4.4b La Malinche: A Slave in Mexico

This is a bonus blog post for the series “A Slave, but Now I’m Free.” It is a companion to episode 4.4 about Catalina and Native American slavery. La Malinche’s early life had similarities to Catalina’s, but things turned out considerably different for her.

She was born around 1502, the daughter of a local Aztec chief. Her name was Malinal or Malinalli.

When her father died, her mother remarried and wanted Malinal’s inheritance to give to a new son. So she sold her own daughter into slavery and staged a funeral to cover it up.

When the Spanish came, she was given to Cortes (along with 19 other women). The Spanish called her Marina because it was the closest Spanish name. They would soon come to call her Doña Marina, very respectfully, because she was invaluable. She knew Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, because of her birthplace. She knew at least one Mayan dialect because of her captivity. She learned Spanish very quickly.

It was only with her linguistic help that Cortes convinced so many of the natives that he could release them from the Aztec overlords they hated. She worked with his assistants coordinating plans. When she discovered a conspiracy against him, he was forewarned, contributing to his mystique as a divine figure who knew things an ordinary man could not have known. She even went into battle with them.

Cortes barely bothers to mention her in his own accounts. But his actions show how much he valued her. When she bore him a son, he named the boy after his own father. When he governed his new conquest, he assigned land directly to her as a reward for her service. And though he had no intention of marrying her, he did arrange a marriage for her to a Spanish nobleman. Clearly she was no longer a slave.

She was revered by the compatriots who were happy to see the Aztecs fall. She was given the honorific -tzin, as in Malin-tzin, which was later hispanicized into Malinche.

She died in 1527 or 28. The cause of death is unknown but there was a smallpox epidemic around that time. She was still in her twenties.

La Malinche’s legacy has traditionally been a dark one. She is a traitor, a woman who helped the Spanish usher in the destruction of so many native peoples and cultures. In Mexican popular culture, she is often seen as a sexually loose woman and condemned for it.

Not until the mid-20th century did a more sympathetic view emerge as historians and writers pointed out that she had many possible reasons for acting as she did:

  • The Aztecs had sold her into slavery, so why would anyone expect her to feel loyalty toward them?
  • She was both a slave and a woman, meaning that she had been trained to obey. When she was given to Cortes, it is not surprising that she obeyed him.
  • There is no reason to suppose that she was immune to the divine mystique that surrounded Cortes. She may have believed she was aiding fate or the gods.
  • Many groups in the empire fought with Cortes against the Aztecs who had conquered them. This was to be their chance at liberation. They could not possibly have known just how complete the new European takeover would be. To single out La Malinche for blame is merely to choose a convenient scapegoat for one of the most tragic stories in human history.

Selected Sources and Images

The Jstor Daily has a very readable article of scholarly research on La Malinche. Jstor itself has multiple articles on her, including:

  • Candelaria, Cordelia. “La Malinche, Feminist Prototype.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 5, no. 2 (1980): 1–6. https://doi.org/10.2307/3346027.
  • Downs, Kristina. “Mirrored Archetypes: The Contrasting Cultural Roles of La Malinche and Pocahontas.” Western Folklore 67, no. 4 (2008): 397–414. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25474939.

This image comes from the Codex Azcatitlan, which likely dates from only a few years after Spanish arrival. La Malinche is on the far right, next to Cortes.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tlaxcalan artists made this image around 1550, showing Cortes with La Malinche right behind him.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

A much more modern view of what she might have looked like.

Image by Alfredo Ramos Martínez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The feature image is of a statue of La Malinche in Mexico City. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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