More than 400 years ago, in a modest house in what is now a suburb of Mexico City called Coyoac!n, a young Indian woman spent the last few years of a turbulent life. As a teenage slave, she had been handed over by a Gulf Coast chieftain to Hern!n Cort}s and his invading Spaniards - part of a "gift" of twenty women designed to seal a political alliance. The young woman had many names - Malinalli, Malintzin, La Malinche, and (after her forced baptism) Doa Marina - a reflection of her changing identity and her ability to cross cultural boundaries. Her origins are uncertain because she left no testimony behind; but one of Cort}s's companions, Bernal Daz, claimed in his account of the conquest that she was actually a noblewoman whose family had treacherously sold her into slavery.
What all the witnesses agree upon is that she had beauty and brains and that her new masters treasured both. Doa Marina became Cort}s's mistress and bore him a son. More significantly for Mexican history, she acted as the Spaniards' translator, informant, and adviser. Her knowledge of the local languages and, eventually, Spanish allowed Cort}s to maneuver in the complex political world of central Mexico, to gain allies and forge the coalition of city-states with which he would destroy the Aztec capital of Tenochtitl!n. (More than 95 percent of the "Spanish" army that defeated the Aztecs in fact consisted of Indians.)
According to Bernal Daz, Doa Marina's intelligence work once saved the Spaniards from being massacred in the city of Cholula. Indigenous depictions of the conquest place her, the conquistadors' main representative, at the center of the action; the Indians even began to refer to Cort}s by her name, calling him "Malinche." However, after the Aztecs' fall in 1521 she gradually faded into the background. When Cort}s had no more use for her, he married her to another conquistador, Juan Jaramillo, with whom she had a second child. By 1527, long before her thirtieth birthday, she was dead. But Doa Marina was never entirely forgotten; indeed, Mexicans are still grappling with her legacy today.
In contemporary Mexico City, memories of conquest remain inescapable. The Spanish conquistadors built their city literally on top of Tenochtitl!n, but they could not obliterate its traces or the culture it represented. This indigenous heritage persists, often in striking juxtaposition with European influences. The magnificent ruins of the Aztecs' main temple sit just a few hundred yards from the National Cathedral, while a monument in the Plaza of the Three Cultures proclaims that the conquest was "neither a victory nor a defeat, but the painful birth of a mestizo people."
Nevertheless, both popular and official histories generally cast the Aztecs as doomed heroes, fighting to retain their freedom against destructive and oppressive Spaniards. A tribute to the defenders of Tenochtitl!n dominates the busy intersection of Reforma and Insurgentes, but there is no prominent statue of Cort}s, no commemoration of the conquistadores.
In a city that celebrates the past as the key to understanding mexicanidad ("Mexicanness"), La Malinche is a controversial figure whose meaning has varied wildly. She has been characterized as an exemplar of Christian redemption, as a romantic heroine acting out of love for Cort}s, as a sexually insatiable schemer and seducer, and as a protofeminist who used her considerable skills for self-empowerment. Yet even the most positive assessments retain a certain ambivalence. In the end, the dominant image of La Malinche is that of a traitor who sold out her own people to foreigners. At best she is the "Mexican Eve" - in somesense the progenitor of a new race, but also a destroyer, the woman who welcomed the serpent of Westernization into an American paradise.
The very complexity of La Malinche's image, I believe, helps to explain her grip on the Mexican imagination. The historical Malintzin, the "real" woman, is hard to find. Beyond a sketchy outline of her life, we know very little - and even this is based on secondhand, often suspect sources. Without confirmed details, the life and meaning of La Malinche are available for constant reworking; elements of her image can be developed and recombined in new ways, and thus kept perennially current. Each generation of Mexicans can define itself against a new, updated La Malinche. For instance, she was long portrayed as the archetype of the weak and passive female, open to (foreign) penetration. But more recent accounts - especially those by women - stress her active and resourceful nature: a 1970s play ironically shows her devising conquest strategies and feeding them to a befuddled Cort}s. Still, she must work through a man. She cannot escape the patriarchy that marked Mexico before the conquest and marks it still.
La Malinche, then, embodies the flaws in Mexico, both past and present. She is a screen upon which Mexicans can project issues of identity, culture, and tradition, and her continuing significance suggests unresolved tensions within the notion of mexicanidad. Mexicans have constructed a history in which the Indians are heroes and the Spaniards villains, in which Mexico has constituted itself in clashes with other nations, in which the worst crime is to be a malinchista, a friend and dupe of foreigners.
But the Spanish impact on Mexican culture is undeniable, and generations of Mexicans have hungered after the progress and modernity offered by Western Europe and the United States. This is most visible today in the NAFTA agreement and its concomitant, the spread of American-style consumerism: the presence of Taco Bell franchises in Mexico is a startling juxtaposition in its own right. In the face of this new, more insidious onslaught, Mexicans have good reason to ponder the choices and fate of La Malinche.
Associate Professor of History R. Douglas Cope teaches Mexican and colonial Latin American history. He is the author of The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660б1720.