La Malinche (c.1505 - c.1529), known also as Malintzin and Doña Marina, was a Native American woman (almost certainly Nahua) from the Mexican Gulf Coast, who accompanied Hernán Cortés and played an active and powerful role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico, acting as interpreter, advisor and intermediary. She was mistress to Cortés, and bore him a son. In Mexico today, Malinche remains iconically potent, seen in various often conflicting aspects, including: the embodiment of treachery, the quintissential victim ("La Chingada"), or simply as symbolic mother of the new Mexican "race".

Malinche enters the conquest story in April of 1519, when she is among twenty slave women given by the Chontal Maya of Potonchan (in the present-day state of Tabasco) to the triumphant Spaniards. Within several weeks, according to surviving indigenous and Spanish sources, the young woman had begun acting as interpreter, translating between Nahuatl language (the lingua franca of central Mexico) and Yucatec Maya language, a language understood by the Spanish priest, Aguilar, who had spent several years in captivity among the Maya people following a shipwreck. By the end of the year, when the Spaniards had installed themselves at the Mexican capital, Tenochtitlan, it is apparent that the woman, now called "Malintzin" by the Indians, had learned enough Spanish to be translating directly between Cortés and the Mexica (Aztecs). The Indians, significantly, also call Cortés "Malintzin," an indication, perhaps, of how closely connected they had become. Following the fall of Tenochtitlan in late 1521 and the birth of her son, Don Martín Cortés, Malinche disappears from the record until Cortés' nearly disastrous Honduran expedition of 15246 when she is seen serving again as interpreter (suggestive of a knowledge of Maya dialects beyond Chontal and Yucatecan.) It is here, in the forests of central Yucatan, that she married Juan Jaramillo, a wealthy conquistador. Little or nothing more is known about her after this, even the year of her death, 1529, being somewhat in dispute.

For the conquistadors, having a reliable translator was important enough, but there is evidence that Malinche's role and influence were larger still. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a soldier who as an old man produced the most comprehensive of the eye-witness accounts, the Verdadera Historia de la Conquista de Nueva España ("True History of the Conquest of New Spain"), speaks repeatedly and reverentially of the "great lady," Doña Marina (always using the honorific, "Doña"). "Without the help of Doña Marina," he writes, "we would not have understood the language of New Spain and Mexico." Rodríguez de Ocana, another conquistador, relates Cortés' assertion that after God, Marina was the main reason for his success. The evidence from indigenous sources is even more interesting, both in the commentaries about her role, and in her prominence in the drawings made of conquest events. In the Lienzo de Tlascala, for example, not only is Cortés rarely portrayed without Malinche poised by his ear, but she is shown at times on her own, seemingly directing events as an independent authority.

We have little certain knowledge of Malinche's background. Most of what is believed about her early life comes to us through the accounts of the conquistador Andrés de Tapia, from Cortés' "official" biographer, Gómara, and, most importantly, in Díaz del Castillo's vibrant chronicles. His version of her origins is a colorful story that seems far too biblical and romantic to be entirely credible, yet there is no evidence to the contrary. According to Díaz, Malinche was the noble first-born child of the lord of Paynala (near present-day Coatzalcoalcos, then a "frontier" region between the Aztec Empire and the Maya of the Yucatan). In her youth her father died and her mother remarried and bore a son. Now an inconvenient stepchild, the girl was sold or given to Mayan slave-traders from Xicalango, an important commercial city further south and east along the coast. At some point, she was given or sold again, and is taken to Potonchan, where she is ultimately given to the Spaniards. We don't know her age, but 20 give or take five years is probably a reasonable assumption, as is the likelihood that she was striking in appearance: it is suggestive of her appeal that Cortés singled her out as a gift for Alonzo Hernando Puertocarrero, perhaps the most well-born member of the expedition. Soon, however, Puertocarrero was on his way to Spain as Cortés' emissary to Charles V, and Cortés has discovered her to be too valuable or too attractive to be left in the care of anyone but himself.

Before the twenty slave girls were distributed among the Spanish captains for their pleasure in "grinding corn," Cortés insisted that they be baptized, and is was here that Malinche was given the Spanish name "Marina." La Malinche's birth name is not known for certain; her title is an otherwise meaningless word. Some historians conjecture that, "Malinalli" being a plausable Aztec name (it is one of the daysigns and means "Grass"), and "-tzin" 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 Latin American 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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