Way back in the early 16th century, the Spanish were adventuring around in South America, looking for gold, land, and all sorts of other goodies to claim for Emperor Carlos I of Spain. One of the most famous conquistadors was Hernán Cortés, and if you’ve ever seen a picture of Cortés, you’ve seen this woman — La Malinche. She can be seen in nearly every picture of Cortés with the Aztecs, standing beside him in a long, white robe.
But who is this woman who is so important to Cortés and so respected by both him and the Aztecs? In a time when two male-dominated cultures were meeting for the first time, how did a woman become such an important player, often seen directing politics on her own?
She started out as a slave. Born between 1496 and 1501 into the Nahua culture, whose lands lay between the Aztec-ruled Valley of Mexico and the Maya-ruled Yucatan Peninsula. Her name at birth was Malinalli, and she was later known by the nickname “Tenepal”. In 1519, when she was in her late teens or early twenties, she was one of twenty slave women given to Cortés by the Chontal Maya after they were defeated in battle by the Spanish. Spanish writings from the time indicate that she stood out from the other slaves; she was the only one of the slave women mentioned by name, and she was said to be especially beautiful and graceful. She was baptized in 1519, choosing the name “Marina”, and the Spanish added the title “Doña”, meaning “Lady” to her name as a mark of respect. Marina was fluent in both Maya and Nahuatl, and over time, as she learned to speak Spanish, she became more and more valuable as an interpreter. She became so crucial to Cortés’ enterprises that she accompanied him everywhere. Every Aztec drawing of Cortés shows Marina at his side. In Nahuatl, she was known as “Malintzin”, meaning “Lady Malina”, and the Tlaxcalan people referred to Cortés by the same name, since he always spoke through Marina. The name “La Malinche” comes from the Spanish transliteration of “Malintzin” with the feminine article “La” added to indicate that the title belonged to a woman.
The Spanish conquered Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, in 1521, and in 1522, Marina gave birth to Cortés’ son Don Martín Cortés, one of the first recorded mestizos. She and her son lived in a house Cortés built for them in Coyoacán until 1524, when he took them to Honduras, where Marina again served as an interpreter. While there, she married a Spanish noble named Juan Jaramillo (Marina and Cortés were never married, although Cortés’ wife Catalina Suárez died under mysterious circumstances in Mexico in 1522). At this point, Cortés and Marina separated, with Cortés and his family taking over the care of Don Martín. Marina had a daughter, Doña María, by Juan Jaramillo. Records indicate that Marina was still alive in 1550, but refer to her as deceased beginning in 1551, meaning she lived to be in her mid-fifties.
To this day, some refer to her as a traitor who facilitated the conquest of her own people, a savior who rescued the Nahua from the Aztecs by allying them with Cortés, a strong independent woman and feminist symbol, a victim of European oppression, or even the mother of the new Mexican people. But no matter how you view her, there is no denying that she played a role no other woman played and secured a unique place in a male-dominated era of South American history.