Dona Maria, also known as Malinche, is a much maligned and poorly understood figure in Mexican history. This post will give some context into her role in shaping history, her motivation for helping a foreign army capture Montezuma, her status as a
survivor of myriad injustices, and the changing perceptions of her actions through history up to modern time.
A woman of many names and interpretations:
Dona Marina goes by many names, some of them more respectful than others. As a Nahua woman, she was called Malinalli, named for the goddess of grass. During her work with Cortes, allied indigenous people used a formal form of the honorific suffix “-tzin” to form Malintzin. In keeping with Meso-American diplomatic practices at the time, twenty women were given as a gift to Cortes to establish an alliance, and Malinche found herself among these. Spanish soldiers had her renamed during a (presumably forced) baptism along with some other twenty young women in preparation for distribution to Cortes’s captains.
At her baptism, she was christened “Marina,” a common Spanish name at the time. Perhaps because of some claim to nobility, or a regal bearing, or a cruel sense of humor– they added their own honorific, “Dona,” a gesture not extended to Hernan Cortes until after the capture of Montezuma. Under her Christian name, following her delivery to Cortes, Malinche participated in the capture of Aztec city Tenochtitlan culminating during the summer of 1531.
Owing to this perceived betrayal, her name became the Mexican Spanish epithet “malinchismo” or the female malinchista to describe traitors who reject their own culture in favor of some other more prestigious one. Some of her critics blame blame Malinche for the rate of domestic abuse in mexico, and 500 years later, her old home still has a bad reputation. In his movie The Counselor author and playwrite Cormac Mccarthy names the beautiful but sociopathic antagonist Malkina. The movie, set in Mexico, follows a brilliant but wounded orphan Malkina in her machinations for wealth. Malinche even makes an appearance in the French-Japanese cartoon The Mysterious Cities of Gold as a ruthless antagonist who assists a Spanish doctor trying to steal gold from a group of children.
A slightly more sympathetic reimagining conflates her with the myth of La Llorona, the ghost of a woman who drowned her children in a fit of rage at their father, then drowned herself in remorse and was doomed to cry beside water forever. One variant assigns her wrongdoings to a twin sister, who traveled north. Mexico has always had a lively syncretic tradition but then– aren’t we all guilty of a little confabulation now and then? As with many other historical figures, her identity has been shaped by hundreds of years of reinterpretations and cross-pollination with other characters. Her particular narrative took a turn in the 1960’s when feminist and Chicana scholars revisited her story and offered up fresh analysis.
Malinche as a diplomat in a doomed country:
Many textbooks describe the Aztecs as a monolithic entity, to the contrary– The Aztec Empire, was a collection of disparate groups who retained their local customs and religions but accepted Aztec rule. So inherently heterogenous was the empire that it is sometimes called The Triple Alliance, comprised of three Nahua “altepetl” city-states: Mexico-Tenochtitlan, Mexico-Texcoco, and Mexico-Tlacopan.
The people who identified themselves as Aztec were a largely (but not entirely) Nuhual-speaking group who believed themselves originated from from Aztlan, a mythic place described in Nahutl legends. The legends describe Aztlan as having seven caves for seven tribes who shared a common language. Fittingly, the Aztec kingdom was a disparate collection of tribes ruled in hegemonic arrangements from the island capital Tenochtitlan.
Malinche was born in a “frontier” region between Aztec and Mayan controlled land sometime between 1496 and 1501. Her father died when she was young and following the birth of a half-brother, she was sold or abandoned. Prior to this, however, she had enjoyed the benefits of nobility described in Chicana Feminist Thought, including the provision of a formal education in another city. Following the disruption of her early life, she likely became a Mayan slave and remained in the city state of Tabasco between her birthplace on the Yucatan Peninsula and the Capital city.
By her young adulthood, Malinche had become fluent in Mayan in addition to her first language Nahuatl. Bernal Diaz del Castillo described her as beautiful in his Florentine letters. These assets made her valuable, and she was traded back and forth between Spanish expedition leaders. During this time she learned Spanish (which is a difficult language) and became sole interpreter. The allied Talaxcaltecs so closely associated Malinche with Cortes that they were referred to as a single entity and called by her name, detailed in the 2003 text Transcending Conquest. Ultimately the married Cortes kept her as an interpreter, intermediary, and mistress– more than one comparison has been drawn between Malinche and Pocahontas.
