In search of Malinche – the Mexican Mata Hari

articles History & People

Ruth Ross-Merrimer

With only 618 soldiers and sailors, four cannon, several brass guns, and sixteen horses, Hernàn Cortéz – also known as Hernando Cortés – brought about the collapse of the Aztec Empire, thereby accomplishing the Conquest of Mexico, considered by historians the greatest military feat in history. Historians also agree that without the help of a native Mexican woman called Malinche, the Conquest could not have been achieved.

There have been scores of biographies and many drawings and likenesses made of Cortéz, Moctezuma, and Cuactémoc – three of the four most important figures to emerge from the Conquest – but no images and little written information has been passed down to us about Malinche, the fourth figure. This very lack of information piques our curiosity and makes us want to know more about her. Who was Malinche and what drove her to betray her country?

The best hint we have of her character and what she looked like appeared in the journals kept by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the last living Conquistador in the army of Cortéz. Díaz was present at the first meeting between Malinche and Cortéz, and was in her company almost daily up until the time she faded into obscurity. Díaz’ journals address Malinche the translator, but information about Malinche the woman is slim.

Described as having hazel eyes, medium to light skin and light hair, Malinche was born the pampered daughter of a rich and powerful Mayan lord and mayor of a city in Campéche on the Yucatan Peninsula. Her life changed at the age of nine or ten, when her father died and her mother married the man who would, by marriage, succeed her father as mayor. In time, the couple had a son Lázaro, whom they adored and wanted to be their only beneficiary. To get around the law that would have made Malinche next in line to be mayor, they put out the word that she had died, and in the dead of night took her outside the city gates and gave her to a passing Aztec warrior. The warrior promised to take Malinche to Isla de Mujeres (Island of Women), where highborn Maya girls were sent to be schooled as brides. Instead, she was sold into slavery.

There are two conflicting stories concerning the mother’s reason for banishing her daughter from the only home she had ever known. One concerns the social and political ranking of Malinche over her half – brother, the other – probably closer to the truth – says the mother was jealous of her beautiful young daughter and feared her new and younger husband would be attracted to her. For whatever reason, Malinche was banished from her home, and spent the next eight years of her life in slavery, first among the Aztecs and later with various tribes from the Tabasco region.

The historic meeting between Malinche and Cortéz came in 1519, when Malinche was 18 years of age. Again, there are conflicting stories concerning the exact month and day of their meeting, but most accounts agree on the year. Cortéz had won a battle against the Tabascans – who spoke mostly Mayan and various dialects of Aztec – Mayan mix – and Malinche was among a group of 20 female slaves he received as tribute. Cortéz became aware of her presence in his camp when a disturbance erupted among his men as they fought for the right to claim her. Cortéz put out the fire by moving her to his private quarters and placing her under his protection. He hadn’t a clue that this woman he took to be a lowly slave, would provide the one element he lacked in his plan to divide and conquer the tribes of Mexico – communication. His intervention and rescue of Malinche answers the question some have pondered to whether she became first his translator then his mistress, or the other way around.

Malinche was a natural linguist. Her first language was Mayan, and she became proficient in the Aztec language and most of the dialects spoken by the Tabascans during her years spent in their camps. In just a few short months with Cortéz, she became fluent in Spanish.

Another translator in Cortéz’s camp was a Spaniard named Jerónimo Aguilar, who had been captured and enslaved by the Tabascans in a previous attempt at a Spanish invasion ten years earlier. Because of Malinche’s broader knowledge of the languages and dialects of Mexico, and her innate ability to ingratiate herself with the Indians, she became known as Cortéz’s “silver – tongue translator,” and was always at his side. Díaz wrote that so close was the bond between Cortéz and Malinche, the Indians would often call him “Señor Malinche,” and refer to the two as “The Malinche’s.”

Cortez would give Malinche his message in Spanish and she, in turn, would communicate it to the Indians. In his messages, he would tell the Indians if they would join his army they would receive many benefits from the benevolent Spanish King across the sea. He would also tell them they would receive untold heavenly rewards if they would renounce their many gods and turn to the one true God of the Catholic Church. Lured by the persuasive talents of Malinche, and the added promise of Cortéz to relieve them from paying tribute of corn, grain, gold and silver to Moctezuma – who often took their children for sacrifice – many Indians were induced to join him.

