Group project

Who was La Malinche?

Introduction

Throughout history, la Malinche has been vilified and denounced as a traitor. Four common discourses have emerged: traitor, victim, survivor and heroine. The aim of our project is to move past the surface-level representation of Malinche in order to find out who she really was. During the conquest of Mexico, Malinche was Cortes’ translator and mediator. Arguably, it was her role in the conquest that enabled the Spanish success.

Traitor

“If there is one villainess in Mexican history, she is Malintzin. She was to become the ethnic traitress supreme.” [1] Malintizin has been regarded as a traitor by both academics and the Mexican population. Her role as an interpreter and intermediary to Hernan Cortez has cemented her as a treacherous figure in the imaginations of many. However, Malintzin’s status as a traitor is very much subjective to the different socio-political movements which have taken place and the ones which are yet to occur. I argue that it is through the different lenses of Mexican national identity and Mexican post-colonial feminist literature that Malintzin’s status as ‘traitress supreme’ can be understood and contested.

In ‘A True History of the Conquest of New Spain’ Bernal Diaz Del Castillo notes that ‘Doña Marina was a person of the greatest importance and was obeyed without question by the Indians throughout New Spain.’[2] Bernal Diaz’s firsthand account of the conquest of Mexico is invaluable when determining the role that Malintzin played. He states that Malintizin was someone who was ‘obeyed’ which implies that Malintzin had a level of authority within the group she travelled with. Diaz credits Dona Marina as the intermediary who without ‘we could not have understood the language of New Spain.’ [3] Malintizin’s role as a translator is crucial when justifying her vilification. It can be argued that the indigenous allies that Hernan Cortez acquired would not have been possible to obtain without Malintzin’s linguistic and cultural knowledge. The act of assisting the Spanish conquistadors in strategic planification of the conquest has been viewed as an act of betrayal against her own people. Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz argues that it was this ‘passive openness to the exterior that led her to lose her identity.’ [4]

Paz mythologizes Malintzin by labelling her as ‘la Chingada…the violated mother,’ [5]who he then contrasts with another popular Mexican icon, ‘Guadalupe, the Virgin mother.’[6] The contrast between the two mythological figures provides an insight into how Malintzin is viewed. Her integration into the figure of la Chingada highlights how she’s viewed as a passive participant to her subjugation rather than a woman with agency in her own life. It is this very passiveness which is mistaken for a surrendering of her identity and loyalty to her people. Furthermore, the idea of the violated mother encapsulates what Malintzin has come to represent, ‘the indigenous women, fascinated, raped or seduced by the Spaniards.’[7] She has become a quasi-mythical figure of the conquest because not only does she represent the violation of indigenous women, but she can also be perceived as the human embodiment of the violation of Mexico throughout the conquest.

Mexican Feminist scholars such as Milagros Palma have disputed Paz’s interpretations of Malintizin. Palma has argued that the idea of Malintzin as a traitor is the archetypal view of how Mexican patriarchal society views her.[8] She argues that the birth of nationalist Mexican Mestizo identity is responsible for the condemnation of Malintzin. She represents the inferior half of mestizos, not only because she is indigenous but because she is an indigenous woman. One of the elements of the Mexican identity is ‘the idea of a great and glorious history interrupted, diverted and degraded,’[9]this nostalgic viewing of the indigenous civilizations that fell have led writers such as Octavio Paz to attach feelings of inferiority to marginalized historical figures such as Malintzin. Palma argues that the patriarchy ‘once again makes women responsible for their tragedies and their evil nature legitimizes the domination and oppression of the feminine world.’[10]

Historically, Malintizin has been stripped of her humanity, and due to her position as a marginalized figure in the Conquest of Mexico it has not been difficult to. Malintizin has come to represent a population of women who instead of being given a voice, have been used by men to understand the defeat of an Indian civilization. This interpretation of Malintzin and of other indigenous women grossly simplifies the interactions and lives that these women would have lived. It seems impossible that one figure could symbolize the violation of an entire civilization. The connotation of Malintzin as a willing participant to the domination of her own people only helps to further the idea of the virgin mother and the violated mother. It is as though through depicting her as a traitor that her suffering becomes legitimized and blame is shifted away from the perpetrators and onto her.

