Malinalli’s mythical legacy has solidified her as a key historical figure in the creation of contemporary Mexican national identity. Born into a noble family and later enslaved in her youth, Malinalli was renowned for her beauty and graciousness. These qualities ushered her into the inner circle of the Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernan Cortés.
As both Cortés’s lover and advisor, Malinalli became the mediator between clashing cultures and thus greatly influenced the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Her greatest legacy is saving thousands of Indian lives by enabling Cortés to negotiate rather than wage total war. Hernan Cortes wrote, “After God we owe this conquest of New Spain to Dona Marina (Malinalli).” Malinalli was born into a noble family in the Paynalla province of Coatzacoalcos, in the Veracruz region of southern Mexico (ca. 1494-1527). When her father died, her mother remarried and gave birth to a son. Although Malinalli was her father’s firstborn and rightful heir, her mother and step-father favored the new baby. So that the new baby would inherit, Malinalli mother gave her away or sold her into slavery and declared that she was dead. Before she became the property of the Cacique (ruler or chief) of Tabasco, Malinalli traveled in captivity from her native Nahuatl-speaking region to the Maya-speaking areas of Yucatán, where she learned that language.
During this period, Hernan Cortés had come to the Tabasco coast from Cuba. By the time Cortes arrived, she had learned the Mayan dialects spoken in the Yucatan while still understanding Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and most Non-Mayan Indians. Having decided to curry favor with the Spaniards rather than fight them, the Mayans gave them food, cloth, gold, and slaves, including 20 women. The girl, Malinalli among them, were baptized in March 1519 she was about to enter the pages of history. She got a name Donna Marina.
Malinalli quickly extended her linguistic skills by learning Spanish. She earned Cortés’s confidence, became his secretary, and then his mistress. Cortés was often offered other women, but he always refused them, demonstrating his respect and affection for Malinalli.Her linguistic ability assured Malinalli her role as an interpreter but not as his only bed-mate. During the entire Conquest, their relationship was monogamous.
Although she was just one of many native American women to bear children with Spanish fathers, she is the most prominent, and her son by Cortés, Don Martín Cortés, is the first ”Mexican,” i.e., a mixture of Spanish and Indian blood, whose name and history we know ,the first mestizo of historical note. He eventually held a position in government, was a Comendador of the Order of St. Jago.
Malinalli may rightfully be considered the Mother of the Mexican Nation. Cortes wrote in a letter to the king of Spain, “After God we owe this conquest of New Spain to Dona Marina.” Always, Malinalli served as the voice of Cortes. This symbiotic relationship led to the Indians calling her La Malinche. Bernal Diaz explains they always called Cortes, Malinche, meaning “Marina’s Captain.” Prescott, who’s “Conquest of Mexico” is the best known book written in English rather than translated from Spanish, explains that the name means “Captain’s Woman.” Both indicate that the Indians knew full well that the words they heard were those of the Captain Malinche, not La Malinche’s.
The Mexican author Gómez de Orozco states that La Malinche “was an instrumental part of [the Spanish] strategy, interpreting in three languages and providing essential information about economic organization, knowledge of native customs, the order and succession of kingdoms, forms of tribute, rules governing family relations, and so on.”
She became Hernan alter ego. The importance of the ability of Cortes to communicate with Moctezuma played a vital role in the Conquest. Cortes sent message after message, proclaiming that he had come in peace and wished to visit the Emperor only to extend greetings from his own monarch.
Without Malinalli, sending these messages would have been impossible. Thus, from almost her first day as an interpreter, she helped insure the success of the Spaniards.
Almost immediately thereafter, she again proved invaluable when she helped forge an alliance with the Cempoalans. Cempoala was the Totonac capital and the largest city on the Gulf of Mexico. Without the ability to negotiate, provided by her, the entire course of the Conquest would have been different. We must remember that the Spanish mission was not only to find gold and jewels, but also to convert the natives to Christianity. In their minds, this was of prime importance. Bernal Diaz made clear the role that Malinalli played. There can’t be any doubt that she accepted Christianity wholeheartedly and preach it sincerely.
The treaty with the Tlascalans (Indians of central Mexico) negotiated largely by Dona Marina, brought the Spaniards their most valuable allies.
(People of the Aztecs, they saw the Spanish as a way to free themselves of rule from Tenochtitlan). Perhaps the greatest of this woman is that historians give her credit for saving the lives of thousands of Indians by enabling Cortes to negotiate rather than wage total war. There is sample evidence that Cortes was not out to destroy the Aztec Empire. To the very end, he sought to forge a treaty between Moctezuma and the Spanish crown which would have insured a steady flow of gold to the Spanish treasury. Equally important to him was conversion to Christianity and the end of human sacrifice.
Using Malinalli as the interpreter, Cortes and Moctzuma started an on-going dialogue aimed at both a treaty with Spain and the conversion to Christianity.
Ultimately, it was the effort to destroy the religious practices of the Aztecs that led to a resumption of fighting between them and the Spaniards. Aztec Emperor granting permission for the construction of a cross and altar in a room in the main temple of the Aztecs. Bernal Diaz reports that this was accomplished at a meeting with Montezuma attended only by Cortes and Malinalli. The Aztecs listened to her with respect.
On June 30, 1520, Moctezuma succumbed to the wounds inflicted on him by his own people, and all hopes for a negotiated peace were gone. On the night of July 1, 1520, La Noche Triste, the Sorrowful Night,” the Spaniards, although suffering heavy casualties, managed to fight their way out of the city. Malinalli went with them, mounted behind Cortes, which again attests to her courage and the high esteem in which she was held. The Spaniards could easily have left her behind. Too, she could have abandoned them and her new religion. Instead, she was willing to risk her life to flee with them.
For a final testimonial to her nobility of character, we turn again to Bernal Diaz. In 1523, long after the Conquest of Mexico was completed, he was present at a reunion between Malinalli, her mother and half-brother. Despite the way they had treated her, she embraced them, gave them gifts of jewels and clothing, and sent them home, pardoned for the injustice they had done her. Her attitude was that what they had done had freed her from the worship of idols, and led her to Christianity.
She was a lady of importance, respected by all the Indians of New Spain.