Childhood & Early Life
La Malinche was born Malinalli, sometime in the late 15th century or the early 16th century. Although the exact place and date of her birth remain unknown to date, it is said that she was born somewhere around the borders of the Mayan and the Aztec Empires in the Valley of Mexico. Her father was a leader of the Paynala tribe. Her mother was from Xaltipan, a nearby town.
Soon after she was born, Malinche’s father passed away and her mother married another leader. She kept Malinche with her for sometime but only until she had another son from her second marriage. Her mother had a soft corner for her young son and did not want Malinche to take what was her son’s by right. She silently gave away Malinche to the Xicalango people, who then gave her away to the Tabascans.
Malinche was 20 years old at that time. She was intelligent yet beautiful. She was well-versed in her native Nahuatl language and quickly learned the Mayan dialects spoken by the people from Yucatán. Despite being a slave, she was treated better than the other slave girls due to her above-average beauty and intellect.
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The Mexican Conquest
Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés eyed the vast lands of Mexico and North America and engaged in a battle with the Chontal Maya in April 1519. Hernán won and was offered 20 young women by the Chontal Maya people of Potonchán as a token of respect. Malinche was one of those women. She was initially supposed to be gifted to Alonso Hernandez Puertocarrero, but Hernán later kept her by his side.
Malinche was not too happy about the entire deal, but she could not do anything to turn it around. Before that, Hernán had a Spanish priest named Jeronimo, whom he used as an interpreter for communicating with the Mayan people and other native Mexicans. However, Hernán came to know soon that one of the women that were offered to him, Malinche, was highly skilled in speaking the dialects and languages of almost the entire Mexican region.
However, Malinche did not speak Spanish. During the initial years, she merely translated the Aztec language to the Mayan dialect, which was understood perfectly by Jeronimo. Jeronimo would then relay the message in Spanish to Hernán. This continued for a while, and slowly, Malinche became one of Hernán’s favorites among all the slaves he was gifted.
Malinche’s beauty and brains made sure that she was the only slave whose name was actually remembered. She was also baptized and converted to Christianity. She was given the name “Marina” by Hernán.
She also earned a special place in his court. She was always with Hernán during his meetings and other important events. Many painters from that era who painted him almost always showed him with Malinche by his side.
She also played a great role in Hernán’s victories in her native land. The surviving records state that she understood the Cholula plans to form an alliance with the Aztecs to attack the small Spanish army. She informed Hernán and thus avoided a horrific bloodshed of the Spanish troops. However, this led to a strong hatred for Malinche among the natives. Following this, several assassination plots were also planned, but none of them was executed.
Hernán also fell in love with Malinche around the early 1520s. Malinche gave birth to his son, Martin Cortés, in 1522. Hernán build a house for her, where she stayed peacefully and raised her son.
However, well aware of her tactical skills, Hernán often took Malinche with her to the battles. When he set out to suppress a rebellion in Honduras in 1524, he took Malinche with him to serve as an interpreter.
Although she acted mostly as an interpreter, there are many accounts that state that her role was a lot larger than that. She was seen alongside Hernán during important meetings and was also known to take some independent decisions.
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Over the years, historians have carefully studied the first-person accounts written by the soldiers and historians of that era to conclude that she was “the real conqueror of Mexico.” Several accounts also write about her abilities to negotiate. She talked Indians into submitting to the Spanish people and made them see things in a better light.
However, historians believe that it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the Spanish to conquer the Mexican lands if Malinche had not been with them. The vast North American lands had many different dialects, which might have caused a major difference in communication. Along with her tactical and manipulative talents, Malinche was a force to reckon with.
One of the most important feats of her life was to bring the native tribe of the Tlaxcalans to negotiate with the Spanish. Both the forces had armed clashes repeatedly. Meetings were organized, and Malinche made full use of her ancestry, her linguistic skills, and her intelligence. Thus, she prevented a major bloodshed.
La Malinche was renamed many times during her life. She was born as “Malinalli” and after being taken in by the Spanish, she was named “Doña Marina.” She was later called “La Malinche,” after she became close to Hernán. Her name meant “the Captain’s Lady” in Spanish.
Malinche was also known to be a kind woman. When Hernán brought her face to face with her mother who had abandoned her, Malinche forgave her.
In 1522, she had a son with Hernán and named him “Martin.” Martin later became a ‘Comendador of the Order of St. Jago.’ Martin was also known as one of the first Mestizos, people with a mix of European and Native American ancestry.
Malinche had become very close to Hernán on a personal level. Hernán’s first wife was in Spain then, and upon her intervention, Malinche’s marriage was arranged to another Spanish conquistador, Juan Jaramillo. She soon gave birth to Jaramillo’s daughter, Doña María. Her life after this has not been recorded in history. However, some historians claim that she died in 1551.
Malinche is a highly divisive figure in Mexican history. While many Mexicans hate her for being a traitor to her people, many praise her. Hernán Cortés himself is known as one of the most-hated conquerors of the Mexican lands. While many other invaders had their statues erected in their honor in Mexico, Hernán received no such honor.
La Malinche has been the subject of many books, novels, and movies in Mexico.