Published On: Sat, Mar 8th, 2014

The Slave Girl Who Spoke for Invaders

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The Slave Girl Who Spoke for Invaders

By Robert D. Temple

 “Surprising History in Yucatán”  

(Read Introduction to the series here)

The Maya merchants returned home from their journey up the Gulf coast with trade goods for trans-shipment and the payments they had received for the last north-bound bundles.  One item of payment was a young slave girl of little value or notice, a child called Malinalli, slated to grind out her life grinding corn at the metate.

This is pre-contact America, untouched by any European foot, unaware of the existence of Christopher Columbus.  At the busy trade center of Xicalango, goods are flowing in every direction — salt, honey, wax, spondylus shells, and cotton cloth coming out of Yucatán into Mexico; razor-sharp obsidian blades, flint projectile points, and volcanic-rock implements going east and north into Yucatán; quetzal feathers from the high Cuchumatanes and jade from the Motagua Valley coming north along the mighty Usumacinta River from Guatemala; amber and alabaster from the mountains of Chiapas and copper ornaments from Honduras; even occasional pieces of turquoise from the far-away northern deserts; cacao beans the common currency of exchange.

The child Malinalli had spent her early years in comfort.  Her father was chief of a village near the present city of Coatzacoalcos, in southern Veracruz, and her mother may also have been of minor nobility.  But her father died, her mother remarried, and the girl became an inconvenient stepchild.  According to the most popular version of the story, her mother sold the unwanted daughter to a party of Maya traders passing through, and they took her to Xicalango, about two hundred miles east along the Gulf coast.  The year was 1509, and Malinalli was nine years old.

She spoke Náhuatl, the language of the Mexica people, of the Aztec Empire, the language of commerce and culture and power throughout central Mexico, extending to the Gulf Coast and far down the Pacific slope through the Soconusco and into Guatemala.  Malinalli is the name of the twelfth day in the Aztec calendar, and it means “grass.”  Some sources also give her a second name — Tenépatl, said to mean “lively speaker.”

Xicalango was a large city, a key contact point between the Aztec and Maya worlds.  It occupied the eastern end of the Atasta Peninsula, at the entrance to the Laguna de Términos, in today’s Campeche state.  It was opposite present Ciudad del Carmen, then a deserted barrier island, where Spanish explorer Juan de Grijalva and his expedition stayed for two weeks in 1518.  Grijalva noted sighting the busy port in the distance but avoided contact.  Malinalli had learned to speak the Chontal Mayan language during her years there, but had probably been sold again by the time Grijalva passed by.

Following up Grijalva’s discoveries, Hernán Cortés sailed around Yucatán the next year with a large invasion force.  He won a series of battles at a place called Potonchán, near the present town of Frontera, Tabasco, in March 1519.  The site is fifty miles west of Xicalango.  As tribute gifts after the victory, the Spanish received dogs, ducks, iguanas, a small amount of gold, and twenty women.  One of them was nineteen-year-old Malinalli.

As was the usual practice, the women underwent a mass baptism, were declared to be Christians, and received new names.  Malinalli became Marina, perhaps because of similar sound to her Náhuatl name — ls and rs sometimes trade places in various dialects.  Cortés awarded her as a gift to a lieutenant, Alonzo Hernando Puertocarrero, but soon sent the man on a mission back to Spain and took the girl for himself.  The sixteenth-century chronicles remark on her beauty and grace, and she seems to have received the title Doña — a mark of respect, even nobility — very early, a natural aristocrat.

Hernán Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma II Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519 (Unknown artist, Historia de Tlaxcala)

Hernán Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma II
Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519
(Unknown artist, Historia de Tlaxcala)

Beyond the obvious attractions, Cortés’ decision to appropriate the girl for his own purposes doubtless traced also to her language ability.  Doña Marina could provide a way to speak directly to his presumed adversaries, lacking only one link in the language chain.  In what can only be seen as an astounding stroke of luck, Cortés had the required link at hand, in the person of Jerónimo de Aguilar.

Aguilar, along with Gonzalo Guerrero, was one of the survivors of a shipwreck off the Yucatán coast in 1511.  A Franciscan friar from Andalucía, Aguilar labored for eight years as a slave for his Maya masters, struggling to hold onto his Spanish and Catholic identity and keep his priestly vows.  Guerrero chose a different course, assimilating to the Maya culture and becoming a respected military leader.

