Reconciling a Myth - In Defense of Doña Marina

by Dan Harvey Pedrick

© 1994

She was called Malinche, which in the Mexican tongue means “twisted grass”. In Mexico today, her name symbolizes the very essence of treachery and betrayal. For nearly five centuries the image of this well-hated figure has been engrained in the Mexican psyche as the national Judas. In a country more sensitive than most when it comes to the subject of its sovereignty, Malinchismo is the term applied to everything seen as injurious to Mexican patriotism, honour, and national pride.

According to the chronicle of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a foot-soldier in the band of bold Spanish adventurers under Cortés that precipitated the spectacular fall of the Aztec Empire, she was a princess and she looked like one.

Malinche was born in the small provincial town of Paynala on the southerastern borders of the Aztec Empire. There, her father was a cacique of his tribe. Her father died when she was still very young and, as it was the custom of her people to allow women to rule, Malinche stood to inherit his title as the legitimate heir.

Malinche’s widowed mother took another husband, a nobleman much younger than herself, and soon bore him a son. The pair then conceived the iniquitous plan of eliminating the rightful heir in order to secure the succession of power to their new offspring. Accordingly, the mother feigned the death of her daughter, mourning over the body of a young slave child of similar age which had conveniently turned up for the purpose. Meanwhile, Malinche was secretly sold to itinerant traders who in turn passed her on to the Mayan cacique of Tabasco. A few years later, that unlucky fellow and his forces were soundly defeated in an attempt to prevent the newly-arrived Cortés and his band from making an amphibious landing on their beach. The generous reparations paid by the Tabascans to the victorious Spaniards included twenty young native women, among whom stood the dispossessed Princess of Paynala.

Cortés and his companions were not long in noticing the extraordinary attributes of the young girl whom the prosaic Díaz described as “of good appearance, a busybody, and forward.” Most important among her many talents was her ability as a linguist. Born a native speaker of Náhuatl, the language of the court in the imperial capital of Tenochtitlán, she became every bit as fluent in the Mayan dialect of Tabasco during her years of servitude there. When Cortés and his men first arrived on the island of Cozumel, they rescued a stranded, would-be monk named Jerónimo de Aguilar. Being one of the few survivors of a Spanish shipwreck there seven years earlier, Aguilar had lived with Mayan-speaking natives, learning their language. With the addition of Malinche, the Spaniards had a pair of translators in their company who formed a liguistic chain of three links—Spanish, Mayan, Náhuatl—allowing the invaders to effectively communicate with the seat of power they aimed to usurp in Mexico.

Soon, Marina (as one of the first mainland native Americans to become a Christian was subsequently called) achieved a working fluency in Spanish. This allowed her to supersede the role of Aguilar, and Cortés promptly promoted her to his personal staff. Before long she became his official beloved and constant companion, a role she assumed with consummate dedication.

After this, her name was rarely mentioned without the respectful title of Doña before it. Among the ever-growing number of Indian allies of Cortés, she enjoyed more power and esteem than if she had inherited her rightful throne. By far her greatest achievement, which some historian have unfairly attributed to Cortés alone, was the brilliant diplomatic skill she exercised during the most critical moments of the dramatic events culminating in the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Aztec historians of the time did not fail to appreciate the prodigious performance of one of their own, however. The Aztec codices, stylized drawings on maguey fibre paper which may still be seen in the library of the Museum of Anthropology and History today, depict Doña Marina in a flattering and impressive light, standing at the side of the Conqueror, with her right finger pointing upwards, to indicate that she was one of the main speakers. So much did the native people revere Doña Marina that they even called Cortés by their name for her: Malintzin.

After the decisive Spanish victory in Mexico, Doña Marina remained at the side of Cortés as he continued to seek stellar adventure and fortune. Notably short of the latter was his disastrous expedition to Honduras begun in 1524. At the outset of the journey, Cortés and company passed into the vicinity of Paynala and while there summoned the long-lost mother of Doña Marina along with her now grown son (The stepfather had since died). Recognizing the one she had treacherously betrayed as a child, the tearful mother collapsed at her daughter’s feet fully expecting to be killed. In an emotional scene reminiscent of the Biblical story of Joseph, Doña Marina graciously consoled the miserable woman and her own half-brother, bidding them to have no fear. She forgave the crime, telling her mother that she had not known what she was doing in turning her over to the slave traders. Moreover, said Doña Marina, she was grateful for a destiny that had freed her from idolatry.

By 1531, Doña Marina had disappeared from history. But she soon reappeared in the popular imagination of the Mexicans in the form of La Llorona, the wailing spirit of the wind who mourns the children she herself has destroyed. With the years, her mythical character was portrayed in ever more evil aspect, molded to serve the interest of successive regimes in their efforts to shape the emerging national character. In the persona of Malinche, they found both their Eve and their Judas. This was a useful tool to divert the wrath of a long-suffering and volatile people never adverse to rising up against their rulers.

Doña Marina stands accused of betraying the Mexican people—a term of much different meaning today than in 1519—because of her support of the Spanish-led campaign against the Aztec Emperor. But the other tribes who joined Cortés in the final assault on Tenochtitlán were also “the Mexican People”—in the modern sense of the term—people who had their own good reasons for wanting to strike a blow to the heart of a cruel tyranny which had been oppressing them for generations. The fact is, the Aztec Empire was overthrown as much by its own subjects—emboldened by sudden access to European scientific knowledge and technology, and by a sense of opportunity—as by the Spanish conquistadors alone. The fate of the Aztec regime was only the inevitable one of every government not based on the sympathies and support of the governed.

Finally, let us not forget how Doña Marina herself was betrayed in a most reprehensible manner. Yet, when the opportunity for her vengeance came, she unhesitatingly chose to act in a way that was completely antithetical to the philosophy of her native culture. Instead, she exercised the essential principle of her newly-adopted Christian religion: that of forgiveness. In doing this, Doña Marina made peace with herself as well as with her mother.



The beauty of forgiveness is that it works equally well for everyone, Christian, pagan, atheist, or agnostic; its function is that it removes the roadblocks of the spirit and allows life to go on. Perhaps the time has come for that race of people born of the Conquest to show forgiveness towards the tortured memory of Doña Marina, less for her sake than for its own. By granting this, that people can likewise make peace with itself, discard 500 years worth of lingering leftover angst and desire for retribution, and enter the new millennium with a spiritually clean slate, open to the fresh ideas and possibilities that accompany a new age.

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