Was Malinche a real hero to her people, or the treacherous woman history likes to portray?
From princess to slave
Believed to have been born in 1500, Malinche was the daughter of a noble family. Her father was the ruler of the small city of Painala, an Olmec town that spoke the language of the Aztec Empire: Nahuatl. It’s said that when her father died, her mother began a relationship with another man with whom she had a baby boy. Malinche was then sold by her stepfather to a group of traders who took her to Tabasco, a Mayan city in the South Eastern Coast of Mexico. In 1519, Hernán Cortés, the Spanish “Conquistador,” arrived with a group of soldiers to Tabasco. Shortly after, both sides became allies and, as a sign of good faith, they exchanged gifts. Among the tributes Cortés received there were 20 slave young women, Malinche included.
A gift for Cortés
Before receiving the generous gifts, Cortés ordered a priest to baptize them and then allocated them among his most trusted captains. Malinche, now given the Christian name of Marina, was sent to one of Cortés’ relatives. It’s believed that although this native group ended on good terms with the Spanish, they didn’t want them to stay on their lands for such a long time, so they told them there was a lot of gold and riches in Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. Of course, there isn’t much evidence of this, but it actually sounds like the most logical thing, since both tribes were enemies.
Cortés and his caravan went north, to what is now the state of Veracruz, where they encountered a group of Aztec emissaries in charge of collecting the taxes from subordinate towns. Here, Cortés realized that his interpreter (a priest who had learned Mayan after being caught years earlier) didn’t know how to speak Nahuatl, but soon found out that it was the native language of one of the slaves. Malinche, thus, became the official interpreter of the Spanish conqueror and a key character in the development of the conquest. She helped convince different towns to join them in their fight to defeat the great Aztec empire and worked as a flag to show these people that they were on their side.
Cortés' official interpreter
Malinche became much more than just an interpreter. It’s said that she was Cortés’ partner, and that they lived as a married couple during this time. They even had a boy they named Martín Cortés in 1522. The Conquistador’s wife found out about this woman and decided to pay her husband a visit. Knowing that she had arrived at the New Spain, Cortés decided to marry Malinche to one of his men and her son was sent to one of his cousins, who took care of him. Malinche had a baby girl with her new husband, and up until this moment, her story becomes uncertain. It’s said that she might have died from smallpox shortly after, a very common epidemic at the time. There's also the possibility that she had some complications after giving birth, who knows? What’s true is that she’s still a relevant character in Mexican culture.
Traitor or hero?
Now, going back to the question posed at the beginning of the article, why is she so fervently hated? The story of why she became the representation of treason and evilness started centuries after her death, to be precise in the late 1700s. By that time, the New Spain was a colony, but there were many internal conflicts and discomfort from groups who wanted to break free from the chains of the Spanish conquest. It was in this moment when everything related to Spain and the conquest became demonized. And, in that way, Malinche was the perfect character to justify that a small group of men could defeat such a powerful army.
With Malinche’s intelligence and diplomatic abilities, the Spanish convinced several enemies of the Aztec empire to plot against their oppressor and help the Spanish in their purposes. If you think about it, this is not the story of a woman who betrayed her people to favor another force. Mexico wasn’t a unified country as it came to be centuries later, but an groups of towns overpowered by an empire. Malinche wasn’t Aztec, and she never betrayed her people, not even her mother and stepfather who sold her. Still, many agree that despite the fact that she didn’t entirely betray her people, her help was crucial in aiding the conquerors in destroying all these pre-Columbian cultures and their way of life.
We love to think about this woman as an evil character plotting against the natives, but in fact, none of what she actually did was something she chose or planned. I mean, she was sold as a slave and then given to a group of foreigners as a tribute. Her knowledge of other languages was the only resource she had to survive and that earned her a better life than just being a soldier's slave. As professor Sandra Cypess of the University of Maryland explains, she was just Cortés’s pawn, but history prefers portraying her as a traitor because it's an easier way of making people understand how things came to happen. More importantly, according to Cypess, that negative load is also due to her condition as a woman, especially if you consider both the Catholic faith and the Aztec norms that influenced Mexican culture. The first one didn't allow women to speak in public, while in the latter, this right was only reserved for those in power, like the Tlatoani, or the Aztec emperor, whose name literally means "the one who speaks." The fact that she was a woman and a slave talking on behalf of the intruders is something she’s sadly still not forgiven for.