Malintzin is by far the most controversial figure of the 1519 Mexican invasion. Was she a traitor, or a feminist national hero? Was she the mother of Mexico, or the Eve-like bringer of Mexico’s original sin? Was she a collaborator, bystander, or victim of the Spanish? In terms of her legacy, it’s a mixed bag. In terms of her lived experience, it is, as we often say, complicated. And today, we’re digging into the controversial history and legacy of Malintzin.
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Transcript for “La lengua”: Malintzin, the Spanish Conquest of Mesoamerica, and the Legacy of the Translator in Mexico
Written & researched by Averill Earls, PhD
Recorded by Averill Earls & Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD
Averill: In 1982, the Mexican president commissioned a work of art to be installed in an alcaldia or municipality of Mexico City, just outside of Hernan Cortes’ historic palace. In “Monumento al Mestizaje” Julián Martínez y M. Maldonado cast three figures in bronze: Hernan Cortes himself, the indigenous woman Malintzin [mal-een-tsin], and their child, Martin. Cortes stands brazenly looking out at the square, one hip cocked, one booted foot resting on a slightly elevated area of the sculpture. His right hand is hidden behind him – reaching for a weapon, perhaps? – but his left hand hangs loose at his side, palm facing out. He is flanked on his right by a great lion, a symbol of Spain. Malintzin is seated to his left, one arm lifted, palm to the sky, as if she is about to reach out or perhaps is presenting her son, who is a few feet in front of her, to whomever has come before them. She is flanked by a giant eagle, a symbol of the Aztec empire. Their naked baby boy is before them, pointing out at the world – and people – before them. The president, who was trying to convince the Mexican general public that it would benefit from welcoming Spanish immigrants into the country, thought that this commissioned fountain and statue, to be installed in the city center of Coyoacan, would invite healing, as it stood as a reminder that Mexico, a land of mestizos, was born of the love child of Cortes and Malintzin – the Spanish and the Mexica [meh-shee-ka]. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people of Mexico City did not see love when they looked upon this cozy family scene. Instead, students from the university joined with residents of Coyoacan to protest the installation because to them it was a glorification of a conqueror and a traitor. The demonstrations turned violent as debates over the appropriateness of this statue broke out across the country. Spanish-Mexican historian Gastón García Cantú said “Cortés represents military conquest and genocide. In my opinion, no conquistador deserves a statue.” Mexican writer Octavio Paz disagreed: “The hatred of Cortés is not hatred of Spain,” he said, “it is hatred of ourselves.” But it was not, as historian Camilla Townsend argues, just Cortes that so offended the villagers and students of Mexico City; it was also Malintzin, the indigenous woman who was enslaved to Cortes, served as his translator, bore his first child, and helped facilitate the Spanish conquest of central America. Malintzin is by far the most controversial figure of the 1519 invasion. Was she a traitor, or a feminist national hero? Was she the mother of Mexico, or the Eve-like bringer of Mexico’s original sin? Was she a collaborator, bystander, or victim of the Spanish? In terms of her legacy, it’s a mixed bag. In terms of her lived experience, it is, as we often say, complicated. And today, we’re digging into the controversial history and legacy of Malintzin.
And I’m Elizabeth
And we are you’re historians for this episode of Dig
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Elizabeth: Though she left no records in her own words, written by her own hand (or, at least, none that survived), there have been numerous books, articles, novels, plays, lesson plans, and more written about Malintzin – by her contemporaries, and by numerous scholars, nationalists, politicians, artists, and public intellectuals in the centuries after her death. As scholar Pilar Godayol notes, Malintzin is one woman who has not been rendered invisible in the historical record.
Averill: In Malintzin’s Choices, historian Camilla Townsend weaves together a beautiful narrative history of Malintzin’s life in the style that I would call ‘social biography’: when we have few or no first-hand accounts of an individual’s life, we can put together what was possible and even plausible for someone living in the past by studying the context and culture in which they lived. And Townsend writes so vividly about where Malintzin came from, how she most likely came to the position she was in as Cortes’ translator, and what choices may have lain before her in facilitating the conquest of central America, that we’re going to quote more heavily from her text than we normally would in an episode, because she has a way with words!
