The character of La Malinche is both a historical and mythical figure. La Malinche was the young indigenous woman who acted as Cortés' interpreter during Mexico's conquest. The very origin of the name Malinche remains unknown and could be a distortion of either her Nahuatl name Malintzin or her Spanish Christian name Marina.
Born circa 1500 in the region of Veracruz, a province of the Aztec empire, Doña Marina would have spoken Nahuatl as her mother tongue. Sold to a ruler from the Maya nations of Yucatán, whose language she came to learn, she was thereafter offered as a tribute to Cortés in 1519 (Arjona 2002: 9-10). The newly christened Marina was then taken along Cortés' path of conquest. Her career as an interpreter began when he made contact with the Aztecs. She became the Spaniards' lengua – tongue. Commonly used by Bernal Díaz del Castillo's contemporaries, this term shows the significant role of interpreters for the discoverers: both an organ and a system, the lengua personifies the very function of communication.
La Malinche in historical texts
La Malinche appears in Le Rêve mexicain ou la pensée interrompue (RM) as one of the major characters of the Mexican conquest. The historical text that describes La Malinche in most details is also the starting point of Rêve mexicain: Bernal Díaz del Castillo's tremendous chronicle. Díaz del Castillo explored the Mexican New World and Central America alongside Cortés and his chronicle went on to feature numerous elements of epic lyric, or geste, setting the cornerstone of a mythical tradition of which La Malinche would become the figurehead.
This text's objectivity is yet to be proven, as Díaz del Castillo published it more than fifty years after the facts, as a reaction to Spanish priest Francisco López de Gómara's "courtly lies" (RM, 56, my translation). Hired by Cortés in 1540 to write his biography, López de Gómara published Historia general de las Indias y Vida de Hernán Cortés in 1552. Doña Marina appeared in it only as a side note (Arjona, 2002, 15-19). Besides being based mostly on hearsay, as López de Gómara had never actually set foot on the new continent, the book was so full of historical and factual errors that Philip of Spain, the heir apparent himself, forbade its reprint.
Another historical text that features traces of La Malinche is the Florentine Codex, "the admirable work left in heritage by the Mexican people" (RM, 248, my translation). A compilation of conversations between Spanish monk Bernardino de Sahagún and Mexican informants, it is written in Nahuatl with Spanish translations in some places, and has numerous illustrations featuring La Malinche standing next to Cortés with Spanish soldiers and Mexican allies to her left and caciques to her right.
In his first letter to Charles V, Cortés wrote "After God, it is to Doña Marina that we owe the conquest of New Spain" (Carmona, 2007). However, although Doña Marina's participation in the matter was strategically significant, she was not, as the Mexican popular imaginary seems to have retained, solely responsible for the annihilation of an entire civilisation. She advised Cortés about divisions between nations composing the Aztec kingdom, which allowed Spain to ally with some of them to better defeat Moctezuma. But more factors came into play: European "modern arms" (RM, 11, my translation), epidemics that wiped out thousands of natives without the conquerors having to lift a finger, and of course, the "Spaniards' golden dream, a consuming, ruthless dream" (RM, 11, my translation), the main culprit of the "Mexican conquest tragedy". Adding to those were forced labour, systematic slavery, land expropriation and profitability, and especially the "deliberate disorganisation of peoples allowing to maintain them in and especially convince them of their own inferiority" (RM, 213, my translation).
Historical and mythical figures of La Malinche
Since the colonial era and throughout the periods of independence, nationalisation, indigenismo and return to the origins, this feminine figure is superimposed with all roles and myths, from the Chingada (the great prostitute of the Mexican popular imagining) to the Llorona (ghost of Latin-American legends), from the homeland's Mother to the homeland's wrecker.
La Malinche is associated to the popular Virgin of Guadalupe, the nation's patron saint, and also shares many traits of the Aztec goddess Tonantzín. The latter is a complex feminine character who represents, in the Conquistadors' Christian worldview, a transgression of the male, White authority. She is associated by some chroniclers such as Bernardino de Sahagún to the double figure of Eve and the snake.