—Harlot or Heroine?
By Shep Lenchek
La Malinche, Slave, Interpreter, secretary, mistress, mother of the first Mexican, her very name still stirs up controversy.
Many Mexicans continue to revile the woman called Doña Marloa by the Spaniards and La Malinche by the Aztecs, labeling her a traitor and a harlot for her role as the alter-ego of Cortes as he conquered Mexico. They ignore that she saved thousands of Indian lives by enabling Cortes to negotiate rather than slaughter. Her ability to communicate also enabled the Spaniards to introduce Christianity and attempt to abolish human sacrifice and cannibalism. Herself a convert, baptized Marina was an eloquent advocate for her new faith. As for the charges against her, they are in my opinion baseless. So let us reexamine this remarkable woman and examine the laws.
All historians agree that she was the daughter of a noble Aztec family. Upon the death of her father, a chief, her mother remarried and gave birth to a son. Deciding that he rather than Marina should rule, she turned her young daughter over to some passing traders and thereafter proclaimed her dead. Eventually, the girl wound up as a slave of the Cacique (the military chief) of Tabasco. By the time Cortes arrived, she had learned the Mayan dialects used in the Yucatan while still understanding Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and most non-Mayan Indians.
La Malinche did not choose to join Cortes. She was offered to him as a slave by the Cacique of Tabasco, along with many other young women. She had no voice in the matter.
Up till then, Cortes had relied on a Spanish priest, Jeronimo de Aguilar, as his interpreter. Shipwrecked off Cozumel, Aguilar spoke the Mayan language as well as Spanish. But when the expedition left the Mayan-speaking area, Cortes discovered that he could not communicate with the Indians. That night, he was advised that one of the women given to him in Tabasco spoke “Mexican.”
Doña Marina now enters Mexican history. It was she who served as the interpreter for all the first meetings between Cortes and the representatives of Moctezuma. At that time Marina spoke no Spanish. She translated what the Aztecs said into the Mayan and Aguilar translated to Spanish. The process was then reversed, Spanish to Mayan and Mayan to Nahuatl.
Bernal Díaz, author of The Conquest of the New Spain authenticated her pedigree. An eyewitness to the events, he did not describe her physically, but related that after the Conquest he attended a reunion of Doña Marina, her mother and the half-brother who had usurped her rightful place. Diaz marveled at her kindness in forgiving them for the injustice she had suffered. The author referred to her only as Marina or Doña Marina.
So whence the name La Malinche? Diaz said that because Marina was always with Cortes, he was called Malinche which the author translated to mean Marina’s Captain. Prescott in the Conquest of Mexico, (perhaps the best-known book on the subject) confirms that Cortes was always addressed as Malinche which he translated as captain and defined La Malinche as “the captain’s woman .”
Both definitions confirm that the Indians saw Cortes and his spokeswoman as a single unit. They recognized that what they heard were the words of Malinche, not La Malinche. So much for the charge that she was a traitor, helping to instigate the destruction of the Aztec Empire.
As for the charge of harlotry, it is equally flawed. She was totally loyal to Cortes, a one-man woman who loved her master. Cortes reciprocated her feelings. Time after time he was offered other women but always refused them. Bernal Diaz frequently commented on the nobility of her character and her concern for her fellow Mexicans.
It is very possible that without her, Cortes would have failed. He himself, in a letter preserved in the Spanish archives, wrote that “ . . . after God we owe this conquest of New Spain to Doña Marina.”
Doña Marina progress from interpreter to secretary to mistress, as well as her quick mastery of Spanish, is remarkable—and all this amidst the turmoil of constant warfare, a time when a woman less courageous and committed might well have fled.
As Cortes moved toward the Aztec capital, a pattern evolved. First conflict, then meetings in which Doña Marina played a key role in avoiding more bloodshed. Hence the picture of Marina that emerges is that of an intelligent, religious, loyal woman.
In more recent times the term Malinchista has been used by some to describe those who dislike Mexicans. But Doña Marina deserves better. A fearless, loyal and determined woman, she was a heroine who helped save Mexico from its brutal bloodthirsty rulers — and in doing so she played a major role in fashioning what is today one of the most dynamic societies in all of Latin America.