La Malinche: The First Interpreter

Some consider her a traitor to her people, others a cultural bridge between the Spanish and Mesoamerican Indians. What nobody doubts is the key role that this woman had in the conquest and the genesis of America as we know it today. Her story, like her talent, is fascinating.

Malinalli Tenépatl, Malinche, Doña Marina or La Malinche (c.1502 – c.1529) was born in southern Mexico in the present state of Veracruz. Her second name means “person who has a way with words, who talks a lot and with animation” in Nahuatl, as if those who named her had sealed her fate and history.
She was the daughter of a chief of the Aztec empire and for that reason her first language was Nahuatl. However, she was sold into slavery to the chiefs in Tabasco as a tribute after the war between the Mayans and Aztecs, and through them she learned the Mayan language.

On March 15, 1519, when the Maya of Tabasco surrendered to Hernán Cortés some gold pieces, a set of blankets and 20 women, La Malinche was among them. Cortés gave her to one of his captains, but he soon discovered that she spoke Nahuatl and start to use her as a Nahuatl-Mayan interpreter, with Jerónimo de Aguilar (a Spanish castaway who had been captured and was rescued by Cortes in Cozumel) handling the translation of Mayan into Spanish. Thus, through the use of three languages ​​and two interpreters, all contacts between the Spanish and Aztecs were performed, until La Malinche learned Spanish.

By then she was Doña Marina (as the Spanish renamed her) and lover of Cortes, with whom she had Martin, illegitimate first-born child and, according to some historians, the first “mestizo” in America. That is why some people consider her the “First Mother of Mexico”, evoking the birth of a new home. (The image is the 16th century Tlaxcala canvas, where she is shown translating for Cortés.)

Others prefer to see her as the embodiment of treachery and her name is now used in Spanish in the word “malinchismo”, which indicates the preference of the foreign versus national, the desire to be abroad rather than Mexico, opportunism, betrayal in favor of foreign interests. But as there was no unity, only great enmity between the peoples of Mexico, La Malinche had no home to sell.

According to the Mexican author Gómez de Orozco, La Malinche “was an instrumental part of the [Spanish] strategy, by interpreting in three languages ​​and by providing essential information about the economic organization, knowledge of native customs, the order and succession kingdoms, tax forms, the rules governing family relations, etc.” The highlight of her career as an interpreter was the initial face to face meeting between Cortez and Montezuma. They say she actively favored negotiations rather than bloodshed.

Cortes wrote in a letter: “After God, we owe the conquest of New Spain to Doña Marina.”

You can find more on La Malinche here.

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