Malinche (c. 1500–1531)

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Malinche (c. 1500–1531)

Indian translator, interlocutor, and mistress of Hernán Cortés, who aided immeasurably in forwarding the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. Name variations: La Malinche; Doña Marina; Malintzin; Marina Malintzin; Mallinalli Tenepal; Martina; Marina de Jaramillo; Mariana. Born in the village of Painala in southeastern Mexico, probably around 1500; died near Orizaba in 1531; parents' names not recorded; married Juan de Jaramillo, in 1523, after four years of a semiofficial liaison with Hernán Cortés; children: (with Cortés) Martín (b. 1520).

Sold into slavery by her family and taken southward to the Maya-speaking Tabasco region (1512); together with 19 other Indian women, given as a gift to the Spanish conquerors of Tabasco (1519); began a personal and political relation with Cortés, acting as his translator and confidant with all of the Indian groups (1519); gave birth to Cortés' child Martín and uncovered a major anti-Spanish plot at Cholula(1520); the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán (August 1521) brought a change in her status—from translator and diplomat to a minor member of a rather large entourage of women surrounding Cortés; before departing for an expedition to Honduras, Cortés commanded her to marry Juan Jaramillo, an old though not very reputable associate of the captain(1523); caught in an unhappy marriage, she retired into obscurity, finally dying near Orizaba (1531).

The 20 Indian women could not have been more frightened. They had just been turned over by the Tabascan caciques to the barbarians from across the waters, the bearded men who wore armor all of metal, who rode immense stags, and who spoke a language totally unlike their own Maya or Nahuatl. Indeed, were they men at all? They had attacked the Tabascan warriors in the manner of mad coyotes, vicious and unyielding. And now, as part of the price of peace, the women found themselves delivered into the hands of the monsters, who took them aboard a massive war canoe and proceeded northward along the coast. Huddled together in a corner of the deck, the women prepared themselves for death. But for one of their number, this encounter with the Spaniards—for such they were—was the most fortuitous thing that could have happened. She set out immediately to know more about them, examining everything on board the ship, and trying, willy-nilly, to convey all sorts of questions, large and small.

The young Indian woman's name was Malintzin, which means "a twist on the thigh," but she has entered history by the European name she took upon her baptism, Doña Marina, or Malinche (the Spanish corruption of her Indian name). She was a Totonac Indian from the central coastal region of Mexico. As a small child, she had been given to merchants who had sold her to the people of the south. Consequently, she knew not only her native Nahuatl but the Maya language as well. The Tabascans had regarded her as being little better than a slave, and not an especially good one at that. They were happy to hand her over to the monsters. The "monsters" themselves soon saw in her the key to their victory over the Aztecs.

The conquest of Mexico had already begun in the minds of the Spaniards several years before. They had come to the New World in the 1490s looking for gold and adventure. They found a great deal of the latter but very little of the former. Instead, the West Indies offered the Spaniards only a large, docile population of Arawak Indians, whom they proceeded to enslave and to push en masse to an early death, all in an obsessive search for nonexistent gold. Among the many newcomers to the New World on this same quest was one Hernán Cortés, a native of Extremadura and, outwardly, little different from the rest. In fact, Cortés was no dreamer. He was a practical man, a born leader with little of the fatalism and superstition so common among other European immigrants to the West Indies. The Indians, for example, he regarded less as savages than as men—with weaknesses and interests, to be sure, but men just the same. If he could understand these weaknesses and interests then he could transform their world into his. It was precisely this sense of self-assurance, coupled with practicality, that earned him the command position on an expedition sent in 1519 from Cuba to the Mexican coast, an area that was known to be vast and potentially wealthy.

