La Malinche: the woman who helped destroy the Aztec Empire

La Malinche
© History Skills

La Malinche, also known as Malintzin or Doña Marina, is a figure of profound historical significance and enduring controversy.


Born in the early 16th century, she would become a pivotal character in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, serving as interpreter, advisor, and intermediary for the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.


Her unique position between two colliding cultures has made her a subject of intense debate and a symbol of various conflicting narratives in Mexican history.


But, what was her crucial role in the Spanish conquest and what was her real relationship with Cortés?


And why has she been so reviled in modern Mexico?

Her tragic early life

La Malinche, originally named Malinalli or Malintzin, was born around 1500, in the region of the Nahua people, now known as the Mexican state of Veracruz.


The precise details of her early life are somewhat shrouded in mystery, as much of what we know about her comes from Spanish chronicles written years after the events they describe.


Malinalli's life took a dramatic turn when, as a young girl, she was sold or given away into slavery.


This was a common practice among the Nahua when parents died or could not provide for their children.


She was passed from one set of hands to another, eventually ending up in the Mayan region of Tabasco.


Despite these hardships, Malinalli's early years were instrumental in shaping her future.


As a slave in different cultural regions, she learned to speak both the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs and the Mayan language.


This linguistic ability would later prove invaluable, making her a key asset to the Spanish conquistadors.

La Malinche
© History Skills

Meeting the Spanish

In 1519, the Spanish expedition led by Hernán Cortés arrived in Tabasco. After a brief conflict, the local Mayan lords surrendered and offered gifts to the Spaniards, including twenty young women.


Among these women was Malinalli, who was baptized and given the Christian name Marina.


Little did anyone know at the time, but this young woman would soon become one of the most influential figures in the history of the New World.


La Malinche's linguistic skills quickly caught the attention of the Spanish conquistadors.


She spoke both Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and the Mayan language, while another member of the Spanish party, a priest named Jerónimo de Aguilar, spoke Mayan and Spanish.


Together, they formed a crucial translation chain: La Malinche would translate from Nahuatl to Mayan, and Aguilar would then translate from Mayan to Spanish.

Her role in the conquest of the Aztecs

However, La Malinche's role soon expanded beyond mere translation. She became an invaluable advisor to Cortés, providing him with critical insights into the political and cultural nuances of the Aztec Empire.


Her knowledge of the local customs, politics, and alliances was instrumental in helping the Spanish navigate the complex socio-political landscape of Mesoamerica.


One of the most significant moments in the conquest was the meeting between Cortés and the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma II.


La Malinche played a crucial role in these negotiations, acting as the voice of both parties.


Her ability to communicate and negotiate on behalf of Cortés was a key factor in the eventual downfall of the Aztec Empire.

Her relationship with Cortez

As Cortés' interpreter and advisor, La Malinche was in a unique position of influence.


Her linguistic skills and cultural knowledge were indispensable to the Spanish conquest, and she quickly became one of Cortés' most trusted allies.


Beyond their professional relationship, La Malinche and Cortés also shared a personal connection.


She bore him a son, Martín Cortés, in 1522. Martín is often considered one of the first Mestizos, symbolizing the blending of Indigenous and European cultures that would come to define Mexico's national identity.


Despite her significant role in Cortés' life and the conquest, La Malinche's status remained ambiguous.


She was not Cortés' wife—Cortés was already married to a Spanish woman, Catalina Suárez Marcaida, and would later take a second Spanish wife after Catalina's death.


Yet, La Malinche was more than just a concubine or a slave. She was a partner and collaborator, whose contributions were vital to Cortés' success.

What happened to her?

After the fall of the Aztec Empire, La Malinche's presence in historical records diminishes.


It is believed that she married a Spanish hidalgo, Juan Jaramillo, and had a daughter.


However, the details of her later life and death remain largely unknown.

Was she a hero, a villain, or a victim?

La Malinche's complex role in the Spanish conquest and her status as a bridge between Indigenous and European cultures have generated diverse interpretations and emotional responses.


Traitor and Betrayer

This interpretation views La Malinche as a traitor to her own people, criticizing her collaboration with the Spanish conquistadors. She is seen as complicit in the downfall of the Aztec Empire, facilitating the invasion and subjugation of her own culture.



Victim of Circumstances

Some interpretations emphasize La Malinche's position as a victim of the circumstances she faced. She was initially enslaved, then forced to navigate a world dominated by Spanish conquerors. This perspective highlights the limited agency she had and portrays her as a tragic figure caught between conflicting loyalties.

La Malinche
© History Skills

Survivor and Strategist

In this view, La Malinche is portrayed as a survivor who used her intelligence and strategic thinking to navigate the challenging circumstances of the conquest. She made calculated decisions to protect her own interests and those of her people, employing her linguistic skills and knowledge of both Indigenous and Spanish cultures.


Symbol of Resilience and Adaptability

La Malinche is sometimes celebrated as a symbol of resilience, adaptability, and cultural fusion. This perspective emphasizes her ability to bridge the gap between Indigenous and European cultures, recognizing her role in shaping Mexico's mestizo identity.

Feminist Icon

Feminist interpretations of La Malinche focus on her agency and challenge traditional narratives that depict her as solely a victim or traitor. These perspectives highlight her intelligence, negotiation skills, and the constraints she faced as a woman in a patriarchal society.


Regardless of what we individually believed, it is essential to recognize that these interpretations are not mutually exclusive, and different perspectives may coexist within discussions of La Malinche.


Her complex legacy continues to spark dialogue and reflection, contributing to ongoing debates about the nature of colonization, power dynamics, and cultural identity.