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Useful Notes / La Malinche

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The woman in the shadows. Maybe.
"Because Doña Marina, in all the wars of the New Spain and Tlaxcala and Mexico, was such an excellent woman and such a good interpreter, as later I will explain, Cortés always brought her with him. [...] She had a strong presence and commanded absolutely among the Indians in all of the New Spain."

Marina (approx. 1495-1529/1550), best known as La Malinche, was a Nahua indigenous noblewoman of the 16th century who became Hernán Cortés' translator, adviser, concubine and right-hand woman during the Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire. Her role in helping the Spaniards with local culture and politics would be absolutely vital for their campaign, to the extent they openly credited her with their eventual sucess even back in her own time, which has led modern commentarists to consider her the true conquistadora of America. She would give birth to Cortés' son Martín, one of the first of the countless mestizos to be born in the land known as New Spain, as well as a daughter by a posterior husband.

An enigmatic figure, subject to all kinds of reinterpretations in modern historiography, very little is known for sure about her. She was reportedly found by the Spaniards as a slave of the Mayan tribe of Tabasco, who handed her to Cortés and company along with other women as a token of submission after the improbable Spanish victory of Centla. Her official background, possibly claimed by herself, is that she was originally a noble heir sold as a slave by her Wicked Stepmother, but this might be a lie, an embellishment or only a part of the story. Chronicles also disagree about her procedence, variously proposing Olutla, Tetiquipaque and Painalla, which might or might not be names for the same or other places, and the only agreement is that she might have been part of the Popoluca ethnicity. Even her very name is unknown: historians used to believe she was born Malinalli (Nahuatl for "grass") and was baptized Marina on the names' similarity, but now it's believed Malinalli was actually the indigenous spelling of her Christian name, with her original name remaining unknown. "Malinche", her most known name, is certainly a mispelling of her name added to the Nahua honorific suffix -tzin (translating as "Lady Marina"), though it was also used for Cortés himself (this alternate meaning being "Marina's Lord").

In any case, her relevant biography starts at that point: originally given to conquistador Alonso Hernández after the battle of Centla, Marina was freed and promoted by Cortés to his own entourage when they saw she could talk fluently Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, aside from the local Maya language. She formed a translating chain with Jerónimo de Aguilar, a Spaniard Gone Native who spoke both Maya and Spanish, but Marina herself learned some Spanish later, and eventually stood out for much more than just translating, also bringing first-hand knowledge and aristocratic leadership to the interactions between the Spaniards and the natives. Her role outlasted the conquest of the empire, after which she was given a house and married the conquistador Pedro Jaramillo, although she had a last tenure as part of Cortés' ill-fated 1524-1526 expedition to the Mayan lands. The rest of her life is not well documented; some believe she died in a smallpox epidemic, not without some irony given the disease would have been accidentally brought by the Spaniards, while others believe she outlived Cortés himself, even more ironically, and actually died in the 1550s.

The son she had with Cortés, Martín, was sent to be educated in the Spanish court, where he became a page and childhood friend of the future king Philip II (which came in handy in a bizarre incident where Martín and other youngsters were falsely accused of planning a revolt). He was knighted by the Order of Santiago and served several times in the imperial army, being ultimately killed in action while acting as a lieutenant to John of Austria during the Rebellion of the Alpujarras.

The rank held by Marina among the Spaniards during the conquest was unofficial but undoubtedly high. Indigenous artworks often represent her not only next to Cortés, transmitting his orders with an authoritarian forefinger held up, but also alone and seemingly ordering indigenous allies around, or even carrying a shield and sword among groups of warriors (she is not mentioned to be part of the Spanish Amazon Brigade, though, so it's likely she was not meant to fight in the frontlines). Spaniards like Bernal Díaz del Castillo were admired of her, for her presence and high diplomatic skills, and it seems even the indigenous themselves, not only allies but also enemies and Aztecs like Emperor Moctezuma, were in awe of Marina as a sort of trascendent individual, who had risen up from their own lands and reached the side of the superhuman foreigners. Sources also picture her as an occasional Guile Heroine, who spared the Spaniards several headaches (if not saving their arses outright) by solidifying alliances, finding out about traps and ambushes, and helping the Spanish preachers to explain Catholic Christianity to the natives.

Needlessly to say, just like Cortés, you will find all kinds of opinions about her depending on who you ask. For some, she is considered the mother of Mexico and mestizaje, a woman whose presence bridged two worlds and help create a new one over which the current nation is built. Others, having coined the entire term malinchismo after her, consider Marina a traitor to her race and a shameful example of Les Collaborateurs who helped evil invaders to destroy her own people; certainly, a Mexican accusing someone of betrayal (both personal and cultural) is liable to call the target of their wrath a malinchista. On this note, it should be clarified that back in the time of the conquest, neither nation or race were factors in the equation; the land now known as Mexico was populated by a variety of independent and often warring cultures that only became an unified country by the Spanish conquest itself, meaning Marina owed no loyalty to the Aztec Empire or any native state other than her own, if she still considered it such after the whole slavery affair (some even believe her people might have been tributary to the Aztecs, meaning her teamup with Cortés would include Enemy Mine overtones). As always, the discussion is not going to end soon.

Her relationship with Cortés is also heavily dependant on the humor and agenda of the writer. She has been variously interpreted as a Lady Macbeth who seduced and "conquered" Cortés himself, a sincere lover who helped him voluntarily, a partner who followed him out of gratitude, a victim of white cisheteropatriarchy or something who was seduced by Cortés into betraying her peers, or a combination of several or all of them.

Marina didn't have a direct counterpart in the Spanish Conquest of the Inca Empire, but her closest equivalent was Cuxirimay, baptized Angelina, a wife and cousin to Emperor Atahualpa who went to become the concubine of Francisco Pizarro and is believed to have held much power behind the scenes (in the topics of translating and being accused of malinchismo, however, the niche is filled instead by the ambitious Tallán tribesmen Felipillo and Martinillo). You can also compare her to María Caridad, original name Anayansi, the native lover and advisor of Vasco Núñez de Balboa.

In fiction

Anime and Manga



Live-Action TV

  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine introduced a ship named after her.
  • She is played by Iazua Larios in Carlos, rey emperador.
  • She received an entire series in 2018, Malinche, with María Mercedes Coroy playing the title character.
  • Óscar Jaenada's series Hernán includes Marina, played by Ishbel Bautista. This series opts to give them a honest if very troubled romance, with jealously and disagreements of conscience in plenty.