Traitor or Hero? Why You’re Wrong About La Malinche
Who was La Malinche?
One way to define her is as an interpreter, counselor, and intermediary to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.
Others say she was the ultimate traitor. Was she a victim of circumstance? a survivor of evil?—or was she a heroine?
That’s for you to decide (Mexicans are a little divided on this issue).
Many oral traditions and myths surround La Malinche. Read on to discover her facets as a human being, a historic personality, and as a brilliant woman trapped between cultures, languages, hard decisions, and turning points.
Most Mexicans see La Malinche as the epitome of treason. Keep reading to see for yourself why we are so wrong.
¡Conozcamos a La Malinche!
Let’s get to know La Malinche!
La Malinche Story
Who was La Malinche? La Malinche was a Nahua native woman born around 1500 in what used to be the Olmec capital and is today the state of Veracruz. She was part of the high Mexica or Aztec society. Her father was a town chief and her mother a beautiful native noble.
After her father died, her mother remarried and had a son. La Malinche quickly became the unwanted stepdaughter, so she was sold as a slave. She was later given as a tribute to the Mayan chief of Tabasco, where she learned the Mayan language.
When the Spanish came, they invaded and defeated Tabasco. La Malinche was given away along with 19 other women after the Battle of Centla.
Who Was Hernán Cortés?
Hernán Cortés was the Spanish conquistador who sought fortune by going to the New World. He was the head of the colonization expeditions that were later financed by the Spanish Empire. Hernán was an ambitious strategist who went above anyone in his way to reach his goals.
The first thing he did—perhaps La Malinche’s idea—was to find towns, cities, and civilizations that were enemies of the Aztecs. That’s how he found the Tlaxcaltecas. They resented the Aztecs for their abusive tribute policies. The Tlaxcaltecas support, resources, and intelligence on the Aztecs were key to colonizing what became New Spain.
People around Cortés knew he was extremely greedy and had a volatile character that used to blur his mental clarity. His decisions were often antagonized by his peers and he would punish them.
So, how did he manage to colonize one of the most powerful and bloodthirsty civilizations in the world? He got lucky. Along with him, he brought unknown diseases like smallpox, measles, and many more, which killed from 60% to 95% of the population.
Watch the trailer of the Amazon Prime series Hernán.
See also: 5 Most Brutal Spanish Conquistadors
Who Was La Malinche in History?
Hernán was not instantly attracted to La Malinche, so he gave her to Alonso Hernández Portocarrero, one of the most prominent captains of the expedition. He went to Spain as an emissary and left Malinche behind.
According to oral tradition, she was a quick study with unparalleled linguistic and negotiating abilities. Hernán picked up on that and kept her as a linguistic and cultural interpreter. She advised the Spanish about social and military customs of the natives, as well as intelligence and diplomatic activity, making herself indispensable to them while the colonization process lasted. She is also credited with bringing Christianism from Europe to the New World.
Who Was La Malinche to Cortés?
La Malinche and Hernán Cortés were always together. She even appears at his side on Aztec codices. Not only do they frequently appear together in paintings and drawings, but she also appears alone leading activities and making decisions as an independent authority.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo was a soldier who wrote the Historia verdadera de la conquista de Nueva España (True Story of the Conquest of New Spain). In it, he talks fondly of La Malinche and explains how her role was crucial. Without her, Cortés wouldn’t have entered the natives’ society and made alliances with indigenous groups.
The other key move she made was to give Hernán notice of the Cholultecas ambush when the Spanish army was resting on their way to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Conquistador Rodríguez de Ocaña said that besides God, La Malinche was the cause of the colonization success. But people say she was also responsible for sensitizing Cortés and giving him a greater sense of humanity.
Who Did La Malinche Marry?
La Malinche and Hernán Cortés had a child named Matín Cortés. He is considered to be the first mestizo (mixed race) in the Americas. She remarried later and had a daughter named María Jaramillo. La Malinche served as Cortés’ interpreter until she moved to Central America, where she allegedly died of smallpox.
La Malinche’s Many Names
La Malinche had many names. Her first was Malinztin which means “herb” in nahuatl or Aztec tongue. Another was Malinalli, to honor the Goddess of Herbs. Tenepal was a lesser known name which meant “she who speaks with vivacity.”
After she was given by the Tabasco chief to the Spanish, Hernán rebaptized her as Marina. Soon she was called Doña Marina as a sign of respect and authority. Malinche simply was the incorrect way the Spaniards had of pronouncing Malintzin.
Malinchism – Malinchismo
As a society, most Mexicans do not feel like we come from the mestizaje (mixture) of the natives and the Spanish, but rather from the indigenous root alone. We still see the Spanish as the invaders who insulted and dishonored our traditions, religion, and customs and brought hunger, massacres, and disease.
Of course, there were massacres and hunger long before due to the abusive policies of the Aztecs, and it wasn’t a perfect world before the Spanish came.
Nonetheless, we see La Malinche as a traitor, rather than a brilliant woman who saw an opportunity to survive and thrive. She is the epitome of treason in Mexico, to a point that we refer to malinchismo as any negativity or hatred toward our roots.
Her name is negatively associated with anyone who seeks a lifestyle outside the local culture in general, as well as those who prefer foreign influence and talk about the natives pejoratively.
For example, someone is a malinchista when they say indigenous textiles are ugly, that tacos are disgusting, or that wearing braids is tacky.
La Malinche Legacy in Modern Mexico
La Malinche is still one of the most important female figures in Mexico, along with the Virgin of Guadalupe and La Llorona. Her legacy is part history, part myth, and part legend. But at the end of the day she is a founder and mother figure of Mexico.
In the feminist narrative, author Rosario Castellanos describes her as a victim, not a traitor. Activists have started to see her with different eyes as a woman who was trapped in between two cultures and forced to make complex decisions at an international turning point.
The La Malinche character is in many songs, books, plays, TV shows, and movies. Diego Rivera and José Clemete Orozco—two of the “Three Big” of the Mexican muralism artistic movement—painted her in an attempt to visually alphabetize the then illiterate Mexican people about colonization.
Watch the latest La Malinche Movie called Malintzin, La Historia de un Enigma (Malintzin, The Story of an Enigma).
Listen to La maldición de La Malinche (La Malinche curse).
Speak the Language of Mexico
What better way of learning history than to witness it by yourself? Go to Mexico to find colorful art, vibrant culture, kind people, and delicious food. Attend cultural events and witness the artistic expressions of the ancient Aztecs, Mayans, and Tlaxcaltecas along with many other civilizations and traditions. Just as the Mexican Independence left traces that later became the Freedom Trail, you can follow the ones La Malinche and Hernán Cortés left behind by visiting their houses and haciendas.
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