the westminster news
Published by the students of Westminster School
By Alice Liu ’23
Image Credit: Doña Marina/Malintzin, in an engraving dated 1885/Wikipedia
The two men finally met. Hernán Cortés smiled, expressing his friendship to the Aztec Emperor. Moctezuma II extended his arms, welcoming his guest with a speech marked by every sign of friendliness. At the center of the communication stood Doña Marina, interpreting between Cortés and Moctezuma. For a long time, her story remained mostly unknown, overshadowed by Cortés’ legacy. Yet, modern historians are beginning to reconsider her as the key to the success of the Spanish conquest.
Marina did not leave any written records of herself. It is not known when she was born, her name, when the Spanish baptized her or when she died; however, by piecing together various documentations of her, it can be concluded that Marina was the daughter of an Aztec chief, and her mother sold her into slavery after her father died. Her early life cultivated her linguistic abilities across many languages. As a princess, she spoke Nahuatl and as a slave she mastered Mayan. When she was given to Cortés as a gift by the Maya chiefs, her linguistic abilities became indispensable to Cortés to succeed in the conquest.
Fluent in Nahuatl and Mayan languages, Marina became the interpreter for Cortés, forging communication between the Spanish conquistadors and the Mexicans. Due to Marina’s interpretations, Cortés forged alliances with Cempoala and Tlaxcala. This coalition of Spanish and indigenous troops was among the major factors for Spain’s success. At Cempoala, Marina translated to Cortés how the Totonacs at the city-state felt oppressed by the Aztec Empire and were terrified of their tax collectors. Cortés was able to use this information to formalize an alliance with the city.
At Tlaxcala, Marina was the intermediary during the negotiation between Cortés and Xicotenga, the Tlaxcala troop captain. Through Marina, Xicotenga complained about the oppression the Aztec empire exerts on Tlaxcala. Cortés responded by saying he was also opposed to the Aztecs, and promised to absolve them from taxes and give them autonomy over their land if Xicotenga agreed to ally with the Spaniards to fight the Aztec Empire. Tlaxcala’s cultural memory demonstrates Marina’s importance in this negotiation. In art illustrations, Marina is always portrayed as a beautifully dressed noblewoman. Her figure is of the same size or larger than Cortés,’ signifying her significance in bridging communication between Cortés and the Tlaxcalan chiefs.
Despite her contributions, until recently, she was considered ‘la Malinche,’ the mistress of Cortés and the traitor to her people. This was likely caused by the 1826 novel “Xicoténcatl,” propagating Marina's image as a lustful traitor. Maybe it was also caused by Cortés’ letters to Charles V, in which he excluded Marina’s name, giving the impression that he was communicating directly with the native people.
Lately, historians began to reexamine her as Cortés’ interpreter, and an indispensable player in the Spanish conquest. In Camilla Townsend’s book “Malintzin’s Choices,” the author argues that Marina should be examined as a skilled and diplomatic interpreter in the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Still, historians are yet to change the public perception of Marina. The perception of her as a mistress, a traitor, an insignificant player looms large in public perception. In history textbooks, while the Spanish conquest is recognized as a critical moment in history, her presence in the conquest is often overlooked if not ignored.
Perhaps the misconceptions about Marina have to do with the fact that history is written by the victors. The Spanish lavishly recorded their accomplishments in the conquest and downplayed the assistance they obtained from Marina. Nonetheless, without her interpretations, the success of the Spanish conquest would not have been possible.