La Malinche – the Spanish conquest of Mexico
La Malinche has become known as one of the most controversial figures of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, which began in 1512. La Malinche, who is also referred to as Dona Marina or Malintzin, was Hernan Cortes’ interpreter, mistress, and guide. She is known as the mother of the Mestizos but in some circles she is known as a betrayer of her people. She played a very vital role in the Spanish’s conquest of Mexico. Sandra Messinger Cypess’ book La Malinche in Mexican Literature uses multiple readings that were written from the time of the Spanish conquest all the way up to the present day. Cypess uses these multiple sources to turn La Malinche into a sort of symbol that has several different meanings. Her main goal was to demonstrate how the symbol of La Malinche has varied over different time periods that had different things going on.
The first chapter is labeled “La Malinche as Palimpsest”. A palimpsest is something contains many diverse layers beneath what appears on the surface. Cypess says that La Malinche is known as the mother of the Mexican nation, but she is also know as the Mexican Eve, which is a reference to the Eve in the Old Testament. Cypess goes on to say that La Malinche is the first woman of Mexican literature. She says, “La Malinche has been transformed from a historical figure to a major Mexican and feminine archetype, a polysemous sign who signifies, for all their ambiguity, are generally negative.” A large amount of the views expressed about La Malinche are negative due to the notion that many people believed that she betrayed her own nation. Cypess transforms the historical person, who is la Malinche, into sign that can be interpreted in different ways. She says, “With each generation the sign, La Malinche, has added diverse interpretations of her identity, role, and significance for individuals and for Mexico.”
A malinchista is an individual who betrays their nation in favor of a foreign power. This word was clearly made up from La Malinche and symbolizes the betrayal that many people believe she committed. Cypess writes, “La Malinche’s sexual involvement with Cortes led to her designation as the first chingada, a term with severe negative connotations for Mexicans, conjuring up personal violation and submission to rape.” She makes known many of the negative words that are associated with La Malinche.
The second chapter of Cypess’ study is called “Aztec Society before the Conquest”. In this chapter is to show that there were several different factors that made the Spanish successful in their conquest, and that it wasn’t just La Malinche’s actions that caused the Aztecs to be conquered. Cypess says, The irony of her portrayal as a force powerful enough to bring down an empire can be appreciated after an overview of pertinent customs and institutions of Amerindian civilization, which will also help to explain the successes of the Spaniards”. Cortes made allies with many of the other tribes who were enemies of the Aztecs. This played a huge part in the conquest because many people were very fearful of the Aztecs and were not too hesitant to side with the Spaniards.
The Aztec Religion also played a vital role towards the conquest of the Aztecs. When the Spaniards first arrived the Aztecs thought that the were direct descendant of the god Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl had light skin and a beard. “The Spaniards did appear to share an element of immortality with the gods in their ability to withstand the ravages of a disease that was conquering the Amerindians in overwhelming numbers”. Cypess is making reference to the fact that the Aztecs were dying from the disease, small pox, and that the Spanish seemed immortal because they were immune to the disease. La Malinche was an interpreter of the Aztec customs for Cortes. Cypess writes that in order to understand the position she was in, you must consider what the attitude towards women in Aztec culture was like. Cypess says, “ her role as transferred slave, or as mistress to Cortes, ironically was one that Amerindian women were often forced to perform; yet the judgment against her as an infamous emblem of female transgression echoes a centuries-long opinion that is only now being revised.” It was normal for many slaves to be given to the opposite side and many of them were woman. Twenty other woman were given to Cortes at the same time as La Malinche. La Malinche played a larger role because she could act as a translator. Cortes noticed this gift and he used it to his advantage.
Chapter three is titled “The creation of Dona Marina in the Colonial Period”. In this chapter Cypess makes reference to the works of Hernan Cortes, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, and Francisco Lopez de Gomara. All three of them right about La Malinche in different ways. Cortes describes her as “my interpreter”. He decided not to write about all of her activities in his letter to the king. In one of the letters he writes that she helped uncover a plot to ambush the Spaniards by the Cholula. This led to the massacre of the Cholulans by the Spaniards. Bernal Diaz writes about La Malinche in a different way. Cypess writes, “Throughout his text, Bernal Diaz describes the intelligence, beauty, and amazing acts of heroism of La Malinche, as well as her unusual strength, spirit, courage, and resourcefulness. He also praises the abilities she displayed during the various military incursions she was forced to endure”. Diaz showed a large amount of appreciation towards La Malinche. He talks about her as if she is a biblical character, who was saved from the pagans and is now a strong Christian. Gomara does not write about her in the same way. He sees her as just another ordinary slave, who just so happen to be the interpreter. Cypess writes, “He will refer to her in his text as our Indian woman interpreter, or as Marina, but never with the same affection and esteem displayed by Bernal Diaz”. He sees her as just a tool that was used by Cortes.
The plot by the Cholulans to ambush the Spaniards hurt La Malinche’s image even more. La Malinche learned of the plot from an old woman who was the wife of a Cholulan cacique. The old woman’s wish was to save La Malinche and have her marry her son. However, La Malinche went to Cortes and told him of the plot. La Malinche rejected the marriage to a fellow Amerindian. Cypess says, “Her rejection of the Amerindian male is perhaps the most serious of charges that cling to her image; it becomes a metaphoric act signifying the repudiation of the native in favor of the foreign. Her role as mistress to Cortes and her marriage to Juan Jaramillo provide further substantiation of the pragmatic behavior called malinchismo today”. Malinchismo is a term derived from La Malinche that refers to something that has a tendency to favor things that are foreign.
