Malintzin as Conquerer

“Yo Soy Malinche” by Mary Louise Pratt is an interesting analysis of Malinche as conqueror rather than conquered.  Had she been a man, there would be no ambiguity about her role in the Conquest.  As a man, her choices would have been unambiguous.  As a woman, however:

Debate continues as to how her collaboration should be understood: as the passion-driven acts of a woman in love; as the inevitable playing out of female subordination; as revenge on the society that devalued and objectified her; as political strategy linked to her own lust for power; as an archetypal manifestation of female treachery and woman’s inconstancy (Pratt 860).

I haven’t considered Malintzin from the perspective of Conqueror.  I identified with her simply as a woman.  Not as a victim or a conqueror or a traitor.

This intrigues me.  I’ll have to think about it and put it into perspective.


I’m a daughter.  I don’t claim to be a very good one, but I do my best – and my best ain’t too shabby.

Malintzin was a daughter, too — although specifics are sparse.  Somehow, she came to live among the Maya.  There’s speculation that she was Mexica nobility, sold into slavery by her family.  Legend has it that she was the victim of her gender; as a daughter, she had less value than a son and was discarded by a stepfather who finally had his male heir.

Maybe her family was killed and she was taken.  Maybe she ran away and was captured.  So many possibilities and who knows what the truth is?  History didn’t deem the information important enough to remember.

But I’m a daughter.  And so was Malintzin.

It’s difficult being a daughter sometimes.  There’s a struggle to be independent, to be an individual.  I think there’s also a wish to be accepted and loved, as well as a hope that your choices will make your parents proud.  It’s a rite of passage, though, to be able to say, “I hope you’re proud of me.  But these are my choices and I hope you respect them, whether you agree or not.”

My mother and I struggle with boundaries sometimes.  I’m a control freak.  She is stubborn.  We clash.  We’ve had many a conversation about daughters.  As her father’s daughter, she had his unconditional support if not his unconditional approval.  She married young, had a child and divorced young.  She made a good life.  As her daughter, I have had her unconditional support all my life.  She was the kind of parent who let me read anything I wanted, age-appropriate or not.  She didn’t always approve of my choices — in fact, I recall a few choice words following particularly bad decisions — but she felt that I had to own them, good or bad.  It was my grandfather’s philosophy that thought should go into the decisions we made, along with awareness and acceptance of the possible consequences.  He did not accept “I don’t know” or random impulsiveness or accidents.  He would not accept excuses.  My mother agreed with him.

So, this is the bias I bring to reading and learning about Malintzin.  I don’t need to retell her history from an apologist perspective in order to respect that she made choices, whether I agree with them or not.  What we know about her comes mostly from the Spanish conquistadors.

It’s a convoluted narrative.


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.

Dia de los muertos

From an Aztec poem:

We only came to sleep,
We only came to dream,
It is not true, no, it is not true
That we came to live on the earth.
We are changed into the grass of springtime;
Our hearts will grow green again
And they will open their petals,
But our body is like a rose tree:
It puts forth flowers and then withers.

Felíz día de los muertos y día de los santos.

La Llorona

La Llorona is a well-known Mexican folktale.  There are numerous variations.  And one involves La Malinche.  It blurs the line between fact and fiction, but it’s a creepy little tale nonetheless.

According to this particular version of the legend, La Malinche gives birth to two sons by Hernán Cortés.  The king and queen of Spain fear that Cortés’s ruthless ambition has no limits and that he intends to build his own empire in New Spain.  They send a lovely Spanish lady to seduce him and convince him to abandon his plans and return to his homeland.  The Spanish lady does as she is bidden and seduces Cortés.  He falls in love, asks her to marry him, and she accepts — on the condition they return to Spain.  What option does he have?  He agrees.  He tells Malinche that he is leaving New Spain and that he is taking their sons with him.

By this time, Malinche sees what her actions have wrought.  She feels remorse over the role she played in the fall of Tenochtitlán.  One night, while she sleeps, one of the gods of the Mexica visits her in a dream.  He warns her not to let Cortés take their children.  If he is allowed to take them, one of them will return one day and continue the destruction that his father began.

The night that Cortés will come to take their sons, Malinche slips away with them.  Cortés sends his soldiers to find her and take the children.  They find her along the shoreline of Lake Texcoco.  In a panic, she kills her children with an obsidian dagger.  Crazy with grief, she wails, “¡Mis hijos!”

Cortés returns to Spain.  La Malinche spends the rest of her life grieving for her lost children.  After her death, her ghost is seen kneeling at the edge of Lake Texcoco, sobbing.  She becomes known as La Llorona, the weeping woman.

Feliz dia de los muertos (y de los santos)!


I’m struck by how many names we have.  (This may seem irrelevant, but it’s connected to Malintzin.)  Mom.  Daughter.  Sis.  Tía.  Babe.  Querida.  Miss (or Ms.).  Hey you.

Each name that is given to us corresponds to how we are seen in a given moment.  A kid yelling MOM! when he or she needs help or attention.  A spouse or boyfriend asking for a favor and starting his sentence with “Babe…” or your mother referring to you as “mi’ja” when gossiping with the neighbors (in my case, at least; yours may call you “hon” or “kiddo” or “punkin” or “angel”).  At the DMV, you might be the more anonymous “Miss…?”  But they’re all the same person … and yet not.  It’s as if each name has its own identity, each one unique from another.  “Mom” isn’t the same as “Miss” or “babe.”

