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Making Herself Indispensable, Condemned for Surviving: Doña Marina (Part 1)

‘Doña Marina’ was a central - and controversial - figure in the success of the Spanish Conquest of the Aztecs. The following article has been generously written specially for us by Dr. Frances Karttunen, retired Professor of Linguistics and Senior University Research Scientist, Linguistics Research Centre, University of Texas, prolific author and expert on Náhuatl.

Pic 1: Bronze figure of Doña Marina, detail from the Monument to Mestizaje, Mexico City
Pic 1: Bronze figure of Doña Marina, detail from the Monument to Mestizaje, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Doña Marina, ”La Malinche”, was the multilingual indigenous woman who provided to Hernán Cortés the means of communication necessary to carry Spanish conquest to the heart of 16th-century Mesoamerica. While very young she fell into the hands of Cortés and his men. Her best hope for survival was to make herself useful and agreeable, a strategy she had already learned prior to the arrival of the Spaniards on the scene. In the course of events, she asserted active common cause with the men who held her captive. For that, as La Malinche she has been punished for what seems to be all eternity.

Pic 2: One of the first visual references to Doña Marina in the Florentine Codex, Book 12
Pic 2: One of the first visual references to Doña Marina in the Florentine Codex, Book 12 (Click on image to enlarge)

Her life experience uniquely prepared her for her role as the most effective and trusted of all the interpreters of the conquest. During the siege of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs rejected the first interpreter the Spaniards sent to parley with them, and Cortés had to dispatch a boat to the city of Texcoco to fetch Marina before negotiations could go forward.

Pic 3: Aztec noblewomen, Florentine Codex Book 10
Pic 3: Aztec noblewomen, Florentine Codex Book 10 (Click on image to enlarge)

Her task required both multilingualism and mastery of “lordly speech,” the complicated mode of expression used by Mesoamerican nobility. These two skills would have been uncommon in a young man, but they should have been entirely nonexistent in a young woman. Daughters of Mesoamerican nobility lived very restricted lives. Closely guarded, they were rarely permitted to leave their residences, and they were prohibited from speaking freely. Under such circumstances, becoming a childhood bilingual was out of the question.

Pic 4: Detail of Maya noblewoman, from a mural of Maya life by Rina Lazo, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 4: Detail of Maya noblewoman, from a mural of Maya life by Rina Lazo, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

This girl’s life was, however, atypical. As a child in an outpost between Central Mexico and the lowlands of Yucatan, she apparently was raised in a Nahuatl-speaking noble household. Then - while still very young - she somehow passed into the hands of Maya-speaking Chontal people of the neighboring region of Acalan. There she became proficient in her masters’ Maya.

The people of Acalan in turn included her in a group of twenty young women they presented to Cortés as part of a bribe to get him to move on in search of the Aztec ruler Mote:uczo:ma and his realm.

Pic 5: ‘Malinche is presented to Cortés at Potonchan, March 1519’. Engraving from the Bancroft LIbrary, University of California
Pic 5: ‘Malinche is presented to Cortés at Potonchan, March 1519’. Engraving from the Bancroft LIbrary, University of California (Click on image to enlarge)

The women were said to be given to the Spaniards for the purpose of preparing their food. Cortés had them all baptized as Christians before making a gift of each of the women to one of his men.

This was when Marina acquired the name we know her by. It has been said that prior to baptism, her Nahuatl calendrical name had been Mali:nalli (“bunch of grass”) and that Marina was the Spanish name closest to that in pronunciation, but this is unlikely. The Spanish name Marina would, however, have been pronounced by Nahuatl speakers as Mali:nah, and the Nahuatl honorific suffix –tzin was heard and pronounced by Spanish speakers as –che, so by back-formation, Nahuatl Mali:ntzin (from Spanish Marina) returned to Spanish as Malinche.

