I’m taking a class in literary criticism and, from the first day, we’ve been talking about the different points of views from which literary critics analyze a work of art. It occurred to me that, aside from the rules that guide a particular analysis — like a formalist focusing on structure or language or a psychoanalytical critic being concerned with the creative process or author’s traumas — it’s not unlike how we understand anything. We bring our own rules, perceptions, biases, perspectives, etc. to interpret experiences or define situations or understand people.
So, I wonder what I’m bringing with me when I try to understand Malintzin. And I think it’s seeking to understand the different roles that mothers play in our lives, communities, history.
Malintzin is the figurative mother of the mestizos of Mexico, the children of the Spanish and the indigenous people. She represents the first mother, the creator of the mestizo. It’s difficult not to identify with the concept of “mother” or not to react to it from a very personal place. Our understanding of “mother” is deeply personal, as well as individual and varied. But in my mind, the mother aspect to Malintzin’s story is the most compelling.
In our relationships with our mothers, we either put them on pedestals or we demonize them. Indifference, I think, is rare. Mothers and daughters, mothers and sons … these relationships are complex, often tangled, sometimes confusing. And they’re enriching, whether they’re healthy or, like a damaged levee, showing some cracks. If Malintzin is mother, then it’s understandable why her children would feel so angry and so betrayed. What child doesn’t want his or her mother to be perfect? And, when disappointed, what child doesn’t scream, “I HATE YOU!” in utter frustration and disillusionment.
What child who has a damaged relationship with his or her mother doesn’t have a reservoir of resentment and bitterness that colors her perceptions of her mother as an individual, a person outside the role of parent, mentor, role model?
Malintzin may not have initially been seen as a traitor. That probably came later, after it sank in that everything they had known before was irreparably damaged. Their culture, their gods, their traditions … eradicated. And replaced — forcibly — with a new God, saints, language, traditions, expectations, and punishments. These things weren’t just taken, they were ripped away. Why she did it matters less than the fact that she did it at all. Children are captive to their parents’ whims and will. Intellectual analyses of Malintzin as traitor or feminist icon or la chingada or whatever incarnation she’s assigned are interesting. Fascinating, even. But, at her core, she’s a mother with children who felt the ripples from the effects of the choices she made.
This makes her human. And it makes me want to understand her better.