The Tabascans, the Totonac people from Veracruz, and the Tlaxcalans were the fiercest Indian fighters in the army of Cortéz, but it was the alliance Cortéz made with the Tlaxcalans that become the most important. They were neighbors and enemies of the Aztecs, and fought side by side with the Spaniards at the siege of Tenochtitlán, the battle that brought about the end of the Aztec Empire.

“Malinche was as meddlesome, sharp – tongued and shameless as she was attractive,” wrote Bernal Díaz. “But even when she heard daily that we were going to be killed by the Indians and eaten with chilis, she had such manly courage she never allowed us to see any sign of weakness and went about her duties without fear.”

The word “slave” as applied to Malinche does not have the same meaning as modern – day application. Her captors knew she was a princess of royal birth, and though she may not have had the freedom to walk away, she was treated with deference and respect. She would have been placed in the home of a ranking member of the camp she belonged to and given good housing, clothing and food.

Malinche’s friendly personality and ability to converse in any language also made her a favorite with the wives of the Indians that traveled with Cortéz. She was a welcome and familiar visitor to their camps, sitting with the women and engaging in conversation relating to home, children and family life. She was also a good listener. While storing up any bit of information the wives might drop about their husband’s loyalty to Cortéz, she showed interest in hearing about their gods and superstitions.

Malinche took everything she heard back to her lover. When she related to him the legend of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, events were put in motion that would seal not only the fate of Moctezuma, but also of Mexico. The legend had flourished in Mexico for centuries, and was the most compelling of all Aztec beliefs. Even though Malinche had renounced her Indian gods and Cortéz had given her the Spanish name Doña Marina at her baptism in the Catholic Church, it remained that the first 18 years of her life had been steeped in Maya and Aztec beliefs. The depth of Malinche’s emotion as she related the legend of Quetzalcoatl to Cortéz, led him to wonder if deep within her Indian soul she might not still believe its message.

It was Quetzacoatl, Malinche told Cortéz, who had created man by sprinkling a bundle of bones with his own blood, who had taught the Indians the art of cultivating corn, making cotton, spinning and weaving, and using feathers as decoration in their religious rites and fiestas. Quetzacoatl was against human sacrifice, the practice of worshipping more than one god, and was so pure and moral, he shunned the carnal acts of mortal man.

When a group of jealous under – gods tricked him into debauchery, he made a raft of serpent skins and sailed back to his home to be purified. Before sailing away, he promised to return as the only god and ruler of the Aztecs, in the One Reed year of the Maya calendar. Malinche paused at this point to cradle Cortéz’ cheeks with her hands. Quetzalcoatl told his people, Malinche continued, they would know him upon his return, because he would arrive from the east and a black beard would cover his white face.

By an almost unbelievable coincidence, Cortéz fit the legend down to the last detail. The One Reed Year in the Maya calendar coincided with 1519 – the year Cortéz had first stepped on Mexican soil – and just as Quetzalcoatl had prophesized, Cortéz believed in only one God, and had arrived from the east with a black beard covering his white skin.

As Malinche finished telling the legend, Cortéz hit on a plan to use it to his advantage by telling Moctezuma that he, Cortéz, was Quetzalcoatl incarnated and had returned as promised. He told Moctezuma that he had come as a friend to the Aztecs, and if Moctezuma would persuade them to stop fighting, he and his army would leave the city. Superstitious and gullible to a fault, Moctezuma believed him.

The order to surrender made the Indians furious. They had fought the Spanish clear across Mexico, killing forty or fifty of them every day. Malinche had warned Cortéz the Indians believed that even if their own losses were high, they could defeat the Spaniards by sheer numbers alone. Cortéz was patently aware that if the killing of his men didn’t stop, the Indians’ strategy would prove correct.

