The Story of Malinche from an Indigenous Perspective

Malinche is hands down the most hated woman in Mexican history to the point that there is an adjective widely used today, Malinchista, which can be translated to a traitor or sell-out.  Why so much hate?  The narrative goes that she betrayed Indigenous people by helping the Spaniards and for giving birth to the first “hijo de la chingada” (son of rape), Martin Cortes.  

It turns out that the story of Malinche is much more complicated than that and it is my personal opinion that she gets way too much hate than she should.  Here is an Indigenous-centric portrayal of Malinche that is much more balanced than the official narrative most people are familiar with:

When Cortes and his crew reached the shores of Mexico in their quest to conquer Tenochtitlan, they quickly encountered Maya people who by way of messengers knew they were coming and were attacked.  The Spaniards used their cannons, metal swords, and guns to scare them into submission and as a peace offering the Maya sent the Spaniards 20 slaves, one of which was the woman known today as Malinche.  

Although the Spaniards didn’t know at the time, Malinche spoke both Maya and Nahuatl due to the circumstances of her life.  Malinche was born in the Nahuatl-speaking altepetl (Indigenous city-state) named Coatzacoalcos which is located near modern-day Veracruz. Coatzacoalcos was located right outside the border of the Mexica empire and was under considerable pressure to join the empire.  Joining the Mexica empire however required the altepetl to pay tribute which the atepetl was not willing to do.  Neighboring altepetls such as Tlaxcala successfully resisted Mexica expansion and were thus not required to offer tribute.  In her altepetl she was a daughter of nobles and thus her Nahuatl was more sophisticated than the Nahuatl spoken by the common people.  At some point in her life she was taken from her homeland and was purchased as a slave by the Chontal Maya who lived in Potonchan.   It is there that she learned Maya but to this day, nobody knows exactly how she ended up in Potonchan.

Malinche, like the other slave girls, was repeatedly raped by the Spaniards.  In her case, it was a Spaniard by the name of Puertocarrero who once also abandoned a young Spanish girl whom he persuaded to run away with him, who owned her.  As the Spaniards moved away from Maya territory and entered Nahua territory, their translator Jeronimo de Aguilar (a Spaniard who was lost at sea and became a slave in Maya territory) was no longer effective as he only spoke Yucatec Maya and Spanish.  At this point, Malinche had already learned Spanish and now had a mastery of three languages.  In a momentous decision, Malinche translated the Nahuatl words to Spanish and at that point almost instantly went from a slave to the most important person amongst the Spaniards in their quest to conquer Tenochtitlan.  Cortes promised Malinche “more than her liberty” if she would serve as his translator and she agreed (although as a slave it’s doubtful she had much of a choice).  Very soon after, the Spaniards began referring to her as “doña,” the Spanish equivalent of the Nahuatl suffix -tzin, used to show respect towards someone.    

When the Spaniards first met her, they did not know her name so they named her “Marina.”  Whenever Nahuas (Indigenous people who speak the Nahuatl language) were told her name they could not pronounce it because there is no “r” in the Nahuatl language so they pronounced her name as “Malina.”  Along the way as the Spaniards were preparing to attack Tenochtitlan, they noticed the Nahuas began to call her Malintzin instead of Malina.  In the Nahuatl language -tzin is a suffix reserved for only the most respected people and even Teteoh (what westerners refer to as Gods).  How did a person so hated in modern Mexican society earn such an honorable title?  Well, while it cannot be denied that she was assisting the Spaniards, she was also helping the Native people.  She offered them invaluable information that empowered them to make informed decisions.  When Hernan Cortes discovered the meaning of her new name, he became angry because to him it meant that the Indigenous people had much more respect for her than him (and he was correct!).  Just as the Nahuas could not pronounce the ‘r,’ the Spaniards could not pronounce the ‘tz’ sound and thus her Indigenous name Malintzin (itself a corruption of ‘Marina’) became “Malinche.”  The Spaniards made it a habit of butchering Nahuatl words which today have given us words such as “tomate” instead of “tomatl” and “chicle” instead of “tzictli”.  How tragic that nobody knows the actual name of the most famous woman in Mexican history all because nobody in her lifetime bothered to ask her!    

After the Spanish conquest, Malinche gave birth to Hernan Cortes’ first son Martin Cortes who was widely considered to be the first mestizo in Mexico.  Along the way to an expedition to Maya territory Cortes stopped in Coatzacoalcos, the altepetl of Malinche’s birth, and Cortes forced Malintzin to marry Juan Jaramillo, a high-ranking Spanish lieutenant.  In response Malintzin demanded her own birth city (Olutla) in Coatzacoalco as an encomienda and Cortes agreed.  The last time she was in Olutla, Coatzacoalco she was sold as a slave only to return as the owner of the entire city.  She immediately sought out her family and found them.  Bernal Diaz, a Spanish historian, witnessed the occasion and later said it was an emotional moment although nobody knows what words were spoken because again, nobody bothered to ask.  A few months later Malinche gave birth to a daughter (with Juan Jaramillo) whom she named Maria.  In 1529 Malinche died from one of the many diseases the Spaniards brought with them.  

How Malinche became the scapegoat of the Spanish conquest is tied closely to Mexican nationalism which glorifies Mexica culture.  At this point of the story however, it should be clear that Malinche held no allegiance to Tenochtitlan and it is entirely possible that she became a slave due to the economic pressures the Mexica were putting on her people in the first place.  For her, to help the Spaniards defeat the Mexica would only help her people in their quest to remain an independent altepetl.  From the Indigenous perspective then, to refer to her as a traitor is nonsensical because it ignores the context of her life completely.  Instead, It is clear Malinche was a very strong, highly-respected, intelligent woman who endured many tragedies and used her linguistic ability to uplift herself and others.    


Malinche’s Choices and Fifth Sun by Camille Townsend

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