Cortés' meeting with Malinche was in the best sense historic. His fleet had skirted the same route opposite the Yucatán peninsula taken by earlier reconnaissance vessels. He had made landfall near Cozumel to take on water, and on several occasions engaged in battle with the Mayas. He rescued a Spanish castaway, Jeronimo de Aguilar, who proved quite useful, since he had learned to speak the Maya language well. But Cortés came to realize that this would not help for much longer, since his ships were entering the realm of the Aztecs, where only the Nahuatl language was understood. As Cortés pondered this problem, into his line of vision came Malinche, so engaging, so full of curiosity, so different from the other Indian women received from the Tabascans. Here was the solution for his difficulty, for she understood both languages. Malinche would turn Nahuatl into Maya for Aguilar, and he in turn would translate into Spanish for Cortés.

Had this been the sum of her historical role, then Malinche would today be regarded as only a clever translator. But she had ambitions of her own. First of all, as a Totonac, she was part of a major Indian group that had long been oppressed by the powerful Aztecs of Tenochtitlán; now she saw in Cortés the possible liberator of her people. Second, as a woman of humble background, she could not normally expect to rise especially high within her own society; but Cortés in effect offered her a different fate—and she quickly seized her opportunity. As rapidly as she could, she learned the Castilian language, thus making Aguilar's function in the Spanish party superfluous and her function all the more critical. She also began to cultivate a personal relation with Cortés. As time went on, their continual conversations together, his strong liking for women, the daily revelations of her unexpected qualities—all of these fed their relationship. Within a short time, Malinche became Cortés' shadow, his inseparable companion.

The Aztec codices invariably depict her near the camp chair of the conqueror, decked in her loose tunic, spouting from her mouth a cluster of coruscating hieroglyphics.

—Fernando Benítez

The Spanish fleet made landfall on the central coast on Holy Thursday 1519. Realizing that the local Indians would report his arrival to the Aztec emperor Moctezuma, Cortés had his troops stage a mock battle to impress them. He then instructed the local chief to send a message to the emperor to tell him that the Spaniards had a disease that could only be cured by gold. Advised by Malinche that the Indians thought him the lost god Quetzalcoatl, Cortés did nothing to correct their error. Soon all Tenochtitlán, some 200 miles inland, was abuzz with tales of the new deities.

Moctezuma sent the gold that Cortés had requested. He also asked the Spaniards to leave his realm with all dispatch. Rather than accept this dismissal, which, after all, had been prompted by fear, Cortés audaciously announced his intention to visit the Aztec capital. He would not think, so he told the emperor's emissaries, of missing the opportunity of greeting the great lord in person after having crossed the waters with that object in mind. Moreover, he said, he bore a message from his king that could be delivered only to Moctezuma himself. To demonstrate still further his unalterable determination, he gave orders to scuttle his ships. This convinced Spaniard and Indian alike that Cortés took literally the royal mandate of plus ultra—ever forward.

There was, of course, much bluff and much calculation in all this. Cortés' greatest victories were always diplomatic, and he made every effort to prepare his hand with great care before ever having to ungird his sword. In this, Malinche's help was crucial. She explained to him many aspects of the Indian character, when an Indian might be expected to exaggerate or lie, and when an Indian might tell the truth. Above all, she stressed that Moctezuma and the Aztecs were fanatically attached to their religion, which bore little resemblance to the Christianity she had grown to understand. Where the Europeans worshipped a man crucified, the Aztecs worshipped the execution itself—seeing in blood spilled for their gods the necessary ingredient for their own continued survival in the world. Since war prisoners were required for ceremonies of sacrifice, the Aztecs could not be expected to make meaningful peace on any long-term basis with the Spaniards; nonetheless, unlike the Europeans, they could ill afford to undertake the annihilation of the invaders, since there would then be no guarantee of prisoners. Cortés remembered this detail and in it he saw the possible key to victory.