This concept of multiple identities fascinates me.

Is one persona more real than another?  Or is it a sort of figurative MPD, minus the trauma that causes a core personality to splinter?

The Aztecs believed that names held power.  They chose names carefully and based them upon their calendar and the influence of deities.  If they disliked the connotation of the name particular to a person’s date of birth, they waffled the day until a more pleasing name resulted.  So, there was a sense of choosing destiny along with choosing a name.  It gave a child something to live up to.

It makes me wonder … was Malintzin more La Malinche or Doña Marina?  Or were all of those personas invented by someone else?

Perhaps she was, in her own mind, someone else entirely.

I’m not sure I’ll ever know a definitive answer, but I think sometimes that all these questions could fill a book.

La Malinche and Malinchismo

It’s been a while since I’ve posted.  Work, school, etc. have been particularly demanding.  But I need to get back on track.  So, I read an interesting article in The Concise Encyclopedia of Mexico, a Gale reference book, I believe.  This particular article was written by Frances Karttunen, a professor at UT Austin who also published a fascinating (and definitive) Nahuatl dictionary and a book on Mesoamerican cultures and languages that I’m dying to buy; you can see her CV here).  Titled “La Malinche and Malinchismo,” it’s one of the more factual articles I’ve read so far.  It bothers me to read about the alleged grand romance between Hernán Cortés and Malintzin.  I once commented to a professor that I disbelieved the romantic version of their association. My argument was that, except for a romance novel or two in which Malinche and Cortés were fictionalized, he gave her away to one of his soldiers. Who believes they own the person they claim to respect and love and that they have the right to discard another human being?  “It may have been Stockholm Syndrome,” I finally conceded.  Of course, this is simplistic.  There are undoubtedly people out in the world who believe they own the people they love.  But it’s difficult for me to reconcile the concept of love as ownership or a woman as an object to be given or withheld.

But I digress…

Karttunen addresses the issue of names, which is one of the very things about Malinche that fascinates me.  Dr. Karttunnen writes that there is no evidence that Malinche’s name was ever Malinalli.  In fact, she contends that she took the name “Doña Marina” after she was baptized.  The Mexica then mispronounced her name as “Malin” — because the Spanish r was pronounced as l in Nahuatl and they tacked on the honorific –tzin, which translates to doña, or lady.  Thus, Malintzin.  I find this interesting because, on the surface, it implies that she had no identity prior to her baptism and rebirth as the Spanish translator Doña Marina.  Or that who she was outside of the her role as translator for the conquistadors was and is irrelevant.

History is selective about its recall.  And succinct.

There isn’t enough information to know who she was before she became Doña Marina/Malintzin.  Dr. Karttunen writes that the Nahuatl spoken by Malintzin was tecpillatolli, a version of the language used by the aristocracy in Mexica society.  She would have been taught tecpillatolli as a child.  She also spoke Maya and was living among the Mayan when the Spanish arrived because the Mayan chief, Chontal Maya, gave her (and 19 other women) to the conquistadors as a gift.  How she came to live among the Maya is open to conjecture, but she was with them long enough to become fluent in the language.  If the Spanish knew her name at this point in time is unknown; when the conquistadors wrote about her later, they always referred to her as Doña Marina.

Names were important to Aztecs.  If she was raised among the Mexica, her name would have been chosen carefully by her parents.  It would have been influenced by the calendar, by the gods.  They bestowed names.  Stripping it away and taking a new Spanish name is significant; it tells her — tells history — that she was no longer Mexica.  She was Spanish, aligned with the Spanish, and had the same goals, same values, and same intent as the Spanish.  This is why, to Mexicans, she has come to symbolize a traitor.  At Cholula, when she told Cortés about the plan to attack the Spanish, she gave Cortés and his men the means to commit atrocities.  In that moment, she voluntarily shed her Indian identity, rejected it, and chose the foreigners over her own country and her own people.  We’ll never know why.  So, we invent why.  We romanticize it.  She did it for love.  She did it for revenge.  She did it because it was foretold at her birth.

I think why lies somewhere in her name, in who she really was.

A bit unrelated, but I love this video.

It’s the legend of the 5th sun, the current era on the Aztec calendar.

The video is in Spanish and the animation is a bit clunky, but fantastic nonetheless.

I love the mythology.  It reveals so much about the Aztec mindset.

Motecuhzoma y Malinche

Motecuhzoma y Malinche by Manuel Vilar (Museo Nacional de Artes, Mexico City)

I dislike that Motecuhzoma’s name was change to “Montezuma.”  I also dislike that Malintzin’s name (or Malinalli, which was her actual name; the -tzin is a suffix that means “lady”) was changed to Doña Marina.  It seems like such an imperious thing to do.  “I don’t like your name.  It’s difficult to pronounce, so I’m going to call you this bastardized version instead.”

El sueño de la Malinche

El sueño de la Malinche / Malinche's Dream by Antonio Ruiz (Galería de Arte Mexicano, Mexico City, 1939).