Malintzin and the Subaltern

January 11, 2019: After I posted this on 5/17/2013, readers pointed out problematic, harmful elements of my presentation of this history. As a result of my casual writing style, I made light of the historical and contemporary violence, sexual and otherwise, which has been affecting the lives of Latina women since the time of conquest. This line has since been edited out, not to cover my rear, but because I listen to criticism, and strive to make my writing a space where members of marginalized groups can feel safe from microaggressions. Further, I’d like to make it clear that I do not seek to interpret this history through a modern Chicana lens. That is very much not my place as someone who shares neither that historical nor that lived experience. For these mistakes I would like to issue my deepest apologies to Latina readers of this blog, and I invite your ongoing commentary and critique.

Malintzin, also known by the pejorative La Malinche, and the Spanish title of Doña Marina, was a noble of the Nahua people. Her actions take place in the very complex historical setting of the end of Aztec hegemony in what we now refer to as Mexico, and the beginning of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and South America.

The relationship between the Aztec Empire and its subsidiary peoples and neighboring polities—which included Mayan groups—informed Malintzin’s contextualized actions, and the actions of other Mexican peoples.

The Nahua were the group from which the Aztec emerged, and were thus privileged within the Aztec sphere of influence. As a noble, Malintzin was afforded a phenomenal education, including in-depth language instruction. Her father died when she was still quite young. Her mother remarried, and soon bore a son to her new husband. For reasons which can never be determined, but which were probably to do with issues of wealth transference, Malintzin’s mother sold her to Mayan slave traders soon after the birth of her son.

Malintzin then disappears from the historical record until 1519, when she was purchased by a group of Spaniards. Most estimates put her in her mid to late teenage years at this point. Though Cortes gave her as a gift to one of his men, he decided to keep her at his side as a translator because of her fluency in both Mayan and Nahuatl. Sources from this period also speak highly of her looks, which may have also influenced Cortes’ behavior towards her. According to similar sources, she mastered the Spanish language within two weeks of the purchase of her person.

With Cortes, she helped to inform him of revolts against Spanish rule, accompanied him as an interpreter as he put down rebellions, and acted as a translator between him and Mexican peoples hoping that he would defend them against Aztec hegemonic oppression. Indeed, Adelaida R. Del Castillo argued that the Aztec Empire fell in part as a result of a coalition of their subsidiary peoples acting in concert with the Spanish conquerors.

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Cortes and Malintzin meet with Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II in 1519, from the Historia de Tlaxcala. Image courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

In 1521, soon after the fall of the Aztec Empire to Spain, Malintzin gave birth to a son fathered by Cortes. As a mark of esteem for her within the Spanish hierarchical system, he married her to Spanish noble Juan Jaramillo before his first return to Spain. Some scholars argue that Malintzin died in 1529, however, others argue that she is alluded to as though she is alive in letters found in Spain dated 1550, and referred to as though she was deceased in letters dated 1551.

Her role as translator and helper to Hernan Cortes, the man who destroyed the Aztec Empire and began the Spanish Empire in the New World, has caused her to be remembered primarily as a traitor, a whore; the woman who handed her people over to the man who slaughtered them and destroyed their civilization. Others remember her as a woman who liberated the Mexican peoples from the oppressive rule of the Aztecs, some characterizing her as the founder the modern Mexican nation. Chicana Feminist literature beginning around the 1960’s sought to attempt to reconstruct her life separated from the actions assigned to her over the past four centuries, and the most recent attempt to reconstruct her life devoid of myth and in historical context was penned by Camilla Townsend.

A problem, however, in the reconstruction of her life and the analysis of her actions is that most of what we know of her comes from Spanish sources; sources penned by Malintzin’s buyers, sellers, owners, and conquerors. Meaning, the very sources from which she can be reconstructed exist within a colonized context—the academic/theoretical term for the instance in which the only record of a person, or a people, was penned by their oppressor or conqueror is “subalternity,” with the study of these people, or groups, being “subaltern studies.” I use quotes not to imply that I am mocking this form of post-colonial criticism, but because I am introducing the term to those unfamiliar with it.

