Winner of the Fall 2016 StMU History Media Award for

Best Article in the Category of “People”

Best Article in the Category of “World History”

Largely due to the importation of disease and use of superior weapons, the Spaniards were able to conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, kill the empire’s last emperor, Cuauhtémoc, and bring the Aztec empire to an end. Few know of La Malinche, the indigenous interpreter of Hernán Cortés, whose linguistic abilities were used to facilitate important conversations between the Spaniards and the indigenous leaders. Without the help of La Malinche, perhaps the Aztec empire would have survived.

Born between 1502 and 1505, La Malinche was named Malinalli Tenepal, the first part of her name being a Nahuatl term for the twelfth day of the month in correspondence to the Aztec calendar, and the second part of her name meaning “lively.” She was born of nobility in Paynala within the region of Veracruz. Her troubles started at a young age after the death of her father. La Malinche was ousted from her home to ensure her new half-brother received the inheritance of the family instead of her, since she was the eldest child. She was given to “some Indians of Xicalango.”1 Then the Indians gave her to a nobleman in Tobasco, a region in the Yucatan. When Cortés arrived to Tobasco, he was offered twenty slaves, one of them being La Malinche. Having lived in Veracruz, a Nahuatl-speaking region, and then being sold into a Maya-speaking region, La Malinche knew both languages and she was soon recognized for the linguistic talents that could benefit Cortés in his conquests.2

This image comes from the Florentine Codex which are paintings dated from around 1550 that illustrate the conquest of Mexico and show the translator playing central role.
This image comes from the Florentine Codex, which are paintings dating from around 1550 that illustrate the conquest of Mexico and show the translator as playing a central role.

The few glimpses of La Malinche and how her presence as an interpreter accelerated the fall of the Aztec empire can be found in the writings of the Spanish explorers, specifically from Hernán Cortés, her “lord and master.”3 From the second letter Hernán Cortés wrote to Emperor Charles V, dated October 30, 1530, Cortés speaks of La Malinche as “a female interpreter that I had, who was a native of this country, and whom I obtained at Putunchún on the Rio Grande.”4 This confirms the vague aspects of her life that we already know. But most importantly, in this context, this letter goes on to tell of a scenario in which La Malinche saved the Spaniards from an ambush by the Cholulans. La Malinche was told by the wife of a native leader that they planned to attack the Spaniards and if La Malinche came with them, she would be protected. La Malinche delivered this message to Cortés, which ultimately led to the massacre of Cholula and provided a direct path to march towards Tenochitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire.5 This leads to the question of whether or not La Malinche was a traitor or a survivor. Did she explicitly want the Aztec empire to fall or did she just want to save herself from the carnage?

With no traces of primary sources from La Malinche herself, her story has been retold by various scholars without much consistency, nothing ever being certain. Up until the twentieth century, La Malinche was viewed as a traitor to her country Mexico. In 1861, on the celebration day of Mexico’s Independence, Ignacio “El Nigromante” Ramírez, a Mexican journalist, addressed the Mexican people by saying, “One of the mysteries of fate is that every Mexican owes his downfall and disgrace to a woman, and to another woman his salvation and glory; the myth of Eve and Mary is reproduced everywhere; we indignantly remember Cortés’s mistress and will never forget, in our gratitude to Doña María Josefa Ortiz.”6 La Malinche is seen as playing a key role in the subjugation of the Mexican peoples to Spain, while Doña María Josefa Ortiz did the contrary and liberated the country. However, many Chicana writers and modern scholars are trying to rewrite the tale of La Malinche to understand the complexities of her choices and to vindicate her. For example, Gloria Anzaldua promotes the idea that La Malinche had a “new consciousness,” that she voluntarily served as the interpreter of Cortés not only to save herself, but also because she knew that a new mestiza culture was going to be born (especially considering she had a son with Cortés in 1524).7 She made a conscious effort to exchange language and cultural aspects from each side in order to facilitate the emergence of the new mestiza society; however, with that came brutal consequences in the shape of warfare and mass death in the New World.

Whether or not La Malinche’s role as Cortés’s interpreter was traitorous, simply an effort to survive, or some other complex reason involving love for Cortés, hate for the Aztec empire for the cruelty she faced after being ousted from her home, or promotion of the new mestiza culture, no one will ever know the true story of the Indian, slave woman who traveled alongside Cortés towards the culmination of the Aztec empire.

