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Fierce Historical Ladies post: Malintzin

If you’re Mexican, of Mexican descent, or live in a culturally Mexican area, you may know the story of La Llorona.

La Llorana is the tale of a woman named Maria who drowned her children for a chance to be with the man she loved. However, he spurned her affections, and in her heartbreak, she drowned herself in a lake. Upon ascending to the gates of heaven, St. Peter asked her, “Where are your children?” and she had no response. He sentenced her to an eternity of wandering the mortal realm unless she could find her children. Even today, the story goes, she can be found weeping on stormy nights near lakes and rivers. She is said to kidnap wandering children, or children who disobey their parents, in the hope of being able to present them as her own at the gates of heaven.

In some retellings of this story of the mother who murdered her children, Maria has a different name: La Malinche. The name La Malinche is a pejorative name used for the Nahua woman, Malintzin. She later went by the name Doña Marina, which she chose for herself before her baptism.

Malintzin—as I will be referring to her in this post—was a noble of the Nahua people. Her actions take place in the very complex historical setting of the end of Aztec hegemony in what we now refer to as Mexico, and the beginning of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and South America. The relationship between the Aztec Empire and its subsidiary peoples and neighboring polities—which included Mayan groups—informed Malintzin’s contextualized actions, and the actions of other Mexican peoples.

The Nahua were the group from which the Aztec emerged, and were thus privileged within the Aztec sphere of influence. As a noble, Malintzin was afforded a phenomenal education, including an in-depth language instruction. Her father died when she was still quite young, and her mother remarried and soon bore a son to her new husband. For reasons which can never be determined, but which were probably to do with issues of wealth transference, Malintzin’s mother sold her to Mayan slave traders soon after the birth of her son.

Malintzin then disappears from the historical record until a group of Spaniards purchased her in 1519—most estimates put her in her mid to late teenage years at this point. Though Cortes gave her as a gift to one of his men, he decided to keep her at his side as a translator because of her fluency in Mayan and Nahuatl. Sources from this period also speak highly of her looks, which may have also influenced Cortes’ behavior towards her. According to similar sources, she mastered the Spanish language within two weeks of the purchase of her person.

With Cortes, she helped to inform him of revolts against Spanish rule, accompanied him as an interpreter as he put down a rebellion, and acted as a translator between him and Mexican peoples hoping that he would defend them against Aztec hegemonic oppression. Indeed, Adelaida R. Del Castillo argued that the Aztec Empire fell in part as a result of a coalition of their subsidiary peoples acting in concert with the Spanish conquerors.


Cortes and Malintzin meet with Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II in 1519, from the Historia de Tlaxcala. Image courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

In 1521, soon after the fall of the Aztec Empire to Spain, Malintzin gave birth to a son fathered by Cortes. As a mark of esteem for her within the Spanish hierarchical system, he married her to Spanish noble Juan Jaramillo before his first return to Spain. Some scholars argue that Malintzin died in 1529, however, others argue that she is alluded to as though she is alive in letters found in Spain dated 1550, and referred to as though she was deceased in letters dated 1551.

Her role as translator and helper to Hernan Cortes, the man who destroyed the Aztec Empire and began the Spanish Empire in the New World, has caused her to be remembered primarily as a traitor, a whore; the woman who handed her people over to the man who slaughtered them and destroyed their civilization. Others remember her as a woman who liberated the Mexican peoples from the oppressive rule of the Aztecs, some characterizing her as the founder the modern Mexican nation. Chicana Feminist literature beginning around the 1960’s sought to attempt to reconstruct her life separated from the actions assigned to her over the past four centuries, and the most recent attempt to reconstruct her life devoid of myth and in historical context was penned by Camilla Townsend.

A problem, however, in the reconstruction of her life and the analysis of her actions is that most of what we know of her comes from Spanish sources; sources penned by Malintzin’s buyers, sellers, owners, and conquerors. Therefore, even the very sources from which she can be reconstructed exist within a colonized context—the academic/theoretical term for the instance in which the only record of a person, or a people, was penned by their oppressor or conqueror is “subalternity,” with the study of these people, or groups, being “subaltern studies.” I use quotes not to imply that I am mocking this form of post-colonial criticism, but because I am introducing the term to those unfamiliar with it.

I chose to write about Malintzin not because I want to reconstruct her life or meditate upon her motivations, but because she is an indigenous American woman whose name has become synonymous with “whore” and “traitor.” Because the most famous indigenous women in North and South American white historical memory* are the ones who Westernized, the ones who aided Western men in their colonialist actions, the ones who were baptized, the ones who married European nobility, and the ones who spent time in Europe. They are the ones who were labeled as traitors to their people and are the ones who have layers of mythologized meanings attached to their names.

These women were acting within a context in which two or more highly complex civilizations encountered each other for the first time. Pocahontas never sat down and thought “Hmmm time to assimilate to European cultural norms and sing songs about the wind,” Sacagawea never thought “Whooo time to accelerate the process of American expansion and the destruction of the life my people have been living for hundreds of years,” and Malintzin never thought “I think I’ll destroy my civilization and betray my people today.”

Malintzin was interacting with the intricate historical circumstances in which she lived, and must be understood within that context. And within that context, I would argue that she was a highly educated, highly intelligent member of the nobility who was able to become a political actor for both Spaniards and Aztec subsidiary peoples by virtue of that intelligence.

And that is pretty fierce.

*I don’t want to drag this post across the threshold from history into post-colonial theory, however, “North and South American Europeanized historical memory” or “North and South American colonized historical memory” could work here as well. What all of these turns of phrase mean, or imply, is that these women are the ones remembered outside of American indigenous communities for a specific set of reasons, all to do with the nature of the European conquest of the Americas.

Previous Fierce Historical Ladies posts may be found on this page, alongside a few other posts about groups of historical women.

ETA: This post contains problematic elements, and for that I apologize to Latina readers. For more detail, please see this post.

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