The choices for women have, across both time and space, almost always been far more constrained than the choices of men. They have in fact all too often been reduced to a single pair of opposing choices: The pure or the corrupt, the white or the black, the chaste or the sexual - the virgin or the whore.
Mexican culture is certainly not exempt from this tendency to place women on one side of this dichotomy or the other, but in the case of Mexican images of women this division of the female half of the population into the chaste, good woman and the terrible promiscuous one becomes complicated by issues of race (and racial purity), by the historical condition of colonization and post-colonization, by the partial displacement, partial incorporation of native belief systems by Catholicism.
These many complications and elaborations of this essential and essentializing dichotomy about the true nature of woman can be seen to come together in the character of La Malinche, a figure not well-known outside of Mexico (except to those whose families originally came from Mexico). This paper explores the figure of La Malinche, a figure who representations have over the years become at least in general more positive as Mexicans have regained a sense of themselves as a people worthy of self-respect - and as Mexican women have refused to see themselves as meriting only the role of a traitor condemned to silence.
Woman of Many Guises
La Malinche's image has changed substantially over time in the years since the conquest of the Aztec empire by the Spanish to the current day. This in large measure reflects changes in the ways that the Mexican people view themselves, but the various incarnations of the figure also result from the fact that she has different regional representations and has also been joined in a form of cultural syncretism at other times. Octavio Paz demonstrates in his The Labyrinth of Solitude how shifts in the perception of La Malinche reflect larger shifts in self-perception by Mexicans - although such shifts in the perception of La Malinche may help to cause as well as simply to reflect such shifts.
Her figure permeates historical, cultural, and social dimensions of Latin American cultures. In modern times and in several genres, she is compared with the figure of the Virgin Mary, La Llorona (folklore story of the weeping woman) and with the Mexican soldaderas for her manly valor. The soldaderas were women who fought beside men during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).
While her life has most certainly become mythologized, it also seems clear that there was a real, historical person called La Malinche, a template upon whom a number of cultural texts have been written. However, while something is known of her real life, much is not. She may have been called Malinitzin or perhaps Malinali. She is also called by the name she received when she was baptized into the Catholic faith - Dona Marina. According to the legend told by Bernal D'az del Castillo, a contemporary of La Malinche, she was born in the first years of the 16th century as a princess of the Aztec empire, a sufficiently high social position that she was given an education far more extensive than that of most girls and indeed even many boys.
After her father died, her mother remarried and bore her new husband a son. La Malinche was now merely a stepchild of the family, and was sold into slavery by her parents to the Mayan-speaking people of the south, who traded her to the Tlaxalteca tribe in Tabasco. When she was 14, the people of Tabasco gave her as one of a score of women to Hernan Cortes, who in turn doled them out to his captains. Given first to Alonzo Hernando Puertocarrero, Dona Marina later became the companion of Cortes himself when Puertocarrero returned to Spain (Castillo 100).
La Malinche - not unlike Sacagawea - was useful to the colonizers became she spoke a number of different languages and used them to help Cortes draw a number of different Indian nations to his side against the Aztecs:
Malinche became one of Cortes' greatest assests: "Without the help of Dona Marina we would not have understood the language of New Spain and Mexico" (Diaz 101). Malinche would stand beside Cortes and translate his words or even issue instructions of her own. She was a key to success in convincing other Indian nations to join them in their quest to destoy the great Aztec nation. For instance, she was an interpreter between Moctezuma and Cortes.
La Malinche was for many years seen as nothing but a traitor, a woman her gave her body - and her mind and intellectual talents - to the enemy. Little acknowledgement was given to the difficulty of her own life - her enslavement by her parents, her being given as chattel to whatever Spaniard might be amused by her, her rejection by Cortes when his Spanish wife joined him, her death at the age of 24.
The word "malinchista" has been identified with La Malinche as a person who betrays his/her race and country; this person mixes his/her indian blood with white European blood. Since the historical Malinche had a child with Cortes, she is considered the mother of the "meztizo" race (children born to Spanish-Indian parents).
But while for many years the figure of La Malinche has been seen unequivocally bad and even evil terms, she has begun to be reclaimed in the last generation by especially feminists who she her original depiction as an attempt to blame her, Eve-like, for the weaknesses and self-hatred of men.
It is time that women discover the Aztec Indian woman called Dona Marina by the Spaniards and La Malinche by her fellow Indians and demand recognition of her as a true heroine. She certainly had as great an impact on the history of the New World as any woman, yet has been belittled and defamed by male Mexican historians.
This analysis argues that La Malinche was blamed by Mexicans for betraying the Aztecs because Mexicans have been reluctant to admit that the Aztec empire would not have fallen (and thus Mexico would not have come under Spanish colonial authority) if the other Indians in Mexico had not collaborated with the Spanish.
The historians of Mexico have wished to be able to write the history of their country as that of a people who fought bravely against the foreign invaders and who were in the end unable to succeed not through any lack of courage or any lack of a sense of their own cultural imperative but through that age-old, Biblically nuanced story of men betrayed by a woman.
One can in fact see the appeal of such a narrative - which lends to the Mexicans all of the virtues in the fight. Not only is it probably natural for people to want to consider themselves to be brave and virtuous but given the terrible cultural and political consequences that attended on the people of Mexico in the wake of colonization, it is easy to understand how the Mexicans of later generations would want someone to blame for the terrible cultural dislocations that followed colonization. And who better to blame - and has this not historically always been the case - than a woman?
Perhaps unwilling to admit that the fall of the Aztec Empire was caused largely by a revolt of the tribes they oppressed, they have made Dona Maria a scapegoat. Some have painted her as a traitor, others as a harlot. Today, she is ignored. Information about her is scarce but digging into the Spanish Archives we find the words of Hernando Cortes, conqueror of New Spain and the man she served faithfully as interpreter, secretary, confidant and mistress.
But there is another element to the original and long-enduring disregard and even hatred that has been cast upon La Malinche, one that Paz explores in nuanced analysis. La Malinche has been hated by many Mexicans until the most recent generation not because of her betrayal of the Aztecs but because of her engendering of the entire race of Mexicans.
It is because Mexicans have for so long hated themselves, hated their own mixed heritage, that they hate La Malinche, Paz argues. It is only when Mexicans come to peace with their own mestizo heritage that they can possibly come to terms with La Malinche and revere her as the founder of the race. It seems fairly certain that she was indeed Cortes's lover - but also that she was faithful to him. This should hardly brand her as a whore.
She also bore Cortes a son whom he acknowledged. Baptized Martin Cortes, he is the first "Mexican," ie, a mixture of Spanish and Indian blood, whose name and history we know.
As time went by, Cortes was offered many women. Always, he gave them to other Captains. Her…