The much-maligned mother of the mestizos

Malinche's Conquest

October 6, 2000

There are many varied and colourful ways in which a Mexican may insult a compatriot. Perhaps one of the most offensive is to be labelled a Malinchista . To deserve this, one must hold that all things foreign are superior to all things Mexican. In its widest sense, Malinchismo describes something that betrays the country and degrades its traditions. The roots of this date back to the Spanish conquest of Mexico, when Hern n Cortes used a woman known as Malinche as one of his interpreters. As a result Malinche was to become one of the most vilified figures in Mexican history.

So it was with great interest that I began reading Malinche's Conquest . I wanted something new about Malinche's life, but also a serious exploration of the effect this woman had on modern popular Mexican culture. Most of these hopes were disappointed, but I was hugely entertained. Students of the period will enjoy the book.

The book is largely the record of Malinche's conquest of the author, Anna Lanyon, whose fascination with the image of this long-dead woman, glimpsed in murals by Diego Rivera and José Orozco back in 1974, haunted her for 20 years until she felt driven to return to Mexico in 1994 in search of what one of her Mexican colleagues called "this absent person, always present".

In terms of facts, the search produced little that was new. In terms of speculation, Lanyon's imagination ran riot, producing ideas that range from deeply interesting to patently absurd. But what is appealing is that Lanyon cares genuinely about Malinche. There is clearly a feminist agenda involved, but given Malinche's shabby treatment by most Mexican historians, it is high time someone raised a machete on her behalf.

Most of what we know about Malinche, or Marina as the Spaniards called her, comes from an old source, the former conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo. He tells us that Malinche (whose real name was in fact Malintzin) was born in the isthmus of Tehuantepec, sold by her mother to the Maya as a small child, then in 1519 handed by them to Cortes, along with a score of native women who were, in effect, slaves. The group was speedily baptised and Cortés passed her on to a younger companion, Hernando Alonso Puertocarrero, a minor Spanish nobleman. She was 18.

However, once her linguistic talents became obvious, Cortés reclaimed her. She served him faithfully for four years and bore him a son, Martin, who was taken from her to be raised by a Spanish family. Her talents as a translator were now less in demand and Cortés married Malinche off to another companion, Juan Xaramillo de Salvatierra. He gave her a daughter, Maria, who was also taken from her. When young Martin was six, Cortés took him to Spain.

The bare facts show a woman who turned a precarious existence, marked by danger and sorrow, into fame and something approaching a life. Even though, as Lanyon points out, we know her only through the eyes and opinions of men, she comes out pretty well, particularly in Bernal Díaz's account. He praised her beauty, courage, talents, and "great presence".

Mexican popular culture blames her for the destruction of a Mexico that was once great and all powerful. What most people fail to realise is that Mexico as such did not exist until the independence movement, 300 years after the conquest. The Mexica (Aztecs) expanded their empire by military conquest and political cunning. All those conquered by the Aztecs, as well as their reluctant neighbours (most notably the kingdom of Tlaxcala) despised them and would have welcomed the chance to escape from Tenochtitlán's domination. It was this collective hatred for the Aztecs that, together with a virulent collection of European diseases, ensured the conquistadors' extraordinary victory.

And yet neither the Tlaxcalans nor even the Spanish are targets of as much hatred as poor Malinche. Mexico is a country of heroes and villains. Malinche was "one of ours" (although she had no links with the Mexica whatsoever). However, more significantly, she was a woman. And one who slept with the Spaniards. The author cites the poet Octavio Paz to the effect that, symbolically at least, she was the mother of the first mestizo . "She brought forth a new race of sons and in doing so she had offended their sense of honour," Lanyon says. "They saw in her the shame of a violated woman."

Alan G. Robinson is a Mexican-born archaeologist who divides his time between Mexico and Britain.

Malinche's Conquest

Author - Anna Lanyon
ISBN - 1 86448 780 1
Publisher - Allen and Unwin
Price - £9.99
Pages - 235

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