Hernán Cortés: His Translator Malintzin

Hernán Cortés often gets all the credit for the fall of the Aztec Empire. However, it’s important to remember those closest to Cortés as he gained his glory; He heavily relied on men to fight for him and Malintzin, a woman, to speak for him. In many of Cortés’s letters he calls Malintzin, “la Lengua,” or the tongue. Cortés’s nickname for Malintzin labels her role as his translator (Díaz del Castillo). Malintzin was a significant woman figure in Mesoamerica during the Spanish Conquest in 1519 and without her Cortés may not have succeeded in taking down the city of Cholula and the Tenochtitlan.

Today there is a division in how México depicts Malintzin’s role in the Spanish Conquest in 1519. She was either the woman who betrayed her people or the fantastic lover of Cortés. Such myths stem from the fact that Malintzin holds an egregious reputation among modern México. The myths stem from misconceptions of Mesoamerican unity at the time of the Conquest and how much freewill Malintzin had while with Cortés.

Malintzin was not bound to a nationality or large entity. “At this time in Mesoamerica, the indigenous had no sense of themselves as “Indians” united in a common cause against Europeans” (Rethinking Malinche 312). So, when Malintzin “was given to Cortez [to be his slave], she had no one to turn to, nowhere to glee, [and] no one to betray. She was not Aztec, not Maya, or any other native,” (Rethinking Malinche 311). While she was among the Spanish, she remained as an outsider. Malintzin was not betraying her indigenous peoples, nor was fully accepted by the Spanish.

Malintzin’s life was not a love story, nor was she a person blind with ambition (Rethinking Malinche 312). Rather, “it is the record of a gifted woman in impossible circumstances carving out survival one day at a time” (Rethinking Malinche 312). It is in the secondary accounts of Malintzin’s life that show how she was abused.

According to Bernal Dias del Castillo, close companion to Cortés, Malintzin was from a noble family from Paynala, or Coatzacoalcos, México (Colliding worlds 55). Malintzin was educated, and her status did not protect her from being treated like an object or “disposable property” (Rethinking Malinche 298, 301). After the death of Malintzin’s father and her mother’s new betrothal, she was gifted to a man as a slave. In 1519, Malintzin was gifted to someone again—to Cortés. Some consider Malintzin to be this great lover of Cortés because she bore two him two children. However, it’s important to remember Malintzin had to distinguished herself from twenty other captives that were given to Cortés from Tabasco. Chontal Mayas (Rethinking Malinche 301). She had to distinguish herself in order to gain favor so could protect herself. Malintzin’s linguistic versatility helped her achieve protection.

Malintzin had a gift for learning languages. Her native tongue was Nahuatl, but she learned Maya and Spanish. Like Cortés, she too entered cities she did not know and heard strange languages. When she did not speak the indigenous languages, she had enough local knowledge to ask for help. For instance, when Cortés was in the Totonac’s territory, she knew that the Totonacs paid tribute to Montezuma. The resourceful action she took was to ask for a Nahuatl interpreter. At times, “Cortés was forced to rely on a chain of translators, which included Malintzin” (Colliding worlds 56). Malintzin quickly became an asset to Cortés during the conquest. Her role as a translator allowed Cortés to obtain safe passage and allowed him to network.

A part of Cortés’s success resulted from Malintzin’s skill in language. After all, Malintzin lead the expedition that conquered Tenochtitlan (Scully). Malintzin was able to maneuver in diverse societies. Along the way, she once again distinguished herself with how she was able to maintain respect to the royalty; her upbringing in a noble family taught her tecpillahtolli, a form of lordly speech. In tecpillahtolli, it is respectful for one’s body language to show the opposite of what one means (Rethinking Malinche 301). The grammar was extremely elaborate (Rethinking Malinche 301). This high language was used when Malintzin spoke on behalf of Cortés to the royal chiefs. She is the one who helped Cortés engaged with King Montezuma in Cholula. Cortés tried to manipulate natives, through tricks or sweet talking them. Likewise, the native tried to do the same. According to Bernal Dias, it was Malintzin that prevented Cortés from being schemed against (Rethinking Malinche).

Bernal Dias reflective says, that “without the help of Doña Marina [also known as Malintzin] we could not have understood the language of New Spain and México.” Though Malintzin was in the shadow of Cortés, she was one of his greatest resources during the Spanish Conquest.

Images

Malintzin and Cortes

Malintzin and Cortes

Malintzin's native tongue was Nuhautl, which has different dialects that vary from chiefdom to chiefdom. These variations sometimes are unintelligible to another dialect. Maya was just as difficult to learn. For instance, Chontal, Yucatec, and Itza are all Mayan languages that are significantly different. She later learned how to speak Spanish. Both, Maya and Spanish were learned through total immersion. Sometimes the process of translating was described as a chain of two or three translators. So for Malintzin to learn these languages, helped cut down how many translators were needed. Malintzin was by Cortes's side. The Mexica have been known to refer to Cortes and Malinzin as one, or even doubled headed. It is in this picture, that Malinzin aids Cortes speak to a noble. | Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Malinche View File Details Page

Cholula Massacre

Cholula Massacre

At Cholula, a massacre unfolded only days after Cortes arrived. This image depicts some of the brutal offenses that occurred. As one will notice, there is a difference in technology. The Choluteca appear to be defending a religious temple, given from the serpent and elevated construction. Nobles and warriors a like fought with spears, shields, and more. Whereas, the Spanish have a higher vantage point atop of their horses and more protection with their metal armor. The depiction only shows one Spaniard though. That Spaniard could be Hernan Cortes. He is accompanied with his translator, Malintzin. This could indicate, not the might of him as one man, but the fault for the incident and the death ratio of men. Malintzin's presence could be merely that she's translating for Cortes and maybe insight to who Cortes might want to attack. | Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Malinche | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

The Path to Tenochtitlan

The Path to Tenochtitlan

This map clearly outlines a route the Hernan Cortes during the Spanish Conquest. Cortes and his small group of men, or explorers, pressed further inland until they reached Tenochtitlan, or present day Mexico City. In his journey on horseback and foot, he had to navigate not just through land he had never experienced, but people and cultures he had also never encountered. Fortunately, Malintzin was able to steer him to a city he had heard was a city of great gold. This map gives just a small indication of at least the larger of cities Malintzin aided Cortes with. She translated and guided him. This included a diverse group of various languages and cultures. | Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hern%C3%A1n_Cort%C3%A9s | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

Happy Maker

Happy Maker

At Templo Mayor there is a portrait that depicts a woman at the market place. Her teeth are painted red as a means to indicate who and what she does. Her occupation as a prostitution was commonly refered to as the “happy maker” to the Spanish Conquistadors. In the Old World it was not as common to be as free with one™s own sexual expression. In the New World there were different cultural standards. This occupation in the New World was not considered necessarily negative like it was in the Old World. Few of the Spanish ever recognized Malintzin™s nobility. Rather, Malintzin was exploited for sex. Even today, there are negative, even offensive, stigmas about Malintzin™s involvement with Hernan Cortes and also among her own people. Even historians have different depictions of Malintzin as a temptress or as Cortes's lover. While this remains as an issue, in either depiction, sex is involved. And its interested to see how cultural and religious differences provide difference lensing in how to view Malinzin today, as it was for the Conquistadors with Happy Makers during the conquest. | Source: Photo was taken by Savanah Burns | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Savanah Nicole Burns , “Hernán Cortés: His Translator Malintzin ,” HistoricalMX, accessed November 24, 2017, http://historicalmx.org/items/show/49.
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