There is an old saying that goes “behind every strong man is a strong woman”. This proverb can be used to describe the legacy of Hernando Cortes and his conquest of Mexico. Like the proverb, he had someone behind him who aided in his goals of dominance. The woman was Dona Marina, otherwise known as La Malinche. Her beauty and intelligence made her into one of the most hated and influential women in Mexico’s history. According to Clifford Krauss, “La Malinche is for the most part portrayed as the perpetrator of Mexico’s original sin” (110).
La Malinche was a victim of a “double rape” (Todorov 49). Her destiny was determined at birth. As a child growing up in native culture, she conformed to gender roles put forth by her elders. She accepted her place as a second-class citizen, both as a slave and a woman. These lessons would eventually play into Cortes’ grand scheme of conquest. Since she was a property of Cortes, her upbringing taught her to follow every one of Cortes’ orders.. La Malinche did not deserve the prejudice put against her.
Despite all the pain her native people and the Spanish gave her, she forgave them for their actions. Her knowledge of language and customs eventually played a role in her ease of assimilation into Spanish culture. Her loyalty to Cortes grew into love, which, in turn, wrongly made her a traitor to her own people. The natives coined the nickname “Mexican Eve”, who tempted the Spanish into the native world with her beauty and sexuality. She was the mother of Mexico, for the child that she and Cortes created became the first documented mestizo.
This child would eventually follow in his mother’s footsteps and conform to Spanish society. When Cortes left her after conquering Mexico, she lost everything-power, fame, and honor. She even lost her child. She had suffered the ultimate betrayal. She became La Chingada, which meant, “the fucked one” (Krauss B10). Many natives, even present ones, still view La Malinche as a traitor to her people. The term malinchista is deemed as an insult. “To be called it is to be called a lover of foreigners, a traitor” (Krauss B10).
According to Marta Sanchez, modern Mexicans connect the name Malinche to female sexuality. The name Malinche, which suggests active power to betray perceived group or national interests, can refer to either a man or a woman, but even when applied to a man, it contains a residual stigmatizing implication of femaleness” (118). These interpretations of her name do not serve her any justice. La Malinche grew up with the given name Malintzin. When she was born, a prophet had told her parents that she would have a relationship with a foreigner who would destroy the natives.
Lanin Gyurko wrote, “When that child reaches adolescence she will love the greatest enemy of our race. This love will provoke her to deny the gods, sell out her brothers and hand over her nation to the foreigner” (Cypress 61). This prophecy would eventually become the truth. According to historian William Prescott, her father was rich and powerful (Adams 2). Some believed that he was a great Indian chief, while others argued that she was the daughter of a powerful cacique (Cypress 26). Whatever the case, her father died when she was a small child.
Her mother, who had remarried soon after her husband’s death, sold her to the Xicalango Indians, in an attempt to secure sole ownership of her usband’s legacy to Malintzan’s half brother. She eventually became the property of the cacique of Tabasco. It is here where Hernando Cortes first encountered Malintzan. The cacique of Tabasco, who believed that Cortes and his men were gods who had graced his tribe with their presence, gave Malintzan, along with 20 other cooks, as a gift. Cortes had initially chosen someone else as his concubine; Malintzan quickly proved her value to him. He saw her as a pawn for his dreams of conquest (Adams 4).
La Malinche had many characteristics that made her attractive to Cortes. The feature that first struck Cortes was her beauty. “For the Christians she would be like an angel while Pagans would deem her a goddess of paradise” (Cypress 77). Not only was Cortes hypnotized by her initial beauty, the natives noticed it also. However, they saw this beauty as a root of evil. The myth of the Mexican Eve followed her. Like Eve, she used her power of sexuality to let evil into the native world, rather than fight to keep it out. This myth of the Mexican Eve followed La Malinche throughout her life.
Like Eve, she was beautiful and had the power to attract men with her sexuality. Paz described her as a “goddess. Hers is not a natural beauty but a supernatural enchantment” (Cypress 77). Also, like Eve, many felt that she caused all of the world’s misfortune. This is not true, of course, since Cortes had done the destruction. She was only an innocent bystander who performed her services dutifully. Another quality that attracted Cortes was the way she carried herself. Her demeanor showed that she had belonged to a higher class and did not belong with the ther slaves.
A reason for this was her upbringing before being sold by her mother. In Aztec culture, gender roles were determined at birth. If the newborn was a male, a tiny sword and shield was placed alongside of him in his crib. For a female, she would receive a tiny loom and shuttle (Todorov 91). Women were seen as second class citizens, who could not leave their predestined roles. No woman, except for Malintzin. Malintzin, who had been baptized and had gotten her name changed to La Malinche, did, in fact, escape from the oppression of native culture.
