Amplify: La Malinche
The Mother of Mexico.
La Malinche went by many names, but there was one that, up until recent history, tarnished the story of our April AMPLIFY feature: traitor.
Malinche’s life was hard to track, and there are few details of her life available today.
We do know that she was born around 1500, to a noble family. Her birth name is believed to have been Malini (1), although historians are not incredibly confident in this fact. Malinche’s father died when she was young, and her mother then remarried. In an effort to protect her new husband’s inheritance, Malinche’s mother sold her to Mayan slave traders (1, 2). It was with the slave traders that she learned to speak Mayan, a skill that would significantly alter her life.
In 1519, after a battle between the Mayans and the Spaniards, Malinche, along with nineteen other young women, was given to the Spaniards (1). This is when Malinche’s name was changed to Marina, by the Spanish, as they required all women ‘given’ to them to be baptized as Christians. So they could then have sex with the women (2) sin-free, I guess?
It was once with the Spaniards that Cortes learned of La Malinche, the young woman who could speak both Nahuatl (her native language) and Mayan. Malinche soon began to travel with Cortes and his Spanish translator, a priest named Geronimo de Aguilar. She would translate from Nahuatl to Mayan, and Aguilar would translate from Mayan to Spanish for Cortes. Malinche very quickly picked up the Spanish language and became the sole translator for Cortes (1).
The real ‘scandal’ of Doña Marina begins when Cortes wrote that “After God, we owe this conquest of New Spain to Doña Marina” (1). It is recorded that Malinche informed Cortez of the Aztecs' plot to destroy him and his army, which lead to the Spanish conquest of Mexico—the conquest of La Malinche’s people. About a year after the conquest, Malinche gave birth to Martin, son of Cortes (2). Shortly after the birth of Martin, Cortes’ wife came to Mexico (can you even IMAGINE being a woman in the 1500s? Terrible.) and Cortes arranged for Malinche to marry conquistador Juan Jaramillo. It is known that Malinche gave birth to Jaramillo’s daughter, Maria, but not much of her life is known after she marries Jaramillo (2).
La Malinche, in present day, is known as a traitor to her people. She helped the Spanish conquer her land, and had a child with the conquerer himself. In an NPR article comparing the legacies of Malinche and Pocahontas—a traitor vs. a savior—Jasmine Garsd cites Sandra Cypess, professor emeritus of Latin American history at the University of Maryland, writing, “Cypess points out, characterizing Malinche as a traitor and Pocahontas as a heroine gives the women a free will they didn't really have. Becoming asavior or a villain, taking on a lover or rejecting him — these are choices. Neither woman had much say in her fate” (3). In fact, both of their legacies were cemented long after their deaths, in movies and popular culture.
In the 1960s & 70s, Chicano feminism started the work to save La Malinche’s reputation, describing her as a woman trapped between two cultures (3). To wrap up her article, Garsd quotes a 1973 poem, written by Adaljiza Sosa-Riddell, Como Duele (How It Hurts): “P-nche, que dificil ser Malinche” / “F—, how hard it is to be Malinche.”
Can we apply Malinche’s story to our own lives? The answer is: absolutely yes. Her story should serve as a reminder to hold our judgements, because some people are doing the best they can to survive. While Malinche was seen as a traitor to her people, can you imagine if she had said no to anyone? If she had refused to translate for Cortes? When I’m writing about these women for the AMPLIFY series, I try to put myself in their positions to understand the decisions they were forced to make or the lack of choices they had. Learning the history of women not only helps us appreciate how much progress has truly been made (and that we must persist!), but I think it also helps us empathize with women whose motives and beliefs we may not understand.
I’ll get off my soapbox now, though, because I know you’re here for the history and not for a lecture about empathy. As always, the timeline and sources are below. The timeline is short and vague because the reported history of La Malinche is short and vague. I encourage everyone to read the full NPR article by Garsd, cited in the sources, as it is full of a bunch of interesting historical facts about Pocahontas and Malinche. As always, suggestions, criticisms, questions, corrections are all welcome and wanted! I’m trying to help educate the HerStory community on the badass women of our past, but I still have a lot to learn myself.
Around 1500- Born to a noble family (1)
Sometime between 1505-1519- Her father died and her mother remarried, gaving La Malinche to Indians from Xicalango, so that there would be no disputed inheritances with her stepbrother when her stepfather died (2).
1519- Sold in a group of twenty slave women to the Spanish after a battle between the Mayans & Spaniards. At this time she was believed to be in her early 20s (1).
1523- Gives birth to Cortes’ son, Martin (1).
1524-25- Marries Juan Jaramillo and gives birth to their daughter, Maria (2).
1551-1552- Malinche dies.
Ashlee Christensen lives in Pittsburgh, PA. She is an Illinois native - grew up in the Chicago suburbs, went to school at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, and lived in the city of Chicago up until 2015. In June 2015, she packed up with her partner and moved to the city she has absolutely fallen in love with, Pittsburgh! When she's not at work, she can be typically be found in yoga class, working on the next edition of AMPLIFY, cuddling with George the cat, or enjoying trying to figure out what next home improvement task she is going to take on. Follow her nonsense on Twitter: @trashleeinpgh.