The Controversial Role of La Malinche in the Fall of the Aztec Empire: Traitor or Hero?
La Malinche (meaning ‘the captain’s woman’) , also known as ‘Malinalli’, ‘Malintzin’ or ‘ Doña Marina’, is an important figure in the history of Mexico, especially for the pivotal role she played in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire.
La Malinche is indeed a controversial figure in her country of birth, even today. For many, she is regarded as a traitor to her own people, as she served the Spanish conquistadors . The word malinchista, for example, is slang for ‘a traitor to one’s own people’. For others, however, La Malinche is perceived as a heroic individual, and they believe that her negative reputation is unfounded.
La Malinche’s Noble Roots
La Malinche is generally believed to have been born in 1505. According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a conquistador who took part in Hernán Cortés’s conquest of Mexico, La Malinche was of noble birth. In his memoirs, known as Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (‘The True History of the Conquest of New Spain’), Díaz wrote that:
“She (La Malinche) was born a ruler over a people and country,—for her parents had the dominion of a township called Painala, to which several other townships were subject, lying about twenty-four miles from the town of Guacasualco.”
La Malinche with Cortés. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Díaz goes on to say that La Malinche’s father died when she was very young, and that her mother had remarried. This marriage produced a son, “and to whom, after their (the boy’s parents) death, they designed to leave their territories.”
La Malinche , however, was seen as being in the way of their plans, and was “conveyed secretly during night-time to an Indian family in Xicalango”, while a rumor that the girl had died was spread. This family did not keep La Malinche either, but sent her to Tabasco.
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Malinche’s Presentation and Conversion to Christianity
It was the cacique (chieftain) of Tabasco who presented La Malinche, along with 19 other young women, as slaves to Hernán Cortés following his settlement’s defeat by the Spanish in a battle. La Malinche and her fellow slaves are said to have been “the first who were converted to Christianity in New Spain, and were distributed among Cortés’ chief officers.”
La Malinche was given to an officer by the name of Puertocarrero, though when he left for Spain, Cortés took her for himself. Cortés and La Malinche had a son, who was named Don Martin Cortés, and he is regarded as the one of the first mestizos (a person of mixed European and indigenous American ancestry) of New Spain. However, La Malinche was valued for much more than her role as Cortés’s mistress.
Hernán Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma II in Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519. Facsimile (c. 1890) of Lienzo de Tlaxcala. ( Public Domain )
One of La Malinche’s noble attributes can be seen when the Spanish attempted to convert the chiefs of the Indians to Christianity. When the chiefs were gathered at Guacasualco on Cortés orders, La Malinche encountered her mother and half-brother. Both parties recognized each other, and La Malinche’s mother and half-brother were terrified, as they thought that she was going to kill them for what they had done to her. Instead, according to Díaz, she:
“Desired them to dry away their tears, and comforted them by saying they were unconscious of what they were doing when they had sent her away to the inhabitants of Xicalango, and that she freely forgave the past. By this means God certainly directed everything for her best, turned her away from the errors of heathenism, and converted her to Christianity.”
In the end, both mother and son were also converted to Christianity.
Cortes appoints La Malinche as his interpreter. ( Public Domain )
Malinche’s Linguistic Abilities and Diplomatic Role
La Malinche is best-known, however, for her role as Cortés’s interpreter. Prior to encountering La Malinche, the chief interpreter for the Spanish was a Franciscan friar by the name of Gerónimo de Aguilar, who learnt Mayan while he was held captive by the locals. While de Aguilar spoke Mayan and Spanish, La Malinche spoke Mayan and Nahuatl, and was well-educated as a daughter of a cacique. The two of them worked together to translate for Cortés, until La Malinche picked up Spanish.
Geronimo de Aguilar is presented to Cortes after 11 years of being kept captive by the locals. ( CC BY 2.0 )
It was La Malinche’s abilities as a linguist that allowed the meetings and negotiations to be arranged between Cortés and the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma. Additionally, La Malinche was able to communicate with the various tribes whose territories they had to march through, saving the conquistadors from many hostile attacks.
Scholar Cordelia Candelaria notes two particular instances in which La Malinche saved the Spaniards from trouble: first in Tlaxcala, when “her astute observations led her to uncover an indigenous conspiracy against Cortés.” In the second case, La Malinche learned information from an old woman about an impending attack from Montezuma, and, as Candelaria writes:
“Armed with this information Cortés decided to change his plans and to circumvent Cholula before proceeding directly to Tenochtitlan. The change astonished the natives and further persuaded them of the Spaniards’ mystical powers…On these and other occasions, La Malinche’s presence made the decisive difference between life or death.”
Alliances with indigenous tribes that were hostile to the Aztecs were made thanks to La Malinche. Thus, La Malinche made significant contributions to the successful Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire.
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Aztec nemesis of Tlaxcala become allies with Spanish Conquistador thanks to La Malinche. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )
Is La Malinche’s Bad Reputation Deserved?
It is due to her hand in the fall of the Aztec Empire that La Malinche earned her bad reputation. Yet, it is commonly argued that La Malinche had no choice in some of her life’s events. She had no say, for instance, in her presentation as a slave to the Spanish .
Nevertheless, when she did have a choice, it is claimed that she chose to do what may be regarded as noble. For instance, she may have had the chance to avenge the wrongs her mother had done to her as a child, but she chose to forgive her. Additionally, due to La Malinche’s presence as an interpreter at the negotiating table between the Aztecs and the Spanish, at least some bloodshed was avoided.
Top Image: Detail of ‘La Malinche (Young Girl of Yalala, Oaxaca)’ by Alfredo Ramos Martínez, 1940. Source: Public Domain
By: Wu Mingren
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