AAHH! I’m so stressed! Life has been so busy since school started; I barely had time to make this blog post! :p (Hence the chronic lack of pictures). But fear not! Even though I don’t have any DIYs for y’all, I do have an awesome story about an amazing woman from the side of history that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should. Not only that, but I have a letter to Disney!
So representation is important, right? Of course it is. Seeing women in pop culture who were imperfect but were still amazing, smart, well-written characters has inspired me countless times. It sounds corny, but it really does take seeing someone else, even if they’re fictional, do it first before some girls get the courage to break new ground. Besides, everyone should get to see someone like them on the silver screen!
Which is why it doesn’t make sense to me that Disney hasn’t created a Hispanic princess yet, despite the fact that Hispanics and Latinos are the largest racial minority in the United States, and Disney is an American company. I will probably rant about this later, but for now I want to point out to Disney that there are a host of characters from Latin American lore that could easily be welcomed to the court, and some who were historical figures too – like today’s topic of conversation.
It’s time for y’all to settle down and listen to Kelli rant, this time about… La Malinche *dramatic music*.
Now warning: this story is dark. Not gory/graphic dark, but not Disney material. However, neither was the original Pocahontas story, and they made that into a film, so I don’t see the problem with this.
The woman who came to be known as La Malinche was born around the year 1500 (we don’t know exactly when) in modern-day Mexico. Her hometown was the village of Paynala, somewhere between the Valley of Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula. That location was not strongly controlled by the Aztecs, Mayans, or any other powers at the time, instead inhabited by more minor tribes, like Malinche’s. Oh, sorry! At this point, her name wasn’t Malinche. She was born with not one but two names: Malinalli, after the goddess of grass, and Tenepal, meaning “one who speaks with liveliness.” Aren’t they both the best names for a Disney princess?
You bet they are! Malinalli actually was a princess – ok, not quite, but she was the daughter of a Native American chief. Unfortunately, this isn’t as cool as it sounds. Girls in that culture at the time, especially those of noble birth, were extremely sheltered. Malinalli would rarely have been allowed to leave home. (Rapunzel!) However, there is evidence that she was educated, a rare treat for one of the female sex living in most any culture in the early 1500s. Most historians attribute this to her father’s high status.
Now we get into some classic Cinderella stuff. Malinalli’s father, the chief, or Cacique, died when she was still very young. Malinalli’s mother then remarried another Cacique and had a son. Malinalli was nothing but an inconvenient step-child, and, according to some sources, a potential heir to the throne. Of course, her step-family didn’t like that. Faced with a new, male heir who actually was the child of the new Cacique, Malinalli could not compete. She wasn’t the favorite child either, I gather. Her mother decided she had to get rid of her.
Now, I don’t want to make Malinalli’s mom out to be the villain here. I’m pretty sure, judging from other societies’ practices at the time, that Malinalli’s mother had no choice but to remarry for her sake and her family’s; I can’t think of many 1500s cultures where a single women who could still have kids would be permitted to stay unattached. Moreover, we don’t know anything of the mom’s story; she could have been pressured by her husband, there could have been some cultural practices or taboos we don’t know about, anything could have been going on behind the scenes. That being said, what happens next is going to sound really harsh.
Malinalli’s mom sold her daughter into slavery. Yup, you read that right. Mom of the Year, am I right?
To get away with this, she faked her daughter’s death. Remember how Malinalli would rarely have been allowed to leave home? Well, that tidbit came in really handy. I don’t think Malinalli had many friends (Loneliness! Great for a protagonist!) because her family told everyone that the girl who no one had seen in a while totally wasn’t their daughter, but a child of a slave who had recently died, and apparently, no one disputed that. However, Malinalli was a girl who apparently the family in charge didn’t want around anymore, so maybe people were too afraid to say anything.
The slavers who bought Malinalli sold her to the Cacique of Tobasco. Now, up by Tobasco, they spoke Mayan. Malinalli spoke Nahuatl. So, what does this girl do? At an age that can’t have been older than 15 or so, Malinalli learns Mayan all on her own, while retaining her Nahuatl. She does this while doing slave labor as an adolescent girl in a foreign lord’s house. Isn’t that incredible?
