Dona Marina was a native to the area now known as
Mexico. The people of modern Mexico view her as a
betrayer, and a despised villain; conversely, the
people of Spain view her as a hero. Known as the
Mother of Conquest, and given the title "La Malinche"
by Cortes (conquistador Hernando Cortez), Dona Marina served as a
and source of knowledge for the conquistador. La
Malinche is now synonymous with "the betrayer" in
Mexico. Some historians view Dona Marina as the
quintessential betrayer, but others view her as a
glorious mother of conquest; both of these
perspectives are equally true.
As a gifted linguist, La Malinche, a Mayan, learned
the Aztec language from her Tabascan enslavers. Her
Mayan heritage probably contributed to her resentment
towards the Aztec empire; according to historian
Alfred Percival Maudslay, the Mayan culture was the "
highest ever attained by natives on the continent of
North America" - La Malinche would have taken the
opportunity to conquer the people who conquered hers.
La Malinche originally translated between Mayan and
Aztec, working as an assistant to the translator
Aguilar, who knew Spanish and Mayan. While helping
Cortes, she quickly learned Spanish in a matter of
weeks. Translating directly between Spanish and the
Nahuatl dialect of Aztec, La Malinche gave Cortes an
advantage he did not previously have. Cortes used
communication as a primary weapon; according to
historian Jerome R. Adams, "Any interruption... in
Cortes' line of communication could be fatal."
Together, Dona Marina and Cortes could use the
Aztec's own language to conquer them through trickery
and malicious miscommunication.
Knowing the area well, La Malinche also served as a
guide for Cortes and his men. She helped to find
routes for Cortes army through the unfamiliar
territory. She also used her language skills to seek
friendly natives who would help them through the
territory. Those natives who had been conquered by
the Aztecs welcomed the presence of a conquering
force - especially after they had been defeated in
battle and realized that the Aztecs would be defeated
as well. La Malinche helped Cortes to communicate
with the natives, and made his relations with various
conquered native peoples as smooth as possible.
According to Adams, Cortes "had to negotiate with the
particular community that lay in his path." La
Malinche helped him to do this by becoming not only a
translator, but also a fellow strategist, and by
carefully manipulating the native peoples.
Cortes used the knowledge he gained through La
Malinche to aid in his conquest. He led the Aztecs,
and even their ruler Moctezuma (Montezuma), to believe that he
was a diety after learning from La Malinche about the
god Quetzecoatl, a bearded and white-skinned figure
who would eventually return to retake the empire.
Vital to this manipulation was her discovery that
Moctezuma actually believed that Cortes could have
been a deity. With the help of La Malinche, Cortes
captured and imprisoned Moctezuma, which led directly
to the conquest of the empire. La Malinche was the
main aide to Cortes, and his conquest would not have
been possible without her. In helping Cortes, she
helped a foreign people and betrayed her own.
Dona Marina will forever be known as "La Malinche": the
heroine of Spain, and the betrayer of Mexico.
Ultimately, her help to Cortes was the death sentence
for the Aztec empire, its people, and its culture;
however, she could not have known this at the time.
Although contrasting views of La Malinche exist, she
should not necessarily be viewed by historians in a
negative or positive light. What she did helped build
one empire, while destroying another; to condemn or
exalt La Malinche historically would be to succumb to
bias and side with one of the two parties in a war
that ended on land over 400 years ago, but lives on
silently in the minds of the conquered and fading people.