Heroin, Traitor or Diplomat?
La Malinche was born circa 1500 CE, the exact date of her birth or death, 1527 (?), is not known for sure. She was born to a nobleman in Oluta, a city in the eastern edge of the Veracruz region of Mexico, on the commemorative day dedicated to the Goddess of Grass; who’s name she was given, Malintzin. Later Tenepal, which means “one who speaks much and with liveliness” was added to her name. Most of the details we have of her life come from two letters Hernan Cortez wrote to the King of Spain and the writings of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a soldier who was with Cortez. Bernal Diaz wrote eye-witness stories from his time with Cortez and Malinche, in Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva Espana, however, many years later, in his old age.
Malintzin may have been afforded some privileges and education because of her status by birth. Unfortunately, for Malintzin her father died, her mother remarried and had a son; in order to pass Malintzin’s inheritance to her husband and son; her mother either sold or gave her to Mayan traders. Her death was faked by showing the townspeople the body of a dead child who had belonged to a slave.
There is no way to possibly know how she was treated while being a slave. I believe she may have been useful to the Mayan traders because of her ability to learn languages. Being quite beautiful and intelligent she was given as tribute to Cortez in 1519 upon the defeat of the Cacique of Tabasco Mayans; she was among 20 young women. Malintzin then became a gift from Cortez to Alonzo Hernando Puertocarrero, a well born member of his expedition. When Puertocarrero went back to Spain, Cortez took her for himself. Besides her native tongue of Nahuatl, the common language of the Aztecs, she also learned several dialects of the Mayan languages from the time she had spent with them. Another member of Cortez expedition was a priest who could speak Mayan, as well as Spanish. This made it easy for Cortez to communicate with the natives of Mexica; from Spanish to Mayan to Nahuatl.
Cortez required the 20 young women to be baptized; Malintzin took the name Marina. Later Cortez referred to her as Dona Marina, out of his respect for her. Cortez was heard saying that for the grace of God and Dona Marina he could not have conquered Mexico. The most common name she is known by, presently, is La Malinche.
Malintzin was more than a translator, her knowledge of the native forms of tribute, rules of the local government of the Aztecs, their cultural and religious traditions and her ability to mediate made her invaluable to Cortez. She was also his lover and mistress. She bore the first son of Cortez, Martin, who he later legitimized. She is sometimes referred to as the Mother of Mexico, by giving birth to the first Mestizo,the offspring of an Indian and a Spaniard. It is believed that she influenced each negotiation, knowing what would be best for both sides. By compromising she helped to avoid excessive bloodshed. She helped teach the natives about Christianity; thereby initiated the end of the human sacrificial traditions of the Aztecs.
She was not Mexica, she had no love for Montezuma or human sacrifice nor the high tribute he demanded from his subjugated cities. This is evident from her loyalty to Cortez, as she could have sabotaged his conquest. Because of this loyalty to him, many Mexicans think of her as a traitor. Some say she is a scapegoat; others say she was caught in the middle and did her best. Some say she is the reason Cortez conquered the Aztecs by betraying her people, but the Spanish had an insatiable hunger for gold and the devastation caused by the smallpox epidemic is what really destroyed their culture.
La Malinche is portrayed in many novels and movies, loved and hated. She is part myth and part legend. Was she a traitor, a heroine or a diplomat? You decide. I vote for the latter.