Cameo Portrait of La Malinche: Harlot or Heroine

La Malinche, by muralist Diego Rivera

Malinchista, derived from La Malinche, is a Mexican slur denoting a person who betrays the fatherland.

La Malinche was an Aztec noblewoman who is considered to be the mother of all Mexicans by having given birth to the first officially recognized mestizo child.  However, patriarchal historians brand her as a traitor to her people. They claim she facilitated the conquest of Mexico by becoming Cortés’ interpreter, mistress and mother of their son. A colonial and gender analysis refutes this claim.

Malinali or Malintzin or Marina or La Malinche was the daughter of a noble Aztec chieftain. After his death, when her mother remarried and had a son, she was disinherited and sold into slavery to a Xicalanga tribe that in turn sold her to a Tabasca tribe that subsequently gave her away to the Spaniards as part of the spoils of war. By the time she was “assigned” to a Spanish Captain with instructions to do his bidding, she had acquired several languages and was well-versed in inter-tribal politics. When Cortés became aware of her diplomatic and linguistic skills, he appointed her his official interpreter and negotiator. She also converted to Catholicism,   became his mistress and gave birth to his son. When the Spaniards conferred through La Malinche’s voice, with Moctezuma, the last Aztec Emperor,  the fate of Mexico was sealed.

Some historians say that Cortés was “faithful” to La Malinche until he returned to his wife in Spain and arranged to have La Malinche marry a Castilian knight, Don Juan Jaramillo. Others have a more jaundiced view of his relationship with her, but all agree both Spaniards and Mexicans held her in high esteem. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the Spanish priest who chronicled the conquest of Mexico, described La Malinche as a deeply religious woman with a tender heart, who fiercely prevented the massive bloodshed of her compatriots by exercising her negotiating skills. While it is true that without her the Spaniards would not have conquered Mexico so easily, it is also true that without her good offices, the human toll would have been much higher. As for charges that she was a harlot and a traitor to her people, it would be more correct to say that she was a   de facto sex slave who felt no allegiance to the patriarchal, bloodthirsty empire that betrayed her. It is therefore not surprising that she sought refuge in the Conquistadors’ culture and religion that professed universal brotherhood and non-violence, even if these ideals were completely disregarded by the conquering forces.

Hernán Cortés and La Malinche, by muralist José Clemente Orozco

“Forgive her, Lord, for she knew not what she did” was the Christian discourse that she mouthed as she took off her jewellery and gave it to the very mother who had disinherited her and sold her into slavery. Little would she suspect that after her death at 24, in a curious twist of fate, her “Christian” widower  Jaramillo,  would hastily remarry and try to disinherit their daughter Maria.

Maya Khankhoje, a retired simultaneous interpreter, was born in the heart of the Aztec Empire.