Elizabeth: We don’t know exactly when Malintzin was born, but it was probably around 1504. According to Townsend, this was a girl child, born in a dark room opening onto a brightly lit courtyard in a house near a winding gray river in a place called Coatzacoalcos [kow·aat·zuh·kow·al·kowz], near the great sea of the Gulf of Mexico. The midwife offered up a prayer, and it went something like this: ‘Thou wilt be in the heart of the home, thou wilt go nowhere, thou wilt nowhere become a wanderer, thou becomest the banked fire, the hearthstones.’ She cut the umbilical cord and tied it off close to the baby’s body, paying much greater attention to neatness and cleanliness than had her counterpart in Ghent [who delivered the infant Charles, who would be king of Spain by 1519], though the child was no one important. Most likely, she took the severed cord and buried it efficiently in the hard-packed earthen floor next to the hearth, since the babe was a girl. ‘Here our lord planteth thee, burieth thee. And thou wilt become fatigued, thou wilt become tired; thou art to provide water, to grind maize, to labor; thou art to sweat by the ashes, by the hearth.’
Averill: Just to give you a sense of what Townsend is working with here to construct this narrative, her footnote about this introduction points to an appendix in Malintzin’s Choices, where she has a translated Chalca women’s song. Though Malintzin’s family wasn’t part of the Chalco altépetl [al-tay-pehtee], or city-state near today’s Mexico City, these kinds of songs and customs would have been shared and common around the Yucutan peninsula.
Elizabeth: We do not know what name she was assigned at birth. According to Townsend, names were constantly changing in Nahua [Nah-wha] society. Some scholars posit that she was named Malinalli, for the day she was born, and that the Spanish, when they Christened her “Marina” in 1519, did so to adapt her Nahuatl [nah-wah-tl]name to Spanish. Townsend argues that Malinalli was an unlucky name, and so her family would not have named her this, and somewhat scornfully suggests that it is unlikely that the Spanish took the time to ask her her name, and then to find an approximation in Spanish. More likely that the Spanish named the women gifted to them by the Tlaxcala [tlacks-kala] common Spanish names. Marina or Maria, Isabel, Ana, Juana, Francisca, and the like. The Nahua didn’t have an “r” sound, so they would have transposed an “l,” to then call her “Malina” when they encountered her in the years following her enslavement. The suffix “tzin” is an honorific, which the ingidenous may have assigned her because of their own perceptions of her when she negotiated on behalf of the Spanish, or following Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s example, who referred to her as Dona Marina, a Spanish honorific.
Averill: The main written sources we have from this period that deal with the Spanish conquest and tell us about the history and customs of the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of central America are the codexes that were compiled by Catholic priests, like Bernardino de Sahagun. These were texts intended by the director, Sahagun, to give the Spanish insight into Indians so that they might be more easily convinced to convert to Christianity. The 12 volume, 2,400-page Florentine Codex was written by young Nahua scholars who joined Sahagun’s school. They collected the oral histories of their people and recorded them in Nahuatl and Spanish in the Codex. Because art–painting–was essential to Nahua literature, the Florentine Codex also includes some 2000 illustrations. As Rebecca Jager points out, Book 12 of the Florentine Codex, which covers the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, focuses on Malintzin. Native artist-historians put her at the center of every image; she is clothed in a way to indicate her high social status, sometimes even wearing shoes, which was a status symbol. She’s the focus of these depictions, with the men she translates for – Cortes and indigenous leaders like Moctezuma – are on either side of her. She is often larger than the men in the image too. We’ll put a bunch of these images in the episode blog page, but undoubtedly you’ve seen them before if you’ve ever watched a documentary about the Aztecs. It seems plausible that the addition of “tzin” to her name by those Nahua who memorialized her was given because they understood her significance, independent of European representations of her.
Elizabeth: The altepetl [al-tay-pehtee] that she would have grown up in was ruled by a king. “Altepetl” [al-tay-pehtee] means “water-mountain” in Nahuatl, because “every human settlement needed a water source and a defensible bit of earth to call its own.” It was on the fringes of the Mexica, or Aztec “empire.” It is a bit misleading to describe the Aztec political control as “empire,” however; as Townsend notes, “There were many kingdoms, some more powerful than others at any one time, ranged in shifting alliances. A world of many kingdoms necessarily yields many wars, and Mesoamerica was no exception. Indeed, decades after the Spanish came, when elderly indigenous were asked about their memories of the conquest, they very often misunderstood the question and launched into a discussion of a particularly disastrous defeat they had once suffered at the hands of some other indigenous group years earlier.” Among these warring ethnic states, the Mexica [meh-sheeka] of Tenochca [teh noch ka] were the most powerful. They were nomads from the north, like the other militarily savvy Nahuatl-speaking peoples that had gradually taken up residence in Mesoamerica over the centuries. They built their city in a swamp on a lake that no one wanted, and by 1420 had shifted from mercenary outsiders to a powerful warrior culture fighting for their own political interests, and formed the Triple Alliance with the altepetl [al-tay-pehtee] of Tetzcoco [tech-koko] and Tlacopan [tlack o pan]. The Tenochca [teh noch ka], with their capital at Tenochtitlan [ [teh noch tee klan] ](or ‘the land of the Tenochca’) had the largest population, and therefore was the more powerful partner in the alliance. Their influence grew over the next several decades; they offered alliances with whomever wanted them, and when they defeated an enemy in battle, they took prisoners of war whom they sacrificed to their gods in thanks for the great gift of life and victory.
