Malinche c. 1505–1550
Very little is known about the woman variously called Malinalli, Malintzin, Doña Marina, and La Malinche. She was born around 1505 in the Aztec province of Coatzacoalcos to a cacique (chief or leader) and his wife. She was given or sold into slavery after her father died and her mother remarried and gave birth to a son.
FROM SLAVE TO INTERPRETER
On March 15, 1519, Malinalli, or La Malinche, was one of twenty female slaves, along with gold and food, given to Spanish military explorers under the command of Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) as a peace offering from a Mayan village in present day Yucatán. The women were baptized immediately so that the Spaniards could have sexual relations with them, and Malinalli was given the name Marina. Cortés initially granted Marina to one of his captains, Alonso Hernández y Portocarrero. Shortly thereafter, however, Cortés dispatched Portocarrero to Spain and Marina became Cortés's concubine as well as his trusted assistant.
The Spanish recognized Marina's usefulness as lengua (tongue), or interpreter, when emissaries from Moctezuma boarded Cortes's ship as the flotilla was exploring the coast of Mexico. As the only person to understand the messengers' language, Nahuatl, Marina became part of a diplomatic linguistic triangle; she translated the emperor's message into the Mayan language that she had acquired as a slave. Franciscan friar Jerónimo de Aguilar, who also spoke Mayan, then translated the message into Spanish. A shipwrecked Spaniard from an earlier expedition, Aguilar had survived slavery and disease and escaped sacrifice until his countrymen—hearing of a white, bearded man—sought him out and bought his freedom. Thus the young Nahua (or Aztec) woman, twice given in slavery, was catapulted into the annals of Spanish and Mexican history and became a part of the myth of the genesis of the Mexican nation.
HEROINE OR TRAITOR?
Malinche reaches us largely through Bernal Díaz del Castillo's Historia verdadera de la conquista de Nueva España (The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1517–1521), originally published in 1632. Díaz del Castillo, a former soldier among Cortés's troops who took sixteen years to write his memoirs, some thirty years after the conquest, speaks highly of Marina, using the respectful title of doña and on several occasions signaling her instrumental role in the success of the expedition. He used generic descriptions, as often found in chivalric and picaresque novels; thus literary critic Julie Greer Johnson concludes that far from providing an objective, transparent portrayal of Doña Marina, Historia verdadera de la conquista de Nueva España transforms her into a literary figure endowed "with the physical strength and courage of the Amazons and the spiritual stamina and zeal of Amadís" of Gaule, the most well-known hero of sixteenth-century Iberian chivalric romance (Johnson 1984, p. 75).
The very instances that Díaz del Castillo cites as occasions when Doña Marina saved the day and the lives of the Spanish soldiers became, for Mexican nationalists, evidence to indict La Malinche for cavorting sexually with the invader, serving as native informant and spy, and bearing the bastard, mixed-race son of Cortés. The shift from the respectful Doña Marina to the deprecatory La Malinche reflects the vilification of the female interpreter as a traitor. In fact Malinche was a native term that referred to Cortés, as Malinalli's amo, or lord, seen in the suffix che. By adding La to Malinche, the term is deflected onto Marina. Her name exists only through its identification with Cortés, carrying with it the indictment of sell-out. La Malinche became a derogatory term, and the historical woman is invoked as an archetypal traitoress, as the Mexican Eve, at key historical junctures of the construction of the Mexican nation, in the period after Independence from Spain and the decades following the Mexican Revolution.
Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz's seminal piece, "The Sons of La Malinche," in his 1950 collection of essays, Labyrinth of Solitude, served to foment an image of La Malinche as the willingly seduced betrayer of the indigenous people, the cursed mother of the Mexican nation. Although mestizaje (miscegenation between European and indigenous peoples in the New World) is celebrated as a defining factor of mexicanidad (Mexican national character), Paz shows how La Virgen de Guadalupe (The Virgin of Guadalupe) embodies the good mother of the Mexican nation, while La Malinche is cursed as La Chingada (The fucked one). During the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the term Malinchista, as defined by Paz, was invoked as an epithet against Chicanas (young Mexican American women) who were seen to adopt U.S. cultural values, most notably by articulating a feminist agenda. Feminism was represented as an affront to the Mexican patriarchal family, considered to be the foundation of Chicano culture, and precisely what the Chicano movement was defending.