And no, she didn’t fall in love with the handsome young son of her master, get married, and fly off into the sunset to live happily ever after. In fact, I don’t think she was valued very highly, even though she was a foreign princess who was now working for the Cacique of Tobasco (a pretty political prize). Granted, language barriers could have prevented that knowledge from being conveyed while she was purchased. Whatever the case, when Hernan Cortes the conquistador came a-knocking in the spring of 1519, the Cacique of Tobasco gave him a gift of 20 slave girls, Malinalli included.
And that was really bad, because Hernan Cortes? Kind of a jerk, you know? And the way he and a lot of the Spaniards treated Native American women? Nothing to model for your kids by any stretch of the most wild imagination. And that’s putting it mildly, imo.
Now, keep in mind that at this point, Malinalli is at the oldest 19. Many historians say she was maybe as young as 14. Just some perspective so you realize just how incredible this girl is.
So, Malinalli has been given away to a foreign jerk she can’t communicate with for the third time in her life now (slave traders, Cacique of Tobasco, and now Cortes), and she’s only my age. Yet she still makes a good impression. Out of these 20 young girls, hers was the only name Cortes remembered (albeit probably incorrectly, as people tended to do that with her Native American name). The soldier who wrote down the most we know of Malinalli, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, noted that she was beautiful, smart, and despite all that had happened to her, her spirit was unbroken. There are very eloquent and flattering quotations from him in the sources at the bottom of the page.
He also noticed that she spoke both Nahuatl and Mayan. This was important, because even though we remember the Spaniards as technologically superior conquerors, they were still vastly outnumbered by Native American populations at the time. They needed to be able to get along with some tribes if they wanted to succeed in their quest at all. Unfortunately, thousands of years of living isolated by oceans meant that Native American languages were like nothing the Spanish had encountered before. Until they met Malinalli, they had been using a monk they found stranded on an island as a translator (he had picked up Mayan while he was stuck there). That was great for interacting with Mayan-speakers, but a good chunk of Mexico spoke Nahuatl and some other languages too, and the Spaniards had no way of talking to them. That is, until Malinalli came along.
(Also, is it just me, or would the monk make a GREAT side character?)
So Diaz passed along the memo that Malinalli was billingual to Cortes and Cortes was all like “Great! We can use someone like her!” So instead of marrying her to one of his soldiers like he did with all the other slave girls, he made her his special assistant (think the Pepper Potts to Tony Stark. That’s the best spin I can put on it, anyhow, the reality was probably less innocent). He baptized her Marina, and kept her constantly at his side. In fact, after this point, Malinalli is rarely referred to without the respected title of Doña before her name, a considerable honor considering the Spaniards had just met her, and she was a Native American, and from what I’ve heard the Europeans of the 1500s didn’t really respect them, to say the least.
Also, the guy Cortes intended for Malinalli ended up becoming Cortes’s messenger to the king back in Spain, so it was a better situation for her in a way. At least with Cortes, she gets to stay in the New World.
So Malinalli, now christened Doña Marina, talks to Native Americans in Nahuatl and translates what they say into Mayan. The Mayan-speaking monk translates from Mayan to Spanish. If that sounds tedious and also posing a high risk of something getting lost in translation, you’re right. Cortes made sure that this was only a temporary set-up; he wasted no time in making sure Doña Marina learned Spanish as fast as she could. And as she was phenomenal at languages (some scholars argue that she knew many more Native American languages besides Nahuatl and Mayan), Doña Marina did learn Spanish, quite quickly, I might add.
Doña Marina quickly became a crucial part of Cortes’s work; in fact, she was indispensable. She not only was a talented linguist, but she had extensive cultural knowledge of Native American life, which came in handy. She became so important that never in any visual records is Cortes shown without her by his side. Native Americans referred to them by the same name, Malintzin. the -tzin suffix was one reserved for persons worthy of respect, to boot. By contrast, though, Doña Marina was shown several times on her own, giving orders independently. She likely worked deals of her own in while translating (girl power!). Marina also proved herself a prodigious diplomat. She utilized tact and intelligence, working with native leaders frequently, and making sure no one tried to kill Cortes. When she learned the Cholula natives were going to work with the Aztecs to destroy the Spaniards, she warned him and even pretended to be working with the enemy so he could wipe out thousands of the would-be Spaniard-conquerors. In just that lone incident, Doña Marina literally changed the fate of the Western Hemisphere!