Malinche's relations with Cortés had by now taken on the appearance, if not the legal status, of a marriage. She had originally been assigned as slave to a little-known Spaniard called Puertocarrero. When Cortés realized her true value, the other man slipped into the background. He was sent back to Madrid to deliver the captain's letters to the king (although the monarch evidently never read these missives, they were delivered and today constitute one of our chief sources on the conquest of Mexico). It is not known whether Malinche's intimate relations with Cortés began before Puertocarrero's departure. In any case, however, she soon found herself pregnant with their son.

Even today, the Sierra Madre Oriental presents a breathtaking aspect, with its greenery slowly giving way to windswept peaks. In the time of Malinche, the mountain chain was dangerous as well, since it provided refuge for those savage Indian groups that the Aztecs had never managed to subdue. The Tlaxcalans, in particular, were much feared throughout the region, but Malinche stressed that they might make useful allies for Cortés against Moctezuma. She had already set up a network of informants and spies that stretched all the way to Tenochtitlán, and her information was usually regarded as sound. On this occasion, however, her informants failed her. As the expeditionary force crossed into Tlaxcalan territory, the Indians launched a ferocious assault. In the ensuing battle, several Spaniards were killed as well as two horses. The Indians had viewed the Spanish horses as being almost certainly immortal. The word now spread that the beasts could be killed, and Cortés lost a great psychological advantage.

Malinche's poor information before the battle was more than offset by her diplomacy and good sense in its aftermath. She helped initiate negotiations with the defeated Tlaxcalans, after which they became steadfast allies of Cortés. But her loyalty to the Spaniards on this and many other occasions was beginning to cost her among her own people. More and more the name Malinche took on the sense of traitor. The Totonacs as well as the Aztecs now stood in awe of her power, of her influence with the bearded gods.

Nowhere was this influence more critical than at the Aztec community of Cholula. Cholula stood at the principal crossroads leading to Tenochtitlán, and it was there that Moctezuma directed the Spaniards to await his delegation. Cortés and his men had by this time gained some idea of the enormity of the land around them, the number of potential enemies in their midst, and how very far away they were from home. They therefore welcomed the chance to go to a safe town like Cholula for a rest to plan their next moves.

But Malinche and the Tlaxcalans, who had joined their armies to the European cause, suspected a trap. The lords of Cholula, at first reluctant to meet with Cortés, eventually appeared, pleading friendship and offering tribute. The inhabitants of the town turned out en masse to shower food and flowers on the strangers—but their leaders had other instructions. Moctezuma had apparently determined to test at Cholula the belief of his militant generals that the Spaniards were simply men of flesh and blood and could be killed like anyone else. The emperor sent 30,000 troops to ambush the Spaniards as soon as the Cholulans arranged an ambush.

Malinche's spy network, however, reached into the confines of Cholula as well as the other towns in the valley of Mexico. She uncovered the conspiracy and immediately informed Cortés, who ordered a preemptive attack within the city limits. He executed all the Cholulan nobles and mercilessly slaughtered their minions. Before the night had passed, the Spaniards had killed 6,000 people and had burnt every important building in the town.

Moctezuma was forced to disavow any connection with the plot. Amazed that Cortés had discovered the trap, and that his reaction had been so very bloody, Moctezuma felt confirmed in his earlier judgment: the Spaniards were gods. He invited them to enter his capital, this time unopposed.

Over the next year, Cortés quelled a rebellion in his own ranks, disposed of Moctezuma, and made war on his successors. Aided by cannons, horses, his Tlaxcalan allies, and the Aztec penchant for fighting a limited over an unlimited war, the Spanish captain went from victory to victory. Malinche did not share directly in these victories. In fact, she was far removed from the fighting. She had given birth to their son Martín and stayed in seclusion with him. Her diplomatic skills were little needed by the Spaniards at that point, and Cortés was busy with other things. When Tenochtitlán fell in August 1521, the relation between the Spanish conquistador and his Indian lover clarified itself. Cortés was no longer a simple adventurer; now he was a royal administrator, all-powerful within his realm, and immensely wealthy. He could choose what he wanted and when, and he did. In his Coyoacan residence, he established Malinche, their son, Tecuichpo (daughter of the dead Moctezuma), two other Indian women, and three Spanish women, one of whom was Cortés' legitimate wife, Catalina Xuarez , who had arrived unexpectedly from Cuba.

