Thursday, September 17, 2015

La Malinche - Caught Between Two Cultures

Since my last entry I have been studying the life and times of Hernando (Hernan) Cortés, born in Castile, Spain in 1485. According to, I am a descendant of Cortés and I have found that most branches of my family tree overlap over a 500 year period so there is more to this story. When you consider the average person has 4,096 10th great-grandparents and it has been said that Cortes has at the very least a half a million descendants because several women had his children, I have my work cut out for me. It has taken me over 4 months to finally sit down and put all of my research of the Spanish conquistadors arriving in Mexico into words. Reading about it in history is one thing however, it is difficult to fathom the DNA that circulates in my blood. Imagine, if you will, the Spaniards befriending the Aztecs, impregnating their women, creating a whole new breed of Meztizos and then killing Emperor Montezuma in their continued effort to gain wealth and land. It's is a little overwhelming but then I realized there was more to the story... the Aztecs weren't exactly angels either.

Hernan Cortés

Hernan Cortés as he appeared in his shining armor

Cortés arrived in Mexico on November 8, 1519. November 8 just happens to be my brother Phillip's birthday. He arrived with an entourage of about 400 men. They were light skinned and wore beautiful shining armor. They brought horses and wine, both unknown to this part of the world. Cocoa was the drink of choice in for the nobles of Mexico. I've had vivid dreams about riding on a horse wearing armor and drinking wine from a metal chalice, never knowing what those dreams meant but I will save that story for another blog. Their arrival coincided with an Aztec prophecy of a white-skinned God arriving from the east. This would explain why the ruler, Moctezuma II (also known as Montezuma II) greeted Cortés with lavish gifts allowing him to stay at the Aztec palace in the capital of Tenochitilán.

On November 8, 1519, Hernando Cortés was received
by Moctezuma II in the city of Tenochtitlán. 

On my journey through the past, one of my main objectives is to bring to life the strong, intelligent women in history from a woman's perspective. Most recently I found an extraordinary Aztec woman, Malinali, known today as La Malinche. Her claim to fame is that of being Hernan Cortes's beautiful and reputedly treacherous Indian translator and mistress. He gave her the name Doña Marina when she was baptized a Catholic. Her story starts out with a boom! Her given name, Malinalli, signified her birth date on the Aztec calendar, May 12, 1502. My birthday is May 12 which blows my mind because on this ancestral journey I have found that important dates have repeated time and time again over a 500 year time span. Key players in my ancestry seem to share both birthdays and death dates.

Statue of La Malinche
Coyoacán, Mexico
La Malinche Mural by Diego Rivera
La Malinche's parents were nobles, however, after beginning her life living a privileged childhood, tragically, her father died. Her mother then married her father's brother. They soon had a son and La Malinche was was claimed as dead, disinherited and sold into slavery. Talk about a Cinderella story!

When Cortés arrived in Mexico, La Malinche was one of twenty female slaves given to the Spaniards by a Mayan Lord along with other gifts of an Aztec calendar, gold, jewels, pelts and feathers.  At that time La Malinche was 16 and very capable of distinguishing herself with her beauty, grace and education. She immediately became Cortés' personal translator, negotiator and cultural mediator and then became his mistress. She gave birth to his first born son, Martin Cortés. La Malinche was in the forefront of written Mexican history. Cortés and La Malinche's son Martin was the first documented child of European and indigenous American ancestry, a Meztizo. Therefore La Malinche has been deemed the mother of the Mestizos, literally and metaphorically.