Pic 6: Doña Marina speaking to the people of Teocalhueyacan - one of some half dozen images of her interpreting in the Florentine Codex (Book 12)
Pic 6: Doña Marina speaking to the people of Teocalhueyacan - one of some half dozen images of her interpreting in the Florentine Codex (Book 12) (Click on image to enlarge)

Recognizing her claim to high birth, the Spaniards invariably referred to their interpreter as Doña Marina. In his great adventure story of the conquest, written decades after the events, aged conqueror Bernal Díaz del Castillo relates a meeting between Doña Marina and her noble birth family. In this story, mother and daughter share a marked resemblance, and Doña Marina speaks forgivingly to her mother while stating that she is glad to have become a Christian and to serve Cortés. The words that Díaz del Castillo puts in her mouth are nearly the only ones directly attributed to her by a contemporary. (She is also represented as speaking some words in the Florentine Codex, which was also compiled decades after her death.)

Pic 7: Moctezuma, Cortés, Doña Marina, Gerónimo de Aguilar - part of one of the friezes beneath the statue to Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City
Pic 7: Moctezuma, Cortés, Doña Marina, Gerónimo de Aguilar - part of one of the friezes beneath the statue to Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

At the outset, when she was baptized, Cortés did not know that Marina spoke anything but the Acalan variety of Maya. Shortly afterward, he learned that she could interpret between Maya speakers and Nahuatl speakers. He immediately took her back from Alonso Hernández de Puertocarrero, the man to whom he had given her, and set her to work as part of an interpreting chain. Marina spoke to Nahuatl-speaking emissaries sent by Mote:uczo:ma and translated what they told her to Jerónimo de Aguilar, a Spaniard who had learned Maya while a cast-away from a shipwreck on the Yucatan coast. Aguilar then translated from the Maya to Spanish for Cortés.

This two-step interpretation continued for a while, but apparently Marina quickly acquired Spanish, and thereafter she served as sole personal interpreter for Cortés.

Pic 8: Cortés and Doña Marina (top) with Tlaxcaltecan allies, under attack from the Aztecs -  detail from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, f. 45. Notice Marina bears a war shield (below).
Pic 8: Cortés and Doña Marina (top) with Tlaxcaltecan allies, under attack from the Aztecs - detail from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, f. 45. Notice Marina bears a war shield (below). (Click on image to enlarge)

Nahuatl speakers apparently associated no prior meaning to “Mali:ntzin,” and according to Díaz del Castillo, they used the word to refer both to the young indigenous woman and to Cortés (and even by extension to other Spanish men who acquired some facility in Nahuatl). Díaz del Castillo speculated that this was because Cortés and his interpreter were always together and inseparable. Since Aztec religious practice was pervaded by dualism and also made use of impersonators of supernatural beings, however, people who seemed (from the Spanish point of view) to refer to both Marina and Cortés as “Malinche” may have believed that “Mali:ntzin” was a single hitherto unknown supernatural being for whom both Marina and Cortés functioned as mouthpieces in the human world.

Pic 9: From the first page of the final Book 12 of the Florentine Codex, recounting the Spanish Conquest, Doña Marina can be seen in her role as interpreter...
Pic 9: From the first page of the final Book 12 of the Florentine Codex, recounting the Spanish Conquest, Doña Marina can be seen in her role as interpreter... (Click on image to enlarge)

During the combat of the conquest, Marina was on hand night and day to interpret between the Spaniards and various indigenous groups. Because of the pervasive power of the Aztec Triple Alliance, if the people in question were not Nahuatl speakers, there was always an interpreter to be found to translate from their language into Nahuatl, and Marina then translated from Nahuatl into Spanish. On a campaign across the base of the Yucatan Peninsula, she translated from various regional dialects of Maya directly to Spanish.

Part 2, including suggestions for further reading, follows...

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: from Wikipedia
• Pix 2, 3, 6 & 9: Images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 4: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 5: engraving from Histoire Générale des Voyages, courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
• Pic 7: photo by Victor Alfonso Sánchez/Mexicolore
• Pic 8: image from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala scanned from our own copy of the Alfredo Chavero (1892) edition, published by Artes de México, no. 51/52, vol. XI, 1964

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Mar 04th 2011

Read the Conclusion...

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