La (Doña Marina) Malinche

La Malinche was one of the key players in the 16th century conquest of Mexico by Spanish conquistadores. However little is known about Malinche’s life before or after the years of the Spanish conquest in the 1520s.

Malinche was born into a noble family of the Aztec upper class. Her name is probably derived from a corruption of the Nahuatl word Malintzin. She was probably born in Oluta, in the province of Coatzacoalcos, which is in the area between central Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula.

Upon the death of her father, her mother sold Malinche into slavery. During this time, Malinche learned several languages, including Mayan. She was approximately 18 years old when the Spanish conquistadores landed in Mexico and began their conquest of her native land.

In April 1519, Malinche was given as a translator to Hernán Cortés during his dealings with the Aztecs. She was immediately baptized as a member of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Spaniards bestowed upon Malinche the Christian name Marina.

A great amount of the information that has survived about Malinche is the result of the writings of Bernal Díaz del Castillo. In his writings, Diaz noted that Malinche was a beautiful woman who was intelligent, extremely loyal, and not easily embarrassed. She was greatly respected by many of the men, both Aztec and Spanish, with whom she interacted in her role as Cortés’s interpreter.

In his famous book The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1517–21, Díaz del Castillo stated that Malinche’s mother remarried upon the death of her first husband, Malinche’s father.

La Malinche and Hernan Cortez
La Malinche and Hernan Cortez

When her mother gave birth to a new son, in order to safeguard the baby’s inheritance, Malinche’s mother and stepfather sold the little girl into slavery to some Aztecs from Xicalango. The Aztecs from Xicalango then sold Malinche to a group of Aztecs from Tabasco.

After staying in Tabasco for a short period of time, Malinche was eventually given as a gift to Cortés upon his arrival in Mexico. In addition to working as a translator for Cortés, Malinche served as a guide and diplomat.

Cortés was so impressed with Malinche’s efforts on his behalf that he eventually arranged for her marriage to one of his men, a Castilian knight named Juan de Jaramillo. They were married at the town of Orizaba. She later bore him a daughter named María.

Despite her marriage to de Jaramillo, Malinche remained a key figure in Cortés’s later exploits in Tenochtitlán. Diaz observed that she was present when Cortés was carrying on negotiations with Moctezuma II in 1523.

Working with a Spanish priest named Geronimo de Aguilar, Malinche translated Cortés’s words into the Nahuatl dialect spoken by Moctezuma after de Aguilar translated from Spanish to the Mayan dialect that she understood.

Later, Malinche apparently became fluent enough in Spanish that Aguilar’s assistance was no longer needed during the final negotiations with Moctezuma. Indeed, Malinche’s skill in language and in secular politics was so great that she even acted as counselor to the Aztec king during his dealings with Cortés.

In addition to their professional relationship, Malinche bore Cortés a son named Martín. Cortés seemed to have held his relationship with Malinche in some esteem as he named their son Martín after his own father.

Cortés later had the boy legitimized, and he always seemed to favor Martín among his other children in later life. However, in the majority of letters Cortés sent back to Spain, anytime he mentioned Malinche, it was always in her role as his translator. He never alluded to any personal details about Malinche in his Spanish correspondence.

Over the next several years, Malinche’s power seemed to increase. She always dressed in expensive garments and appeared to have her hair styled in the most elegant native fashions. She traveled throughout much of Mexico with Cortés, translating for him in his dealings with the Mayan Empire in 1526.

Sometime after the birth of their son, Martín, the relationship between Malinche and Cortés seemed to flounder. She is rarely mentioned in Cortés’s correspondence after the mid-1520s. After the completion of the Spanish conquest of Mexico in late 1526, Malinche all but disappears from historical records to the point that little to no information is recorded about her death.

There is some speculation that she may have died of complications surrounding the birth of her daughter, María, in 1527 as her husband Juan de Jaramillo is recorded as having married again the following year.

Vilification in History

The vilification of Malinche in Mexican history can be traced to the expulsion of the Spaniards by the Mexicans in 1821. Malinche became synonymous with the image of Eve. Mexican nationalists came to blame Malinche for all the woes suffered by the Mexican people during the colonial rule of the Spanish.

She served as the scapegoat when the Mexican government needed someone to blame for the poor state of political affairs that the new Mexican government faced in the 1820s. Malinche was painted as a scarlet woman whose actions were driven by her extreme sexual appetite.

In the 19th century, particularly in Mexican literary and artistic movements, Malinche’s role as an interpreter, strategist, and diplomat was virtually ignored. Her historical reputation was reduced to that of having been merely Cortés’s sex-starved mistress who betrayed her people.

In reality, Malinche was a respected female who played a crucial role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the growth and spread of Christianity among the Aztec and Mayan peoples. While women such as La Malinche are vilified for their respective roles in the conquests of their peoples by foreign invaders, this condemnation signifies the important role that such women played in the secular politics of their native lands.