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.

  1. How fascinating!

    There are always stories about why a person switches sides, why they are so quick to jump fences. Her’s was just so life-changing on so many levels. It rocked the world – who knows what would have happened had she stayed loyal to her heritage.

    Was her family wealthy, so that she knew the language? Or was it that she was close with the king and all the powers that be?

    • It’s assumed that she was raised among the nobility because she spoke the formal rhetoric that the aristocracy used and that was taught to high-born children. No one knows exactly who her family was or how she ended up as a slave among the Maya.

      She really was a fascinating persona; it’s really sad that so little is known about her and, as you said, her actions rocked the world.

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