Malinche

One of my advanced students lent me a novel, the Spanish version of ‘ Malinche’ by Laura Esquivel, the same author who wrote the very successful book, ‘Como Aqua Para Chocolate.’ In praise of Esquivel’s ‘Malinche’, Cosmopolitan magazine, in Spanish, says of her: ‘ Laura Esquivel, celebrated Mexican writer, challenges the mythical tradition, and gifts us, with lyricism, a legendary story of love.’ The book is poetical – lyrical – and although she challenges the interpretation of Malinche as synonymous with ‘traitor’, I found it hard to appreciate that this was a story of love.. Her attempt to rehabilitate Malinche and humanize Cortes fails. On the one hand she casts her as one of history’s pawns, trapped between the Mexican civilization and the invading Spaniards, a victim and a slave, and on the other as a woman in love with a monster, Cortes. Even after he has brutally slaughtered thousands of her people, Malinche is still trying to reconcile her love for him and her horror of his actions as well as the role she has played in helping him.

Malinche spoke Nahuatl, the largest and most important of Indian languages, and Mayan. At the beginning of the book she enjoys the constant presence of her grandmother, an animist, and Malinche learns which spirit inhabits the sun, the moon, and especially the corn. This is the best part of the book in my opinion; the author does a good job of representing the beliefs, customs and thought processes of the native Indian. At the death of her grandmother she’s sold into slavery at the age of 5. As a very young adolescent she begins to work for one of Cortes’s men, and as her gift for languages become clear, she moves up in status and becomes the Spaniards’ interpreter. By then she has caught Cortes’s eye. Seeing her bathing in a lake one day, he brutally rapes her – she is 12 by now – and he reassigns her to be his woman. In spite of the rape and the ensuing problems it must have caused, Malinche takes Cortes as the reincarnation of her god Quetzalcoatl and serves him loyally. This ‘god’, for so it had been foretold, would put an end to human sacrifices and free her people. Through Malinche’s voice the Spaniards expressed that they were allies and were there to end tyranny; through her voice Cortes expressed his intention to stop human sacrifices. At first she believed in him, the writer would have us appreciate, but things start going very wrong when Moctezuma is taken prisoner by Cortes and other horrors are depicted such as his passion for gold, pillage and rape, his destruction of the city of Tenochtitlan and the murder of his Spanish wife. There’s a stink that blows through the book with the arrival of Cortes and his wicked bunch. The worst part of the book is Malinche’s horrible rape.
The woman called ‘La Lengua’ ( the Tongue ) by Cortes finally becomes disillusioned , and she is married off to one of Cortes’s soldiers after an argument they have and used for his ‘pleasures’. Again, the writer would like us to believe that our heroine is in love with this man; even though on the first night as he takes her, his is all passion and hers is all pain. Hmmm…

Malinche had two children, and as the mother of Mexico’s first mestizo, her position as a go-between marks her as a popular subject for works that seek to explore the two main components ( Indian and Spanish ) of Mexico’s heritage. She is portrayed as a scheming, duplicitous traitor in Gary Jenning’s novel ‘Aztec.’ For Octavio Paz Malinche was ‘the cruel incarnation of the feminine condition.’ In his book the ‘Labyrinthe of Solitude’ Paz wrote, ‘The strange permanence of Cortes and Malinche in the Mexican’s imagination and sensibilities reveals that they are something more than historical figures – they are symbols of a secret conflict that we have still not resolved.’ Paz uses Mexico’s relation with Cortes symbolically to represent Mexican culture as originating from rape and violation. He uses the analogy that she, Malinche, essentially helped Cortes take over and destroy the Aztec state by submitting herself to him. His claim summarizes a major theme in his book, claiming that Mexican culture is a labyrinthe. Male writers have vilified her. Mexican people use her name to express contempt for those who embrace the foreign. Malinche represents fundamental problems of loyalty and identity that surface in the context of globalization. I’m a foreigner in this country. To what extent is embracing the foreign a betrayal of one’s homeland? And to what extent is such an embrace voluntary? Futhermore, are we to see conquest as crucial in male-female relationships in the way the male enjoys dominating a woman and imposing his will and body on her? Are we to envision Mexicans as reliving the conquest by Hernan Cortes and his followers every day of their lives?

For a long period of 400 years every influence brought to bear on Mexicans outside the small elite ruling class was negative. From the beginning the Spaniards treated the Indian as non-human, evil, worthy only of being raped and enslaved. Those who survived were brainwashed into thinking they were inherently inferior. From the inception of what is now Mexico, most of the people were deliberately programmed into thinking and behaving in a negative way, and the Spanish ‘machismo’ was a virulent scourge that brought suffering to a whole nation and violent deaths to hundreds of thousands. The Spanish planted the seeds of this virulent form of machismo by adopting a policy of interbreeding with the Indians to produce a non-Indian population, but then treating them – the resulting mixed-blood offspring – as untouchable outcasts. To make matters worse, they were disowned by the Indians as well.

‘La Malinche’ remains iconically potent, seen in various and often conflicting aspects, including the embodiment of treachery, the quintessential victim or simply as symbolic mother of the new Mexican people. It’s sad then that in view of the latter, she is often referred to as ‘La Chingada’, the ‘Fucked One.’

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