Malintzen was More Than Two Stories: Binary and Sexist Depictions of Mexico’s Malintzin Reflect a Deeper Cultural Attack on the Female Figure
February 22nd, 2022
By Nicole Araujo
Block Print by Aaron Schultz
The mysterious story of Malintzen, and her perceived identity as the woman who betrayed Mexico, is a reflection of how women in patriarchal societies are used to meet society’s needs, then vilified for acting without loyalty towards their respective society. Hernán Cortés led the 1521 Spanish conquest of the area that was called Mexica, what is today the area of present-day Mexico as well as other surrounding countries, and which was ruled by the Aztecs. Malintzen was an Indigenous woman who became Cortés’ interpreter and eventually his romantic conquest. She is variously referred to as Malintzen, La Malinche, Doña Marina, and other variations of each; the lack of an agreed upon name in historical accounts reflects the extent to which her story has been distorted and disputed (1). The information Malintzen provided to Cortés arguably contributed to the Spanish defeat of the Aztecs. Yet, vilifying Malintzen for her role is not only undeserving, but a reflection of a deeper cultural flaw in the way that we perceive and depict women in history.
Malintzen was fluent in both Yucatec and Nahuatl, the languages of the Mayan and Aztec people, which made her extremely useful to Cortés in order to conquer the Aztecs. She became his interpreter, using others who spoke Spanish as well as either Yucatec or Nahuatl, in a three-way interpretation. Through her contact with Cortés and his men, Malintzen became fluent in Spanish as well.
Eventually, Malintzen became something along the lines of Cortés’ romantic partner. It is difficult to find the appropriate word to use for her relationship to Cortés since her level of consent in their relationship is so hotly debated. Most evidence of Malintzin offers conflicting and sometimes entirely opposing information. Some paint her in a very negative light, as a woman who betrayed her people by providing Cortés with the information he needed to conquer the Aztecs, and, as they say, “sleeping with the enemy.” In Mexico, Malintzen is largely considered to be the woman who betrayed her people and caused the Spanish defeat of the Aztecs. Even the Mexican colloquial term, “malinchisma” refers to someone who rejects their true identity in the pursuit of foreign advancement, or a traitor. Other accounts depict Malintzen as an enslaved woman who had no autonomy and thus should not be held accountable for her actions. Finally other accounts depict her as a hero who was able to transcend cultural and political bounds. Malintzen’s portrayals follow patriarchal societies’ trend of consistently portraying sex workers (or any version of possible sex workers) as either naive victims or manipulative scammers.
As a result, much scholarly review on Malintzen poses the question of whether she was, to quote the American Historical Association’s title of their article on her, “Malintzen: Indian Princess or Slavish Whore?” (AHA). To begin with, the title is pretty tone deaf to be published as a present-day article: we don’t refer to natives or Indigenous people as Indians; we know that Malintzen was at least for some period enslaved; the word “slavish” connotes an insulting adjective instead of just calling it what it is; and finally, to call someone a “whore” if she was in fact enslaved indicates that consent was involved, yet if she were enslaved it would not be consensual. But even the binary nature of the question itself ignores the deeply rooted lack of agency that generally defined most interactions between Indigenous women and white men. The majority of the article debates the status of Malintzen, whether she was considered to be lower-class or upper-class and by whom, echoing the patriarchal urge to view women based on how much value they have been deemed to have. In fact, other interesting information about Malintzen exists, including the extent of her linguistic genius, her motherhood to her daughter Maria, and her complex relationships with the people in her life. These topics would be more useful to delve into, a privilege that abounds in historical accounts of men, yet is hugely lacking in accounts of women.
Indigenous women were consistently used by white men to purpose their exploitative missions across the Americas. Clara Sue Kidwell, in her academic article, “Indian Women as Cultural Mediators,” (written in 1992, so at the time it was less culturally accepted to use the terms “native” or “indigenous” instead of “Indian”), notes “[a]As mistresses or wives, they counseled, translated, and guided white men who were entering new territory. While men made treaties and carried on negotiations and waged war, Indian women lived with white men, translated their words, and bore their children. Theirs was the more sustained and enduring contact with new cultural ways…” (Kidwell 98). This role that native women played is hugely underestimated. They gave a first person’s perspective into the intricacies of their culture and the societal set up of the tribe to which they belonged. From Sacageewea, to Pocahontas, to Malintzen there was always one or several native women who have been important figures in every major interaction between natives and white colonizers. While it is true that they aided the white men’s conquest, they often had very little choice in the matter. While some New World discourse depicts women as playing no role or experiencing no hardship during encounters with colonizers, especially during war times, women arguably experienced even more trauma because of their forced romantic involvement with white men.
In binary depictions of native women’s interactions with white men, we have either the childlike bystander, or, in Malintzen’s case, the evil society-ruining whore. Kidwell notes that scholars often ask the question, “[w]Were they driven by passion, or were they victims of fate, forced to submit to men of a dominant society?” (Kidwell 98). Yet this question fails to see the complexity of the native women’s plight, and the extent to which they did not have autonomy, especially in Malintzen’s case. Slavery was common in Aztec society; Malintzen herself was either sold into or kidnapped into slavery around the age of 8, and was variously traded around by different groups of people including when she was given to Cortés. Malintzen was valued solely for her body; her translation skills being an extension of her brain, she had no autonomy over her own body even if she had been attracted to Cortés: and yet she is held accountable for not being fiercely loyal to those people who had enslaved her.
