• EPOCH

The Forgotten and Unforgiven Woman

Ella Pettitt | University of Newcastle

La Malinche, detail from the "Monumento al Mestizaje" by Julián Martínez y M. Maldonado (1982)
La Malinche, detail from the "Monumento al Mestizaje" by Julián Martínez y M. Maldonado (1982)

In the current age of anti-racist activism, post-colonial literature and the popularisation of the 'radical personality' on mainstream social media platforms, young academics are back into the revolutionary mindset. This new era of revisionism is revitalising our academic scope through the lenses of colonialism, feminism and imperialism and thus allowing us to uncover the ignored voices of Indigenous peoples. With this focus comes the need to give a truthful narrative to the colonised women of our past, so easily forgotten, and rarely ever forgiven in our male-dominated society.


The memory of the indigenous slave, La Malinche, (also known as Malinalli, Malintzin or Doña Marina) is perhaps one of the most shocking, but unsurprising, historical expunctions. Working as a translator, sex slave to Hernan Cortes, and partaking in the destruction of the Aztecan Empire, La Malinche's exceptional position as an educated and powerful indigenous woman in league with the Spanish conquistadors leaves us with a controversial history to explore. La Malinche's mere existence creates a historiographical struggle between Spanish and Mexican national ideologies which are sheltered under the larger ideological influences of gender and race. These issues mean that recounting and understanding her role and its importance, as well as analysing her complex legacy amongst Indigenous people. However, despite her controversiality, Malinche deserves recognition for her extraordinary position as a vital female asset to the Spanish and, sympathy, for the patriarchal circumstances she was forced to survive in.

In March 2019, Spain made headlines when Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called for Spain to make an apology for Corte's Spanish Conquest. Obrador described it as a conquest built on the "massacre and oppression" of Indigenous peoples. Spain rejected this request with an official statement featuring the potent line, "The arrival of the Spanish on Mexican soil 500 years ago cannot be judged in the light of contemporary considerations". The exchange between these two men gives clues as to why both countries refuse to acknowledge Malinche; she was an Indigenous South American woman in collusion with the Spanish forces who destroyed the original culture, peoples and history of the land.


In Spain, this elision is simple. Malinche was an Indigenous enslaved woman and the possibility of her (despite its controversiality) being responsible for the success of the Spanish Conquest, was entirely unbelievable if not unthinkable in the sixteenth century and thereby influenced her legacy thereafter.


It would be unfair to cement the idea that Malinche left no historical trace- this is simply untrue. However, her presence is sparse in both the Spanish and Aztecan histories. For the Spanish, the most notable reference to the life of Malinche can be found in Bernal Díaz del Castillo's Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (trans. True story of the conquest of New Spain). Diaz del Castillo informs us Malinche came from a noble family but was sold into slavery when her father died to ensure the inheritance of her mother's new son. As Aztec men were not often sold or traded as slaves, there is little doubt as to the sexual and therefore gendered nature of La Malinche's early abuse. From del Castillo's account, we can infer that these sales occurred in her early teenage years. He wrote;


'The Indians of Xicalango gave the child to the people of Tabasco, and the Tabascans gave her to Cortés.'


Despite romantic literature about Malinche's eventual meeting with Cortes- they did not fall in love at first sight, if at all. She first became the sex slave of Alonso Hernández Puertocarrero, Cortes's close companion. In the immediate period of her enslavement, she was baptised and renamed 'Marina', disregarding her Indigenous name Malinalli. The baptism of Indigenous women was not uncommon and existed to ensure that sexual relations, no matter how forced, were within the purity of the Christian faith. Acts such as these remind us of the excuse of religion to ensure the oppression of non-Europeans during the era of colonialism.


Until 1520/21, Malinche's multilingual capabilities were still undiscovered by the Spanish. However, when Cortes's Spanish translator, Jeronimo de Aguilar, failed to understand the native language of Tenochtitlán, Malinche's ability to speak Nahuatl helped to create a four-way translation from Cortes to Moctezuma II, the King of Tenochtitlán. It was this Aztecan Kingdom that was the prize jewel of Cortes's conquest. Cortes offered Malinche "more than her liberty" for her services, and the Spanish men began to name her 'Dona Marina' ('Dona' translates to Spanish Noble woman).

La Malinche, Hernan Cortes and Moctezuma. (Lienzo de Tlaxcala).
La Malinche, Hernan Cortes and Moctezuma. (Lienzo de Tlaxcala).

Adding to her importance as a translator, Malinche was also able to understand the tone of both the Aztecs and the Spaniards. As language and meaning change with each Aztecan tribe, this skill was powerful in convincing communities to side with the Spanish. These tribes would eventually stand beside the Spaniards during the Fall of Tenochtitlán (26 May – 13 August 1521). With the Spanish, Malinche was described as flirty and fun. This shift in personality, from the diplomat to 'the girlfriend' persona, highlights just how clever Malinche was in using her femininity to manipulate different types of men.

Malinche, in front of and translating for Cortes from an Aztecan tribe. (Florentine Codex).
Malinche, in front of and translating for Cortes from an Aztecan tribe. (Florentine Codex).

