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La Malinche

La Malinche is the title given by the Spanish soldiers of Hernán Cortés to an Indian woman who accompanied him on his adventures, interpreted for him to the Indian tribes they encountered, and bore his son. Most of what is known of her comes from Díaz del Castillo[?]'s eye-witness account Verdadera Historia de la Conquista de Nueva España ("True History of the Conquest of New Spain").

La Malinche was born around 1505 as a princess and the daughter of the cacique (ruler) of Paynala[?]. In her youth her father died and her mother remarried and bore a son. Now, an inconvenient stepchild, her family sold her into slavery to the Xicalango[?] Maya of the south. The Mayas in turn gave her to the Tlaxalteca[?] tribe in Tabasco. While being passed around, she learned several local languages, including Nahuatl (spoken by the Aztec), Chontal[?], and Maya. It appears she had a knack for languages; later, she would quickly learn Spanish.

La Malinche was fourteen in 1519 when the Tlaxalteca[?] gave her to Cortés along with twenty other women. He had the women baptised and divided among his captains. She was given the Spanish name "Marina", and Díaz del Castillo[?] often uses the Spanish honorific "Doña" when he refers to her in his history.

Doña Marina was first given to Alonzo Hernando Puertocarrero[?], but when he left for Spain as Cortés's messenger to the Crown, Cortés took her for himself.

Doña Marina became valuable to the Spaniards as translator. While Cortés was in Cozumel, he was joined by Jerónimo Aguilar[?], a priest who had been shipwrecked on the coast of Yucatan eight years before. He now spoke Maya as well as Spanish, so Cortés could speak to Aguilar[?] in Spanish, then Aguilar[?] would speak to Doña Marina in Maya, and she would translate in the dialect of their present location.

Doña Marina, however, quickly learned Spanish from Aguilar[?], thus replacing him, simplifying the translation process, and coming to be known among the Spanish as la lengua "the translator." She would stand beside Cortés, not only translating his words, but also interjecting her own advice into both sides of the conversation. She was key in convincing many Indian tribes to join the conquistadores without fighting, and once the Spanish reached Tenochtitlan she interpreted between Moctezuma II and Cortés. According to Díaz del Castillo[?], "without the help of Doña Marina we would not have understood the language of New Spain and Mexico." Cortés wrote, "After God we owe this conquest of New Spain to Doņa Marina."

Doña Marina gave birth to Martin Cortés[?], whom Hernán Cortés acknowledged as his son. When Cortés brought his own wife from Spain to the New World, he gave Doña Marina to one of his soldiers, Don Juan Jaramillo, whose daughter she bore, Maria Jaramillo. She can thus be considered the mother of the Mexican (as distinct from the Spanish or Aztec) race. She died in obscurity in 1529, twenty-four years old.

La Malinche's birth name is not known for certain; her title is an otherwise meaningless word. Some historians conjecture thusly: "Malinalli" is a plausable Aztec name (it is one of the daysigns and means "Grass"), and "-tzin" is a Nahuatl suffix of respect. It is linguistically reasonable that the Spanish would transform "Malinalli" into the more familiar "Marina," while altering the difficult "-tz-" to "-ch-" and dropping the final nasal sound, thus turning Malintzin into Malinche.

The word "malinchista" is used by Aztec nationalists to identify a person who betrays his race and country; this person mixes his blood and culture with European. This attitude toward her is arguably short-sighted, though understandable; many historians believe that La Malinche saved her people; that without someone who was not only a fluent translator but who also advised both sides of the negotiations, the Spanish would have been far more violent and destructive in their conquest. The Aztec empire was destroyed, but the Aztec people, their language, and much of their history and culture still exist, thanks at least in part to La Malinche's diplomatic contributions.

La Malinche's image has become a mythical archetype that Chicana and Latina artists have represented in various forms of art. Her figure permeates historical, cultural, and social dimensions of Latin American cultures. In modern times and in several genres, she is compared with the figure of the Virgin Mary, La Llorona (folklore story of the weeping woman) and with the Mexican soldaderas (women who fought beside men during the Mexican Revolution) for her valor.

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