Biography of Malinche, Mistress and Interpreter to Hernán Cortés

Statue of Malinche
 Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Malinali (c. 1500–1550), also known as Malintzín, "Doña Marina," and, most commonly, "Malinche," was a native Mexican woman who was given to conquistador Hernan Cortes as a slave in 1519. Malinche soon proved herself very useful to Cortes, as she was able to help him interpret Nahuatl, the language of the mighty Aztec Empire.

Malinche was an invaluable asset for Cortes, as she not only translated but also helped him understand local cultures and politics. She became his mistress as well and bore Cortes a son. Many modern Mexicans see Malinche as a great traitor who betrayed her native cultures to the bloodthirsty Spanish invaders.

Fast Facts: Malinche

  • Known For: Mexican slave, lover, and interpreter to Hernan Cortez
  • Also Known As: Marina, Malintzin, Malinche, Doña Marina, Mallinali
  • Born: c. 1500 in Painala, in present-day Mexico
  • Parents: Cacique of Paynala, mother unknown
  • Died: c. 1550 in Spain
  • Spouse: Juan de Jaramillo; also famous for her relationship with Hernan Cortez, the famous Conquistador
  • Children: Don Martín, Doña María 

Early Life

Malinche's original name was Malinali. She was born sometime around 1500 in the town of Painala, close to the larger settlement of Coatzacoalcos. Her father was a local chieftain and her mother was from the ruling family of the nearby village of Xaltipan. Her father died, however, and when Malinche was a young girl, her mother remarried to another local lord and bore him a son.

Apparently wishing the boy to inherit all three villages, Malinche's mother sold her into slavery in secret, telling the people of the town that she had died. Malinche was sold to slavers from Xicallanco, who in turn sold her to the lord of Potonchan. Although she was a slave, she was a high-born one and never lost her regal bearing. She also had a gift for languages.

Gift to Cortes

In March 1519, Hernan Cortes and his expedition landed near Potonchan in the Tabasco region. The local natives did not want to deal with the Spanish, so before long the two sides were battling. The Spanish, with their armor and steel weapons, easily defeated the natives and soon local leaders asked for peace, which Cortes was only too happy to agree to. The lord of Potonchan brought food to the Spanish and gave them 20 women to cook for them, one of whom was Malinche. Cortes handed the women and girls out to his captains; Malinche was given to Alonso Hernandez Portocarrero.

Malinche was baptized as Doña Marina. It was around this time that some began referring to her by the name Malinche rather than Malinali. The name was originally Malintzine and derives from Malinali + tzin (a reverential suffix) + e (possession). Therefore, Malintzine originally referred to Cortes, as he was Malinali's owner, but somehow the name stuck to her instead and evolved into Malinche.

Malinche the Interpreter

Cortes soon realized how valuable she was, however, and took her back. Some weeks before, Cortes had rescued Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spaniard who had been captured in 1511 and had lived among the Maya people ever since. In that time, Aguilar had learned to speak Maya. Malinche could speak Maya and Nahuatl, which she learned as a girl. After leaving Potonchan, Cortes landed near present-day Veracruz, which was then controlled by vassals of the Nahuatl-speaking Aztec Empire.

Cortes soon found that he could communicate through these two translators: Malinche could translate from Nahuatl to Maya, and Aguilar could translate from Maya to Spanish. Eventually, Malinche learned Spanish, thus eliminating the need for Aguilar.

Malinche and the Conquest

Time and again, Malinche proved her worth to her new masters. The Mexica (Aztecs) who ruled Central Mexico from their magnificent city of Tenochtitlan had evolved a complicated system of governance that involved an intricate combination of war, awe, fear, religion and strategic alliances. The Aztecs were the most powerful partner of the Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tacuba, three city-states close to one another in the central Valley Of Mexico.

The Triple Alliance had subjugated almost every major tribe in Central Mexico, forcing the other civilizations to pay tribute in the form of goods, gold, services, warriors, slaves, and/or sacrificial victims for the Aztecs' gods. It was a very complex system and the Spaniards understood very little of it; their rigid Catholic worldview prevented most of them from grasping the intricacies of Aztec life.

Malinche not only translated the words she heard but also helped the Spanish grasp concepts and realities that they would need to understand in their war of conquest.

Malinche and Cholula

After the Spanish defeated and aligned themselves with the warlike Tlaxcalans in September 1519, they prepared to march the rest of the way to Tenochtitlan. Their path led them through Cholula, known as a holy city because it was the center of the worship of the god Quetzalcoatl. While the Spanish were there, Cortes got wind of a possible plot by Aztec Emperor Montezuma to ambush and slay the Spanish once they left the city.

Malinche helped provide further proof. She had befriended a woman in town, the wife of a leading military officer. One day, the woman approached Malinche and told her not to accompany the Spaniards when they left as they would be annihilated. She was urged to stay and marry the woman's son. Malinche tricked the woman into thinking she had agreed and then brought her to Cortes.

After questioning the woman, Cortes was convinced of the plot. He assembled the city's leaders in one of the courtyards and after accusing them of treason (through Malinche as an interpreter, of course) he ordered his men to attack. Thousands of local nobles died in the Cholula Massacre, which sent shock waves through central Mexico.

Malinche and the Fall of Tenochtitlan

After the Spanish entered the city and took Emperor Montezuma hostage, Malinche continued in her role as interpreter and advisor. Cortes and Montezuma had much to talk about, and there were orders to be given to the Spaniards' Tlaxcalan allies. When Cortes went to fight Panfilo de Narvaez in 1520 for control of the expedition, he took Malinche with him. When they returned to Tenochtitlan after the Temple Massacre, she helped him calm the angry populace.

When the Spaniards were nearly slaughtered during the Night of Sorrows, Cortes made sure to assign some of his best men to defend Malinche, who survived the chaotic retreat from the city. And when Cortes triumphantly reconquered the city from the indomitable Emperor Cuauhtémoc, Malinche was at his side.

After the Fall of the Empire

In 1521, Cortes definitively conquered Tenochtitlan and he needed Malinche more than ever to help him govern his new empire. He kept her close to him—so close, in fact, that she bore him a child, Martín, in 1523. Martín was eventually made legitimate by a papal decree. She accompanied Cortes on his disastrous expedition to Honduras in 1524.

About this time, Cortes encouraged her to marry Juan Jaramillo, one of his captains. She would eventually bear Jaramillo a child as well. On the Honduras expedition, they passed through Malinche's homeland, and she met with (and forgave) her mother and half-brother. Cortes gave her several prime plots of land in and around Mexico City to reward her for her loyal service.

Death

Details of her death are scarce, but she likely passed away sometime in 1550.

Legacy

To say that modern Mexicans have mixed feelings about Malinche is an understatement. Many of them despise her and consider her a traitor for her role in helping the Spanish invaders annihilate her own culture. Others see in Cortes and Malinche an allegory for modern Mexico: the offspring of violent Spanish domination and native collaboration. Still, others forgive her treachery, pointing out that as a slave given away freely to the invaders, she certainly didn't owe her native culture any loyalty. And others remark that by the standards of her time, Malinche enjoyed remarkable autonomy and freedom that neither native women nor Spanish women had.

Sources

  • Adams, Jerome R. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.
  • Diaz del Castillo, Bernal. Trans., ed. J.M. Cohen. 1576. London, Penguin Books, 1963. Print.
  • Levy, Buddy. New York: Bantam, 2008.
  • Thomas, Hugh. New York: Touchstone, 1993.