Reflections on Women’s History Month

MyraSadker

March was Women’s History Month and I was reminded of how much I love women’s history. From seeing others posting about the women of the past who inspired them, honoring trailblazers, pioneers, and rebels, to doing my own posts, researching, writing about, and revisiting past work I’ve done on women in history, I am feeling so inspired and motivated to continue to research and write about these stories that interest me and are so important to tell.

Like Black History Month, Women’s History Month deserves to go on all year, everyday, for women’s history, black history, and other minority history to be more fully incorporated into the story of American history because these stories are American history. They are all part of what brought us to today.

I still have so many ideas, as well as several partial draft posts already queuing up, about women’s history. Therefore, I will be continuing to celebrate Women’s History Month well into April and likely beyond.

In case you missed any of my Women’s History Month content, I’ve rounded it all up below. Check it out and let me know what you think! 

Betsy Ross & The Myth of the First American Flag

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Women & Family Ties in Immigration: Anna, Julian & Paranka Debaylo

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Marie Curie: Guest Post by a Budding Historian

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La Malinche: Traitor, Victim & Survivor, or Mother of Mestizos?

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Also, I’ve highlighted a few other interesting women, such as Violeta Chamorro, the first female head of state in the Americas, Myra Pollack Sadker, a researcher on gender inequity in schools, & Selena, the Queen of Tejano music, in shorter posts on my social media profiles. Check me out on Instagram, Twitter, & Facebook for more content and little bites of history on the daily. I’ve also started playing #TuesdayTrivia with women’s history each week in my Instagram Stories.

La Malinche: Traitor, Victim & Survivor, or Mother of Mestizos?

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?

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Hernán Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma II in Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519. Facsimile (c. 1890) of Lienzo de Tlaxcala [History of Tlaxcala].
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.

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English translation of Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s memoir.

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.)

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

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. 

https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/11/25/457256340/despite-similarities-pocahontas-gets-love-malinche-gets-hate-why 

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

Día de Muertos: Nuestra Celebración

Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead is actually a 3 day celebration in honor and in memory of the deceased. Despite the association with death and skulls, the tradition is all about remembering deceased relatives and honoring their memory. It is a colorful and bright celebration of their lives.

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The modern holiday combines elements of indigenous cultures and traditions with Catholic/Christian practices of Allhallowtide. Dia de Muertos has origins in pre-Colombian traditions, most especially the Aztec festival in honor of the goddess Mictēcacihuātl, the Lady of the Dead, and in memory of deceased ancestors. This festival originally took place in the summer and lasted a month. It gradually shifted to coincide with Christian observance of Allhallowtide (All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.)

The traditions to honor the dead include setting up an ofrenda. An ofrenda is an altar or offering to the deceased meant to help guide the souls back home to visit with their families. The ofrenda includes a picture of the deceased; flowers, usually Aztec marigolds; food and drink, particularly favorites of the deceased; pan de muerto (bread), sugar skulls; brightly colored paper crafts (papel picado); candles; and sometimes possessions of the deceased.

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My husband and I observe the holiday a bit. We made sugar skull cookies and decorated our ofrenda which includes family photos of his grandfather and aunt who we honored, a candle, bright orange flowers, a decorative skull and muerto figurines, 3 bronze horse figurines (which are always on this shelf but we leave because his abuelo was a rancher), and two sugar skull cookies on papel picado.

Traditional ofrendas are usually larger and include more food including pan de muerto, real sugar skulls, which are made of sugar molded into the shape of skulls (I tried making these last year but they crumbled but I will try again in the future), and other foods that their relative enjoyed.

The three day celebration begins on October 31st as families prepare their ofrendas. November 1 is usually considered Día de los Angelitos or Día de los Inocentes and is meant to honor children who have died. November 2 is the day for adults and is simply called Día de Muertos or Día de los Difuntos. In Mexico and in some places in the US The night of November 2nd is when families visit and decorate the graves of their family members.

I highly recommend the movie Coco for more insight into the meaning of Día de Muertos—it’s beautifully made and really gets to the heart of the meaning–remembering those who have passed.

Public Historian on Vacation: The Missions of San Antonio

This is part four of my Public Historian on Vacation series, which was originally intended to be a three part series. However, I realized I had more to say about various stops along the way. However, this will be the third and final post about our time in San Antonio before moving on to our stops in Louisiana.

To recap the series so far, this trip took place in April and included stops in Galveston, Texas; San Antonio, Texas; New Iberia, Louisiana; and New Orleans, Louisiana. I’ve already described our time in Galveston visiting family and enjoying The Strand Historic District and the Seawall, dipping a little into the commercialization of the past. I have also now written two posts about San Antonio, one about our visit to the Alamo, and one about our visit to Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum. This final post about San Antonio will be about our day in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

The park consists of four different missions, from north to south: Mission Concepcion, Mission San José, Mission San Juan Capistrano, and Mission Espada. Each mission is about 2.5 miles from the next mission and can be reached by following Mission Road.