From the time Cortéz had landed, the Aztec King Moctezuma had ignored the advice of his military generals to kill or enslave the Spaniards on the beach, just as they had done in three previous expeditions by the Spanish to get a foothold in Mexico. Instead, in the mistaken belief that the interlopers would leave in peace if he showed them he was their friend, Moctezuma had welcomed Cortéz to his palace and showered him with baskets of gold and precious stones. Moctezuma had even given Cortéz, Malinche, and an entourage of soldiers one of his palaces to live in when they were in the city of Tenochtitlán. In reality, the luxury of palace living and the gifts, only served to make Cortéz more determined than ever to conquer the Aztecs and seize their wealth for himself and Spain.

Now, dressed in his finest robes and accompanied by Cortéz, Malinche, and other Spaniards, Moctezuma stood on the roof of his palace and ordered his people to lay down their arms and surrender. Hearing the order, the Indians turned on him, yelling their protests and aiming their slingshots armed with rocks with deadly accuracy. Hit numerous times on the body and twice in the head, Moctezuma fell unconscious to the ground. To prevent the Indians from swarming to the roof and finishing him off, the Spaniards picked him up and carried him to his rooms where a surgeon bandaged his wounds. Upon gaining consciousness, Moctezuma tore off his bandages with the wish that he be let alone. He died three days later on June 27, 1520.

Sometime earlier in this same year, Malinche had a son by Cortéz who was named Martín Cortéz. With the birth of his only son, Cortéz successfully petitioned the Spanish Court to declare Martín his legal son and heir, and sent him to Spain to be raised as a Spanish grandee with his wife and three daughters. Ironically, sometime around 1545 – 47, Martín Cortéz returned to Mexico to lead the Indians in a failed revolt against the Spanish, the very ones his mother had helped put in power.

After the death of Moctezuma, the Aztecs were led first by his brother Cuitláhuac, who died three months later of smallpox, and then by Cuauhtémoc, Moctezuma’s nephew and son – in – law. Cuauhtémoc – whose name meant fallen eagle – was a determined and unyielding leader who rejected all suggestions of surrender.

The final battles took place in Tenochtitlán, where Mexico City now stands. The Aztecs built the city in 1325, on an outcrop in a saline lake. It was a beautiful city that made the Spaniards gasp in wonder when they first saw it. Home to thousands of Aztecs, people got around by foot on wide streets, or by boats on the many canals. Aqueducts brought in fresh water from the springs in Chapultepec, and causeways connected the city with the mainland. The meticulously kept houses were one or two storys high; and many were decorated with gold that shone for miles on sunny days.

Under the leadership of Cuauhtémoc, the Aztecs fought fiercely, but their slingshots and crude weapons were no match for the Spaniards’ cannon and superior knowledge in the art of waging war. The Spaniards surrounded the city, cutting the Indians off from supplies of fresh water, food and medicine. The Indians held out for 85 days until, ultimately, with his people either killed in battle or dead from starvation or smallpox – another Spanish import – they were defeated and Cuauhtémoc was captured. On August 13, 1521, just two years and six months after landing in Cozumel, the victorious Cortéz achieved the defeat of the Aztec Nation and the Conquest of Mexico.

Later, in regret over the needless destruction of Tenochtitlán by his soldiers, Cortéz declared it the capital of Mexico and ordered it rebuilt and restored. Today Mexico City is the oldest capitol in the Western Hemisphere.

Throughout the siege, Cortéz had hidden Malinche and the women that traveled with his army in a secret place where they would be safe. After the fighting was over and the women emerged, Bernal Díaz recorded the joy of everyone at finding Malinche was safe and back among them. “We were overcome with happiness to see Malinche again,” he wrote. “We hadn’t been told where she was and we feared for her life when the fighting was at its heaviest.”

Cuauhtémoc was held in captivity for three years, enduring terrible torture by the Spanish in their attempts to make him disclose where the Aztec wealth was hidden. Even when the Spaniards coated his feet with oil and set them in hot coals, Cuauhtémoc refused to disclose the hiding place. As a last resort, Cortéz sent Malinche to persuade Cuauhtémoc into revealing the secret. When this failed, Cuauhtémoc was sentenced to be hanged.

