Malinalli, Malintzin, Dona Marina or La Malinche. These are all names for a woman born into the heart of turbulent times. She was born sometime between 1496 and 1501 in an area between the Aztec ruled Valley of Mexico and the Mayan states of the Yucatan Peninsula. She was a member of a noble family as her father was a chief. Unfortunately, he died when Malintzin was very young and at the urging of her new husband, Malintzin’s mother sold her into slavery. Bernal Diaz del Castillo in his book The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico reports the family faked the young girl’s death upon the birth of her half brother to the village to excuse her absence.
After changing hands a few times, Malinche ended up in Tabasco as the slave of Cacique, the military chief of the area. She was then given to Hernan Cortes as a gift after the Spanish defeated the Maya in battle. This was to change her life significantly. Bernal Diaz del Castillo was taken with the young woman’s intelligence and beauty, calling her Marina the Spanish version of her name. More significantly, Malintzin could speak both Nahuatl and Mayan, which made her an important interpreter. A priest in the party spoke Mayan, but no one spoke Nahuatl, which was the common language of the central Mexico at the time. She became such an integral part of the party, Malintzin is often depicted next to Cortes in Aztec drawings at the time. Her importance was paramount as Cortes would have not been able to communicate with Moctezuma at all had it not been for Malintzin. Cortes sent message after message to the Emperor assuring him the Spanish were only there to extend greetings from their monarch to him. This bought Cortes time to secure alliances with the non-Aztec peoples and gave him a significant toehold in Mexico. Without Malintzin, the Mexican conquest would not have been possible.
Malintzin also converted wholeheartedly to Christianity and preached it to her fellow Native Americans. She gave up the name Malintzin and became known as Dona Marina. As the Conquest continued, she rapidly learned Spanish and soon no other translator was needed. Her relationship with Cortes became closer and soon the two were sharing a bed. Marina bore Cortes a son, whom he named after his father Martin and had the boy legitimized. Marina took on another name as well, La Malinche. The native allies of the Spanish called Cortes Malinche, which meant “Marina’s Captain”. By calling her La Malinche, they recognized she was Cortes’ woman as well as his voice.
Together, the two entered Tenochtitlan, what is now Mexico City, on November 8, 1519. The Spanish pushed their Christian beliefs and even went so far as to convince the Emperor to construct a cross and altar in a room in the main temple of the Aztecs. This led to a revolt. Moctezuma tried to quell the unrest, but was attacked by his own people and fatally wounded. Cortes asked to meet the leaders of the attacking forces in the main city square, and with Marina at his side made a plea for peace and promised to depart the city. They listened with respect, and possibly a little awe, at the bravery of this woman to stand where the Emperor had been taken down and ask for peace. However, on July 1, 1520, La Noche Triste or Sorrowful Night, the Spaniards were driven from the city after sustaining heavy losses. Marina went with them riding behind Cortes and survived the grueling march to Honduras and back.
After the Conquest was completed, Marina was still with the Spanish and was a lady of importance. She had the power to punish her mother and half brother who sold her into slavery so long ago. However, Diaz reports that their reunion in 1523 was pleasant. She embraced them with forgiveness and gave them fine clothes and jewels. She and Cortes were no longer bed mates as Cortes’ wife arrived from Spain. Instead, she was married to one of Cortes’ men, Don Juan Jaramillo and bore him a daughter named Maria. There she disappears from the historical record.
In the 19th century, Marina was vilified as betraying her people and handing over Mexico to the Spanish. Her achievements, bravery and skill at diplomacy and language were thrown aside and she was depicted as Cortes’ sex starved mistress. The word “malinchista” became a synonym for a traitor in Mexico. Her reputation has taken a turn for the better in the 20th century, as she was depicted as the mother of the Mexican nation, as her son Martin was considered one of the first Mestizos- a person of mixed European and indigenous American ancestry. One thing is sure. Saint or sinner, Marina was a survivor.
Sources available on request