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Borderlands: La Malinche Remains Controversial 17 (1998)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

La Malinche Remains Controversial

Article first published in Vol. 17, 1998.

By Susana Cano, Juan Sandoval and Norma Torres

Mexico City. A house at 57 Higuera Street in the Coyoacan neighborhood. La Malinche's house. 

Tourists look for a museum, a plaque, something by which to commemorate La Malinche, Hernán Cortés' Indian translator, guide and mistress. Mexicans avoid the house where she lived 500 years ago because of its association with the woman considered a traitor and popular stories of ghosts. 

The only thing which acknowledges the native who helped Cortés form alliances with various Indian tribes against the Aztecs is the insult of being called a "malinchista," meaning a lover of foreigners, a traitor. 

""Image caption: Doña Marina - La Malinche Drawing by Yvonne Puentes 

Known by various names, the girl born to noble parents in 1505 was given the Aztecan name Ixkakuk, meaning "beautiful goddess." The priest of Quetzalcoatl gave her the name "Malinali," the name of her birth month meaning "dry grass," and the twelfth month of the Mexican calendar.

Her father, Teteotcingo, a royal prince of the Aztecs, having no son, began to educate Malina, as she was known among her people, in leadership skills. He would take her to the river where he taught her to read the Aztecan pictogram language.

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Tall and strong for her age, Malina learned to be more assertive than commonly expected for young women. She attended the best school in Tenochtitlán, a privilege given to few girls, and was tutored by her grandmother, Ciuacoatl. Besides learning household arts, she continued reading and writing pictograms and studied oratory and rhetoric, as well as herbal medicine. 

When her father died, Malina came home and her mother, Cimatl, remarried and bore a son. In order to secure Malina's heritage for her son, Cimatl sold the girl into slavery to some Mayan merchants who took her to Yucatán. As a servant, she ground maize, cooked for her master's family and wove cloth. 

In 1519, Cortés landed on Mexico's mainland. Mexican author Jesus J. Figueroa says when the Indians lost the battle in Yucatán against Cortés, they gave him gold and 20 slaves chosen for their beauty, including Malina, then 14. Cortés distributed the slaves among his men, but when he discovered she spoke various Mayan dialects as well as Nahuatl, she was placed in a central role in his expedition as translator. 

Cortés spoke Spanish; his crew-man Geronimo de Aguilar, a survivor of another expedition who lived for a time among the Indians, spoke Spanish and Mayan. Malina would translate the Mayan to Nahuatl and be known as Malina Tenepal, the last name meaning "interpreter." 

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Malina was given the Christian name of Doña Marina and became Cortés' interpreter, guide and, later, mistress, having been promised her freedom if she helped the Spanish. It was Doña Marina who requested the initial meeting between Montezuma II and Cortés. 

Some historians say that Malina's decision to help Cortés - if indeed she had any choice - was based on his resemblance to Quetzalcoatl and her faith. Malina knew well the prophecy of Quetzalcoatl: he would return in a "reed" year to terminate the Aztec world and create a new one. Marina remained at the side of Cortés throughout the conquest of the Aztecs and accompanied him on expeditions through central America. 

Malina would bear Cortés a son named Don Martin Cortés Tenepal in 1522. This child, the result of a union between an Indian and Spaniard, is said to have begun a new ethnic group of people called the mestizos. Cortés subsequently gave her to another Spanish officer, Juan Jaramillo, with whom she had a daughter, Maria Jaramillo. Malina's son rose to prominence in the new order but later was suspected of treason and executed in 1568. Her daughter was robbed of her inheritance, much like Malina had been. 

Several theories exist about Malina's death. Many authorities agree that she died from smallpox in relative obscurity at the young age of 24. However, Geney Torruco in his 1987 book "Doña Marina Malintzin" says she died over twenty years later in 1551, and another theory suggests one of Cortés' servants murdered her one night. 

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Ixkakuk, Malina Tenepal, Malintzin, Malinalli, Doña Marina. She is known by many names in several dialects, but with the passage of time, her name has become associated with treason. Novelist Carlos Fuentes says, "We as Mexicans not only have to contend with Eve's great sin, but with Malinche's as well, we unfortunately, receive a double dose of corruption." 

Writer Clifford Krauss notes that La Malinche is really hated by many Mexicans. Prominent Mexican muralist Rina Lazo, who now lives in Malinche's former house, says, "For Mexico to create a monument to La Malinche would be like giving an award to the one who dropped the atomic bomb in Hiroshima." 

But others see her as a victim of her own family's betrayal. Still others regard her as the symbolic mother of a new nationality. But La Malinche, for the most part, is portrayed in Mexican literature as the "perpetuator of Mexico's original sin," says Krauss. About 15 years ago when Coyoacan officials built a fountain and statue depicting Cortés, La Malinche and their son, protests became so violent that the monument had to be destroyed. 

No, the house at 57 Higuera Street is no museum to the woman who many see as the symbolic mother of la raza. Many more years will have to pass before we see that. 

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Tags: biography

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