Averill: In Malintzin’s birthplace of Coatzacoalcos, people came to trade for luxury goods like sustainably harvested bird feathers, mother of pearl, crocodile skins, coral, and swordfish bills. She was most likely born in a family with noble connections, perhaps once conquerors themselves, because she understood not only common Nahuatl, but also the high Nahuatl specific to court culture. The grammar and register would not have been understood by commoners in Mesoamerica, and would have been taught to children of noble households by tutors. She also spoke at least one, perhaps more, of the other languages common in the region, because we know from the Spanish sources that she spoke the Maya that Jeronimo de Aguilar understood; her ear for languages served her well in her teens, after she was sold into slavery by her family.
Elizabeth: The European first-hand accounts, and especially Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s, popularized the story that Malintzin was sold into slavery by her mother to protect the inheritance of her son by a new husband. Townsend and others have questioned the veracity of this story, not least because it sounds a lot like folktales from Spain, but also because it doesn’t really fit in with the reality of life for girls in Mesoamerica at this time. For one, girls simply didn’t inherit. Women, while understood as complementary, as the keepers of the hearth and givers of life, were often expendable in the Mesoamerican world. According to Townsend, “The role of the Nahua wife and mother of heirs was unquestionably an honorable one and probably no more constraining than that of any man, who had perforce to become a warrior. But some Nahua women became concubines outside their natal communities. Their lives have most often been in the shadows, unexplored.” Wealthy and powerful men, which would likely have included Maltinzin’s birth father, since she learned court Nahuatl, were able to maintain polygomous households. Women’s communities within households could be quite rich and fulfilling, even though jockeying for favor with a husband/lover could create strife and pain, as suggested in some of the Nahua songs from this period. The Nahuatl verb teqixtia, which means to “put someone out,” was defined in early Nahuatl dictionaries as “to throw a woman or servant out.” So women had the least security when it came to their homelife; the wife and mother of heirs, for example, could send away concubines or children of concubines for any number of reasons. This is probably what happened to Malintzin. Daughters in particular were often sold into slavery, where most would serve as domestic servants.
Averill: Slavery in the Mesoamerican world was not the chattel slavery that the Europeans would introduce to the Americas in the following centuries. The word for slave referred to “prisoners of war being held for sacrifice, to merchants burden bearers, and, most often, to girls and women in households doing domestic work and serving as concubines.” Enslavement could be voluntary, by altepetl leadership to appease enemies threatening war (and not all POWs were sacrificed), or hard times that forced parents to sell children for food or goods, or the casting out of calpanpilli, or household children, the daughters and sons of concubines, who were considered burdensome. The Chalca Women’s Song illustrates the frustration of the concubines, who were relatively powerless in the Nahua world. “It is heart-rending, here on earth. Sometimes I fret. I consume myself in rage. In desperation, I suddenly say, hey child, I would as soon die.” According to Townsend, these words may have resonated with Malintzin, who, “Somewhere between age eight and twelve, herself faced the abyss: one devastating day, she found herself in the hands of long-distance slave traders. They took her by canoe down the wide, muddy river to the billowing salt sea and then headed east, following the coast. The roots and tendrils connecting her to family, calpolli, and altepetl were severed in an hour.”
Elizabeth: Whatever the reasons for her enslavement, the story Diaz del Castillo told is unlikely. Nor is it likely that she was a prisoner of war–as that was considered “honorable” slavery, and would have been something she would have been clear and up-front about. It seems likely that someone in her town, perhaps even members of her household, sold her. Whatever the case, the Spanish seemed to believe that she had reason to hold a grudge against her family members for her enslavement, and they thought she was awfully generous when she didn’t punish them at the first opportunity. And as Rebecca Jager, Roberto A Valdeón, and Pilar Godayol have all shown, whatever conditions led to her enslavement, her role in the Spanish army evidences that she was elevated to a position above slave. Though Cortes alternatively referred to her as “slave” and “la lengua” (the translator) in his letters of the conquest, her central role in other Spanish sources and position of prominence in indigenous sources indicates that she was no mere domestic servant or even sex slave while in service to the Spanish. And in the end, she even got herself a Spanish husband, which was very unusual for Spanish-Nahua relationships. Very few Spaniards legitimately married indigenous women in the early years of the invasion.