 Mexican mestizo identity has been regarded as coming from ‘impure origins’ [11] due to the mixed ancestry of the population. Malintzin’s portrayal as a traitor seems to also stem from the inability of the Mexican population to forgive the act of mestizaje. This has understandably made making sense of a history with such binary ethnic and cultural differences difficult for a population resulting in the combination of both.


[1] Candelaria, Cordelia. “La Malinche, Feminist Prototype.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 5, no. 2, 1980, pp. 1–6. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3346027

[2] Bernal Diaz Del Castillo, ‘Diaz del Castillo explains the significance of Doña Maria,’  (accessed 15 November 2019)

[3] IBID

[4]Glantz, Margo. “Las Hijas De La Malinche.” Debate Feminista, vol. 6, 1992, pp. 161–179. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42625656.

[5] IBID pp. 162

[6] IBID pp. 162

[7] IBID 162

[8] Jorge Sarasola, ‘Stranded Between Malinchismo and Marianismo: Rape and Virginity in Isabel Allende’s La Casa de los Espiritus and Albalucia Angel’s Misia Señora’ https://journal.wrocah.ac.uk/article/stranded-between-malinchismo-and-marianismo-rape-and-virginity-in-isabel-allendes-la-casa-de-los-espiritus-and-albalucia-angels-misia-senora/

[9] Morris, Stephen D. “Reforming the Nation: Mexican Nationalism in Context.” Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 31, no. 2, 1999, pp. 363–397. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/157908.

[10]Jorge Sarasola, ‘Stranded Between Malinchismo and Marianismo: Rape and Virginity in Isabel Allende’s La Casa de los Espiritus and Albalucia Angel’s Misia Señora’, https://journal.wrocah.ac.uk/article/stranded-between-malinchismo-and-marianismo-rape-and-virginity-in-isabel-allendes-la-casa-de-los-espiritus-and-albalucia-angels-misia-senora/

[11] Milagros Palma, ’Malinche, El Malinchismo O el lado feminino de la sociedad Mestiza,’ http://www.ub.edu/SIMS/pdf/GeneroClaseRaza/GeneroClaseRaza-04.pdf (accessed 14 November 2019)

Survivor?

Arguably Malintzin was merely a survivor, using her skills and knowledge to survive the situation she was in. Townsend argues that it is important to consider the surrounding circumstances of Malintzin’s actions, and that these circumstances can uncover much about her nature.[1] Malintzin was given into slavery by her mother when she was young as her mother remarried and wanted to take hold of Malintzin’s inheritance. Therefore, Malintzin was placed into an incredibly difficult situation in which she was betrayed by her people and thrown into the middle of two continents clashing.[2] Unless Malintzin committed suicide, she had no option than to help the Spanish inorder to survive.[3] Robert Haskett argues that as a result of the circumstances surrounding Malintzin’s life, she did what she needed inorder to survive by ‘exploiting her only asset’ through attaching herself to Cortes.[4] Haskett argues that in order to survive, she gradually became like ‘one of the men’, through always being helpful.[5] This would explain why Malintzin was so loyal to Cortes through accompanying him to battle. It is also important to consider the violence of the Spaniards at the time and that if Malintzin had not acted in the way that she did, she would have fallen victim to the Spanish too. An account from Sahagan’s native informants describes the massacre at the celebrations of the fiesta of Huitzilopochtli. The account describes the brutal attacks by the Spaniards and how they killed all of the Aztecs who were celebrating in the temple.[6] This shows the sheer violence of the Spaniards and suggests that Malitzin was in fact a survivor as if she had not stayed loyal to the Spanish, she would not have survived. Towsend explains that during the period of Malintzin, ‘it was unclear how to draw the lines between groups’, and that the group “Indians” was not yet a distinguished identity which people referred to. This ambiguity between groups arguably suggests that her actions were simply an attempt to ‘preserve her sense of self’ and survive the difficult and unclear circumstances. Therefore, the context surrounding Malitzins life left her with limited options which would not compromise her own life, which consequently led her to helping Cortes on his expeditions.

