The Enigma Of Dona Marina
Bernal Diaz’s historical work, The Conquest Of New Spain, provides a fascinating eyewitness account of a major turning point in history, namely the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. But for all the questions that it seeks to answer, and all the doubts that it successfully quells, there still remains a majestic enigma- La Malinche’s willingness to help the Spanish. Many reasons have been attributed to this unusual co-operation. Diaz himself seems to be quite sure about why Marina’s loyalties lay with the Spanish but his reasons do not sound convincing and authoritative.
The most obvious inference Diaz’s presents in his commentary is that La Malinche is grateful to the Spanish for converting her to Christianity. She is fully confident that her new faith will save her soul and generally turn her into a better person. Diaz himself says, “God has been gracious to her in freeing her from the worship of idols.” (Diaz, 86) This affirms that he sincerely believes that La Malinche is indeed grateful. This claim is partially correct since her conversion would cause her to be eternally grateful to her saviors and she would have readily gone to any extent to help them. Also, this new religious faith could have driven her to try her very best to introduce it among her fellow Native Americans. For this purpose, she would have tried to help the Spanish as best as she could to aid them in propagating the faith.
Diaz then makes the point that La Malinche led a more comfortable life under the Spanish than she did with the Indians. Born into a noble family, she was sold into slavery and was eventually presented to the Spanish. It is easily comprehensible how radically different (and better) her life would be as an interpreter and mistress for the Spanish than as a slave. Marina could thus feel very indebted to the Spanish and even possess much affection for them. She would also feel enraged at the Indians’ treatment of her and might have helped the Spanish in a wrathful rage.
Diaz also makes a reference to La Malinche’s noble birth and manner. He alludes to her admirable nature by saying that La Malinche was “such an excellent person,” (Diaz, 85) and that “Dona Marina although a native woman, possessed such manly valor.” (Diaz, 152) He reiterates these noble traits of hers repeatedly, implying that she was higher in thought and action than the average Indian. Thus, according to him, it should have been crystal clear to her that Spanish civilization was superior to that of the Indians. Seeing the obvious advantages, she would have gladly embraced it and done everything humanly possible to bring the benefit of this gift of sorts to her fellow Indians.
In his assertions, Diaz makes a blatantly partisan assumption. He firmly holds Spanish culture, civilization and religion to be vastly superior to that of the Indians. In modern times, we take it for granted that other peoples and places have their own inherent specialties and deficiencies, and that no race or tribe is either superior or inferior. But Diaz, like his other European contemporaries is oblivious to this belief. He thinks that by virtue of their superiority, they (the Conquistadors) would stand testament to the benefits that Spanish rule could bring the Indians. He expects, nay assumes, that they will necessarily stand to gain from Spanish domination. He thinks it is natural for La Malinche to be grateful for her religious and social conversion, an opinion that is certainly not the obvious truth. Thus, several deficiencies are seen in Diaz’s arguments. To make an informed judgment about La Malinche, secondary sources must also be taken into consideration.
Mary Louise Pratt, in her article Yo Soy La Malinche, uses a different plank for her primary argument. She states that Marina merely did her duty since “Far from betraying her culture, in submitting to Cortes, she was doing exactly what her culture taught her to do,” (Pratt, 866) that is, she did what was dictated by the norms of the culture- to obey and support the people whom she belonged to. The Indians had indeed presented her to the Spanish to serve them in whatever way they found suitable. It was thus her duty to help the Spanish conquest as she had been commanded to do.
Pratt also reiterates Diaz’s argument by theorizing that La Malinche must have felt immense resentment at being treated shabbily as a slave even though she was of noble birth. This bitterness could have led her to turn against the Indians. She discusses Marina’s slavery in the lines: ”This, it was through chattel slavery, not courtly life, that Marina acquired the Maya-Nahuatl bilinguism that initially made her so valuable to Cortes.” (Pratt, 866)
Hence, it is seen that a variety of reasons and opinions have been attributed to the enigma of Dona Marina in both the primary and the secondary sources, The final answers to La Malinche’s enigma can only be borne out of a synthesis of these sources and some newer arguments. Thus, it can be said that La Malinche sided with the Spanish because of her new lifestyle and her conversion to Christianity, among other reasons.
First and foremost, Marina had indeed gone through a lot of trauma. After being born under favorable circumstances, she was sold off to slavery by her own family and lived a lowly life. Her people had then disowned her when they gave her away to the Spanish. These actions must have estranged her from any affection she had left over for her kin. It is only natural to expect a person to side with those who treat them in a better manner. So as a form of vengeance she proceeded to aid the enemies of her erstwhile people.
Secondly, the claim the La Malinche betrayed her own people must be scrutinized. Would she be viewed as harshly if she did not help the Spaniards conquer were not her own people? Certainly not! Thus, it should be considered that the people of the Americas were not a single race. On the contrary, they were comprised of several hundred tribes and millions of diverse people. It is possible that Marina’s loyalties could have lied with only her immediate kin, and not with her ‘race’ in general. Therefore, she did not betray her own people since most Native Americans were alien to her.
Thirdly, La Malinche’s love for Cortes could have motivated her to help the Spanish. As Lenchek says, “She was totally loyal to Cortes, a one-man woman, who loved her master. Cortes reciprocated her feelings.” (Lenchek) Here, it is seen that she views Cortes as both master and lover. More evidence for this is in her name itself. Lenchek states, “Diaz said that because Marina was always with Cortes, he was called "Malinche"--which the author translated to mean "Marina's Captain." Prescott, in the "Conquest of Mexico," (perhaps the best known book on the subject) confirms that Cortes was always addressed as "Malinche" which he translated as Captain and defined "La Malinche" as "the captain's woman."” (Lenchek) This proves that Cortes and La Malinche were viewed as a single unit- a testament to the common knowledge of their union.
Finally, with Conquistadors came merciless, unremitted death. Could Dona have been safe if she refused co-operation with the Spanish? Judging by Cortes’ harsh retribution to any disloyally, it should be clear that she could have suffered a terrible consequence had she not co-operated with the Spanish. Among unfamiliar people, with such menacing possibilities, she would have little choice but to give in and help the Spanish in every way they wished or she might have been slaughtered like her brethren.
In perspective, no single reason can wholly explain La Malinche’s loyalties completely. It is perhaps a combination of all the above factors in unequal measure that caused her to side with the Spanish. I personally feel the facts that Marina felt indebted to Cortes and that she might not have viewed all Indians as once race might be the most important. However, until we can actually go back in time and observe La Malinche’s every move and thought we will not be sure what compulsions and reasons she found that made her the enigma that she is today.
Pratt, Mary Louise. " ‘Yo Soy La Malinche’, Chicana Writers and the Poetics of Ethnonationalism”. Callaloo. 16. 4. 1993, 859-873.
Lenchek, Shep. “’La Malinche’—Harlot or Herione?”. Guadalajara-Lakeside. 14.4. December 1997