Like her talent, La Malinche's story is fascinating.
La Malinche, Malinalli Tenépatl, Malinche, or Doña Marina (c.1502 – c.1529) has been considered by some to be a traitor to her people, and by others to be a cultural bridge between the Mesoamerican Indians and the Spanish. What isn’t in question, though, is the key role that this amazing woman played in the conquest and the genesis of America as it’s known today. Like her talent, her story is fascinating.
An Interesting Name!
She was born in southern Mexico in what is now Veracruz. Interestingly, in Nahuatl her second name means ‘person who has a way with words; who talks a lot and with animation’, almost like those who named her sealed her fate and history.
Being born the daughter of an Aztec chief meant that her first language was Nahuatl. She was subsequently sold into slavery to the chiefs in Tabasco following the war between the Aztecs and the Mayans, and it was through them that she learned the Mayan language.
How La Malinche Became a Nahuatl-Mayan Interpreter
In 1519, on March 15, a set of blankets, some gold pieces, and 20 women were surrendered by the Maya of Tabasco to Hernán Cortés, and La Malinche was one of these women. Cortes originally gave her to one of his captains, however he quickly discovered that she spoke Nahuatl so he began using her as a Nahuatl-Mayan interpreter. She served as translator, negotiator and cultural mediator. Handling the translation of Mayan into Spanish was Jerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish castaway who had been captured then rescued in Cozumel by Cortes.
Enter Doña Marina
And so, through the use of two interpreters and three languages, all contacts between the Aztecs and Spanish were handled – and then La Malinche learned how to speak Spanish. By this time the Spanish had renamed her Doña Marina, the lover of Cortes. Through this relationship she had an illegitimate firstborn child named Martin who, according to many historians, was the first mestizo in America. It’s for this reason that some people consider her to be the ‘First Mother of Mexico’.
Hero or Traitor?
There are others who see her as the embodiment of treachery, using her name in the Spanish word malinchismo, indicating the desire to be abroad rather than in Mexico, the preference of the foreign versus national, opportunism, or betrayal in favor of foreign interests. In her defense, because there was no unity but only enmity between the peoples of Mexico, La Malinche had no home to sell.
The Historical Meeting Between Montezuma and Cortes
Gómez de Orozco, the Mexican author, noted that La Malinche was an important part of Spanish strategy, with her knowledge of native customs, by being able to interpret in three languages, thus providing vital economic information, tax forms, the rules governing family relations, the order and succession of kingdoms, and so on. Perhaps the highlight of her career as an interpreter was the first face-to-face meeting between Montezuma and Cortes. It’s reported that, during that meeting, she earnestly favored negotiations over bloodshed. In a letter, Cortes wrote: ‘After God, we owe the conquest of New Spain to Doña Marina.’