In addition, the idea that Malintzin was a survivor can be supported by the context surrounding her marriage. In 1524 Malintzin accompanied Cortes on a trip to visit a new colonial government in Honduras. The voyage would have been incredibly dangerous with many not surviving and would have taken years to complete. Malintzin agreeing to go on the trip with Cortes also entailed leaving behind her young child and risking her safety. It is highly questionable as to why Malintzin would have agreed to this trip, and early interpretations may argue that it was because she was a helpless victim who did what she needed inorder to avoid punishment. However, a more convincing reason as to why she went on the trip was due to an agreement made that Malintzin would take part in the journey in exchange for a marriage to an influential Spaniard. Malintzin would have been very keen to marry a Spaniard as the marriage would give her more ‘legal protection and power’.[7] Consequently, Townsend claimed that Malintzin ‘left the days of being a vulnerable mistress behind forever and entered the ranks of well-born Spaniards with legal rights’.[8] Therefore Malintzin’s involvement in Cortes’ actions was most likely a survival technique, as in return she gained a marriage agreement which transformed her from a vulnerable woman into an independent woman with legal rights and security. 

Malintzin’s case was not particularly distinct as there were many other indigenous women who were placed in similar situations. For example, Krotoa was given to the Dutch forces by her own South African people as a child and helped the Dutch through interpreting and passing on valuable insider information. Similarly to Malintzin, Krotoa was a victim of culture clashes and was labelled as a traitor by her own people.[9] Both women were given away by their own people as children and in order to survive they both married Europeans to secure safety and respect, and maintained loyalty to the European powers in order to avoid danger. Similarly to Malintzin, the majority of Krotoa’s actions were based on the intentions of trying to please people in order to ensure her safety. For example, Krotoa attempted to create trading opportunities between the Dutch and her own people through building trust between the two cultures. Similarly Malintzin also aimed to please people as a survival technique, accounts by the Spanish often described Malintzin very highly and with great honour due to her hard work and loyalty. Therefore, Malintzin’s difficult situation, her survival techniques, and her reputation of being a traitor are very representative of other cases. 


[1] Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico by Camilla Towsend (University of New Mexico Press, 2006), p. 3. ACLS Humanities E-Book.

[2] Cordelia Candelaria, ‘La Malinche, Feminist Prototype’, Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 5.2 (1980), 1-6.

[3] Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico by Towsend, p. 3. 

[4] Indian Women of Early Mexico, ed. by Susan Schroeder, Stephanie Wood, Robert Haskett (University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), p. 311. 

[5] Ibid. 

[6] The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, ed. by Miguel León Portilla (Beacon Press, 2006), pp. 70-91. ACLS Humanities E-Book. 

[7] Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico by Towsend, pp. 148-171. 

[8] Ibid. 

[9] Julia C. Wells, Eva’s Men: Gender and Power in the Establishment of the Cape of Good Hope, 1652-74, The Journal of African History, 39.3 (1998), 417-437.

