La Malinche: The woman behind the sword of Hernan Cortes

Bob Schulman

Browse around Mexico's museums and souvenir shops and chances are you'll come across paintings depicting the historic meeting of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes and Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II in 1519. Look close, and you'll likely spot a third main character in the paintings – a beautiful, dark-haired Indian woman. This is her story.

The invaders called her La Malinche – meaning something like “the captain's woman” -- but her name was really Malinalli. Born around 1500, she originally lived in an Aztec territory of eastern Mexico, perhaps in what's now the state of Veracruz. There, people spoke Nahuatl, the common language of the seven Aztec tribes.

After her father died, legends say, Malinalli's mother remarried and her new stepfather later sold her to some passing traders. She was eventually re-sold to a Mayan tribe down the coast in the modern-day state of Tabasco, where she learned to speak their language.

(The two different languages are important to the story, as is Tabasco. More about this later.)

From there the legend jumps to 1519 and the start of the conquest. It began when Hernan Cortes and his fleet of 12 ships left their home port in Cuba to explore the riches of Mexico's nearby Yucatan Peninsula. The Spaniards first showed up on the offshore Mayan island of Cozumel, which turned out to have few riches. But they were able to free a shipwrecked Spanish priest who'd been held captive by the Mayans.

(The shipwrecked priest has a big part in the story, too. Read on.)

Next, Cortes sailed around the tip of the Yucatan to a spot in the Mayan territory of Tabasco he'd heard was loaded with gold and silver. But when the Spaniards got there, they only thing they found was an army of Tabascans – who greeted the invaders with showers of arrows and spears.

After slugging it out for a few days, the conquistadores made friends with the local folks. They exchanged gifts to seal the deal. Cortes gave his ex-enemies a sack of pretty green and blue beads and a large cross (fashioned from one of the Mayans' sacred ceiba trees). They gave Cortes a dozen or so hens, baskets of fruit and 20 female slaves.

(A heads up: One of the slaves was Malinalli.)

Perhaps trying to get rid of Cortes, the Tabascans told him he'd find a golden bonanza in a city way up the coast in the land of the Aztecs. So off the fleet went to the rich city (now Veracruz) carrying Cortes, the ships' crews, 508 troopers armed to the teeth, 16 war horses, a pack of attack dogs, the freed priest and the 20 slaves.

Along the way, Cortes figured out how to communicate with the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs. First, he learned the priest, Jeronimo de Aguilar, had picked up the Mayan language while he was in captivity. Then, someone told Cortes about Malinalli, who not only spoke Mayan but also Nahuatl, her original language. Promoted from slave to interpreter, she was given the Christian name, Marina.

When they landed at Veracruz, Cortes ran across a group of Aztecs who'd come from their capital city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) to collect taxes from the local Totonacas. They communicated like this: The tax men first talked to Marina in Nahuatl, then she told Geronimo what they said in Mayan, and then Geronimo passed this along to Cortes in Spanish.

(Here the plot thickens. Marina, it seems, held a grudge against the Aztecs, remembering that they'd sold her into slavery. So, as the tale goes, she kind of let it slip that the Aztec tax collectors had mentioned something about golden temples in Tenochtitlan.)

The next part of the story is right out of the 1947 hit movie, Captain From Castile, in which Cortes (played by Cesar Romero) moves his army inland on a 280-mile  march to the capital. In the picture, emissaries from Moctezuma show up along the way to tell Cortes there was nothing worth looting in Tenochtitlan, so he might as well go back to Veracruz. Of course the messages were delivered to Marina (played by the famous Mexican actress Estela Inda), who may not have translated them completely accurately.

Cortes moved forward with visions of a golden Shangri-La in the Mexican highlands.

(After awhile, Marina learned Spanish, thus freeing Jeronimo to go back to saving souls.)

One can only wonder what Cortes really said to Moctezuma (by way of Marina), and what Moctezuma told Cortes (again, translated by Marina), when the two leaders finally met on the outskirts of Tenochtitlan. In any event, Moctezuma, somehow believing Cortes was the long-lost great god of the Aztecs, handed over the city without a fight.

There was a fight for Tenochtitlan later on, which the Spaniards won. The Aztec empire was officially conquered a few years later. The Mayans held out for another 170 years.

Cortes was rewarded for the conquest by King Charles of Spain, who named him governor, captain general and chief justice of what became known as New Spain. He lost the titles later on in political coups.

(And how was Marina rewarded for her contributions? Cortes named a volcano after her, built a house for her in a suburb of Tenochtitlan and fathered a baby with her. Cortes, who was married, arranged for Marina to tie the knot with one of his soldiers. She was last known as Senora Juan Caramillo.)

Footnote: Souvenirs with the paintings of Cortes and La Malinche on them are mostly bought by foreign tourists, because La Malinche is generally reviled as a traitor by Mexicans, akin to America's Benedict Arnold. Still, others believe she was a heroine who helped free Mexico from its bloodthirsty rulers and who aided Cortes in bringing Christianity to the country.

More info: Laura Esquivel, author of the New York Times best seller, Like Water for Chocolate, later wrote Malinche, one of a number of novels about Cortes' interpreter/girlfriend. You can get an eye-witness account of the conquest of Mexico in a book by one of the conquistadores, Bernal Diaz del Castillo. The title of his book is The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico . 

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