“I knew you could never be trusted, Malinche. God will demand an answer as to why you wanted to slay your countrymen.” Cuauhtémoc said to her as she stood beside Cortéz at his hanging.

Visibly shaken by Cuauhtémoc’ s words, Malinche dropped her head. Cortéz was seen to speak words of comfort to her as he accompanied her back to her rooms. She did not reappear for some days, and upon emerging from her rooms was quieter and more subdued than normal.

In 1523, two years after the Conquest, Cortéz and his entourage, including the chronicler Bernal Díaz and Malinche, traveled to the town where Malinche’s mother and half – brother still lived. Fearful that Malinche had arrived to have them killed, they fell to the ground, begging her forgiveness for the ill treatment she had received.

“When Malinche saw them in tears,” Díaz wrote. “She forgave them and gave them many jewels and gold.”

As her mother and brother lay sobbing on the ground, Malinche went to her mother and lifting her, hugged and kissed her. She told them her life had been happier with Cortéz than if she had remained with her family, and thanked her mother for making it possible. “God has been good to me by making me a Christian and letting me bear a son to my lord and master Cortéz,” she told her mother.

Shortly after this meeting, Malinche faded from history, never to be heard of again. There is no record of when or how she died, or where she was buried. Some historians believe she traveled to Spain where she lived until her death; others speculate she spent the rest of her life in a home she had built in Cuernavaca to be near Cortéz, who also had a home there. From everything we have learned about Malinche, she was bright, curious, loved to talk and be with people. It seems unlikely that she would have chosen to stay in Mexico, where she was hated by the people and would have been forced to live in virtual seclusion. Cortez did live for a time in Cuernavaca, but his life is well documented and there is no record that he ever saw Malinche during the time he spent there, or anyplace else.

From writings left by Bernal Díaz, the one person other than Cortéz who knew Malinche best, there is no indication that she had any ambitions for wealth or self – glorification. Even though Cortéz had taken her son from her, had married her off to another man, and without making preparations for her, was planning his return to Spain to visit his wife and family, Malinche remained by his side. In the face of all this, we can only surmise that Malinche turned traitor to her people and her country out of blind love for Cortéz.

There are no monuments to Malinche in Mexico, but her name lives on in its language. In the lexicon of Mexico, malinchismo is a pejorative term used by Mexicans against Mexicans who consort with foreigners and take up foreign ways and ideas over Mexican. Malinchista is the word used by Mexicans to describe someone who speaks against his or her country or friends. I first heard the expression in 1968, while attending a speech given by then – Mexican President Diaz Ordáz in Puerto Vallarta. “Mexicans,” he said. “Our malinchismo is holding us back. We must get over it.”

Mexican legend has it that Malinche became a ghost living in caves, and if one listens carefully, on windy nights she can be heard weeping and wailing in remorse for betraying her country.

Cortéz died in Spain in 1547 at the age of 63, neglected by his Spanish King and heavily in debt. He was buried first in Seville. Then in 1562 with no publicity, his remains were moved to Mexico and interred in a monastery in Texcoco. The remains were moved again in 1784 and placed in a wall in the Hospital of Jesus in Mexico City, where Cortéz had asked to be buried. Mexicans took no interest in his burial place until the close of their War of Independence, when they learned his remains were lying close to where some of the heroes of the Revolution were buried. Fearing the remains would be dug up and desecrated, they were moved again to a place with no marking. This location was unknown until 1946, when a paper containing an account of the burial was found in the Spanish Embassy in Mexico City.

Just as for his mistress Malinche, there are no monuments to Cortéz in Mexico. It is said that Mexico is his monument.

Bibliography: “The True Story of the Conquest of Mexico” – Bernal Díaz del Castillo; “Montezuma’s Missing Treasure” – Anita Larsen; “Obsidian Sky” – Guy Garcia; “Daily Life of the Aztecs” – Jacques Soustelle; “Life World Library” – William Johnson; “Yucatan Before and After the Conquest” – Friar Diego de Landa, “Mexican Mural” – Lois Hobart, “The Mexicans” – Victor Alba.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2006 by Ruth Ross-Merrimer © 2008
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