The most important instance where Doña Marina played a role, though, was the fall of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Doña Marina worked with Montezuma to make Cortes’s arrival as smooth as possible, to the point where he was received as a god. That didn’t end up going so well for Montezuma, but some historians have proposed that she tried to prevent the fall of the Aztecs, and when that didn’t work, she tried to work out a better deal for them than utter destruction. She may have delayed the great empire’s end for months.
In fact, Doña Marina had an incredible heart. At one point, she was reunited with her mom and half-brother (remember them? The folks who sold her into slavery. Real nice). Instead of flaunting her power or using it to give them what I assume they deserved, she – get this – FORGAVE them. Really! She was excited to see them, overjoyed even. She showed them amazing love and forgiveness. I know I couldn’t have ever pulled off such an amazing, Christ-like feat of compassion.
I say Christ-like, because I assume Christianity was where Doña Marina’s incredible forgiveness came from. She was one of the first missionaries of Catholicism in the New World, working in Native American populations to further the cross across Mexico. I don’t know how successful she was, but accounts do document her as being much more religious than the image I tend to have of a reluctant, forced Native American convert.
Many throughout history and in the modern day have called her a traitor for helping Cortes defeat the armies of the New World. But there is a sizable portion of the academic community that maintains she likely brought out the more merciful side of Cortes. Things could have gone a lot worse if she wasn’t there. For example, she frequently convinced Native American tribes to side with Cortes, saving them from the wrath of the Spaniards. Every tribe she brought to Cortes’s side was a tribe that was spared the conquistadors’ guns and steel.
After the Spaniards fully defeated the Aztecs, Doña Marina kind of faded from history. She had a son with Cortes (oh yeah, I forgot to mention, they were lovers. Kind of a little thing, charming the guy who would later get all the credit for your rather large accomplishments, when you literally shaped the destiny of two continents like clay in your hands) in 1522. From 1524-1526 Doña Marina was away in Honduras acting as translator again to stop a rebellion. After that episode, the best sources say she married a Spanish hidalgo named Juan Jaramillo and had a daughter named Doña Maria. Evidence seems to point to her dying soon after that. Her daughter was raised by Juan and his second wife, while Doña Marina’s son, Don Martin, was taken back to Spain and raised by his dad, who had a wife and 8(?) kids in the Old World. (Yeah, he wasn’t the most faithful of husbands).
Today, some remember Doña Marina as the mother of Mexico, as her son was the first child we know of to be born to a Native American and a European, and is thus considered the first true Mexican. However, many see her as a traitor to her people who served as Cortes’s instrument of destruction, hence the term malinchismo or malinchisma, both of which are terms that roughly translate to “traitor” today.
However, she is by no means absent from Mexican culture. She has been depicted in song, story, and artwork time and time again. She has been compared to the Virgin Mary and La Llorona, a mythical figure who weeps for her lost children. In the 1960s and today, Latina feminists have tried to reclaim her image, showing her as a strong woman who, even when the whole world was against her, managed to play an extraordinary role in history. This is the tale I subscribe to.
So yeah! Isn’t she the best? Don’t you want to make a movie about her Disney? Don’t you? You know you doooo!!!!!
She is seriously a hero of mine. This woman was unbeatable. Rejected by her family, sold to be a slave, her children raised by different families, and her name blemished by history, and yet without her the Spanish would never have taken Mexico. Think about that. They never would have conquered Central America. The Southwest of North America would not speak Spanish. Native Americans in California might not have seen white people until the days of Manifest Destiny. Things would have turned out much differently.
You know what, Disney? She’s too good for you. I’m going to get someone like Louis Theroux to make a documentary about her (does he do historical ones?).
So yeah, end of the post. It was a long one, with lots of walls of text; sorry about that. I’ll go back and edit in pictures if I can, or you can just google her. Obviously there are no photographs, but whatever. I promise I won’t let my posts regularly become as reader un-friendly as this one!
Tell me if you want to hear about more historical heroes of mine! 😀 There really are a ton of fascinating individuals in history, and a lot of them, women especially, just don’t get the air time they deserve.
Ok, it’s late. I want sleep. Thanks for reading if you made it this far – see you next time! 🙂