Sixteenth-century Spain saw a positive shift in the ways in which noble and religious Spanish women were treated, however, this shift did not extend to the Indigenous 'Spanish' women due to their status as second-class citizens. Unsurprisingly, only one of Cortes's primary accounts acknowledges Malinche's existence. He quotes her as "travelling with him always" but recognises and outlines her role as an interpreter. Though we will never truly know if Cortes understood the weight of Malinche's role in the Spanish Conquest, it can easily be inferred that he recognised her as a vital attribute. After giving birth to his son, Martín (often credited as the first Mestizo/Mexican), and helping to successfully overthrow Moctezuma and Tenochtitlan, Cortes provided Malinche with a home and a marriage to Juan Jaramillo, a member of the Spanish-Portuguese nobility. These actions and his own recognition of Martín as a legitimate son infer Cortes's quiet but notable recognition of Malinche's importance.

Nevertheless, it is clear to see the male desire for glory from Cortes in his refusal to publicly acknowledge the extent of Malinche's role in the conquest. To date, he is often considered to be the sole orchestrator of the Conquest in Mexico. However, it is now clear that this is untrue- the importance of Malinche as an interpreter is evident and, no matter how controversial, cannot be ignored.


Malinche's usefulness to the Spanish in the Conquest leads us to understand the wilful ignorance towards her legacy in Mexico. In the period leading up to the murder of Moctezuma and the Fall of Tenochtitlán, it is believed that Malinche, in a conversation with the women of the city, was told that the Tlaxcaltec (the indigenous peoples of the city) were planning a secret attack on the Spanish. The story told by Diaz del Castillo, recalls Malinche sneaking out of the city to inform the Spanish- who immediately began preparations for the Siege of Tenochtitlán. For Mexicans, the name Malinche carries the weight of the Conquest. 'Malinchista' translates to 'a traitor with an affinity for other cultures (particularly Spanish/European)' and has colloquial connotations of a 'whore’. Undeniably, the Mexican opinion of the Malinche is controversial.


Since the 1960s Chinca feminists have paved the way for a more sympathetic view of Malinche. Overall, however, the opinion of Malinche is one of a voluntary and eager traitor to the Aztecan race, a European's whore and, the unwanted Mother of the Mexican race. In 1982, a statue of Cortes, Malinche and Martín was erected in the central plaza of Coyoacán, a village neighbourhood in the south of the capital, near Cortes' historical estate. Villagers, seeing the statue as nothing more than a commemoration of mass genocide, loss of culture and traitorous sexuality, erupted into chaos and protests ensued.

The Hidden statue of Cortes, La Malinche and their son, Martin,  2009, Chetumal.
The Hidden statue of Cortes, La Malinche and their son, Martin, 2009, Chetumal.

This outrage caused academic debate. Could Mexicans remove themselves from Spain or the legacy of Cortes? Why couldn't they forgive an enslaved woman? Was she a traitor or just surviving? Each debate aired controversial and complex matters that deserve time and individual consideration, but their mere existence is useful in signalling just how deeply controversial and symbolic Malinche is for Modern Mexico. The statue was moved to a smaller hidden park in the eastern outskirts of the village where the symbolic statue of Martin was stolen. He has never been replaced.


It would however be unjust to suggest that all of Mexico rejects the history and therefore the memory of Malinche. In 2000, the town of Oluta, Veracruz, erected a statue of Malinche in celebration of her role as a powerful indigenous woman. Compared to the reaction of the 1982 figures, the acceptance and purposeful placement of this sculpture highlights the change in sympathies for Malinche over time.

Statue of La Malinche, Oluta, Mexico
Statue of La Malinche, Oluta, Mexico

The negative view of Malinche from Mexico seems to focus on her sexuality, rather than her linguistic skills which undeniably helped the Spanish Conquest. Many Mexican poets use her body and Cortes' sexual degradation of it as symbolism for the destruction of the original Mexican culture and peoples. She was the mother of a new race entangled with the spoils of war and the loss of virtue. However, this story of Malinche never ignores her help to Cortes but rather demonises or romanticises her motives unsympathetically.


What is forgotten is that she was a young child, sold multiple times as a sex slave by her people to the conquistadors and then continuously used as such by multiple men- even after she proved her unique usefulness as a translator. More so, while Cortes had managed to persuade many surrounding indigenous tribes to the Spanish cause before Malinche, little is mentioned of their eventual betrayal. But, because of her gender and the 'memory' of Eves betrayal of Adam and God, Malinche is branded a 'whore’ and traitor in lieu of a young woman surviving in the unprecedented era of Empire.


Through the modern lens of gender, race and colonialism, La Malinche is gaining more academic and cultural sympathy. Though it may be at a somewhat disappointingly slow pace, we cannot judge this or push for faster acceptance. Historians of Malinche must carefully balance the fine line between ignorance to the cultural feelings, patriotism and history of Mexican peoples, whilst also acknowledging the gendered prejudices that continue to be held against a vulnerable woman and slave. We can no longer continue to ignore the presence of La Malinche who, against the patriarchal and imperialistic contemporary notions, was able to use her skills and gain agency.


Malinche is an individual worth thorough and continuous study- whether from an event-based, gendered or a racialised perspective – or all three. She is a woman worthy of consideration and, in an age of progressive racial and ethnic relations, now is the time to acknowledge her presence, what it means, what it meant, and, what it changes from a historical perspective.


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Ella is a MA student at the University of Newcastle. Her thesis concerns the changing ideological legacies of colonised indigenous women in the Americas. Overall, she has a general focus on the intellectual histories of the ideological understanding of women, with considerations to class, hierarchy and specific imperialistic influences.


Twitter: @ellapettitt2