The new situation sealed Malinche's fate. When final victory was achieved, far from enjoying its fruits she instead became part of Cortés' coterie of women. On the arrival of his legitimate wife, Malinche came to be considered an intruder, someone to be rid of.

History records one final episode concerning her fate. Cortés had no intention of leaving Malinche without any reward whatsoever. Having ended their personal relations, the captain gave her some rich lands and commanded her to marry one of his allies among the conquistadores, Juan Jaramillo. The latter was a drunkard, chosen more for his political connections than for any attention or love he might show Malinche. After the wedding ceremony, Cortés himself left immediately for Honduras, hoping to repeat the successes he had enjoyed in Mexico. This expedition proved an utter failure, and Cortés was lucky to escape with his life.

Malinche, for her part, evidently hated her marriage of convenience. Jaramillo happily took her lands while at the same time denigrating her as a dirty Indian. Nor did she find any solace in her son, for Cortés had already taken Martín from her and given the boy to one of his cousins. As the essayist Fernando Benítez noted:

Had there been in the heart of Cortés a vestige of love, he would not have snatched away the child, nor would he have sold Malinche to a man of the moral fiber of Jaramillo, but he would rather have been content to keep her to herself and see that she had all the protection necessary.

But Cortés was still looking at the horizon, still looking for further Tenochtitláns to conquer. This fatal wanderlust made him blind to his earlier associates, Malinche among them. She languished for a time on her estates in Orizaba and then died, probably of a European disease, in1531. Jaramillo remarried within six months.

Tecuichpo (d. 1551)

Daughter of Moctezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs. Name variations: Tecuichpoch; Miahuaxochitl; (baptismal name) Isabel; Doña Isabel. Daughter of Moctezuma II (c. 1480–1520), Aztec emperor (r. 1502–1520); mother unknown; married Alonso de Grado; married Pedro Gallego; married Juan Cano de Suavedra, in 1531; some sources claim also married Cuauhtemoc, last emperor of the Aztecs; children: (with Hernán Cortés) daughter Leonor Cortés Motecuhzoma, also known as Marina.


Gillespie, Susan D. The Aztec Kings: The Construction of Rulership in Mexica History. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 1989.

Nationalist historiography in Mexico vilifies the memory of Malinche. She was, it is alleged, an arch-traitor to her own people, having in effect sold them into bondage to the Spaniards, thus setting the pattern for a long history of exploitation that lasted until the 1910 Revolution. "Malinche" has taken on the worst sort of pejorative connotation in contemporary Mexico. But is this fair to the historical figure? She thought that by allying herself to Cortés she might liberate her people, not enslave them. And she worked hard toward that end. That Cortés should appear to her as a glimmering comet is no more a surprise than it is that she failed to see the long darkness that followed him. Finally, what the nationalists have missed is that by giving birth to Martín, in whose veins pumped both European and Indian blood, Malinche helped lay the foundations for modern Mexican society. She is as much mother of Mexico as she is the malignant spirit that haunts the country to this day.


Benítez, Fernando. In the Footsteps of Cortés. NY: Pantheon, 1952.

Chaison, Joanne Danaher. "Mysterious Malinche: A Case of Mistaken Identity," in The Americas. Vol. 32. April 1976, pp. 514–523.

Krueger, Hilde. Malinche or Farewell to Myths. NY: Storm Publishers, 1948.

suggested reading:

Cortés, Hernán. Letters from Mexico. NY: Orion, 1971.

Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, 1517–1521. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966.

Meyer, Michael C., and William L. Sherman. The Course of Mexican History. NY: Oxford, 1991.

Thomas Whigham , Professor of Latin American History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia