Encyclopedia Womannica

Mavericks & Legends: La Malinche

Episode Summary

La Malinche (c. 1496-c. 1529) is still a hotly debated figure in Mexican lore. She’s viewed by some as a traitor and villainous temptress. By others, she’s seen as a victim of Spanish colonialism, a slave and the mother of a new race. She was an interpreter for the Spanish and was seen as inseparable from conquistador Hernan Cortez.

Episode Notes

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Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello, from Wonder Media Network I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s legend is still a hotly debated figure in Mexican lore. She’s viewed by some as a traitor and villainous temptress. By others, she’s seen as a victim of  Spanish colonialism, a slave and the mother of a new race. 

Let’s talk about La Malinche. 

La Malinche was born in 1496, in a region between the Aztec-ruled Valley of Mexico and the Mayan states of the Yucatan Peninsula.

La Malinche herself was Nahua or Aztec, and was also known by the names Malintzin and Dona Maria. 

In April of 1519, Spanish conquistadors defeated the Chontal Maya of Pontochan in battle. Their spoils included 20 young women who they took as slaves. Among them was La Malinche. 

There is little record from La Malinche’s perspective at this time, but she certainly made an impression on the Spanish.  Records from conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo recall her beauty and graciousness. 

Another member of the expedition, famed conquistador Hernan Cortes, took special notice of La Malinche. He singled her out as a gift for Alfonso Hernandez Puertocarrero, one of the highest-born members of the Spanish expedition. But when Puertocarrero returned to Spain, Cortes kept La Malinche by his side. 

La Malinche proved incredibly valuable to the Spanish as an interpreter, as she was fluent in both the native Mayan and Nahuatl languages. Cortes even arranged for a Spanish priest, who had spent several years in captivity among the Maya peoples in Yucatan, to teach La Milanche Spanish so she could become his sole interpreter. 

La Malinche and Cortes are thought to have been inseparable. So much so, that Aztec codices always show her pictured alongside Cortes and the Tlaxacala called La Malinche and Cortes by the same name: Malintzin. 

At one point during her partnership with Cortes, La Malinche got wind of a plot between the Cholulans and Aztecs to attack a small Spanish army. La Malinche alerted Cortes of her findings and may have even acted as a double agent, pretending to cooperate with her native people while continuing to feed information to Cortes. In the end, Cortes had the upper hand and slaughtered many Cholulans. 

In 1522, La Malinche and Hernan Cortes gave birth to a son, Martin Cortes. Martin is considered one of the first Mestizos, people of mixed European and indigenous American descent. 

Towards the end of her life, La Malinche continued to interpret for Cortes across Central America. She also later married a Spanish hidalgo named Juan Jaramillio.

La Malinche passed away in 1529. She would have been around 33 years old. 

The legacy of La Malinche has always been polarizing. Even while she was alive, there were disputes over how to view her role in the Spanish inquisition. 

For her involvement in the deception of the Cholulan and Aztec people, many marked her a traitor of the Tlaxcalan. The word malinchista even refers to a disloyal patriot. 

But by some, she was also depicted at the time as a larger than life figure -- even larger than Cortes -- loyal to the Tlaxcalan instead of the Spaniards. 

Her image is also invoked in the Aztec legend of La Llorona, a ghost woman who weeps for her lost children. 

Over the years, as social and political perspectives evolve, so has her reputation. 

During the Mexican Revolution she was portrayed as a scheming temptress in novels, dramas and paintings. 

During the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s, a newfound interpretation of La Malinche began to take form. Rosario Castellanos’s poem “Malinche” recasts her not as a traitor but as a victim of tragic circumstance. A young slave woman caught between cultures, who ultimately becomes the mother of a new race. 

Regardless of how you view La Malinche’s actions -- as that of a traitor or as a victim of colonizer violence --  her legacy as both an influential interpreter to the Spanish conquest and as the symbolic mother of a new Mexican people, lives on. 

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All May we’re talking about Mavericks & Legends. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our newsletter, Womannica Weekly. You can also follow us on facebook and instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

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Talk to you tomorrow!