General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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Our In-House Team

Question for September 2009

Did the Spanish have an interpreter when they conquered the Aztecs? Asked by Larkswood Primary School. Chosen and answered by Our In-House Team.

 (Click on image to enlarge)

Yes! In fact, they were extraordinarily lucky. Cortés and his merry men entered Mexico in 1519 without knowing a single word of any of the local languages. However, on their approach to Veracruz along the Yucatán coastline, they discovered - and rescued - a Spanish friar named Gerónimo de Aguilar who had been shipwrecked 8 years before, in 1511. Together with a companion, Aguilar had been captured by the local Maya people and had learned to speak their language.

Statue to Gonzalo Guerrero, de Aguilar’s shipwreck companion - he married a Maya princess and is said to have fathered the first European/indigenous mixed-race family in the Americas
Statue to Gonzalo Guerrero, de Aguilar’s shipwreck companion - he married a Maya princess and is said to have fathered the first European/indigenous mixed-race family in the Americas (Click on image to enlarge)

Early on in the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, the Conquistadores were offered a group of slave women by Maya chiefs. One of the slaves happened to be a young woman - legend has it of great beauty - who had been sold to the Maya by traders belonging to the Mexica (Aztec) empire some time before. She still spoke her native Aztec tongue of Náhuatl but she had by then learned Maya. Her name was Malintzin (the Spanish called her Doña Marina, showing that they held her in great respect; today she is referred to as ‘La Malinche’).

In the early months of the Conquest, then, Cortés had to speak Spanish to Gerónimo de Aguilar, who translated this into Maya to Malintzin, who in turn translated this into Náhuatl for the Mexica. Talk about Chinese whispers! Of course eventually Malintzin learned to speak Spanish herself, so that when Cortés came to meet Moctezuma face to face, there was only need for the one interpreter, Malintzin. De Aguilar faded into obscurity. Only recently have people realised just what a crucial role she played in bringing about victory for the Spanish. Cortés may well not have won if it hadn’t been for the legendary skill and cunning of Malintzin...

Photos:-
• Malintzin (detail of a folding screen mural by Roberto Cueva del Río) by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Statue of Gonzalo Guerrero in Akumal, Mexico, courtesy of Edward Ferguson

Our In-House Team has answered 20 questions altogether:

Did the Aztecs have different types of chewing gum to today’s?

Did the Aztecs have a god of snow?

Which parts of the Day of the Dead festival go back to the Aztecs?

Why did they put holes [gaps] in the [upright huehuetl] drums?

Was Snake Woman an Aztec empress?

How big was the Aztec army?

Did they have First Aid?

Which pet was the Aztecs’ favourite?

Why did they call them ‘chinampas’?

Did the Spanish have an interpreter when they conquered the Aztecs?

Which was the Aztecs’ most fearsome weapon?

Why was the Sun God called Tonatiuh?

Did they send post (mail)?

Did they have the same seasons as we do?

What did they do with the shells of armadillos after eating the meat?

Why didn’t Aztec houses have doors?

Which was the biggest group [job sector] in Aztec society?

Why is it better to support loads on the forehead and not on the shoulders?

When children were punished, how long were they held over smoking chillies for?

What was the Aztecs’ greatest fear?

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