The Mission system was devised by the Spanish as they colonized North America and staked their claim on territory. Missions served many different purposes for the Spanish colonizers. They were miniature towns inside stone fortifications, a combination of church, military outpost, school, and living quarters. The work of the Missions was to convert indigenous people not only religiously, but culturally, to make the native people Spanish citizens. These newly converted citizens helped the small number of Spanish priests, soldiers and others to grow in number and be able to maintain and hold their territory.

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The mission system in San Antonio is summarized on the park’s website: “After 10,000 years, the people of South Texas found their cultures, their very lives under attack. In the early 1700s Apache raided from the north, deadly diseases traveled from Mexico, and drought lingered. Survival lay in the missions. By entering a mission, they foreswore their traditional life to become Spanish, accepting a new religion and pledging fealty to a distant and unseen king.”

This short introduction to the Missions on the National Park Service website for the park begins to get into why indigenous people would enter a mission–the push and pull reasons. Dangerous conditions pushing and promised food and safety pulling them in. However, within the Missions there was forced conversion and also forced labor, with indigenous people being the very ones who built the stone walls of each of the 4 Missions.

I am fascinated with Latin American history, the history of Latinos in what is now the United States, immigration history, and the colonial era, so I knew as soon as we started planning our trip to San Antonio that I wanted to see the Missions. My poor husband was just along for the ride, but I think he ended up getting more out of our whirlwind tour then he expected.

Having grown up in North Carolina, I was taught much more about the 13 original British colonies than I was about Spanish colonization of territories that would become the U.S. and so the word colonial usually conjures different imagery.  To see these 300-year-old Spanish Missions and think about how their presence helped shape the region was a new and eye opening experience.

I was somewhat familiar with the history of Spanish colonization in general, having written my undergraduate seminar paper on the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the ways in which women were used by conquistadors to expand Spanish control. I also took a survey course on the history of Latin America which covered the colonial period including the main goals of Spanish conquest, the 3 G’s: God, glory, and gold. Conversion and spread of Christianity, exploration and territorial claims in the name of Spain, and accumulation of wealth were the three main motivators and goals of Spanish conquest.

Armed with this background knowledge, my husband and I set out first thing in the morning in an effort to beat the San Antonio heat, already reaching over 80 degrees in April. We went in geographic order, beginning with Mission Concepcion.

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Mission Concepcion was dedicated in 1755 and is the oldest unrestored stone church in America. Like all of the San Antonio Missions (except the Alamo) it is still in use for church services, including English, Spanish, and bilingual services. Also some of the original frescos, murals, and other art is still visible on the walls and ceilings, showing that this grey stone church would have once been colorful and bright.

Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo was up next, the largest and most restored Mission in San Antonio. It was largely restored as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Founded in 1720, it was a model for other later missions and was a social and cultural center of colonial Texas. According to the Park’s website, at the height of the San Jose Mission 350 indigenous converts lived within its walls, worked in its fields, and tended cattle. The restored site includes the church, the granary, the convento, and the walls into which was built rooms for the indigenous people who lived at the Mission. More about San Jose, since it was the largest, is available and in more detail on the website. It was definitely the most complete stop on the tour owing to its restored exterior buildings which give a better idea of the more complete life of the inhabitants, not just their religious life. The site also includes a 1794 grist mill, fueled by the acequia and used to process wheat, the preferred grain of the Spanish, that began to replace the indigenous corn.

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The last two missions, Mission San Juan Capistrano and Mission Espada were less restored than San Juan and at Mission San Juan we could not go inside the church. However, these buildings were the most architecturally beautiful to me. More about each of these are in the links. An interesting tidbit about Mission San Juan though is the incomplete larger church. The project halted as the population declined. Near Mission Espada is the Espada aqueduct used to irrigate the farmlands surrounding the Missions.

These four historic sites were among some of the most interesting, most powerful sites I’ve visited. There was this conflicting feeling between the beauty of the architecture, the romanticized beauty of colonial ruins, and the sacred feeling of religious spaces and the ideas of forced conversion, forced labor, disease, war, fighting, and the upheaval of culture that took place in the walls of each of these missions. Each of these sites left me feeling that conflict and wanting to look deeper into these sites. I’ve done some of that in the process of writing this post, reading more in depth about each site on the park’s website and looking beyond for other resources. I do think the sites themselves could delve deeper into these conflicting narratives and experiences of the Missions and it does seem since we visited that Mission Concepcion has put up a new exhibit, Four Voices, aimed at sharing the divergent points of view at the Missions.

Overall, these sites are so important for understanding the history of San Antonio, Texas, the Southwest and ultimately the United States. As in many other places in time, several cultures converged. Owning up to what that convergence meant for many indigenous people is important for how we move forward.