However, as attractive as the other traits seemed to be, the one feature that impressed Cortes the most was her ability to learn language in a short period of time. “She would learn Spanish, by all accounts in a matter of weeks, and her principle value to Cortes was that she learned Nahuatl, the tongue used throughout Northern, Aztec, reaches of the country” (Adams 3). This skill grew to be useful and became the key to her escape from her native gender role. Her ability to translate surfaced soon after the cacique had given her to Cortes.
Cortes’ first translator, Father Jeronimo de Aguillar, lost his usefulness when Cortes began to conquer tribes who did not speak any of the dialects that he learned while captured by a native tribe. Though she did not know Spanish in the beginning, she and the Father both understood a common tongue. She would translate the native speech into the common language and the Father would, in turn, render this into Spanish. However, as soon as she learned Spanish, Cortes lost his use for de Aguillar and he disappeared from history. La Malinche rose to be Cortes’ right hand man.
Joe Manchip White described her as “continuously at Cortes’ elbow. In the eyes of the Indians, they formed an inseparable pairCortes consulted her on manners of general policy and on all matters relating to psychology” (Adams 6). As a result, La Malinche grew to be the main translator for Cortes. Not only was she a translator, she was also considered an expert on native thinking. Because she had lived in so many different places, she had been able to pick up different tribal ideas and etiquette. One of the important parts of Aztec culture was its fascination with language.
The language privileged by the Aztecs is ritual speech-i. e. , speech regulated in its forms and its functions, memorized and hence always quoted. The most striking form of ritual speech is constituted by the huehuetlatolli, discourses learned by heart, of varying length, covering a vast variety of themes and corresponding to a whole series of social circumstances: prayers, court ceremonies, rites of passage in the individual’s lifeTheir function is that of all ritual speech in a society without writing (Todorov 80). Because she knew how the Aztecs worked, she used this to help Cortes.
This expertise allowed La Malinche to become Cortes’ confidante. However, as important as her role of companion was, she only did what Cortes wanted her to do. She was taught to give unconditional loyalty as a child. She never meant to betray her people. She would present herself as indifferent to most of the conquered races, yet “remained faithful to people whom raised her. ” (Adams 5) Her guardians taught her the basics of life and how to survive in it. The ease in multi-lingual communications gave her an edge over her translating opponents.
As writer William Prescott explained Without herit would have been Cortes who was conquered, for ‘her knowledge of the language and customs of the Mexicans, and often of their designs, enable her to extricate the Spaniards more than once, from the most embarrassing and perilous situations’ (Adams 5). For the Spanish, she became a valuable tool in negotiations with the natives. As the main interpreter, La Malinche had many responsibilities to hold. Cortes needed her for two reasons. The first was to get directions in order to find the best route through Mexican territory.
The second was to intimidate the natives into creating a partnership with area tribes (Adams 6). In each instance, La Malinche would rise to the occasion with her wit. She would pass any information that she would receive straight to Cortes. Diaz describes one of her many escapades in which her beauty and wealthy appearance attracted an old native woman into giving her information. Rather than be slaughtered in the imminent attack, the old woman suggested, Marina should gather possessions and seek refuge at the old woman’s house, where, later, she could marry the woman’s son.
Marina pretended to accept the offerbut put the old woman off until night, warning her that Cortes’ troops were on guard and would hear them. Marina then pumped the woman for more informationThe woman’s husband, it turned out, was a Tlaxcalan captain who had, along with others, received gifts from the wily Moctezuma to help ambush Cortes (Adams 8). The information she was able to get from the old woman protected hundreds of Spanish from bloodshed. Another person La Malinche negotiated with was the great Montezuma himself.
She played an intricate role in the negotiations between the two leaders. Cortes used her expertise to “help penetrate the final treachery, the theft of an empire. ” (Adams 10) It was in his presence that La Malinche showed her noble background. The use of indirect metaphors played a large part in the polite form of Nahuatl. The fact that she understood this “lordly language” supported the idea that she had been born in the upper tiers of native society. Her noble upbringing also enabled her to look into Montezuma’s eyes, something that even Cortes’ men could not accomplish.
She dared to address herself directly to Montezuma in order to translate for Cortes bespeaks raw courage [while his men] kept their eyes lowered with great reverence. ” (Karttunen 11) She understood the cultures of both groups, and used her intelligence to please her master. Montezuma had only a couple of minor weaknesses in his clutch of power. She knew of his fear in the Spanish, who he saw as white gods walking on the earth. He believed that the god Quetzalcoatl had returned through Cortes; he was too blinded by faith to see the future destruction.
She also knew of the hatred that other tribes had towards him and the Aztecs. Montezuma ruled with an iron fist; all of the natives feared him (Karttunen 13). As a result, she advised Cortes to hold him captive until he surrendered. She knew that, with each passing day, he would lose his influence over his people (Cypress 36). In 1520, the Spanish rebelled against the natives and overran Mexico. Montezuma died during the battle, possibly at the hands of his own men (Cypress 36). The Spanish had conquered Mexico. History ignored La Malinche after the fall of Techntitlan.
