The Curious Case of Dona Marina
Historians have recently begun to look at the history of the conquest of Mexico that occurred between 1519 and 1521 in a different light, with one, William Brandon, the author of Rise and Fall of the North American Indians going so far as to say that someone besides Hernan Cortes was “the real conqueror of Mexico.” This person met Cortes as a teenaged female slave, and changed the history of the New World.
Known by many names, including La Malinche and Malinalla, Doña Marina (the name she adopted when she converted to Christianity) was a slave to the people of Tabasco when the Spanish arrived. After the Spanish defeated the Tabascans, she was given along with nineteen other young women as a gift to the Spaniards. Doña Marina quickly stood out because of her intelligence, fluency in multiple languages (including very quickly, Spanish) and exceptional leadership abilities.
By all accounts, including all contemporary Spanish writers and Aztec sources written upon codices, Doña Marina was a powerful force amongst the Spanish. Without her, the Spanish would have been unable to communicate with their native allies (who did the majority of the fighting), and may not have been able to even recruit them at all. On the Aztec codices, Cortes is never seen without Doña Marina by his side, but she is sometimes seen as leading aboriginal armies against the Aztecs in her own right.
For a time, Doña Marina had a relationship with Cortes, and their son, Martin, being both Spanish and aboriginal is considered to be the first Mexican.
Many people in modern day Mexico think of her as a traitor. In fact, La Malinche has been added to the Spanish lexicon under the word “malenchista,” which is a word used to denounce Mexicans who are perceived as denying their own cultural heritage by preferring foreign cultural expressions. Others believe that Doña Marina actually saved the people of Mexico from the Aztecs. The Aztecs were brutal conquerors in their own right, and Doña Marina would have grown up in a number of villages and regions that were under forced Aztec rule, losing members of their society to be sacrificed upon the altars of Tenochtitlan. Some Mexican feminists also believe that Doña Marina was a woman caught between cultures, forced to make complex decisions, who ultimately served as a mother of a new race. Others still believe that Doña Marina, Cortes and everyone else involved, were merely interchangeable figures enveloped in forces beyond their control.
The question still is an interesting one for debate: did a teenaged, female, aboriginal slave change the course of North American history?