Published Date

May 1, 2004

This resource was developed in 2004 as part of “The Conquest of Mexico” by Nancy Fitch.


Hernan Cortés

Many historians believe that if they go to primary sources, eyewitness accounts of an event, they are likely to discover historical truth. While historians can say with some certainty that there was an Amerindian woman who translated for Hernán Cortés and helped him to conquer the Mexica, more commonly known as the Aztecs, Malinche appears to be an ambiguous figure in both Spanish and Nahuatl (Mexica) accounts of her. The ambiguity about her in these records says a great deal about class and gender in the 1500s. No such ambiguity surrounds Cortés’s first official interpreter, Jerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish man who had been living among Indians and who knew their language, Chontal Mayan.

In the first place, historians cannot establish with any real certainty what her name might have been before she encountered the Spanish. Destined to sleep with the women given to them as presents, the Spanish insisted that they be baptized as Christians. They had Aguilar interpret a sermon which explained Christianity to them, then baptized them. La lengua, the translator, was given the Spanish name Marina. At least one linguist has determined that Malintzin was a reasonable Nahuatl pronunciation of Marina in that the Nahuatl speakers replaced the Spanish r with an l, so that Marina becomes Malina. The Nahuatl speakers then added to that name, an ending which indicates respect: -tzin. This ending is similar to the Spanish Doña, which is also used for respect. Just as Bernal Díaz del Castillo called the translator Doña Marina, so Nahuatl speakers called her Malintzin. Similarly, the Spanish had difficulty pronouncing the Nahuatl –tz, so changed it to –ch, at the same time that they dropped the silent n at the end of her name. In this way, one can argue that la lengua, the translator, became Doña Marina, Malintzin, and Malinche all at once, ironically through a series of mistranslations or mispronunciations. There is little evidence that the Spanish either knew or cared what name her parents had given her. Interestingly, she sometimes appears in Indian accounts as La Malinche, while Cortés was often called El Malinche after her.

The difficulty with her name reflects difficulty about understanding her background and status. Cortés only mentions her twice in his letters. In the first case, he simply refers to her as his translator, “an Indian woman.” In the second case, he calls her Marina without the Doña normally used by Spanish men when discussing honorable, upper class women. How does one interpret this? Did he consider her to be lower class because of her social origins as an Indian slave given to him? Did he consider her to be a whore regardless of her social class? Did he believe that Indian women did not deserve to be honored with the same respect as Spanish women? Historians can never know for sure because the records are silent.

The only detailed written historical account about her comes from Cortés’s companion, conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Bernal Díaz was pleased to record that Doña Marina was one of New Spain’s first Christians and described her as “good-looking, intelligent, and self-assured.” His account then goes into some detail about her life. He wrote that her parents were “lords and caciques” of a town called Paynala. Her father died when she was young and when her mother remarried, she gave La Malinche to some Indians from Xicalango, so that there would be no disputed inheritances with her stepbrother. The Indians of Xicalango then gave her to the people of Tabasco, who, in turn, gave her to Cortés. Bernal Díaz honors her with the respect he accorded to Spanish women by calling her Doña Marina. In his view “Doña Marina was a person of great importance, and was obeyed without question by all the Indians of New Spain.” He also makes it apparent that she was extremely useful to the Spaniards. According to Díaz del Castillo, she married one of Cortés’ men, Juan Jaramillo, during the Honduras expedition that followed the conquest of Tenochtitlan. Why she did so is not clear, but in addition to her son Martin, which she had with Cortés, she had a daughter, Maria, with Jaramillo. On the basis of letters from her children found in Spanish archives, it appears that she died some time between 1551 and 1552. Almost nothing else is known about her.

It is tempting to accept what Bernal Díaz wrote about Doña Marina, but can we? Was La Malinche an upper class woman by birth or did Bernal Díaz have to view her that way to accept her as a suitable mistress for the great Spanish leader? He claims he met both her mother and her half-brother when the Spanish, with Doña Marina, marched through her birthplace on their way to Honduras after the fall of Tenochtitlan. [Add link] This is possible, in which case, he could have verified her heritage. In other places, however, he claims “she was a truly great princess, the daughter of Caciques and the mistress of vassals as was very evident in her appearance.” In other words, he believed she had to be an upper class woman because of her appearance, the way she carried herself, even though she had been given to the Spanish as a slave.

Mexica sources are as confusing as Bernal Díaz’s account. They clearly portray her as a figure at the center of the conquest. In this image she is portrayed as an upper class Indian woman in traditional clothing. In other examples from Tlaxcala, however, she is imagined with her hair loose and flowing and barefoot, an unusual image of an upper class woman. It is tempting to conclude that she must have been from an upper class family or she would not have had the access to education that she seems to have had, although the ability to learn languages was not necessarily a product of education. On the other hand, it seems apparent that she could not have been recognized as a leader either by the Mexicas or by Bernal Díaz if they did not believe she had received an aristocratic upbringing. Neither adversary came from a culture that could accept the leadership of a lower class woman. Thus, we will never be able to know if her aristocratic heritage was invented by both sides in order to understand her very unusual position in the conquest. In Bernal Díaz’s words, “Doña Marina had proved such an excellent person. . . .”

Representations of her in subsequent art and literature have made her as real and as controversial as the historical evidence.