Hernán Cortés is mainly known for his role in the conquest, but the tragic stories of those women around him should be known more.
Christopher Columbus' arrival to America brought with it the subsequent conquest by the Spanish. An important name throughout this process that we have known from school is that of Hernán Cortés, the main figure behind the fall of Tenochtitlán. However, as with any historical figure, there is another side to Cortés that we are never taught in school. That is the turbulent story of the wives and lovers of the conquistador, who had a tragic end perhaps at the hands of the Cortés himself.
It is well known that Hernán Cortés had many wives and lovers, whether Spanish or indigenous, mainly because of the power he gained throughout his conquering quests.
Who was the first wife of Hernán Cortés?
During his quest in Cuba, Cortés met Catalina Suárez, who would become his first wife. Catalina arrived in Cuba in 1512, while Cortés already had his own farm there. They met and fell in love almost immediately, marrying two years later.
Although it is said that they shared a true love, that did not prevent Cortés from having affairs during his travels. One of Cortés' most famous lovers was La Malinche, a 15-year-old slave girl who served as his interpreter upon his arrival in Veracruz in 1519.
La Malinche and Hernán Cortés
We know that Cortés was received in Mexican lands with gifts for each victory he obtained. In one of them, in the battle of Centla, 19 slave women were presented to him, including La Malinche.
Her real name was Malintzin and, before she became a slave to Cortés, she had been enslaved by the Maya. She was fluent in Nahuatl, Mayan, and Spanish. Thanks to her knowledge, La Malinche became one of the key pieces of the conquest, since she acted as Cortés' interpreter throughout the territory.
It is because of this role that, throughout history, many have classified her as a traitor to the homeland, even though she was a slave at the age of 15. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the power that she achieved alongside the conquistador, a position she never wanted.
In fact, La Malinche was more than Cortés' interpreter. She became his lover. In love, Malintzin gave birth in 1522 to one of the first mestizos (half-breed) in the land, Martín Cortés. This happened once the conquest was consummated in 1521. At the same time, Cortés' wife, Catalina Suárez, was on her way from Cuba to her husband's home in Coyoacán.
With the arrival of Catalina in today's Mexico City, La Malinche was forced to remain in the background, so Cortés decided she had to marry Juan Jaramillo, another conqueror. The wedding took place in 1524. During her second marriage, La Malinche gave birth to María Jaramillo. Unfortunately, her daughter would become an orphan at a very young age, as in 1527, Malintzin died of causes that are still unknown.
The death of Catalina Suárez
Cortés and Catalina lived 'happily' married in Cuba for five years, from 1514 to 1519, until Cortés left for his quest. And, as we know here, he had his affair with La Malinche during that period.
Although Catalina learned of the affair when she set foot in New Spain in 1522, she decided to stay with her husband, mainly because of the new power that she gained once the conquest was consummated.
However, the couple did not stay together for long. According to historian José María Gonzáles, Cortés organized a party at his house in Coyoacán three months after his reunion with his wife.
During the celebration, Catalina retired to her room prematurely due to a fight that the couple had had. Hours later, she was found lying dead, with bruises marked on her neck and, according to witnesses, her bed was wet with urine.
Suspicions were against Cortés, which only increased due to the behavior he had towards his wife's body. He took it upon himself to bury her as quickly as possible, even denying Catalina's relatives of seeing her remains.
It would not be until 1543 that Cortés would give his statement, saying that his late wife had died of natural causes related to her disease; at present, it was confirmed that Catalina was asthmatic.
Cortés's two ‘great loves’ had tragic endings, a sign of the power held over women at that time.
Images from: XL Semanal, Memoria Política de México, El Español, National Geographic
Translated by Gaby Flores