“Folks, there’s nothing left from the Linguistics division. We lost all the indigenous languages collection: the recordings since 1958, the chants in all the languages for which there are no native speakers alive anymore, the Curt Niemuendaju archives: papers, photos, negatives, the original ethnic-historic-linguistic map localizing all the ethnic groups in Brazil, the only record that we had from 1945. The ethnological and archeological references of all ethnic groups in Brazil since the 16th century… An irreparable loss of our historic memory. It just hurts so much to see all in ashes.”
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.
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.
I think it’s time for us to talk about the effects of white guilt on historical revisionism, especially within the USA. The following sentiments need to gtfo of ~National Dialogue~
–The blacks sold each other into slavery before the whites came along, so the white people were just as bad as the Africans.
-Black people in America had slaves too, so I don’t get why we’re demonizing white people.
-The Indians screwed each other over and worked with the Europeans, so the white people weren’t that bad.
These sentiments are horribly offensive, deeply ignorant, erase the identities of millions of people, and post-humously deprive people of their agency.
First of all, “Africa” is not and never has been a nationality. It is a continent filled with a multitude of ethnicities and nationalities. Before the Europeans came along, the power structure in Africa was driven by wealth and ethnicity. When these African nations went to war with each other, they did take prisoners of war, and those prisoners of war were sold into slavery. However, to identify this as “blacks oppressing other blacks” or “Africans oppressing other Africans,” is to view pre-European Africa through a colonialist lens. Those people were the Bantu, the Yoruba, the Igbo; they weren’t just people in a continent you don’t understand.
The block/white construct of race was not even developed until Europeans arrived in Africa in the late 1400s, and even then, the white=superior, black=inferior dichotomy took over 100 years to develop. Which leads me to the second point.
The development of the construct of race in the New World isn’t as simple as it is made out to be. When Europeans first landed in Africa, an entirely new culture developed from the interaction between the European and African populations. This culture was that of the Creoles: a society whose culture combined elements of both African cultural attributes and European cultural attributes to create a third, entirely new culture. This culture saw itself as neither African nor European, and in fact, to have identified a Creole person as an African or a European would have been deeply offensive to them.
Members of the Creole culture settled in parts of the New World, and owned slaves from Africa. The New World Creole population was highly affluent, and affluent people held slaves regardless of skin color; wealth ruled the hierarchy of the Atlantic World.
However, as time went on and the racial construct solidified, the Creole population, though they had never been slaves, were slowly deprived of their agency, and often found themselves being forced into slavery by virtue of their darker skin. To identify the Creole slaveholders as “blacks owning slaves” is to demonstrate a total lack of comprehension of the realities and identities of the early Atlantic World, and the history of the construction of race.
As to the final point, the peoples inhabiting North America before the Europeans showed up were hardly a cohesive group of people with one language and culture and mode of dress. North America was populated by a huge variety of nations with their own cultures, languages, ethnic identifications, gender roles, and worship practices. You know, just like Europe. And Africa. And the Near East. And literally any large piece of land with multiple functioning polities.
Between those North American nations there were alliances and rivalries and enmities. When the Europeans arrived, some nations saw them as a key to thwarting their enemies; some didn’t.
To imply that the foreign policy decisions of a few nations, while, of course, labeling the decision-makers as simply “The Indians” is to blame Native populations for their own destruction, and let European Americans off the hook for ethnic cleansing. I don’t think you need me to tell you why that is disgusting and offensive.
The United States of America was built on the backs of African slaves and the native populations of North America; not to mention the young, poor, and mostly Irish indentured servants the colonists went through like tissues before slavery became normalized.
The perpetuation of these harmful narratives further marginalizes and erases non-dominant populations. It’s lazy, harmful, ignorant, offensive and like, generally, not a good look.
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.