Monument of Cortes, La Malinche, and their son, Martin in Coyoacan

Needless to say, her story is intriguing and it is a perfect example of how history becomes distorted, depending on the story teller. For the most part of 500 years La Malinche has been condemned as traitor because she was was instrumental in the demise of the indigenous tribes of Mexico. Cortés stated in a letter: “After God, we owe this conquest of New Spain to Doña Marina.” She was perceived as a trader however, her actions saved thousands of lives from the brutal, blood-thirsty rulers by enabling Cortés to negotiate rather than slaughter while preventing human sacrifice and cannibalism. Coincidentally Cortés saved her from a life of slavery so in essence they really owed each other and built a sort of Romeo and Juliet bond on that connection. From my point of view, she was a fearlessly loyal heroine. But that is just me, a feminist, 500 years later. The disdain that's been felt towards La Malinche runs deep. There is a derogatory term for those who are attracted to foreigners, foreign values, thinking them superior or of better quality and worthy of imitation – "Malinchism" or "Malinchist." It even became a technical term, political, for everything that meant choosing foreign culture. Malinchistas were those who encouraged Mexico to open itself to the outside world. In a speech given in 1968 Mexican President Diaz Ordáz scolded the Mexicans saying “Our malinchismo is holding us back. We must get over it."  Needless to say racism isn't a new problem. It is built on the fear of what we do not understand about other cultures.

The Mexican artist Antonio Ruíz’s
Surrealist Painting “The Dream of Malinche,”

Malinche with Cortés: mural by Roberto Cueva del Río

Art Mimics Life

In Theatrical Productions -  La Malinche is sometimes portrayed as a victim of conquest, and sometimes the cause of her own destiny, but almost always, she is guilty. If she was indeed violated, it was because she didn't struggle enough. If she was a willing participant, she not only brought her own troubles, but she caused her child and all of her people to suffer.

In Art -  La Malinche is represents women's innate deception and guilt, using her beauty and sexuality to gain power and in so doing so, very much in need of punishment.

In Dance - The dichotomy persists. In "La Malinche," a ballet composed in 1949, she is at first an unwilling victim, then assumes the proud deportment of an aristocrat, and in the end, weighted down by the finery she wears. She then gives birth to the Mestizo child who then rejects her.

In Literature -  La Malinche has been compared to Eve, the temptress who through deception, leads men astray. Malinchismo represents one end of the spectrum of stereotypes of women while the Virgin of Guadalupe resides at the opposite end of the stereotypical spectrum. 

Painting of La Malinche and Hernando Cortés

See how much more interesting history lessons are when you have a woman injecting romance into the story? I'm not the only one. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Chicana writers, artists, and activists began to examine the story of La Malinche. They discovered neither victim nor traitor but the strength of a survivor. This is a story I can relate to. La Malinche did not choose her destiny, but neither did she crumble in the face of adversity. I've explored her fate and her abilities to negotiate difficult cultural demands. Much more difficult than my own, yet helping me to understand the ongoing struggle for personal and world wide cultural power.

La Malinche learned to wear the finest clothes and jewels 

Hernan Cortes, La Malinche (Doña Marina)
and son Martin Cortés' home
57 Higuera St., Coyoacán, Mexico
Now owned by Guatemalan artists Rina Lazo Wasem
And her husband, Mexican artist Arturo García Bustos
Rina studied with Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo

.... And the plot thickens...... As the story goes Cortés, La Malinche and their son Martin lived in the house pictured above in Coyoacán, Mexico. La Malinche wore the finest clothes and jewels, living a storybook life for a time.... however.... Cortés had a wife in Cuba, Catalina Mercada Suarez who arrived in Mexico in 1522. She mysteriously died in this house. Some say Cortés had her killed for the love of La Malinche.

So there is your history lesson for the day. I am still scrambling through 500 years of ancestors who married into each others families over and over and over so I am not sure that the lineage below is absolutely correct. I am sure there will be corrections but it has been an interesting journey of discovery and there will be updates to follow. Moctezuma's daughter, Isabel, the last empress of Mexico, also had a daughter out of wedlock by Cortés. It is extremely difficult to characterize Cortés however, he gets points for leaving his many children well cared for in his will, along with every one of their mothers.

Click This Chart To Enlarge

When I started doing research on my ancestry, I seriously believed I would be able to become a member of for approximately 3 months, do some casual research and be done with it and be able to give everyone in my family a 10 page ancestry book for Christmas. I wasn't prepared to learn that about 10 generations ago my ancestors came from Spain and created a little havoc along the way making them very important characters in world history. I also didn't take into account that each of us has 4,096 10th great grandparents. So think about it, if only 96 of my 10th great-grandparents made it into the history books, that means I have 4,000 that were slackers!

Read this chart, it is mind blowing!
You have 1,048,576 18th great-grandparents!