Malintzin was interacting with the intricate historical circumstances in which she lived, and must be understood within that context. And within that context, I would argue that she was a highly educated, highly intelligent member of the nobility who was able to become a political actor for both Spaniards and Aztec subsidiary peoples by virtue of that intelligence.

Which is pretty fascinating.

Napoleon, Haiti, and the Louisiana Purchase

Between 1800 and 1801, Spain secretly returned the Louisiana Territory to French custody; Spain was ceded the Territory in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, treaty which ended the Seven Year’s War. Napoleon planned to use the Territory as his North American imperial sear.

The United States government learned of this in 1802. The knowledge caused no small amount of panic. The government which controlled the Louisiana Territory controlled the mouth of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, and whomever controlled the mouth of the Mississippi controlled the economy of the North American continent. And indeed, the Unites States’ government’s fears came true when Napoleon closed the New Orleans port.

Map of the Louisiana Purchase; courtesy of A People and a Nation: Volume I Ninth Edition by Mary Beth Norton

But something was happening in the background of all of this which would permanently destroy Napoleon’s plans, and alter the future of the United States.

The slave revolt of St. Domingue began in 1791. It came to a close in 1804, with the complete overthrow of French colonial rule. Today, this is known today as the Haitian Revolution.

Napoleon planned to use St. Domingue as his Caribbean base from which to launch his new empire, with its enslaved labor force and the revenue he gained its work as the backbone of the infrastructure of this new empire.

Having lost that holding, that labor force, and all the money that came with it, Napoleon had to scarp his imperial plans. The Louisiana Territory no longer financially tenable for France, Napoleon sold it to the United States in 1803; Thomas Jefferson purchased it for $15 million, $233 million in today’s money. This was the Louisiana Purchase.

And just an interesting note about the Haitian Revolution: the use of the same philosophies which inspired the American Revolution by a black, enslaved population terrified people like Thomas Jefferson so much that they could barely speak of it; they had no idea how to make sense of it within their precisely constructed idea of race. So they just kind of ignored it and began and enacted a policy of brutal expansion throughout the Louisiana Purchase.

Class and Convents in Colonial Latin America

Colonial Latin America is fascinating. What I find most interesting about it is the intense stratification along class and racial lines. While said divisions can be found in other parts of the New World, I have never seen them quite as rigid as they were in Colonial Latin American Society. Even the convents were heavily stratified.

For wealthy women whose parents did not wish to pay numerous dowries, the convent provided a space in which they could live in relative luxury with women of their own class. They could decorate their own quarters, socialize with women of their class, and immerse themselves in literature and the arts all in the freedom of the convent walls. It is rather antithetical to our modern imagining of what took place in a convent. In fact, the perception of convents was so different back then that men would often make up rather lewd rhymes about the sisters.

Of course, that life of secluded luxury and artistic opportunity was only available to wealthy white women. Though they were technically marrying Christ, they had to pay a dowry to gain entrance to these convents, and had to pay to maintain their own apartments. They did have slaves, and the few times even biracial women tried to join these convents, they were summarily rejected.

There were some convents created for high ranking women of Native descent; especially for the biracial mostly illegitimate offspring of Spanish conquistadors and Native women. There were also convents for poor women. These convents were very serious and austere. The sisters were expected to spend their days praying and cleaning, not partying and studying music like their wealthy, white peers.

Race and wealth aside, being a woman in Colonial Latin America really sucked. If you were a wealthy woman, you had absolutely no privacy or agency and existed to be married off. Maybe once you were married and had produced a male heir you could have some control over the household or indirectly run your own business, but that was the full extent of it.

Middling class white women, and some Native women who had ranked highly in the civilizations predating the Spanish invasion, tended to be in the best situation, as they were in between enough to have more agency than the women at the top and had enough freedom to escape the sheer hell that poor white women and African women had to deal with.

Though they served as an escape from the harsh reality of womanhood in Colonial Latin America—which is why they became so popular and numerous—convents did not provide an escape from the harsh reality of not being wealthy or white; they merely reflected the society from which their members came.