La Malinche

La Malinche

La Malinche (c. 1496 – 1529) was an indigenous woman from the Mexican Gulf Coast, who played a role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico, acting as interpreter, advisor, lover and intermediary for Hernán Cortés. She was one of twenty slaves given to Cortés by the natives of Tabasco in 1519. Later she became a mistress to Cortés and gave birth to his first son, Martín, who is considered one of the first Mestizos (people of mixed European and indigenous American ancestry).

The historical figure of Marina has been intermixed with Aztec legends. Her reputation has been altered over the years according to changing social and political perspectives, especially after the Mexican Revolution, when she was portrayed in dramas, novels, and paintings as an evil or scheming temptress. In Mexico today, La Malinche remains iconically potent. She is understood in various and often conflicting aspects, as the embodiment of treachery, the quintessential victim, or simply as symbolic mother of the new Mexican people. Her sexual relationship to Cortés gave rise to the pejorative term La Chingada (‘the fucked one’). The term ‘malinchista’ refers to a disloyal Mexican.

There is little certain information regarding Malinche’s background. Most of what is reported about her early life comes through the reports of Cortés’ ‘official’ biographer Francisco López de Gómara, and some of Cortés’ contemporary conquistadors.

The many uncertainties which surround Malinche’s role in the Spanish conquest begin with her name and its several variants. At birth she was named ‘Malinalli’ after the Goddess of Grass, on whose name-day she was born. Later her family added the name ‘Tenepal’ which means ‘one who speaks much and with liveliness.’

Before the twenty slave girls were distributed among the Spanish captains to serve them in ‘grinding corn,’ Cortés insisted that they be baptized. Malinalli then took the Christian name of ‘Marina.’

The word malinchismo is used by some modern-day Mexicans to refer in a pejoratively to those countrymen who prefer a different way of life than that of their local culture, or a life with other outside influences. Some historians believe that La Malinche saved her people from the Aztecs, who held a hegemony throughout the territory and demanded tribute from its inhabitants. Some Mexicans also credit her with bringing Christianity to the New World from Europe, and for influencing Cortes to be more humane than he would otherwise have been.

It is argued, however, that without her help, Cortes would not have been successful in conquering the Aztecs as quickly, giving the Aztec people enough time to adapt to new technology and methods of warfare. From that viewpoint, she is seen as one who ‘betrayed’ the indigenous people by siding with the Spaniards. Recently a number of feminist Latinas have decried such a categorization as scapegoating, blaming her for forces beyond her control.

Malinche’s image has become a mythical archetype that Latin American artists have represented in various forms of art. Her figure permeates historical, cultural, and social dimensions of Latin American cultures. In modern times and in several genres, she is compared with the figure of the Virgin Mary, La Llorona (folklore story of the woman weeping for lost children) and with the Mexican soldaderas (women who fought beside men during the Mexican Revolution) for their brave actions.

La Malinche’s legacy is one of myth mixed with legend, and the opposing opinions of the Mexican people about the woman. Many see her as the founding figure of the Mexican nation. Most, however, continue to find the legends more memorable than the history, seeing her as a traitor, as may be assumed from the profane nickname ‘La Chingada.’ The offspring of a Spaniard and a Indian woman is usually identified as ‘hijo de la chingada’ (the son of La Chingada): perhaps the strongest insult in Mexico. However, the concept has since extended far beyond its original meaning. Derivative words of the noun ‘chingada’ or the verb ‘chingar’ are also commonly used Mexican swear words. They can translate to English in many ways.

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