Averill: But we’re getting ahead of ourselves! We’ll talk more about Malintzin’s Spanish husband in a bit. Now we need to turn to the arrival of the Spanish, and how Malintzin ended up as their la lengua.
Elizabeth: Right. So first, remember that Mesoamerica was a politically complex world, made up of ethnically-organized city states – like the Tenochca Mexica, the Tabasco Maya (who purchased Malintzin for cacao beans or maybe bolts of cloth), and the Tetzcoco Mexica. Nahuatl, as the language of the Mexica who dominated most of the region, would have been spoken commonly alongside regional and ethnic languages, including 32 Mayan languages. City states were constantly rising and falling in political prominence, being subsumed under the Triple Alliance or rising up against the Triple Alliance. So when the Spanish arrived, it wasn’t even just a situation in which they took advantage of resentments of the Aztecs. The rise and fall of powerful military states, based on shifting alliances, was normal in Mesoamerica. And we want to dispel the myth that the Spanish gained allies because the Indians saw them as “gods.” Even though these various ethnic groups saw themselves as distinct from one another, as distinct as they saw themselves from the Spanish, they were never just like “oh hey white dudes, you seem superior, let us follow you.”
Averill: When Americans teach this history, we tend to oversimplify it, and overemphasize the myths that the Spanish encouraged or sparked during and after conquest. For example, there is a common myth that the Mesoamericans thought the Spanish were gods, and specifically a reincarnation or return of Quezalcoatl, who was supposed to be particularly pale. According to Townsend:
The fact remains that except for Cortes, everyone–Spanish and Indian–later insisted that the indigneous did refer to the newcomers as teotl, which the Spanish heard as teul and translated as god. What we must ask ourselves, however, is what the Indians really meant by it. They certainly struggled at first to find any appropriate way to refer to the newcomers. In their world, people were labeled according to their altepetl. The Tenochca, for example, lived in Tenochtitlan. The strangers undoubtedly came from an altepetl somewhere on earth, but it was not in the known world. Years later, they would be called Caxtilteca (people of Castile), but that could only come when familiarity with the concept of a Spain or a Castile was widespread. Nor did the strangers at first have a political relationship to anyone. In certain texts, Cortes ceases to be called a “teotl” and is pointedly referred to as a “tecuhtli” (dynastic overload) or even “tlatoani” (king) immediately after he has vanquished an altepetl and thus has authority over its people. But the real man at first had no such connection to any altepetl. In a world of relationships, these newcomers had no relationship to any place or anyone. What, then, were they do be called.
Malintzin was probably one of the first to use the term “teotl”; she was, after all, doing most of the explaining. According to one story about the first interaction purportedly told by a Nahuatl speaker to a Spanish friar, Malintzin said, “The leader of these men says he has come to greet your master Motecuhzoma, that his only intention is to go to the city of Mexico.” In the next interchange, she added, “These gods say that they kiss your hands and that they will eat.” Standing there on a shipboard, the woman called dona Marina may in fact have used the word teotl. If she did not, someone else did soon thereafter, and it took hold. What exactly did the word teotl mean to those who adopted it?
It could in fact mean what we would translate as “god”–a capricious immortal over whom mortals had no control. It could also, however, refer to ceremonial human impersonators of such characters. Sometimes god impersonators in religious rites were destined for sacrifice and thus were special, sacred…What Malintzin and others were probably trying to convey was something akin to “strange sorcerer” or “representative of their gods.”
Elizabeth: Roberto Valdeon reminds us that even as an interpreter for the Spanish, Malintzin’s job was never easy. When the Tlaxcala gifted her to the Spanish, she was fluent in Nahuatl – including the register of Nahuatl spoken by Mexica [meh shee ka] nobles, which one could only know if taught by court tutors – and Maya. Aguilar, a Spaniard who’d been enslaved briefly by natives of the Yucatan, spoke Mayan, so he’d traveled with Cortes to serve as translator, though, according to Townsend, his limitations quickly sidelined him. Malintzin was quickly essential to Cortes’ negotiations with the various Nahuatl-speaking groups that they encountered. But in the early months, or however long it took her to learn Spanish, Malintzin would have had to listen to local nobles in Nahuatl, then translate that to Aguilar in Mayan, who would then relay the messages back to Cortes in Spanish — and vice versa. Both the Nahuatl and Spanish accounts of those early months of conquest, then, were undoubtedly colored by the chain of transmission that surely would have lost some of the meaning and nuance of language. The chain of transmission is something that Townsend pays particular attention to. She notes, for example, the European misinterpretation (willful or accidental) of Mexica perception of the Spanish.