Cortes left La Malinche behind, for his Spanish wife had recently moved to Cuba. At this point, she was pregnant and alone. Her marriage to Juan Jaramillo was a result of a drunken match concocted by Cortes. This marriage completed her assimilation into Spanish society. The aspect that proved that La Malinche did not intentionally betray her people was her child with Cortes. Unlike the other natives who were raped and left for dead, La Malinche carried the child with love. Her loyalty to the man allowed her to open her body and carry this child.
If she had not loved Cortes, she could have followed the other women and taken the herbs to induce a miscarriage. But, she did not. Instead, after Cortes left her to fend for herself, she “replaces loyalty to her lover with that of devotion to her childshe rids her image of the evil Eve and becomes the Virgin Mary” (Cypress 113). The child that she had with Cortes was the first mestizo in Mexican society. The child, Don Martin, was symbolic in that he was a combination of both the old and the new Mexico. Celestino Gorostiza saw this as “an icon of unity.
La Malincheand the child constitute a unit that symbolizes the united future of Mexico” (Cypress 112). She created a new ethnic group without knowing the impact that it would cause. Don Martin, who was named after his grandfather, grew to be the link between the natives and Spanish. His mother died while he was a child, so as a result, he spent most of his life in Spain under the guidance of Cortes’ cousin. He became a knight of St. James. “War was to be Martin’s profession, and according to tradition, the moors were to be the instrument of his demise. ” (Karttunen 306)
Like his mother, Don Martin was wrongly accused of betrayal. When the Spanish had arrested him for conspiracy, his heritage singled him out. He suffered unspoken torture. There, in his native Mexico, Dona Marina’s son was stretched on the rack, his limbs wound with cords that were tightenedcutting into the scars of the wounds he had received fighting in the service of the king and country Pitcherful after pitcherful of water was forced down his throat, and still he refused to admit that he had ever taken part in a conspiracy against Spanish authority (Karttunen 307).
Like his mother, the majority misinterpreted his loyalty to his homeland. He would also come to an untimely death. La Malinche was a positive mother figure before her premature death. Gorostiza re-enacted the announcement of the arrival of her child during a confrontation with Cuauhtemoc. “Within my body a being has started to form that has neither your blood nor mine. Nor the blood of Cortes. It is a new being who wants to live and whose presence gives new meaning to my life. As for him, I cannot betray him!
For him I shall live and fight against everything and against everybody, in spite of all the threats, all the punishments, all the sufferings, even martyrdomeven death! ” (Cypress 113) She sacrificed whatever life she could have had, in order to make the life of her child better than her own. However, this sacrifice proves to be futile, for she died young. Another sacrifice that La Malinche made in her life was her pride. At one point in her life, she came in contact with her mother and half-brother.
Rather than have them killed in an act of revenge for her childhood, she chose to forgive them with all of her heart. When Dona Marina saw them in tears, she consoled them and told them to have no fear, that when they had given her over to the men from Xicalango, they knew not what they were doing, and she forgave them for doing that, and she gave them many jewels of gold and raiment, and told them to return to their town, and said that God had been very gracious to her in freeing her from the worship of idols and making her a Christian, and letting her bear a son to her lord and master Cortes (Karttunen 18).
She could not find it in her heart to hate; instead she forgave and praised her mother for giving her up for a better life. Throughout her life, La Malinche was surrounded by myths of betrayal and hatred. The natives believed that she had helped destroyed their civilization. The Spanish used her as a pawn in their quest for Mexico. In reality, she was the one betrayed. She loved and lost. Her ability to translate was not a curse meant to hurt people; rather, it was supposed to unify two nations together. Her love for Cortes was a result of him placing her on his level.
The natives feared her because of her association with the man. This fear quickly turned to hate. Cortes took advantage of her loyalty and used it for his personal gain. This hurt her more than being neglected by her own people. She did not love the natives, for they had used her from the time she was a young slave. In the end, both races took advantage of her. Today, many modern Mexicans still do things to take advantage of La Malinche. Though she is the mother of modern Mexico, her children resent her actions. They blame her for all of Mexico’s domestic problems.
Mexican feminists say she isat the root of much of the disdain Mexican men display toward Mexican women, expressed in the country’s high rates of infidelity and domestic violence” (Krauss B10). However, without La Malinche, there would have never been a modern Mexico. Her child created Mexicans as they are today. It is not fair that she is blamed for all their problems. As Mexican psychologist Juana Armanda Aldgria states, “La Malinche was the only important woman during the conquest of Mexico, and in that role, she deserves to be reconsidered. History has not been just to Dona Marina” (Cypress 2).