La Malinche: Mexico’s Mestizo Origins

For those who don’t know, La Malinche was the young woman-child and slave sold to Hernan Cortes on the Maya coast of Mexico in 1521. She was traded by the Chontal Maya along with 19 other 12-year olds. Her narrative is complex and formidable. An exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum examines her role as survivor, interpretor, and companion. In viewing the exhibit and knowing of her story, I continue to ask myself, Why was she so maligned?

In contemporary history, as interpreted by Mexican writer/poet Octavio Paz in his 1950 essay Sons of Maliinche, he defined La Malinche as a traitor responsible for the Spanish conquest of indigenous Mexico. This is an interpretation that has stuck and is only beginning to be questioned and debunked.

Mestizaje, the mixing of Spanish and indigenous, is the origin story of modern Mexico. It factored prominently during the Mexican Revolution when political leaders were trying to establish a new identity for the re-imagined nation, one based on honoring indigenous roots. And, yet, La Malinche continues to be denigrated as the ultimate betrayal. To be known as a Malinchistas is a derogatory slur applied to those who favor anything foreign.

To understand Mexico is to understand the context of the Spanish conquest and Aztec (Mexica) dominance. The Aztecs controlled the territory from Tenochtitlan to Nicaragua for over 150 years. Heavy tributes were collected from indigenous tribal groups and the Aztecs were hated by many. La Malinche recruited indigenous allies, some of which included the Zapotecs, the Tlaxcalans, and those from Texcoco (surrounding Tenochtitlan) who aligned with the Spanish to defeat the Aztecs. With this backdrop, La Malinche emerges as the negotiator, interpretor (she learned Spanish and knew Nahuatl, language of the Aztecs), facilitator.

Her images are depicted in the codices of the time — the painted pictorials that told the story of the Spanish expedition in Mexico. She wears a red and white huipil, her hair is tied in braids around her crown (sign of a married woman). She sits with Cortes and tribal royalty to broker the alliances that would destroy the Aztecs. Why is she depicted as evil, as the traitor?

it wasn’t until the Chicano movement of the 1970’s that La Malinche began to be reinterpreted as heroine, representing the sacrifices that women made for family and community. Women have culturally had no voice, are controlled and dominated. This is evidenced by machismo, and we see even more of behavior now in the United States with the reversal of Roe v. Wade and the dominance of conservative, repressive values that have migrated into our legal system.

There is no better time to talk about La Malinche as symbol of survival and intelligence. It is also the time to talk about missing and murdered indigenous women in Mexico and in Navtive American tribes of the United States. Domestic violence against women rose signficantly during the pandemic.

In modern Oaxaca, La Malinche survives in the Dance of the Feather. Her duality as an indigenous girl and a convert to Catholicism (legitimate) and baptized Doña Marina is depicted by two distinct individuals, as if one could be separated from the other. Dance as historical interpretation exists in New Mexico, too, with the Dance of the Matachines, depicting the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. La Malinche plays a prominent role here, too. As a resident of Oaxaca and New Mexico, I find this overlap fascinating. The exhibition concludes with contemporary photographs of New Mexico indigenous villages celebrating the Dance of the Matachines.

As I exited the Albuquerque Museum, I could help but make these observations and a list:

  • Men determining the fate of women
  • Women without choices
  • Women without voices
  • Women without rights
  • Women as slaves and chattel
  • Women who are powerless
  • Women as evil, bearing the Garden of Eden legacy
  • Women as temptress, sexual object
  • Women objectified in fashion, film, photography

I found this exhibition to be provocative and gave me pause to think about the fate of La Malinche and all women who are enslaved in traditional roles with few choices and little chance for escape. This is why this exhibition is so important. I hope it comes to a city near you.

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