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Dr. Fran Karttunen

Making Herself Indispensable, Condemned for Surviving: Doña Marina (Part 2)

This is the conclusion to Dr. Karttunen’s splendid article on the figure of ‘La Malinche’.

Pic 1: Doña Marina, in commanding position between Moctezuma and Cortés: folding-screen mural of the Spanish Conquest by Roberto Cueva del Río
Pic 1: Doña Marina, in commanding position between Moctezuma and Cortés: folding-screen mural of the Spanish Conquest by Roberto Cueva del Río (Click on image to enlarge)

The most dramatic moment in her career was at the first encounter of Mote:ucz:ma and Cortés. Despite all the Aztec ruler’s efforts to divert them, the Spanish forces had reached his capital, and Mote:ucz:ma came face to face with their leader. According to later accounts, Mote:ucz:ma delivered a speech in the most courtly of lordly speech (perhaps dripping with irony), which Marina had no difficulty interpreting to Cortés. Cortés responded with a blunt speech that Marina transmitted to Mote:ucz:ma devoid of any of the honorific adornments due his personage. Then Cortés sought to enfold Mote:ucz:ma in an embrace, which the ruler’s attendants prevented. From that moment, if not before, Mote:ucz:ma’s power was drained from him, and Marina had been the instrument by which this was accomplished.

Pic 2: Cortés, accompanied by Doña Marina and her son - detail from mural of Mexican History by Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico City
Pic 2: Cortés, accompanied by Doña Marina and her son - detail from mural of Mexican History by Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

In the course of the conquest, Cortés- who had a Spanish wife in Cuba- fathered three daughters by three different indigenous women. One of them was a daughter of Mote:ucz:ma - a girl whom the Aztec ruler in his last days had entrusted to the protection of Cortés. Marina, on the other hand, was too crucial to the success of the conquest to be sidelined by pregnancy, and it appears that Cortés may have refrained from using her sexually until the fighting was over. Thereafter, Marina bore him a son, Don Martín, whom Cortés put into the care of one of his kinsmen.

Pic 3: ‘Monument to Mestizaje’, Mexico City: Cortés, Doña Marina and their son
Pic 3: ‘Monument to Mestizaje’, Mexico City: Cortés, Doña Marina and their son (Click on image to enlarge)

Before the overland campaign through Maya territory, Cortés arranged for Marina to be married to Juan de Jaramillo, one of his lieutenants, and provided a handsome dowry. During the arduous trek through rainforest and over trackless mountains, Marina became pregnant for the second time and gave birth to Jaramillo’s daughter, Doña María. Not long after this, Marina died, still young and without seeing her children grow up. Having no personal memory of their mother either, Don Martín Cortés, Doña María Jaramillo, and their children nonetheless strove to keep alive a positive memory of her through probanzas, applications for pensions from the Spanish king in recognition of her service to the crown.

Pic 4: Doña Marina maintained her loyalty to the Spaniards to the end. Florentine Codex Book 12
Pic 4: Doña Marina maintained her loyalty to the Spaniards to the end. Florentine Codex Book 12 (Click on image to enlarge)

Although Marina’s children and grandchildren put together documentation to demonstrate the praiseworthiness of Marina’s role in the conquest, other forces were coming to bear to destroy her reputation.

There seems to have been no doubt of her unwavering loyalty to Cortés and the Spaniards under his command. Far from attempting to escape from them, she was credited by the Spanish chroniclers with taking the initiative in finding out plots against the Spaniards and warning them. According to the narrative of the conquest, she chose not to avail herself of the opportunity to switch sides and help the indigenous peoples defeat the Spaniards.

Pic 5: The role of La Malinche has featured in several Mexican films, such as ‘La Llorona’ (1933)
Pic 5: The role of La Malinche has featured in several Mexican films, such as ‘La Llorona’ (1933) (Click on image to enlarge)

This has given rise to the concept of malinchismo, the betrayal of one’s own native identity through infatuation with the new and foreign. In this view, Marina was opportunistic at the expense of people with whom she would be expected to identify. After Mexico broke away from Spain in the early 1800s, her role as la gran conquistadora who brought Christian enlightenment and salvation to the benighted heathens, was exchanged for that of “mistress of Cortés,” a woman who used her sexuality to achieve her own ends. Ultimately this identity as La Malinche became merged with that of La Llorona, a ghostly weeping woman who lures men to their deaths and wails in the night for her children in whose death she herself has been complicit.

Pic 6: The influence of ‘malinchismo’ is clear in this depiction of La Malinche in Diego Rivera’s mural of Mexican history
Pic 6: The influence of ‘malinchismo’ is clear in this depiction of La Malinche in Diego Rivera’s mural of Mexican history (Click on image to enlarge)

In visual and literary representation Marina, in the guise of La Malinche, has been grossly sexualized and made into a Mesoamerican Medea who kills her own children to punish Cortés for abandoning her. In fact, Cortés, having given his own father’s name to their son, successfully petitioned to have young don Martín legitimatized, sent him to Spain, and saw him invested as a knight of Saint James.

Malinchismo is a social construct that serves Mexican nationalism, but it is a classic case of blaming the victim. Marina’s son and daughter were not the first children born of indigenous mothers and Spanish fathers. Many young indigenous women fell into the hands of the Spaniards, and few survived for long. Their mestizo offspring and descendants struggled through centuries to eventually become the backbone of modern independent Mexico.

Pic 7: Solitary Aztec woman - detail from Diego Rivera’s mural of Mexican History, National Palace, Mexico City
Pic 7: Solitary Aztec woman - detail from Diego Rivera’s mural of Mexican History, National Palace, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

How can this long and tragic history be laid at the feet of a very young woman who had been deprived of her identity before the Spaniards even came on the scene? Marina’s inevitable fate was rape, not the making of tortillas. She had absolutely no choice about whether she would be sexually used, and very little control of by whom. When she was given to Cortés she had no one to turn to, nowhere to flee, no one to betray. She was not Aztec, not Maya, not “Indian.” For some time already she had been nobody’s woman and had nothing to lose. That made her dangerous, but it says nothing about morality.

Pic 8: Doña Marina and Cortés in a set forming part of the introductory exhibition on the history of chocolate, Cadbury World, Bournville
Pic 8: Doña Marina and Cortés in a set forming part of the introductory exhibition on the history of chocolate, Cadbury World, Bournville (Click on image to enlarge)

This is no love story, no tale of blind ambition and racial betrayal, no morality play. It is the record of a linguistically gifted woman in impossible circumstances carving out survival one day at a time.

Further reading:-

• Frances Karttunen. “To the Valley of Mexico: Doña Marina, “La Malinche” (ca. 1500-1527).” In Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. 1994.
• _____________. “Rethinking Malinche.” In Indian Women of Early Mexico. Susan Schroeder, et al., eds. University of Oklahoma Press. 1999.
• Camilla Townsend. Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico. University of New Mexico Press. 2006.

Picture sources:-

• Pix 1, 2, 7 & 8: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 3: photo by Juan Franco/Mexicolore
• Pic 4: Image 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 5: from Wikipedia (La Llorona entry)
• Pic 6: photo by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore.

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

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