La Malinche: Mexican Slave Who Consorted with Cortés

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Hernán Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma II in Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519. Facsimile (c. 1890) of Lienzo de Tlaxcala.

Malinali was also known as La Malinche. Her life has been analyzed and disputed over. Depending on the history, she is either a hero or a traitor to Mexico.

Born to noble Aztec parents around 1500 in what is modern-day southern Mexico, Malinali Tenepal began her life as a free person. After her father died, her mother married again and her stepfather had her removed from the family when he had a son to take the role as heir. Her family sold her into slavery to Mayan traders in hopes that they would leave the area and move on. Due to her life as a slave, Malinali was able to learn a couple of languages, such as Aztec from her childhood and Mayan and Spanish from her masters. She was also able to pick up dialects of the regions in which she was in. This act of betrayal from her family was the beginning of her anger and frustration that would last for her entire life.

Life as a Slave

After her years with Mayan traders, Malinali was then taken to negotiations between indigenous people and the Spanish throne. The negotiations included ruling the people, owning the land, finding fabled Aztec gold, and have the native people submit to the dogma of Catholicism. As a peace offering, the Mayan traders sold Malinali and many other women to the Spanish to be made into concubines. While owned by the Spanish invaders, Malinali was christened Marina, and happily took to her new religion.

Hernán Cortés

It just so happened that Malinali’s path crossed with a Spanish conquistador by the name of Hernán Cortés during her time as a concubine of Puertocarrero, a nobleman to the Spanish throne. Cortés was known throughout Mexico and the American Southwest to be a ruthless fighter and conqueror of indigenous people.

During a heated debate between Spanish and indigenous people, Malinali stepped forward and avoided a war by perfectly translating the talks. Because of her ability to speak several languages and dialects, Malinali was bought and used by Cortés for his business dealings. To the Aztecs, she was known as La Malinche or the Captain’s Woman, due to her loyalty to Cortés in everything he did. During talks, Malinali was always there, offering the indigenous offenders a way to save themselves if they joined with Cortés.

One foiled attack left an entire city, over 3,000 native people massacred by the Spanish, because Malinali warned Cortés of the planned fight that she had heard from a local elder. In another incident, while in talks with Montezuma, Malinali did most of the talking. Montezuma died after a short skirmish, the Spanish army fled and many died. Malinali and Cortés managed to be a part of the small group that survived the attack by the Aztec. After the ambush and the Spanish gone, many of Montezuma’s people died of smallpox that the Spanish had brought into the city.

While still young, it is assumed in her mid-twenties, Malinali reached the end of her usefulness to Cortés. He married her off to one of his commanders and she took their son with her. With her husband, Malinali had a daughter, and even reunited with her family that sold her into slavery to begin with. During her years with Cortés, he barely mentioned her as pivotal role as interpreter to warring armies. After she settled down with her husband, and had a family, she disappeared from any further record. When and how she died remains a mystery.

Sources:

  1. Lanyon, Anna. (1999). Malinche’s Conquest. St. Leonards: Allen & Unwin.
  2. Marks, Richard Lee. (1994). Cortés: The Great Adventurer and the Fate of Aztec Mexico. New York, New York: Knopf Books.
  3. Stradling, Jan. (2008). Bad Girls: The Most Powerful, Shocking, Amazing, Thrilling & Dangerous Women of all Time. New York, New York: Metro Books.