Victim

The presentation of La Malinche as a victim emerged in the 1970’s when Mexican and Mexcian-American feminists pointed out that “the girl had been given into slavery by her own people”, begging the question “whom was she betraying?”.[1] There are two ways in which Malinche can be seen as a victim: in the way she was treated during her time with Cortes and his men, and the way her story has been viewed ever since. Arguments for Malinche as a traitor point to her role as Cortes’ translator however Petty argues that “Malinche’s position as translator… seems logically preferable to being a slave”[2] suggesting she put herself in that position due to logic and not a lack of loyalty to her mother-country. This portrays Malinche as a victim of circumstance, arguing that she did what anyone would have done in the same situation. Her treatment by Cortes further suggests that Malinche was a victim. Petty argues that “her son Martin was a non-verbal admission of the personal violation that Malinche herself suffered”[3], implying that she was raped by Cortes and forced to bear his child. A Fresco by Jose Clement Orozco painted in 1926 further emphasises the victim narrative. Malinche and Cortes sit before an emaciated body that lies on the floor. Analisa Taylor describes the scene:

“…with his right knee pressing against her legs, he prevents her from planting her feet firmly on the ground; only her toes anxiously grip the earth. In this position, she cannot move’ ‘…While she looks down and askance, Cortes keeps a watchful and menacing eye on her.” [4]

Text Box: Jose Clemente Orozco “Cortes and Malinche”, 1926 https://www.historians.org

Orozco clearly depicts Cortes as a controlling figure, preventing the movement of Malinche. More importantly however, the need of Cortes to restrain Malinche suggests that he anticipated her to react to the native body lying in front of her. This inclination to react suggests that Malinche has not lost the compassion for her people and may struggle to see their suffering. This again shows how she was not a traitor, instead she was a victim to circumstance and was doing what was needed to stay in favour. Camilla Townsend ultimately sums up Malinche’s predicament: she was a “girl that had no choice in the matter but did what it took to survive”.

A second variation of the victimisation argument is that Malinche has been the victim of the interpretations of her story. The story of Malinche has been used by different groups and ideologies within Mexico in order to push certain agendas. Taylor argues that Malinche has been “used to legitimise the subaltern status of indigenous women in Mexican society”[5], encouraging discrimination and exploitation. Furthermore, the difficulty in identifying a unitary Mexican culture has also led to the scapegoating of Malinche in that she is blamed for the conquest which caused a merging of culture and identity leading to the diversity of modern Mexico. Cordelia Candelarian, however, argues that “she does not deserve the blame for the destruction of the Aztec empire” contending that “the empire’s destruction had already begun during Moctezuma’s reign and even earlier”[6]. This suggests that Malinche was made a victim as she has been treated harshly in historical interpretations whereas figures, such as Moctezuma, escaped comparatively lightly. Similarly, Townsend argues that Malinche, and those in a similar position, “survived the most trying circumstances with as much dignity as they could muster” meaning that “they deserve better than the stereotypes that have flung at them and have too often stuck”[7]. The construction and maintenance of these stereotypes have been enabled by the lack of non-speculative sources available to historians and commentators. Those wishing to make something of the story of Malinche have ample opportunity due to these absences. Townsend presents the need for a true history of Malinche “in order to humanize her and the countless other Indian women like her who were forced to confront the conquest in their own lives”.[8] Over time, Malinche has become a symbol as opposed to a human with consciousness, thought and fear enabling these damaging discourses to permeate further. A re-interpretation that aims to humanise Malinche might encourage sympathy or at least some acknowledgment that she was a young slave hoping for self-preservation, and not a spiteful traitor.


[1] Camilla Townsend, Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico (Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 2006), ‘Introduction’, 2.

[2] Leslie Petty, ‘The “Dual”-ing Images of la Malinche and la Virgen de Guadalupe in Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street’, MELUS, 11(2000), 126.

[3] Ibid. 130

[4] Analisa Taylor, ‘Malinche and Matriarchal Utopia: Gendered Visions of Indigeneity in Mexico’, New Feminist Theories of Visual Culture, 31(2006), 832

[5] Ibid. 824

[6] Cordelia Candelaria ‘La Malinche, Feminist Prototype’, Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 5 (1980), 6

[7] Camilla Townsend, Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico (Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 2006), ‘Introduction’, 5.

[8] Ibid.

