In Defense of Malinche
By Mildred Boyd
July 2007 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 23, Number 11
She was only one of twenty women slaves given to Cortez by the defeated chiefs of Tabasco in hopes that he would go away and leave them in peace. The women, given ostensibly “to make bread,” were welcome but the treasure of gold that accompanied them excited more interest. As listed by Bernal Diaz, that included “…four diadems, two masks with Indian faces, earrings, some articles shaped like lizards, little dogs, five ducks and some other trinkets…” Those and the lengths of quilted cloth were more appreciated by the rank and file. The officers to whom the women were given by Cortez might have been of a different opinion.
It was, however, hardly to be expected that any of them could guess how truly important one of those women, actually only a girl, would turn out to be. Her name was Malinali and, unlike the others, she was of noble birth. She had been the only child of a reigning cacique of the Paynalla province near Coatzcoalcos. He died while she very young, leaving her as his sole heir. Her mother soon remarried and having borne a son to her new husband, sold young Malinali to slave traders and announced that she had died so that the boy might inherit her lands.
She was sold first to a Maya lord in Xibalba and later to the Tabascan cacique who presented her to Cortez. He, in turn, gave her to Alonzo de Puertocarrero after she had been briefly exposed to the Christian faith and baptized like all the others. (Apparently, it was less of a sin to commit adultery with a fellow Christian than with a pagan.)
Cortez was not to know that he had just received an answer to his prayers. Up until now, the priest he had ransomed and who spoke fluent Maya as the result years of captivity in that land had served well as an interpreter. They had now reached lands where Nahua was the local tongue and he was back to grunts and gestures—hardly the most eloquent language for sensitive diplomatic negotiations. When he learned of Dona Marina’s command of both Maya and Nahua and her extensive knowledge of the political and social structure of these lands, he wasted no time in attaching her to his staff as interpreter and advisor and, when Puertocarrero was sent on a mission to Spain, his lover. All during the conquest she was by his side and he never took another woman, though many were offered.
Dona Marina figured largely in all the chronicles of the time.
Even Cortez, who seldom gave credit to anyone else, once wrote, “After God, we owe the conquest of New Spain to Dona Marina” Still, very little of her life is known before 1519 or after 1524. Even the year of her birth is uncertain. It is variously recorded as anywhere from 1502 to 1505. The earlier date seems more likely. It is doubtful that, even in a society where women had to grow up fast, that a fourteen year old would have had the wisdom and maturity for the role she eventually played.
Was she harlot or heroine? Traitor or trustworthy ally?
If she was a harlot—and she would hardly have understood the term—what choice had she ever had? She had been sold as a slave three times, repeatedly raped, given as gift, first by the Tabascans, then by Cortez. None of these had been her choice. Even if they had been, how can she be blamed if she did use her wits and beauty to improve her status in the situation in which she now found herself? No rumor ever accused her of being unfaithful to Cortez or to Juan Jaramillo, the man she eventually married with Cortez’ blessing.
Traitor? To whom? To whom did she owe fealty? Mexico was in no sense a united country at the time. It was more like the quarrelsome Greek city states with warring factions jockeying for position and power and all hating the Aztecs. Her own people paid tribute to Aztec overlords because they feared them, and she did nothing to harm them.
Though she had justifiable cause to hate the mother who had sold her and the brother who usurped her lands and titles, she readily forgave them with true Christian charity.
There is little doubt that her ability to negotiate on equal terms with local chieftains avoided many a bloody battle. That and her frequent intercession on behalf of her countrymen saved untold thousands of Indian lives. Were the Cempoalans and Tlaxscalans, who fought with Cortez throughout the conquest, traitors? Rebels, yes, they would probably have joined Beelzebub himself if he offered to free them from the Aztec yoke. But no one has ever accused them of treachery. Why just her?
Actually, no such accusation was ever made against her during her lifetime or for nearly three centuries after by either Spanish chroniclers or native scribes. They always referred to her as Doña Marina or Malintzin, both terms carrying honorifics indicating respect.
It was only after the successful revolution of 1810 that she began to be spoken of in unflattering terms and the name of Malinche (a double corruption of Malintzin) became synonymous with traitor. It is not surprising that the fanatic republicans hated all things Spanish. Cortez, of course, was the villain incarnate and La Malinche was tarred with the same brush and, if possible, even more hated. It must have galled the patriarchal regime like a burr under the saddle that a mere female, and one of their own at that, had been so instrumental in the conquest. Perhaps they were afraid their own oppressed wives and daughters might admire her enough to try to follow her example. And why not? Although the son she bore Cortez was hardly the only, or even the first mestizo, he is the only one of which we have a real record, and Malinche could be regarded as the mother of all modern Mexicans.
Whether it was deliberate or not, the ensuing smear campaign against her was, and still is, effective. She, who had so often advised mercy and gentle treatment for her people, was slanderously accused of sadistic cruelty against those who worked the land assigned to her by Cortez. Fortunately, this can be proved untrue. There was a Maria de la Caballeria, also known as Doña Marina, who ruled with an iron hand and was guilty of inflicting numerous atrocities on her underlings, but it was certainly not our Malinche.
The hatred against Malinche is too deeply ingrained in the modern Mexican to be easily uprooted. Occasionally researchers and historians publish learned articles vindicating her but to little effect. The chicanas of the United States are more daring. In their struggle for equal rights as human beings they are using La Malinche as a role model.
Who knows? Some day the vilified harlot/heroine of 1519 may be deemed eligible for sainthood. But don’t hold your breath.