The Aztec kingdom was largely established by the ethnic group the Mexica, a group indigenous to the Valley of Mexico– a considerable distance from Malinztin’s home on the Gulf of Mexico in the Yucatan. Further, the concept of national consciousness did not exist at that time. Because of this, and the hegemonic relationship between the ruling body in the region with surrounding tribes, modern analysis has asserted that Malinche advanced the interests of her people by assisting the Spanish in conquering the Aztecs, with whom she did not feel affiliated.
Author Adelaida Del Castillo expounds upon this point in her contribution to Chicana Feminist Thought, edited by scholar of Mexican America studies Alma M. Garcia. Here, Castillo describes the oppression of the indigenous people by the Aztecs in the form of violence and forced tributes. The Aztec were also notorious for their human sacrifices and cannibalism. For these people, Malinche lent a sympathetic ear and acted as an intermediary, establishing a sort of uneasy truce with Spain that protected the capital city from being razed as other cities had been. Spain provided the locals special privileges, permitting the locals to keep their own names and maintain their traditional form of government for the following 300 years of Spanish occupation.
Survivalism in the time of the conquistadors:
Beginning in the 1960’s with the famous poem Malinche by beat-era Mestiza writer Rosario Castellanoes, modern depictions have portrayed Malinche as a victim, which she clearly was: abandoned by her mother after the arrival of a half-brother, sold by Mayans to soldiers, and passed around by foreign generals– one of whom was Cortes who she would eventually become pregnant by. Her attachment to her captors has modern precedent, as in cases of Stockholm Syndrome or the tragically common effects of trauma bonding in abusive relationships.
Acknowledgement of her victimhood challenges the prevailing attitude toward Malinche and elicits sympathy and renewed interest in her situation, particularly within Chicana Feminism. However, this limited understanding of her character does not speak to her agency or her resourcefulness. Various sources describe her as striking, capable, wealthy. She is also shown taller than Cortes in most paintings of the pair. In another set of circumstances, Malinche might have escaped to a convent, or avoided marriage altogether in an act of self preservation; according to the fictionalization of her story in the1826 novel Xicoténcatl, that is exactly what she did. Surveying her options, Malinche capitalized upon the path to power available to her at the time, using both her youth and beauty and a bright, incisive mind to avoid further disruption and loss.
Cortes favored her over other indigenous women, but despite her attractiveness and practical value to his expedition, he did not consider her appropriate for marriage. The dynamic within their relationship mirrors the inequitable relationship between the Aztecs and the surrounding peoples, as well as between Spain and the New World. Her work made the capture of Montezuma possible, and some sources report she stood screaming on the top of pyramids demanding the aztecs bring food and gold to the spanish soldiers. However crucial she was, Cortes routinely omitted her from his narrative, going so far as to omit Malinche from his correspondence almost entirely, implying he spoke the native language himself.
Perpetually at a disadvantage, Malinche made herself made herself indispensable out of necessity, protecting both herself and her new son. Aligning herself with Cortes was not without its risks, as shown by her linguistic reputation in Mexican Spanish, as well as his treatment of women– even those who were culturally on even footing with him.
Cortes’s first wife Catalina Súarez arrived in New Spain in the summer of 1922, around when Malinche had a son by her husband. Cortes named the boy Martin after his father Martin Cortes de Monroy, despite the illegitimacy of the birth. Catalina died in New Spain under mysterious circumstances November 1st or 2nd, during what would be the Day of the Dead observances in Mexico, if that matters. Cortes was suspected of poisoning her, but was not charged and subsequently married a woman of greater prominence and had several children by her, including another son who he also named Martin. Maybe Malinche poisoned her out of out of jealousy or in proactive self defense, but then female on female violence always seems to be on my mind.
Malinche as cultural icon:
Malinche remains a mystery in many ways, due to the disinterest or unreliability of contemporary record keepers. Cortes mentions Malinche only twice in his letters, and only in passing. The majority of what we know comes from one source, written by a man who was a footsoldier to Cortes. This is a shame, but in this absence, a great body of interpolation and projection has developed. She is subject to scrutiny in academic circles as well as by street artists. Her imaginings as traitorous whore, and subsequent reimaginings as mother to all mestizos, politician, victim, and survivor speak more to the needs of the audience than to any objective truth.