Image result for la malinche painting

Heroine

While the arguably easy view is to see La Malinche as a traitor and nothing more than a mistress, there is palpable evidence to argue Malintzin, to those whom her efforts were most well received, was a heroic figure. Not only was Malintzin an indispensable piece of the puzzle of a successful Spanish Conquest; but also, from what can be considered a dynamic, inspiring female figure. One who defied and strayed from the typical gender norms for Indian women at the time and remained sincere in all actions that concerned the wellbeing of those close to her – she did her upmost best to limit the damage afflicted onto the people that had betrayed her. While it is understandable for the Mexican people to denounce her as a traitor, she commands a level of respect, too.

As Cortes, and thus the Spanish Conquest’s mouthpiece to the natives, Malintzin proved to be an instrumental figure in colonial triumph. While Cortes was known to refrain from praising Malintzin too much given her heritage and background, sources dictating both his behaviour around her depict a woman of importance. Cortes would not allow Malintzin ‘out of his sight’ until the end of conflict.[1] Cortes considered her more than a mere Mistress and argued that their success in their victory over the Aztec Empire was due to ‘Doña Marina’.[2] To place such an emphasis on an indigenous former slave speaks volumes of the true importance of Malintzin to the Spanish’s operation – it would be simple to brush her contributions under the rug.  To the Spanish, Malintzin was both a saviour, and the ace up their sleeve against the Aztec Empire. For instance, Malintzin was able to forewarn Spanish forces of several impending attacks by Moctezuma’s men. Furthermore, La Malinche also exuded heroic qualities in her abilities as a peacemaker. Malintzin had convinced Cortes to refrain from killing thousands more Aztecs, prioritising ‘negotiation’ ahead of ‘waging total war’.[3] Before ‘The Sorrowful Night’, Malintzin (albeit unsuccessfully) pleaded with Moctezuma for peace.[4] However, when this was not reciprocated by the Aztecs and the Spanish fled, Malintzin did not just flee hugging Cortes on the back of a stallion. Malintzin mounted a horse, adorned in armour, and faced the threat with bravery and heart.

Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin, Tlaxcala City Mural

 Malintzin, through serving as the ‘voice of Cortes’, always managed to remain on the front line of negotiations.[5] In Xochitiotzin’s painting of Tlaxcala City, Malintzin cuts a distinct figure in the centre of a meeting between Cortes and Moctezuma for the first time, proving to be an integral piece of the diplomatic puzzle between Empires of Old and New.[6] Through her ‘symbiotic’ relationship with Cortes, she commanded respect from both invaders and natives.[7] Referred to as La Malinche by the natives, translating to ‘Marina’s captain’, and ‘Doña Marina’ by the Spanish, honourary titles were given befitting of her power and ‘courage, greater than that’ of a normal ‘woman’.[8][9][10]

Another understated, heroic facet of Malintzin is her devotion to her family, and her selflessness to ensure their security. Bernal Diaz often waxed lyrically about Malintzin in his writings whilst travelling with Cortes’ crew, and denotes how Malintzin’s marriage to Juan Jaramillo, was merely an attempt ‘to grab hold of enough power to protect herself and her children’.[11] This portrayal of a Mother who would sacrifice her own independence for the safety of her offspring should have been a widely celebrated view of Malintzin, as not only the loving Mother of the first Mestizo, but also the Mother of a nation; as discussed by Rosario Castellanos and Chicana feminists, who refer to Maltinzin as ‘mother’.[12] Of course, Malintzin did not just strive to protect her offspring; she also used her influence to secure the protection of those in her home village of Olutla. This was the same community which cast her away to slavery all those years ago. Instead of shunning them, she embraced her Mother and Half Brother after the Spanish victory in Mexico, adorning them in riches and ‘pardoning’ the family for the ‘injustice they had done her’.[13] To protect and also forgive one’s own blood, despite the circumstances in which one could understand Maltinzin washing her hands of them, is admirable and a true testament to her character. While it is understandable from a Mexican perspective to perceive Malintzin as nothing more than a deviant and a traitress, her individual feats as a person, cut her a heroic figure. She saved lives, bridged gaps between cultures, and was a doting Mother. Due to the sheer lack of sources that survived from the time about Malintzin, her identity has unfortunately become an ‘empty vessel’ where disgruntled Mexicans have deposited their feelings of betrayal into, while more blatant culprits of the Empire’s downfall, such as Moctezuma, escape comparably unscathed.[14]


