La Malinche, whose given name was most likely Malinalli, was an indigenous woman in what is now Mexico in the early 1500s. She has also been known as Malintzin and Doña Marina (as the Spanish called her.) Most well known as the indigenous woman who helped the Spanish conquer the Aztecs by serving as translator, La Malinche could be considered, and is by many Mexicans, a traitor to her people. However, others consider her a victim or a survivor who made the most of the position she found herself in. Still others see her as the mother of mestizos and modern Mexicans. So which is true or can it be all of them?
Malinalli was born sometime between 1496 and 1501. She was born between the Aztec empire in central Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula where the- Maya lived. As a child, her father was a cacique (what the Spanish called indigenous leaders); however, he died and her mother remarried another cacique and had a son. Malinalli’s family then sold her to Mayan slavers.
Those slavers then sold her to the Mexicas (Aztecs) where she learned their language, Nahuatl. War between Mayas and Mexicas resulted in Malinalli being given as tribute (possibly a sex slave) to the cacique of Tabasco (Mayan) where she learned the Maya-yucateca language.
It was Malinalli’s language skills that made her role in the conquest possible as she could speak at least two major native languages. It was in Tabasco where Malinalli met Hernán Cortés, a relationship that altered her world and that of Mexico. The Spaniards arrived in Tabasco and defeated the indigenous people. After the battle, the Tabascan people “brought a present of gold, consisting of four diadems, some ornaments in the form of lizards, two shaped like little dogs and five little ducks, also some earrings…,” as well as twenty indigenous women, including a “most excellent person who when she became a Christian took the name of Doña Marina.” (Yes, these enslaved women were given as peace tokens together with inanimate objects.)
Doña Marina was described as “the prettiest, the most active and lively of the number” and as having an appearance that attested to her status as “a truly great princess, the daughter of Caciques.” Doña Marina was originally given to conquistador Puertocarrero, but upon his return to Spain, she “lived with Cortés, to whom she bore a son named Don Martin Cortés.”
So this summarizes Malinalli’s life up until meeting Cortés. Her story and that of the conquest is complicated and unfortunately her own viewpoint, goals, and intentions are lost to history as she did not write her own story. Her life is documented purely through the lenses of others, both Spanish and indigenous.
The Spanish considered her a great asset and regularly described her as a princess–beautiful, regal, great, and “most excellent.” Several conquistadors claimed that without her they would not have been able to conquer the Aztecs, or at least not as quickly and they would not have been able to communicate with [and ally with some of] the indigenous people they encountered along the way.
One of the most detailed accounts of the Spanish conquest of Mexico is that of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a soldier under the leadership of Hernán Cortés. He described Doña Marina in a positive light in every mention of her in his memoirs of the conquest of New Spain.
Diaz relates the story of when Marina was reunited with her mother and brother. Upon seeing Marina, they felt guilty and anxious, but she “comforted them” and “freely forgave the past.” Bernal Diaz saw this incident as proof that “God…turned her away from the errors of heathenism and converted her to Christianity.” He even compared Doña Marina’s story to that of Joseph and his brothers in the Bible, in which Joseph forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery because it ultimately led him to a place of power.
Indigenous people also depicted Malinalli in codices relating the events of the conquest. The Aztec codices always show Malinalli next to Cortés, demonstrating how closely she worked with him, helping him to negotiate with Aztec leaders. The Tlaxcala, an indigenous group that allied with Cortés to defeat the Aztecs, also depicted Malinalli (who they called Malintzin). In fact they so closely associated Malinalli with Cortés that they called them both by the same name — Malintzin, identifying him as being with her. (The -tzin suffix is an honorific or formality much like sir or lady.)
Some indigenous codices and other evidence have caused some historians to speculate that Malinalli had power beyond her role as translator–that she influenced diplomacy and decisions during the conquest. One story exists that she warned Cortés about a planned trap and attack by indigenous people. This story, along with her overall role in helping Cortés to be successful in his defeat of the Aztecs, has caused her to be known as a traitor-traiconera. However, not all indigenous groups in the area were allied with the Aztecs and some suffered from the empire’s requirement for tribute, making some historians argue that she saved her people from the Aztecs.
Outside of her role as translator, Doña Marina’s life was not all that different from the lives of many other indigenous women who the Spanish encountered. She was given as a peace offering to the Spanish, baptized and renamed as a Christian, and then given to one Spaniard after another.
She, and the other nineteen captive women given at the same time, had no choice in their placement with the Spaniards, but Doña Marina’s actions while with the Spaniards demonstrate that she saw in her new position an opportunity to survive and maybe even improve her station in life. Her ability to translate for Cortés elevated her status in the party and granted her certain protections.
Less is known about her later life, but it seems she lived outside of what is now Mexico City, married Juan Jaramillo and had a daughter. Her son with Cortés, commonly thought of as the first mestizo or first Mexican, was taken to Spain and raised by his father’s family. Malinalli died either in 1529 or 1551 as is disputed by historians.
Her role in the conquest remains contested & debated by Mexicans as well. The word malinchista means a disloyal citizen who prefers foreign influence and is used as an insult in Mexico. But many feminists have defended her, pointing to her lack of choice as an enslaved woman and the difficult situation she was placed in.
Traitor, survivor, victim, mother of modern Mexicans? All of the above? What do you think?
Quotes are from: Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, Trans. J.M. Cohen, (London: Penguin Books, 1963).
You can read more about the mythology and legacy of La Malinche in the below interesting article which compares her life and legacy to that of Pocahontas.
Some of this blog post was inspired by and adapted from an academic paper I wrote during undergrad about how the Spanish conquistadors used indigenous women to help accomplish the goals of conquest: God, gold, and glory. In it I argue that Doña Marina’s life demonstrates two major themes present in the Spanish conquest of Mexico: the use of conversion to Christianity and interracial relationships in order to promote assimilation and loyalty. Both of these tactics were used to achieve the goals of conquest. Spanish conquerors sought to claim territory, convert and assimilate natives, and find wealth. Through the writings of Cortés and Diaz, it becomes evident that the conversion of indigenous women to Catholicism, and Spanish men’s relationships with them, were not secondary aspects of colonization. Rather, this paper argues that it was through their relationships with indigenous women that Spanish men achieved their goals of conquest. You can read the full paper here.