.[ citation needed ] Some Mexicans also credit her with having brought Christianity to the New World from Europe, and for having influenced Cortes to be more humane than he would otherwise have been. It is argued, however, that without her help, Cortes would not have been successful in conquering the Aztecs as quickly, giving the Aztec people enough time to adapt to new technology and methods of warfare. From that viewpoint, she is seen as one who betrayed the indigenous people by siding with the Spaniards. Recently a number of feminist Latinas have decried such a categorization as scapegoating. [31]

Malinche’s image in contemporary Mexico

Modern statue of Cortes, Marina, and their son Martin, which was moved from a prominent place of display to an obscure one, due to protests Monumento al Mestizaje.jpg
Modern statue of Cortés, Marina, and their son Martín, which was moved from a prominent place of display to an obscure one, due to protests

Malinche’s image has become a mythical archetype that Hispanic American artists have represented in various forms of art. Her figure permeates historical, cultural, and social dimensions of Hispanic American cultures. [32] In modern times and in several genres, she is compared with the La Llorona (folklore story of the woman weeping for lost children), and the Mexican soldaderas (women who fought beside men during the Mexican Revolution) [33] for their brave actions.

La Malinche's legacy is one of myth mixed with legend, and the opposing opinions of the Mexican people about the legendary woman. Some see her as a founding figure of the Mexican nation. While others, however, continue to find the legends more memorable than the history, seeing her as a traitor, as may be assumed from a legend that she had a twin sister who went North and the pejorative nickname La Chingada associated with her twin.[ citation needed ]

Feminist interventions into the figure of Malinche began in 1960s. The work of Rosario Castellanos was particularly significant; Chicanas began to refer to her as a "mother" as they adopted her as symbolism for duality and complex identity. [34] Her subsequent poem La Mallinche recast her not as a traitor but as a victim. [35] Mexican feminists defended Malinche as a woman caught between cultures, forced to make complex decisions, who ultimately served as a mother of a new race. [36]

President José López Portillo commissioned a sculpture of Cortés, Doña Marina, and their son Martín, which was placed in front of Cortés's house in the Coyoacan section of Mexico City. Once López Portillo left office, the sculpture was removed to an obscure park in the capital. [37]

La Malinche, as part of the Monumento al Mestizaje in Mexico City La Malinche statue.jpg
La Malinche, as part of the Monumento al Mestizaje in Mexico City

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Further reading