She has many names. She was born around the year 1505 in the Coatzacoalcos province, with the Aztec birth name Malintzín Tenepal (or Malinal). Her father was a tribal leader, and being born into nobility gave Malintzín special privileges of mobility and education. When Malintzín was young, her father died leaving her as his inheritor, until Malintzín’s mother, “still very young and beautiful” (García 123), remarried and bore a son. In order to pass on the inheritance to her new son and husband, Malintzín’s mother took Malintzín away in the night and sold her into Mayan slavery. Is it so ironic that la Malinche is the coined socio-historical term for vendida against her own people? Malintzín’s mother had a servant whose child coincidentally died, and used this dead child in Malintzín’s mock funeral so that her tribe would not discover the treachery and greed. In the essay Malintzín Tenepal: A Preliminary Look into a New Perspective, author Adelaida R. Del Castillo says, “To be sure, it must have been a very painful, traumatic and confusing experience to have gone from the drastic transition of Aztec princess to a Mayan slave” (García 123). Castillo insists that one can only speculate about Malintzín’s life experience between being sold into slavery and meeting Hernán Cortés, yet some historians say her Mayan slave life was that of “daily toil and drudgery” (Henderson 4), with a perpetual to-do list of food preparation, domestic chores, and caring for the children.
Then the (infamous?) Hernán Cortés arrived to her Mayan village and conquered its peoples. Out of their subservience to the new conquistador, Cortés was given Malintzín as a slave woman among 19 others and lots of material treasures. Malintzín was then christened Doña Marina by the Spaniards, because her intellectualism and knowledge and physical Indian beauty stood above the rest. According to Spanish recordings, Marina is described as compassionate, generous, understanding, and incredibly brave (particularly exceptional for a woman). She quickly became an essential to Cortés and his army when she could translate between the Aztec and Mayan languages. Marina quickly learned the Spanish dialect and was fluent in all the necessary languages. She is recorded to have always been directly at Cortés’ side throughout the Spanish conquest of the New World.
This is how Marina is commonly recorded in history: as the translator for Cortés, and further the essential tool that led Cortés and his followers to victory over the Aztec empire. Without her, most will claim, that Cortés could have never succeeded. She was not only his translator, but a guide, a consultant, “the nurse of defeated soldiers, the comforter of Cortés” (Adams 11) and sometimes an advisor. Because of la Malinche’s apparent devotion to Cortés and the Spaniards (the enemy, the colonizer) she is reputed all over Mexico and the U.S. Southwest Borderlands as the ultimate sell-out, a traitor, an evil-doer against her own people and family. Yet in a realistic context, what kind of personal experience did la Malinche have with her own family and people? She was sold into slavery by her own mother, and the tribes and villages of the Aztec empire were complaining endlessly about Aztec Emperor Moctezuma and his human sacrificial ways and bad taxing. So who turned their back on la Malinche? Like Castillo argues in her essay, one must take in multiple layers of historical information, not the sole fact of her as a translator, in order to carefully consider a “comprehensive account of Doña Marina’s behavior be given, for her actions were contingent upon the historical events of her time” (García 122).
Adams, Jerome R. Liberators and Patriots of Latin America: Biographies of 23 Leaders. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1991.
García, Alma M., ed. Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings. New York, NY: Routledge, 1997.
Henderson, James D. and Linda Roddy Henderson. Ten Notable Women of Latin America.
Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1978.