Rumors of bearded men living among the Maya spread through the small world of the Spanish Indies.  When Cortés sailed to Yucatán in 1519, one of his assignments was to find and rescue the lost Spaniards.  From Cozumel, he sent messengers and letters to the mainland, and after several misses and with a great deal of luck, succeeded in ransoming Aguilar.  Aguilar had learned to speak the local Mayan language.  He remembered his native Spanish, though it was a bit rusty, and curiously he never again became fully fluent in Spanish, a result of his traumatic years in captivity.

Now Cortés had the resources to communicate directly with the Aztec Empire — Spanish to Mayan through Aguilar, Mayan to Náhuatl through Malinalli — an immense advantage for him.  Some uncertainty exists about the quality of communication.  The Náhuatl dialect of Malinalli’s early life in Veracruz differed significantly from that of the Mexica capital, Tenochtitlan, although they were mutually intelligible.  The Mayan language Malinalli learned at Xicalango was surely Chontal, a language closely related to but different from Yucatec, the “Maya” of most of the peninsula today.  Aguilar must have learned Yucatec, but since Chontal was used as a trade lingua franca across the region, he probably had some familiarity with it also.  They managed.  And clever Malinalli quickly learned enough Spanish to make Aguilar expendable for Cortés, whose objective, after all, was conquest, not communication.

Malinalli — Doña Marina — soon acquired another name by which she is most remembered today.  The people of Tlaxcala, who formed an alliance with Cortés against the Aztecs, noted that the conquistador and his interpreter-mistress were so inseparable that one name could serve for both.  The name originally applied to Cortés himself — Malin- (for Malinalli) + -tzin- (a title of nobility) + -e (a possessive ending) = Malin-tzin-e (Lord of Malinalli), or as the Spanish heard it, Malinche.  Adding the feminine La before it made the name fit the woman:  La Malinche.

Hernán Cortés, now with Doña Marina and Fray Aguilar in his arsenal, proceeded against the Mexica with his large invasion force.  After two years of negotiations, treachery, and terrible warfare, the mighty Aztec Empire ceased to exist.  In an era when women rarely left the house, Malinalli’s role was extraordinary.  Cortés asserted that, after God, she was the main reason for his success.

We know little of Malinalli’s later life.  She had one son with Cortés, may have married another Spaniard called Juan Jaramillo, and probably died at about age 28 in one of the great plagues that inevitably followed Europeans into America.

In the United States today, Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who acted as translator and aided the advance of Europeans into the West, is a national heroine.  The heritage of La Malinche in Mexico is entirely different.  She has become a highly complex icon — traitor plus victim, betrayer of the indigenous people plus La Llorona, the woman of folklore who weeps for her lost children.  The word malinchismo pejoratively describes Mexicans who prefer foreign influences over their local culture.  And some feminist Latinas see her as a scapegoat for forces beyond her control, a founding figure of the Mexican nation.

Mexico has embraced its native heritage more thoroughly than other American nations.  Cortés is not celebrated but viewed as the invader and destroyer he surely was, with Malinalli his inseparable companion and ally.


Several little-developed archeological sites on the Atasta Peninsula, Campeche, are associated with the trading center, Xicalango.  In the absence of stone, much of this town may have been built of bricks and oyster-shell cement.  Interested travelers can best see this type of construction at Comalcalco, Tabasco.

Images of La Malinche abound in Mexican arts and literature.  A famous mural by Diego Rivera in the National Palace in Mexico City represents her beside the powerful and ominous figure of Cortés.  A torrent of books about her continues to pour off the presses in Spanish and English, many of them highly romanticized or unhistorical.

Public monuments to Malinalli are rare.  A small one is in the town of Oluta, in southern Veracruz, near her place of origin.  Her image is included in a frieze on the monument to Cuauhtémoc, Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City.

A very controversial monument to La Malinche stands in an obscure park in Mexico City.  President Lopez Portillo commissioned it in 1982, and it was erected in the main square of Coyoacán, a neighborhood much associated with Cortés as his first capital and country estate.  Public protests forced its removal to the little known Jardín Xicoténcatl, in the San Diego Churubusco neighborhood.  The bronze “Monument to Mestizaje” depicted Cortés, Doña Marina, and their son.  Vandals have stolen the figure of the child.

Mexico Travel Care




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