When Cortéz and his soldiers conquered the people of Tabasco they were honored with the gift of twenty women. The Spanish conquistador distributed these women amongst his men, giving the most beautiful to his closest friend. This woman was not Tabasco, in fact, but rather a princess abandoned among strangers by her mother – who had remarried and wanted to limit arguments that might have occurred concerning succession among her new offspring. Educated as a royal, the woman spoke several different languages such as Maya and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The young woman, baptized Marina by the Spanish priest Father Olmedo, was beautiful, intelligent and highly resourceful. She was carried into the hands of the conquistadors by chance but her master, Hernando Cortéz, meticulously planned the role she would play in the conquering of MesoAmerica.

Cortéz already had one translator in his group, the sailor Jerónimo de Aguilar, but this man spoke only Maya. In order to conquer the Aztec Cortéz knew he would need to communicate not only with them, but with other groups living within their empire. He had gifted Marina to his friend Don Alonso Puertocarerro purely on the basis of her beauty. When it became evident that she was not only beautiful but intelligent and skilled in several languages as well, Cortéz began to see her as more than a friend’s consort. Marina herself seems to have been almost eager to be involved in the plans of the conquistadors, enjoying the expedition and dangers of the journey as much as they did. Because of this she became like a comrade among the soldiers, winning their trust and becoming not just interpreter but advisor as well. Evidence of this can be seen in the events unfolding with the Totonacs, who wanted to ally with the Spaniards against the Aztecs.

Two Aztec tax collectors, who told them their lord Moctezuma had learned of their dealings with the Spaniards and was unhappy, approached the Totonacs. As a punishment they were there to “collect a heavy and terrible penalty” from the Totonacs. Cortéz advised the Totonacs to take the tax collectors prisoner using yoke-like devices that would chain both the hands and legs to one wooden pole. He also advised them to beat these prisoners if they tried to escape. He was calculating in his advice to the Totonacs, for when he told them this he made sure the Aztec representatives did not see him. Later he approached the prisoners in the night and feigned innocence and outrage at their treatment and aided in their “escape”. In the morning he presented the image of an outraged overlord to the Totonacs and sent them off to Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capitol.

Though she was not specifically identified in the tale of what occurred between Cortéz and the Totonacs, it is surely due to her role as translator that such a clever trick could be played on both the Aztecs and the Totonacs. The time that transpired between these events were short and the plans quickly thought up and carried out. In order for Cortéz to have affected such a convincing angry lord and innocent bystander for each of the groups he would have needed Marina to be working as both comrade and translator. He would have had to have immense trust in her ability to translate exact meanings for the trick to have been carried out effectively. Had she truly not wanted to be with the Spanish or help them she could have easily given away their plans and warned the Aztecs that Cortéz wanted to use their own people against them.

When opportunity presented itself, Cortéz sent his friend Puertocarerro back to Spain and immediately began a relationship with Marina. This behavior can be explained in two ways, the first being that it was a method of insuring her absolute loyalty to both him and his mission. The second explanation stems from information known about Cortéz prior to his expedition to the New World. It is well known that Cortéz was bedfellows with quite a few women who were not his wife. The Spanish had sexualized Marina as something exotic and wild, and no doubt her enthusiasm in the bedroom with Puertocarerro would have been whispered about among the soldiers. That he would have coveted the beautiful woman he worked closely with would not have been hard to imagine. Four years after becoming his mistress, Marina’s relationship with Cortéz would come to a rapid and permanent end.

It has been speculated that Cortéz ended the relationship with Marina because he no longer had any use for her, however circumstances surrounding the event suggest a more probable reasoning. Upon setting off for his New World expedition Cortéz had left behind a very unhappy and unloved wife. After becoming the captain-general of New Spain, one of the brothers of his wife brought her to him in an attempt to more firmly attach the success to his family’s name even if through marriage. Several months after she arrived, however, Cortéz’s wife died suddenly. Separating Marina from himself by arranging her marriage to Xaramillo, a soldier, not only removed her from rumors about his wife’s death but also allowed his achievements to be the focus of talk about him rather than the rumors spread by his enemies. Cortéz sought to increase his fame by capturing more lands for his King, insuring his loyalty to the King in the process.

The son born of Cortéz and Marina’s four-year relationship was much loved by both parents, a fact proven by the fact that Cortéz had him legitimized by Pope Clement and educated at Saint Iago, a great military order. For Marina’s part the sudden marriage wasn’t entirely unhappy either. She had been passed from one soldier to another during her time with the Spanish, first being with Puertocarerro then Cortéz and finally Xaramillo. Even though she had been given as a slave to the Spanish this loose behavior was no more acceptable among her own people than it would have been in Spain. Had Cortéz simply turned her loose she may well have been severely punished, perhaps even put to death, by her people. Instead he ensured she would be taken care of, that she would be considered honorable by her people and that she was out of harms way should his wife’s brother come to seek revenge for a crime that hadn’t been committed. After her wedding Marina encountered her mother – who had since been baptized – and expressed no regret over what had occurred but rather happiness at her good fortune.

Though Marina proved to be an intelligent and educated woman who was resourceful enough to have benefited from her situation, she is not highly regarded in Mexico today. In fact her nickname, Malinche or La Malinche, has become synonymous with the word “traitor”. The name Malinche was derived from a series of alterations to the name Marina. First the “r” was replaced by an “l” as it was easier to pronounce. Then the suffix “Itzin” had been added as an honorific, and with that the name was transformed to “Malintzin” and then later “Malinche”.

Contemporary Mexicans view Marina as a traitor, perhaps the one person most responsible for the death and destruction that occurred at the hands of Hernando Cortéz. Without her advice and her help Cortéz would not have been able to advance so quickly to Moctezuma, nor would he have known about plots and plans that Marina had been warned about. To contemporary Mexicans Marina is the ultimate traitor, a native who sold her own people out just to please her lover. An argument can be made, however, that her culture dictated that she obey the rules of the culture in charge. For hundreds of years in MesoAmerica, one group had been taking over another absorbing its members into its culture. Those absorbed did not rebel against their new lords, but rather acquired their ways taking on new gods and new rituals. To Marina, then, working with the Spanish would have been the right course of action as they were the new lords in her territory at the time she met them. Historically Marina is a woman who made the best of her situation using her cunning and intelligence and in doing so became the first woman to play a significant role in the new history of the Americas.

Henderson, James D. and Linda Roddy Henderson 1942 Malinche, 1504? – 1528? In Ten Notable Women of Latin America. Pp. 1-21. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.
West, Rebecca 2003 Doña Marina In Survivors in Mexico. Pp. 116-128. London: Yale University Press.

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