Malinche is a historical figure who played a vital role in either facilitating or buffering the devastating impact of the Spanish conquest in Mexico, depending on your point of view.
Malinche's story can be interpreted in different ways. She has been known as the mother of Mexico, and even Mexico’s Eve (the son she had with Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was likely the first mestizo person, of European and indigenous Amerindian heritage), yet her name is also associated with betrayal.
Her life, shrouded in myth, is also a tale of legendary events confirmed by artifacts and eye-witness accounts. The way we understand Malinche has changed as contemporary notions of national identity have shifted. Today, some see her as a historic traitor, whose relationship with Cortés helped the Spanish brutally conquer Mexico. Others see her as a brilliant communicator who effectively negotiated ways to prevent the Spanish from making their conquest of the Americas even more violent than it was. Malinche was born to a noble family around the year 1500, when she was given the name Malinali, which converted to Malintzin when addressed with respect, which the Spanish pronounced Malinche (the Spanish called her Doña Marina).
She spent her early life growing up in the Nahuatl-speaking borderlands of the Aztec and Mayan empires. As a girl, her father died, and when her mother remarried, she was sold to Mayan slave traders. As a slave she learned to speak Mayan, acquiring bilingual skills that would later serve as a crucial link for communication between the Spanish conquistador and the Mayans and Aztecs. In 1519, after a battle between Mayans and Spaniards, 20 young slave women were offered to the Spanish. Malinche (thought to be in her early twenties) was among them.
Hernán Cortés soon learned of Malinche’s valuable mastery of the indigenous language, and she began accompanying him to meetings, along with the Mayan speaking Spanish priest Geronimo de Aguilar, who had lived with the Maya for eight years after his ship hit a sandbar off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.
The three met with representatives of Moctezuma II, ruler of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire (later destroyed and rebuilt by the Spaniards as Mexico City). Malinche spoke with the representatives in their native Nahuatl and interpreted their words into Mayan, which Aguilar then interpreted into Spanish for Cortes. As time went on, Malinche quickly learned Spanish and became Cortés’s exclusive interpreter. The two formed a close relationship.
Aztec codices from the period nearly always picture the two together. Records also indicate that Malinche informed Cortes of an Aztec plot to destroy his army and their conquest. Cortés himself stated in a letter that “After God, we owe this conquest of New Spain to Doña Marina.” Interestingly, Nahua wives in elite classes were traditionally active in helping their husbands in fulfilling their diplomatic and military objectives. In 1523, just a year after the Spanish army overtook Tenochtitlan, Malinche gave birth to Cortés’s son.
Shortly afterward, Cortés’s Spanish wife arrived in Mexico and he arranged for Malinche to marry the conquistador Juan Jaramillo. Malinche would accompany Cortés one more time, this time on a military mission to Honduras. When she returned to Mexico, she gave birth to a daughter fathered by Jaramillo. Not much is known of her life beyond this time, it is not clear when or how she died.
Some observers question the fairness of calling Malinche a traitor and passing judgment on her relationship with Cortés and the Spanish conquest of Mexico, pointing out that being sold as a slave into that relationship was clearly not a personal decision. No matter how one chooses to interpret her role, the historic encounter of two separate worlds and the subsequent birth of a new nation seem to revolve around the figure of Malintzin, Malinche, or Doña Marina.