  1. Bernal Castillo del Díaz, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1517-1521 rev. American ed., trans. A.P. Maudsley (New York: The Noonday Press, 1965), chap. 22-23.
  2. Pilar Godayol, “Malintzin/ La Malinche/ Doña Marina: re-reading the myth of the treacherous translator,” Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies 18, no. 1 (April 2012): 61-68.
  3. Castillo del Bernal, chap 23.
  4. Hernan Cortes to Emperor Charles V, October 30, 1520, in Letters of Despatches of Hernando Cortes, to the Emperor Charles V., trans. (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1843), letter II.
  5. Hernan Cortes to Emperor Charles V, October 30, 1520, in Letters of Despatches of Hernando Cortes, to the Emperor Charles V, letter II.
  6. Rosario Pérez-Lagunes, “The Myth of La Malinche: From the Chronicles to Modern Mexican Theater” (PhD dis., Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2001), 24. Although she was of Spanish descent, Doña María Josefa Ortiz was born in Valladolid, Mexico in 1768 and identified herself as Mexican. She and her husband were both a part of the rebellion that ultimately led to Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1824.
  7. Godayol, 68-70.

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189 Responses

  1. I think this is story is very intriguing with how much mystery their is to the origins of the story and the author did a great job telling that to us. I also enjoyed how the author used the beginning paragraph about the role La Malinche played in the fall of the aztec and then in the paragraph proceeds to start the story. its a great way to hook a reader.

  2. Hi Mariana! Congratulations on your article. I enjoy your article structure, your writing style is impeccable. I have never heard the story of La Maliche and how the common senses of different communities impact history. The story of La Maliche is thrilling and I enjoy how you capture the reader with your introduction. I also like the images you use to illustrate your article. The importance of your topic help me understand how this part of history is important for a lot of people’s culture.

  3. Very fascinating article, Mariana!
    You really highlighted the importance that La Malinche had for the success of the Spanish in the conquest of the Aztec empire.
    I really liked the way you related your article because it was quite clear.
    I would have liked you to include more photos in your article, but the ones you put are excellent. Also, I didn’t know anything else about La Malinche other than his help to Hernán Cortés, so learning a little about his past, was interesting. That allowed me to reflect on some possible reasons for her having helped the Spanish with their conquest. Lastly, I found it very intriguing that you wrote about the letter that Cortés wrote to Emperor Carlos V, because I did not know that this type of evidence exists.
    This is really a good article, congratulations on your award.

  4. Hi Mariana,
    I think both your awards for your article are well deserved. La Malinche is a little known figure in history but is so important once you learn more about her. It seems almost unlikely that Cortes could have succeeded without her. I wish she was more discussed and that we had more primary sources on her. A firsthand account from her would have been an amazing piece of history.

  5. Reading about La Malinche was very interesting to know. I really did not know much about her until reading this article. It is interesting to know that she was born in a noble family but due to circumstances she was given away so that her half-brother could take over her fathers inheritance. Tragically she was given away with no remorse and a child I’m sure she went through so much as child thinking why did this happen to her. But by doing so she learned the language that in those times were pretty hard to find interpreters, it came in handy to her to help out Cortes and conquering the Aztec Empire. Who’s to say if she really betray Mexico, I mean the people she thought that loved her betrayed her and gave her away like she was nothing. I suppose in the end she did exactly what was done to her but chose her son in spite of everything because no way in hell was she going to give up her kids.  

  6. This was an extremely well written article, and it was so detailed. I have never heard of the La Malinche before. It was so interesting, because it is not clear whether La Malinche was conscious of the consequences of her actions. I do not think that anyone will truly know what happened. I think it was truly a very interesting article on a side of conquering with the help of a local woman. Cortes’ actions and La Malinche’s actions will forever have consequences.

  7. The story of La Maliche is a interesting one because she was one of few who were able to speak to the people of the old world. Although enslaved we do not know how she really lived along side with the Spanish. Treater some may say but at the end that was her new home and way of life. She did what was best for her and at that time the people she was with. She may have not wanted the fall of the people but the truth is we may never know. History can be a guessing game at times and this is one of those times.

  8. I think the story of this woman thrilling. La Maliche is seen by some people in Mexico as a traitor because they say she betrayed her country by letting Hernan Cortes know about Aztecs’ idea of attacking the Spaniards. On the other hand, some people and historians simply see her as a survivor, because she was sent to exile and had to live by her own. They argue that Hernan Cortes offered protection to her, and she just survived by doing what she was asked to do. In my personal opinion, I can understand Malinalli’s actions, as I think that most people would have acted like her if they had nothing left that still linked her to her people, as she had been treated bad by them. At the threat of a powerful army like the Spanish, and with the opportunity to get a better life for her and her children, I think most people would have acted like her. .

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