From the 1970s forward, Chicana feminists embarked upon the reinterpretation of the woman whose myth had been used as a means of silencing their voices and limiting their political participation. As part of the work of dismantling the virgin/whore dichotomy—enmeshed in the largely Catholic Chicano culture and in the Mexican national mythologies of La Virgen de Guadalupe and La Malinche—Chicana feminists sought to provide a counter-narrative to that of the latter's betrayal and sexual objectification. In addition to pointing out that Spanish alliances with enemies of the Aztecs and extermination of the native population through disease played huge roles in the success of the Spaniards, Chicana historians, creative writers, literary critics, and others have restructured the myth of La Malinche's betrayal, often through a paradoxical gesture of recognizing her victimization and lack of agency as a slave and at the same time reinterpreting her so-called betrayal as the politically astute intervention of a woman bent on preserving lives.
Three texts were instrumental early on in defining this revisionist project. Adelaida del Castillo's essay "Malintzín Tenépal: A Preliminary Look into a New Perspective" (1977) sought to historicize La Malinche, and defended her as a convert to Christianity. Carmen Tafolla's poem Malinche (1985 ) adopts the Yo soy structure of the epic poem of Chicano ethno-nationalism, Yo soy Joaquín (I am Joaquín) (1967), by Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, and proclaims proudly "I am La Malinche." Tafolla stakes out a privileged position for La Malinche as a visionary who imagines the new world to come because only she can serve as a bridge between the two cultures. Cherríe Moraga's essay "A Long Line of Vendidas" (1981) demonstrates how the myth of La Malinche perpetuates the idea of women's corruptibility and untrustworthiness, thereby undermining the potential for female solidarity. Like Tafolla, Moraga accepts the appellation La Malinche, if lesbian sexuality, feminist ideology, and human rights activism are what define her as a traitor to her culture.
Since the late twentieth century, Chicana writers have sought to break free of the stranglehold of Octavio Paz's "colonial imaginary" (Pérez 1999, pp. 5-6). Chicana historian and feminist theorist Emma Pérez identifies an Oedipal-conquest-triangle that the mestizo son deploys in the effort to identify with the powerful European father (the phallus) through the denigration of his Indian mother. Following this line of reasoning, Chicana scholar Rita Cano Alcalá relates La Malinche to the repressed feminine power of the ancient sister goddesses, Malinalxochitl and Coyolxauhqui, and reinterprets the myth of La Malinche as the resurgence of a Mexican feminist political unconscious, or as the recuperation of the repressed and silenced female voice that resists patriarchal constructions of the proto nation.
Alarcón, Norma. 1983. "Chicana Feminist Literature: A Re-Vision through Malintzín/ or Malintzín: Putting Flesh Back on the Object." In This Bridge Called My Back: Wrtings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. Latham, NY: Kitchen Table/Women of Color.
Alcalá, Rita Cano. 2001. "From Chingada to Chingona: La Malinche Redefined, Or, A Long Line of Hermanas." Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 26:2: 33-61.
Cypess, Sandra Messinger. 1991. La Malinche in Mexican Literature: From History to Myth. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Del Castillo, Adelaida R. 1977. "Malintzín Tenépal: A Preliminary Look into a New Perspective." In Essays on la Mujer, ed. Rosaura Sánchez and Rosa Martínez Cruz. Los Angeles: Chicano Studies Publications, University of California, Los Angeles.
Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. 1986. Historia verdadera de la conquista de Nueva España. [The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1517–1521]. México City: Editorial Porrúa. (Orig. pub. 1632.)
Johnson, Julie Greer. 1984. "Bernal Díaz and the Women of the Conquest." Hispanòfila 28(1): 67-77.
Moraga, Cherríe. 1983. Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca pasó por sus labios. Boston: South End.
Paz, Octavio. "Los hijos de la Malinche." El laberinto de la soledad. 1950. México: Colección Popular, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1983. 59-80.
Pérez, Emma. 1999. The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Tafolla, Carmen. 1985. "La Malinche." In Five Poets of Aztlán, ed. Santiago Daydi-Tolson. Binghamton, NY: Bilingual Press. (Orig. pub. 1978.)
Rita Cano Alcalá
"Malinche c. 1505–1550." Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 25, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/malinche-c-1505-1550
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