Women's History Month
Women's History Month

Women's History Month: La Malinche

La Malinche, 1501-1529. 

“Many Mexicans consider her a traitor who betrayed her own people - to this day calling someone La Malinche is considered an insult. Personally I think she was stuck in between a rock and a hard place and has got a pretty unfair rep. She did what she had to survive.”

Depending on your personal opinion of her, you may know her as ‘Doña Marina’ or ‘La Malinche’. She was a central - and controversial - figure in the success of the Spanish Conquest of the Aztecs. Malinche is the name of treachery and betrayal in Mexico and her image is forever ingrained in the Mexican psyche, as a national Judas… but is this fair judgement of her character?

La Malinche came from a noble family, but following her father’s death, was sold into slavery by her mother. Her mother had remarried another nobleman and given birth to a son. Malinche had become an inconvenient step-child, and was removed to ensure that the couple’s new son would be their only heir. She eventually fell into Spanish hands in April 1519. She was christened, per the custom for concubines at the time, and took the name Marina (which we will use to refer to her hereafter). Her noble background saw the honorific Dõna accompany her new name. She was among twenty slave women given to the Spaniards after they had defeated the Chontal Maya of Potonchán. Of all the concubines, she was viewed as the most gracious beauty and was singled out by the conquistador Hernán Cortés as a gift for the highest born man of the expedition Alonso Hernandez Puertocarrero.

Cortés used Spanish priest and Mayan speaker, Gerónimo de Aguilar, as his main interpreter, but Aguilar could not speak Nahuatl. It was discovered that the noble born Marina spoke both Mayan and Nahuatl - she suddenly became incredibly valuable to Cortés and remained close to him at all times. For some time, Aguilar continued to interpret Mayan to Spanish, but Malinche’s own grasp of Spanish soon reached the level where she could act as Cortés’ sole interpreter. During this time, he took Marina on as his mistress. She would prove to be an important ally to Cortés - when she learned of a plan by natives of Cholula to cooperate with the Aztecs to destroy the small Spanish army, she alerted her master. Pretending to cooperate with her native informants plan, in reality, she had turned the tables on them, facilitating the slaughter of many Cholulans at the hands of Cortés’ men. Depictions of Cortés often portray him with Marina poised at his side. Although they never married, their relationship followed the familiar pattern of marriage among native elite classes - the Nahua wife assisting her husband with his military and diplomatic endeavours.

Marina gave birth to Cortés’ first son Don Martín Cortés around 1523. This child would be named as the first true Mestizo - child of mixed European and indigenous American ancestry. Nothing definite is known of Marina, after the birth of her son. It is estimated that she died in 1529, following the birth of her second child Dõna Maria, the daughter of her later husband, the Spanish hidalgo Juan Jaramillo. Marina’s early death robbed her of the chance to see her children grow up. Throughout their lives, both Don Martín Cortés and Doña María Jaramillo strove to keep a positive memory of their mother alive. The rise of the malinchismo - betrayal your native identity in favour of the new and foreign - would undo their efforts and disregard the circumstances surrounding Marina’s life. Following Mexico’s break from Spain in the early 1800s, the woman whose identity was taken from her as soon as she was sold into slavery, would receive no sympathy for an undoubtedly hard life. She would be remembered simply as Cortés’ mistress - an opportunistic whore who flaunted her sexuality to achieve her own ends.

To learn more about Mexico's history and heritage, why not book a place on one of our Mexico tours?