La Malinche: Creator or Traitor?



La Malinche by Rosario Marquardt, 1992

La Malinche
by Rosario Marquardt, 1992

One of the most controversial figures of the Spanish Conquest, the woman known as La Malinche or Doña Marina (ca. 1500-1527?) exemplifies the importance of the interpreter in the course of history. She was born to a noble family, was enslaved, became an interpreter and confidante to the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés, and bore him a son. Some view her as the betrayer of the Aztecs, while others consider her to be a scapegoat for Moctezuma's failure to defend his kingdom successfully.

Marina was born into a noble family in the Paynalla province of Coatzacoalcos, in the Veracruz region of southern Mexico. When her father died, her mother remarried and gave birth to a son. Although Marina was her father's firstborn and rightful heir, her mother and step-father favored the new baby. So that the new baby would inherit, Marina's mother gave her away or sold her into slavery and declared that she was dead.

Before she became the property of the Cacique (ruler or chief) of Tabasco, Marina traveled in captivity from her native Nahuatl-speaking region to the Maya-speaking areas of Yucatán, where she learned that language. During this period, Hernán Cortés had come to the Tabasco coast from Cuba with his interpreter, Jerónimo de Aguilar, who had learned Maya after being shipwrecked, enslaved by the Yucatecan Maya, and later rescued by the Spaniards.

Having decided to curry favor with the Spaniards rather than fight them, the Maya gave them food, cloth, gold, and slaves, including 20 women. Besides acting as interpreter, Aguilar, who had himself taken holy orders, helped in the conversion of the Maya. The women, Marina among them, were baptized in March 1519. Her age at baptism is not known.

Cortés gave the baptized women to his military staff. Marina first went to Alonso Hernández de Puertocarrero, then back to Cortés a month later. She soon began to work as an interpreter with Aguilar. When Cortés reached the Nahuatl-speaking areas farther west along the Gulf coast, she would interpret between Nahuatl and Maya for Aguilar, who could interpret between Maya and Spanish.

Marina quickly extended her linguistic skills by learning Spanish. She earned Cortés's confidence, became his secretary, and then his mistress, bearing him a son. Cortés was often offered other women, but he always refused them, demonstrating his respect and affection for Marina. He wrote in a letter, "After God we owe this conquest of New Spain to Doña Marina."

Historians do not consider Marina responsible for the success of the Spanish Conquest. The Spanish appetite for gold, the smallpox epidemic and, of course, the military superiority of the Spanish were major factors. However, her interpreting skills played an enormous role. She certainly facilitated communication between Cortés and various native American leaders, key among them the Tlaxcalans, who were seeking allies against the Aztecs with their brutal demands for human sacrifice and tribute.

The high point of her interpreting career was undoubtedly the initial face-to-face meeting between Cortés and Moctezuma, but she was directly involved in numerous exchanges between the Spanish and the many people he encountered and dealt with. She is said to have actively encouraged negotiations over bloodshed.

Although some have considered her a traitor, many Chicana women consider La Malinche an outstanding historical figure, one whose denigration and defamation of character parallel their own. She was outcast from her own people, and she owed no allegiance to the other Mesoamerican powers. She did take advantage of her linguistic skills to secure her own position. But there is every evidence that once she was enlisted in the Spanish cause, she was totally loyal to Cortés, despite many opportunities to betray him as the convoluted history of the conquest unfolded.

The Mexican author Gómez de Orozco states that Malinche "was an instrumental part of [the Spanish] strategy, interpreting in three languages and providing essential information about economic organization, knowledge of native customs, the order and succession of kingdoms, forms of tribute, rules governing family relations, and so on."

El sueño de la Malinche [Malinche's dream] by Antonio Ruiz, 1939

El sueño de la Malinche (Malinche's dream) by Antonio Ruiz, 1939

After the conquest Cortés, who already had a wife in Spain, demonstrated his respect for Marina by arranging a marriage for her with Don Juan Jaramillo, a Castilian lieutenant. Although Marina was just one of many native American women to bear children with Spanish fathers, she is the most prominent, and her son by Cortés, Don Martín Cortés, was the first mestizo of historical note. He eventually held a position in government, was a Comendador of the Order of St. Jago, and in 1548 was accused of conspiracy against the Viceroy and executed. Marina also bore a daughter, Doña María, to her husband, Don Jaramillo. As the mother of both a son and a daughter of mixed blood, the same mestizo blood that courses through most Mexicans, Doña Marina may rightfully be considered the Mother of the Mexican Nation.

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  What's in a name?

The woman called "la lengua de Cortés" (Cortés's tongue, or interpreter) was at birth named Malinalli (Nahuatl for one of the 20 days of the Mexicatl month, as well as for a kind of grass that can be used to make rope). She was also called Malinalli Tenépal. The Nahuatl word tenépal means "a person who speaks a lot, with enthusiasm and fluency."

At her baptism the Spanish priest gave her the name of Marina. Bernal Díaz, who witnessed and recorded events of this era in The Conquest of New Spain, refers to her as Doña Marina. The homonym of the Spanish name, Malina, became Malintzin (the Nahuatl suffix "-tzin" denotes respect). Cortés was known as Malintzin-é, because the indigenous peoples had trouble pronouncing the Spanish r, so Cortés and Malintzin were know by almost the same name. Then, attempting to pronounce this Nahuatl name, Spanish-speakers rendered the soft Nahuatl tzin-é sound as ch; the result was Malinche.

Interestingly, Díaz also reports that, because of his close association with Marina, Cortés was also called Malinche, which, according to Díaz, translates as "Marina's captain." Prescott in Conquest of Mexico also says that Cortés was called Malinche, but he translates it as "Captain" and says that La Malinche means "Captain's woman."

Today Mexican Spanish-speakers use the word "malinchista" to mean "one who prefers foreign things," and for many Malinche is synonymous with "traitor."

Go to TopEnglish text by R. Michael Conner
Spanish translation by Liliana Valenzuela

Recommended reading

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1519-1521Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1519-1521. Vivid eyewitness account of 16th Century conquistador.

Sandra Messinger Cypess, La Malinche in Mexican Literature: from History to MythSandra Messinger Cypess, La Malinche in Mexican Literature: from History to Myth, 1991.

Frances Karttunen, Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors, 1994.

William H. Prescott, Conquest of MexicoWilliam H. Prescott, Conquest of MexicoCelebrated 1842 classic based on original documentation from Mexican and European governmental and private archives previously closed the public.

Conquistadors. Website accompanying PBS series of the same name.



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