THE CONQUEST OF MEXICO
Few historical stories are more exciting and more significant than the one about the Spanish conquest of the Mexicas, more commonly but wrongly called the Aztecs. The consequences of the conquest remain starkly evident as we approach the twenty-first century: Mexico remains a poverty-ridden, politically unstable country, where Amerindian and mestizo peasants continue to fight soldiers for land their ancestors lost centuries before they were born. Yet remarkably little is written about the conquest in major world history textbooks. Dismissed in a paragraph or two, the collapse of the Mexica Empire is written as though it were almost inevitable, a swift and decisive victory for a civilization destined to be dominant. If one examines eye witness or near-eye witness accounts, however, a quite different picture appears. Both Spanish and Nahua (Mexica) sources reveal a complex struggle with a great deal of fighting and betrayal everywhere. If the conquistador, Hernán Cortés, was often calculating and ruthless, there were many times when he also believed he was fighting to stay alive. Indeed, as one textbook noted, the question which must be answered is “Why did a strong people defending its own territory succumb so quickly to a handful of Spaniards fighting in dangerous and completely unfamiliar circumstances?” The answers to this question usually include differences in military tactics and technology, disease, political and religious divisiveness within the Mexica Empire, and the weakness of the Mexica Emperor, Moctezuma Xocoyotl (II), or simply Moctezuma.
Although she has appeared in both Spanish and Mexican literary accounts of the conquest, Malinche, la lengua, Cortés’s translator and mistress has only recently been mentioned in history texts as one of the factors which allowed Cortés to claim victory. In the words of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a Spaniard who was with Cortés during the conquest, La Malinche “knew the language of Coatzacoalcos, which is that of Mexico [Nahuatl], and she knew the Tabascan language also. This language is common to Tabasco and Yucatan [the Yucatan dialect of Mayan], and Jerónimo de Aguilar spoke it also.” As Bernal Díaz explained, “this was the great beginning of our conquests, and thus, praise be to God, all things prospered with us. I have made a point of telling this story, because without [La Malinche] we could not have understood the language of New Spain and Mexico.”
La Malinche is an historical figure who aided the Spanish and gave birth to Cortés' son, Martin, sometimes considered to be the first mestizo. But she is far more significant as a symbol for everything, both good and bad, about the conquest. In the words of Rosario Castellanos, “some call her a traitor, others consider her the foundress of our nationality. . . .” Reflecting the view of her as a traitor, a variation of her name has become the word for the individual who sells out to the foreigner: la malinchista. As the mother of Don Martín, she has been called La Chingada, the submissive one or the mother taken by force. Was she a desirable whore or a disgraced mother? Is it possible for the historian to know the truth or is her story the story of many more ordinary women, the story of woman as a powerful cultural symbol which will always remain both more and less than her historical persona? The story told here is as much about how history is written and lives to create historical memory as it is about the conquest of Mexico.
Last Updated: October 17, 2008