Another Hispanic Heritage Month has ended. Yes, there were lots of mentions of Cesar Chavez, as well as a few other well-known Latinos. But I’m always amazed that the name of one influential Latina is never brought up. I’m talking about La Malinche (1502–1527).
Now, in Mexico, the story of La Malinche is a big deal. The woman’s reputation “has been altered over the years according to changing social and political perspectives,” and Mexicans think of her as everything from an “evil or scheming temptress” to “the embodiment of treachery, the quintessential victim, or simply as the symbolic mother of the new Mexican people.”
But here in America, you are to be forgiven if you’ve never heard of her. I only encountered her story a few years ago myself. So who was she?
La Malinche was a member of the Nahua tribe who was living in present-day Mexico when Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes arrived. The explorer was ready to rumble and do some serious land-grabbing for Spain. But first, he and his men — a couple of hundred soldiers — had to vanquish an empire of millions of Aztecs.
That’s when Cortes called upon La Malinche. She was a highly intelligent translator and guide, and she helped Cortes navigate the landscape, avoid traps, and most important, make allies among the native tribes. These tribes were only too happy to bring out the war clubs against the Aztecs, and this gave the Spanish a fighting chance. La Malinche may also have spied for Cortes by eavesdropping on the native people’s conversations and reporting back to the Spanish. And she may have even convinced the Aztecs that Cortes was a returning god to be feared and respected, which is a hell of a psychological advantage to have.
Of course, the early inhabitants of Mexico were fierce warriors, who were not to be messed with. If La Malinche weren’t around, Cortes probably would have wound up on a sacrificial altar under Montezuma’s knife. And if Cortes had failed, the mighty Aztecs would have been better prepared for future Spanish incursions. We have to wonder, therefore, if they ever would have been defeated. With Aztecs still around, let’s just say that the entire Western Hemisphere would look very different today.
So how did La Malinche’s loyalty to Cortes work out for her? Well, the two of them didn’t spend all their time conjugating irregular verbs. The young translator bore the conquistador two children. But that didn’t stop Cortes from kicking her to the curb once she was no longer useful.
Cortes basically gave La Malinche to one of his officers, and after a forced marriage to the man, she soon died.