Scholarly exploration into the life of Malintzen and those like her should instead be delving deeper to offer a more multidimensional portrait of women’s lives instead of trying to conform them into stereotypical and sexist roles of women. While patriarchal historical accounts and literature depict male figures as war heros, political leaders, and anything else in between with detailed documents and discussions about the intricacies of their lives from objective perspectives, the very limited discussion we have about women in regards to the Spanish conquest of Mexico are sensational stories like Malintzen’s. This is not limited to the Spanish conquest of Mexico but extends to most societies historically. We, as a patriarchal society, are often only interested in the lives of women if it involves them being used for their bodies (the exploited woman who we pity) or them using their bodies of their own accord in order to transcend the harsh confines of their lives (the evil whore who we hate). It is this binary way of perceiving and depicting women that contributes to their oppression. Why must women be confined to these opposing roles while men have the agency to be any variety of different traits and identities, made up of various setbacks and accomplishments, defects and positive attributes?
Women were essentially enslaved entirely; it is not a question of, “Was this person officially a slave or a princess?” The existence of women was so insidiously controlled that there was of course no way that Malintzen can be considered to have been acting entirely of her own accord. After all, we do know for sure that she was enslaved by either the Mayans or Aztecs for much of her childhood. By the time she came into contact with Cortés, his troops had already made vast military conquests; to attempt to be in conflict with this would have been entirely illogical and a death sentence. It also would have been a futile attempt; based on logistical factors which led to the Aztecs' defeat, it is generally agreed upon that Cortés would have conquered Mexico no matter what, with or without the help of Malintzen.
And yet, it is also not wholly correct to claim that Malintezen was dragged along every step of the way, unwillingly forced to commit these evil deeds against her people despite wanting nothing else but to support the Aztecs. The nature of women is that we adapt. We learn to become willing participants in our patriarchal societies out of survival. It is entirely plausible that Malintzen had more room than exercised to attempt to block Cortés from his goal of defeating the Aztecs. It is possible that she preferred her existence as Cortés’ courtesan/girlfriend/partner over her previous existence as an enslaved person where her body was not treated as her own... It is fair to say that she benefitted from her relationship with Cortés in such a way that would not have been possible in any other realistic existence, since she otherwise would have been enslaved in much worse conditions.
So what? If all of these conclusions were true, would that mean that she deserves to be ostracized and demeaned? The vilification of Malintzen reflects a deep cultural flaw that is present in essentially any patriarchal society: the vilification of the female existence. If women do not act as the selfless, maternal, sacrificing figures that society pressures them to be, then they are deemed to be deeply flawed.
In Octavio Paz’ book The Labyrinth of Solitude and The Other Mexico, he has a chapter entitled, “The Sons of Malinche,” where he explores the Mexican concept of La Chingada, or the violated mother, and how it speaks to the way society blames women for all cultural woes. The book, and especially the chapter on Malintzen, is considered by Mexican feminist scholars to be an enlighening critique of the patriarchal structure of Mexican culture which offers visibility to women as well as the Indigenous identity in Mexico. He notes:
Her taint is constitutional and resides, as we said earlier, in her sex. This passivity, open to the outside world, causes her to lose her identity: she is the Chingada. She loses her name; she is no one; she disappears into nothingness; she is Nothingness. And yet she is the cruel incarnation of the feminine condition… If the Chingada is a representation of the violated Mother, it is appropriate to associate her with the Conquest, which was also a violation, not only in the historical sense but also in the very flesh of Indian women. The symbol of this violation is doña Malinche, the mistress of Cortés.” (Paz, chapter 4)
The nature of the feminine condition in patriarchal societies is to be held to unrealistically high standards and demonized when those standards are not met. This is manifested especially in the depictions of Malintzen which demand to force her into one of two boxes. Yet, what must be acknowledged is that society enslaves women and then expects them to not act as if they were enslaved; thus, true loyalty to their country should not be expected and the questions around it are not valid. If we can’t explore the lives of women in history from an honest and subjective perspective, how can we expect to offer women today any sense of a fair existence that is truly their own? Scholarly and historical depictions of women in history need to begin examining the lives of women from fuller and more dynamic perspectives.
(1) Malintzen is the name scholars agree is most likely the name she used in her native Nahuatl language, so I use that name in this essay.
Kidwell, Clara Sue. “Indian Women as Cultural Mediators.” Ethnohistory, vol. 39, no. 2, Duke University Press, 1992, pp. 97–107. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/482389.
“Life Story: Malitzen (La Malinche).” Women & the American Story, https://wams.nyhistory.org/early-encounters/spanish-colonies/malitzen/. Accessed 5 Oct. 2021.
Malinche: Indian Princess or Slavish Whore? | AHA. https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/teaching-resources-for-historians/teaching-and-learning-in-the-digital-age/the-history-of-the-americas/the-conquest-of-mexico/narrative-overviews/malinche-indian-princess-or-slavish-whore. Accessed 5 Oct. 2021.
Paz, Octavio. “The Sons of Malinche.” Chap. 4 in The Labyrinth of Solitude and The Other Mexico. Translated by Lysander Kemp, et al. New York: Grove Press, 1985