[1] Brittany Polsgrove. Hero or Traitor? The Controversy of La Malinche; Goddess of Grass, The story of Malínalli/La Malínche (2011) https://malincheinfo.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/hero-or-traitor-the-controversy-of-la-malinche/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Shep Lenchek. La Malinche, unrecognised heroine; Mexconnect https://www.mexconnect.com/articles/670-la-malinche-unrecognized-heroine

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin, Mural of Tlaxcala

[7] Shep Lenchek. La Malinche, unrecognised heroine; Mexconnect https://www.mexconnect.com/articles/670-la-malinche-unrecognized-heroine

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Brittany Polsgrove. Hero or Traitor? The Controversy of La Malinche; Goddess of Grass, The story of Malínalli/La Malínche (2011) https://malincheinfo.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/hero-or-traitor-the-controversy-of-la-malinche/

[11] Camilla Townsend. Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico (2006)

[12] Rolando Romero. Feminism, Nation and Myth: La Malinche (2005)

[13] Shep Lenchek. La Malinche, unrecognised heroine; Mexconnect https://www.mexconnect.com/articles/670-la-malinche-unrecognized-heroine

[14] Julee Tate. La Malinche: The Shifting Legacy of a Transcultural Icon; The Latin Americanist (2017), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/tla.12102

Conclusion

Although it is understandable why Malinche has been painted as a traitor, our research suggests that this is an inaccurate representation of her. Malinche possesses many traits which could be described as heroic: she was a doting mother looking to protect her family as well as those that were dear to her, acting selflessly to achieve these aims. Furthermore, she became a victim of the choices of others. From being sold into slavery or having men forced upon her, her situation was a difficult one. This made her a survivor, looking for ways to better her position and improve her fate. Overall, it is the reading of her history that has since made her a traitor rather than the decisions she made in her life.

Bibliography

Candelaria, C. ‘La Malinche, Feminist Prototype’, Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 5 (1980).

Lenchek, S. La Malinche, unrecognised heroine; Mexconnect https://www.mexconnect.com/articles/670-la-malinche-unrecognized-heroine

M. L. Portilla. The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, (Beacon Press, 2006), pp. 70-91. ACLS Humanities E-Book. 

Petty L. ‘The “Dual”-ing Images of la Malinche and la Virgen de Guadalupe in Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street’, MELUS, 11(2000).

Polsgrove, B. Hero or Traitor? The Controversy of La Malinche; Goddess of Grass, The story of Malínalli/La Malínche (2011) https://malincheinfo.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/hero-or-traitor-the-controversy-of-la-malinche/

Romero, R. Feminism, Nation and Myth: La Malinche (2005)

 S. Schroeder & S. Wood. Indian Women of Early Mexico, Robert Haskett (University of Oklahoma Press, 1999).

Tate, J. La Malinche: The Shifting Legacy of a Transcultural Icon; The Latin Americanist (2017), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/tla.12102

Taylor, A. ‘Malinche and Matriarchal Utopia: Gendered Visions of Indigeneity in Mexico’, New Feminist Theories of Visual Culture, 31(2006).

Townsend, C. Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico (Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 2006).

Wells, J. C. Eva’s Men: Gender and Power in the Establishment of the Cape of Good Hope, 1652-74, The Journal of African History, 39.3 (1998).

Xochitiotzin, D. H. Mural of Tlaxcala

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