10 Facts About Dona Marina or Malinche

The Woman who Betrayed the Aztecs

A young native princess named Malinali from the town of Painala was sold into slavery sometime between 1500 and 1518: she was destined for everlasting fame (or infamy, as some prefer) as Doña Marina, or "Malinche," the woman who helped conquistador Hernan Cortes topple the Aztec Empire. Who was this slave princess who helped bring down the mightiest civilization Mesoamerica had ever known? Many modern Mexicans despise her "betrayal" of her people and she has had a great impact on pop culture, so there are many fictions to separate from the facts. Here are ten facts about the woman known as "la Malinche." 

01
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Her own Mother sold her into Slavery

Print of Cortes with Malinche leading the column
Print Collector / Contributor / Getty Images

Before she was Malinche, she was Malinali. She was born in the town of Painala, where her father was chieftain. Her mother was from Xaltipan, a nearby town. Her father died, and her mother remarried the lord of yet another town and they had a son together. Not wishing to jeopardize her new son's inheritance, Malinali's mother sold her into slavery. Slave traders sold her to the lord of Pontonchan, and she was still there when the Spanish arrived in 1519.

02
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She went by Many Names

The woman today best known as Malinche was born Malinal or Malinali sometime around 1500. When she was baptized by the Spanish, they gave her the name Doña Marina. The name Malintzine means "owner of the noble Malinali" and originally referred to Cortes. Somehow this name not only became associated with Doña Marina but also shortened to Malinche.

When Cortes acquired Malinche, she was a slave who had lived with the Potonchan Maya for many years. As a child, however, she had spoken Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. One of Cortes' men, Gerónimo de Aguilar, had also lived among the Maya for many years and spoke their language. Cortes could thus communicate with Aztec emissaries through both interpreters: he would speak Spanish to Aguilar, who would translate to Mayan to Malinche, who would then repeat the message in Nahuatl. Malinche was a talented linguist and learned Spanish in the space of several weeks anyway, eliminating the need for Aguilar. More »

Although she is remembered as an interpreter, Malinche was much more important to the Cortes expedition than that. The Aztecs dominated a complicated system in which they ruled through fear, war, alliances and religion. The mighty Empire dominated dozens of vassal states from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Malinche was able to explain not only the words she heard, but also the complex situation the foreigners found themselves immersed in. Her ability to communicate with the fierce Tlaxcalans led to a crucially important alliance for the Spanish. She could tell Cortes when she thought the people she was talking to were lying and knew the Spanish well enough to always ask for gold wherever they went. Cortes knew how important she was, assigning his best soldiers to protect her when they retreated from Tenochtitlan on the Night of Sorrows. More »

05
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She Saved the Spanish at Cholula

In October 1519, the Spanish arrived to the city of Cholula, known for its massive pyramid and temple to Quetzalcoatl. While they were there, Emperor Montezuma allegedly ordered the Cholulans to ambush the Spanish and kill or capture them all when they left the city. Malinche got wind of the plot, however. She had befriended a local woman whose husband was a military leader. This woman told Malinche to hide when the Spanish left and she could marry her son when the invaders were dead. Malinche instead brought the woman to Cortes, who ordered the infamous Cholula Massacre, which wiped out most of the upper class of Cholula. 

Malinche gave birth to Hernan Cortes' son Martin in 1523. Martin was a favorite of his father. He spent most of his early life at court in Spain. Martin became a soldier like his father and fought for the King of Spain in several battles in Europe in the 1500's. Although Martin was made legitimate by a papal order, he never was in line to inherit his father's vast lands because Cortes later had another son (also named Martin) with his second wife. More »

07
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...in Spite of the Fact That He Kept Giving Her Away

When he first received Malinche from the lord of Pontonchan after defeating them in battle, Cortes gave her to one of his captains, Alonso Hernandez Portocarrero. Later, he took her back when he realized how valuable she was. In 1524, when he went on an expedition to Honduras, he convinced her to marry another one of his captains, Juan Jaramillo.

08
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She Was Beautiful

Contemporary accounts agree that Malinche was a very attractive woman. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of Cortes' soldiers who wrote a detailed account of the conquest many years later, knew her personally. He described her thus: "She was a truly great princess, the daughter of Caciques and the mistress of vassals, as was very evident in her appearance...Cortes gave one of them to each of his captains, and Doña Marina, being good-looking, intelligent and self-assured, went to Alonso Hernandez Puertocarrero, who...was a very grand gentleman." (Diaz, 82)

09
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She Faded into Obscurity After the Conquest

After the disastrous Honduras expedition, and now married to Juan Jaramillo, Doña Marina faded into obscurity. In addition to her son with Cortes, she had children with Jaramillo. She died fairly young, passing away in her fifties sometime in 1551 or early 1552. She kept such a low profile that the only reason modern historians know approximately when she died is because Martin Cortes mentioned her as being alive in a 1551 letter and her son-in-law referred to her as dead in a letter in 1552.

10
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Modern Mexicans have Mixed Feelings about her

Even 500 years later, Mexicans are still coming to terms with Malinche's "betrayal" of her native culture. In a country where there are no statues of Hernan Cortes, but statues of Cuitláhuac and Cuauhtémoc (who fought the Spanish invasion after the death of Emperor Montezuma) grace Reform Avenue, many people despise Malinche and consider her a traitor. There is even a word, "malinchismo," which refers to people who prefer foreign things to Mexican ones. Some, however, point out that Malinali was a slave who simply took a better offer when one came along. Her cultural importance is unquestionable; she has been the subject of countless paintings, movies, books, etc.