Mexican Native Princess, la Malinche, Inspired a Popular Mexican Slur
For Mexicans, being called a malinchista is an insult. The word comes from la Malinche, remembered as the indigenous interpreter who helped Hernán Cortés during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. But, how is it that la Malinche has inspired a derogatory slur which is popularly used today?
Little is known about her history. Originally called Malintzin, la Malinche was born in the early 1500s to the Nahuas indigenous group in what is now the state of Veracruz. Enslaved at a young age, she was gifted to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés after his victory at the Battle of Centla in Tabasco soon after his arrival to Mexico in 1519.
500 years after she lived, la Malinche remains a controversial figure due to layer upon layer of mythology and reinterpretations of the central role she played in history. Described as Cortes’ “secret weapon” by Smithsonian Magazine, her skill as an enslaved interpreter who was able to speak Yucatec and Nahuatl, and who then taught herself Spanish, made her inordinately useful to Cortés as he brought about the collapse of the Aztec Empire and Spanish conquest of Mexico.
She has even been credited with saving the Spanish on more than one occasion, using her language abilities to forge alliances and uncover secrets about opposition to the Spanish. It is said that she warned Cortés that Moctezuma was planning an ambush at the Aztec city of Cholula. “On these and other occasions, La Malinche’s presence made the decisive difference between life or death,” explained Cordelia Candelaria in the journal Frontiers.
A more realistic portrayal of la Malinche in a post-revolutionary mural. Painted by José Clemente Orozco, the 1926 artwork entitled Cortés and la Malinche is on display at San Ildefonso College in Mexico City. (Thelmadatter / CC BY-SA 3.0)
“Marina, the tongue,” as she is described by Don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, is also credited with helping convert the natives to Catholicism. The fact that la Malinche then went on to have a son by Hernán Cortés and a daughter by Juan Jaramillo, made her the symbolic mother of two of history’s first mestizos, the term for mixed-race children in Latin America.
After Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, popular culture began to characterize la Malinche as an evil traitor, much like Eve in the Christian creation myth. When gazing upon the stunning mural entitled “Cortés and la Malinche” by José Clemente Orozco, it’s important to keep this in mind.
The inference is clear. Calling someone a malinchista, or to accuse them of malinchismo, is to call them a traitor to their people for their admiration of foreign values or objects and their disregard for their own culture. Mexicans employ it in reference to those who admire the lifestyle of the United States or Europe. Its use has however been criticized, due to la Malinche’s involuntary role as a slave, and her resulting lack of free will.
Top image: In this 1941 painting by Mexican artist Jesús de la Helguera, la Malinche is portrayed as a sultry character with European features, nestled in the arms of Hernán Cortés. Source: Joseaqc / CC BY-SA 4.0
By Cecilia Bogaard