The title of the fourth chapter is “Eve and the Serpent”. The name of the chapter suggests that La Malinche will be viewed as a betrayer and someone who allowed evil to permeate itself across the Aztec empire. Cypess makes reference Xicotencatl. It is a novel that was written anonymously in 1826, which was five years after the Mexican war for independence from Spain. During this time period Cypess writes, “Their depiction of the Malinche figure reflects the rejection of Spain and the glorification of the pre-Hispanic Amerindians”. The Mexicans at the time were trying to separate themselves from the Spanish motherland. La Malinche represented someone who conformed to a foreign power. During this time period the views towards La Malinche were very negative. The writers’ goal was to try to show that the Amerindians did not need political dependence from Spain.
Xicotencatl calls upon La Malinche as a corrupted individual guilty of traitorous acts. Cypess writes, “The narrator is criticizing Marina for accepting so easily the ways of the European, which he has just characterized as corrupt, filled with intrigue and guile”. Xicotencatl showed that the main reason for a successful conquest by the Spanish of the Amerindian people was the compliance of the natives to a foreign power. The novel also labels her as a very promiscuous woman. Cypess says, “The imagery stresses that aspect of the Malinche legend which relates her to illicit sexuality; she is not the Good Mother but a manifestation of Eve the Seductress, who leads men into evil temptation”.
Chapter five is titled “Dona Marina Recast”. The literary works that Cypess draws upon here were created from the time of the post-intervention period to 1950. The time period before this was a time of breaking away from Spain. Everything written in that period was negative towards Spain. However, In this time period Spain was trying to reconcile with Mexico . Cypess points out to the works of Ireneo Paz. Cypess says, “Paz says that the Spanish of his day have something good to offer and represent the best of European civilization, the polar opposite viewpoint to that of his predecessor, who could only equate the Europeans with corruption”. Paz’s goal was to try to say that early alliances with Spain were not the end for a nation of people, but rather the birth of the Mexican people. Paz writes in a very romantic style. He describes La Malinche as a very beautiful and worthy mother to the Mexican people. He tries to take some of the blame away from La Malinche. Cypess writes, “His presentation of a number of Indian woman who voluntarily choose Spanish over Indian males emphasizes the attractiveness of European civilization and the validity of Dona Marina’s choice. She is not a traitor but the exemplary female figure in the opus of national unity”.
Chapter six is titled “La Malinche on Stage”. This chapter deals with different plays that refer to La Malinche. One in particular that Cypess draws upon is Celestino Gorostiza’s play La Malinche o La lena esta verde. Gorostiza considers her the most important person in the creation of the Mexican people. His main goal was to show a united Mexico. Cypess says, “La Malinche replaces loyalty to her lover with that of devotion to her child. By converting La Malinche into the self-sacrificing, all-suffering mother, Gorostiza superimposes upon the image of evil Eve the more favorable one of Mother Mary”. The final scene of Gorostiza’s play shows La Malinche holding her child and singing to him in her native language, Nahuatl. Cypess writes, “The visual and oral codes clearly contradict the signifieds associated with the signifier ,malinchista, for she no longer repudiates the native or embraces the foreign. Literally she embraces the mestizo child, who functions as a synecdoche for the modern Mexican nation”.
Chapter seven is titled Revisions of the cultural metaphor. In this chapter Cypess draws upon plays that use a large amount of humor. She says, “They demonstrate their new perspective by using satire, farce, and parody to criticize the authoritarian, patriarchal that have mentioned the traditional paradigms we saw reflected in the earlier portrayals of La Malinche”. Cypess writes about a play by Rosario Castellenos titled The Eternal Feminine. In her play she shows how La Malinche was knew more about politics than Cortes. Castellenos makes La Malinche out to be a very good problem solver, and Cortes as someone who dwells upon the bad situations that they are in. In one scene of the play, when asked by Cortes to help remove his armor, La Malinche said no to her master. In earlier works it was about the males domination over females, However in this play it seems like the roles are reversed. Cypess writes, “It is La Malinche who seems wise and alert, while Cortes seems easily manipulated”.
Chapter eight is titled “Reformation of the Tradition by Chicana writers”. Cypess writes about another work from Castellenos. It is a poem titled “Malinche”. Cypess writes, “She reconstructs the paradigm, however, so that La Malinche is shown to be the one who is betrayed and victimized instead of the perpetrator”. Castellenos main goal was to portray La Malinche as a victim of the system rather than a person who betrayed her own people. Castellenos poem says that La Malinche’s mother was the first person to betray her. Because of her mother she was thrown into the chains of slavery.
The title of the last chapter is “The Malinche Paradigm as Subtext”. Cypess defines the Malinche Paradigm, “When a woman is used as an object of exchange or is raped by an invading male figure and then abandoned or willingly consorts with newcomers and betrays her people or accepts a different culture and rejects her own or is blamed without reason for the evils that befall her people”. Cypess draws upon a novel titled Los recuerdos del porvenir by Elena Garro to show an example the Malinche paradigm used in literature. Cypess says, “Garro implies that because of the sociocultural conditions in Mexico, the destiny of Mexican women has been to repeat the tragic past of La Malinche”. This is because of the assumption that behavior between men and women is a result of the Malinche paradigm.
Since the beginning of this year I have become fascinated with La Malinche. Sandra Messinger Cypess’ book La Malinche in Mexican Literature used examples from all types of literary works to demonstrate the various view points of La Malinche. The differences depended on which time period the work was constructed in or what type of person was the writer was. I thought that Cypess did a wonderful job in drawing upon several types of work. I thought she did a great job in reaching her goal to show La Malinche as this sort of sign. She was not just a historical person. La Malinche is a mysterious sign who has several different meanings.