Averill: Myths like these, born out of the challenges of finding a common language between two very different cultures and peoples, have dominated the story of Spanish invasion of the Americas. Similarly the assumption that Europeans were “superior” because of the “guns, germs, and steel” mythology, flattens the nuances of this period, and the agency of the indigenous Mesoamericans. Most of the alliances that the Spanish established started with armed resistance, or, as had happened for centuries before, altepeme joined the Spanish because they’d heard of their battle prowess, or if they’d been wronged by the Mexica, or if they saw an alliance as an advantage for their altepetl.
Elizabeth: The peoples of the Yucatan knew about the foreigners who’d invaded the islands to the east, whose enormous ships patrolled the Gulf Coast. The first time the foreigners landed in 1517, the warriors of Champoton ambushed them, killing half and driving them back to their boats. The victorious warriors reported back that the strangers were well-armed, but were easily tricked. When the foreigners returned in 1518, they were better prepared; they took all the food and water they wanted, leveled Champoton with cannons, and wandered around trying to find larger settlements along the river basin. Finally they made it to the Chontal coast; their meandering meant that the Chontal Maya were ready.
Averill: The first day of the second encounter was violence. The Chontal warriors reigned arrows down on the Spaniards, and the Spaniards returned fire with guns and cannons. Both sides retreated to safety. The Spanish had a Yucatec boy hostage, and on the second day when the Chontal approached in their canoes, the boy told the Chontal that the Spanish wanted to trade. The Spanish gave them some gifts, and that convinced the Chontal war leaders that the Spanish were there for peaceful reasons. They traded, the Chontal told the Spanish that they were not interested in pledging themselves to the Spanish god or king, and that if the Spanish wanted more gold, they should seek out the Mexica. The Spanish left. But it was clear to the Maya that they’d be back.
Elizabeth: Hernan Cortes was only supposed to explore the region, gage the resources, get the lay of the land, and report back. We know, of course, that he did much more. In launching a military campaign in Mesoamerica, he disobeyed the orders given to him by the Cuban governor, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar. He had much to prove to save his own skin when he wrote letters to the King relaying the Spanish successes in Mexico. He even sent Alonso Hernández Puertocarrero, who would have had influence with the King, back to Spain to present their case, and to arrange for more ships to be sent to aid in the endeavor. At one point in the conquest, Cortes had reason to fear when Spanish ships showed up off the coast–because he couldn’t know if they were from Velazquez coming to arrest him, or reinforcements coming to help him. Just after he sent off Portocarrero, he scuttled the rest of the ships so that his men could either fight for him or give themselves over to the mercy of the Indians. What Cortes conveniently left out of his reports to the king, of course, was the significance of his translator, Malintzin. Cortes did not understand the local politics; without Malintzin, who did understand the local politics, none of what happened would have been possible.
Averill: The Spanish, led by Cortes, retraced their predecessors’ path and showed up on the Chontal coast once again, in early 1519. Jeronimo de Aguilar, who spoke Yucatec Mayan, claimed that they came in peace. The Chontal said they’d kill anyone who came ashore. In the morning, the Chontal tried to give the Spanish food so they’d go away. But the Spanish did not go. Instead, Cortes split his contingent of 500 men, and attacked. They fought, and killed 220 Indians before the night fell. The next morning, the Chontal send a messenger to sue for peace. Cortes demanded penance in the form of gifts. The Chontal gathered food, jewlery, and 20 slave women as a gesture of submission. These gifts, and the peace, was the start of Cortes’ first alliance with an altepetl. As the story goes, among these 20 women was Malintzin.
Elizabeth: The Spanish Christened the women, and then distributed them among the men to be used as sex slaves. In Nahua culture, this wouldn’t have been particularly different from their experiences of previous concubinage. It was highly likely, for example, that even at 15 the enslaved Malintzin had had sex many times before with the man who bought her from the long-distance slave traders. Though she’d born no children (for she likely wouldn’t have been gifted if she had – Nahua and Mayan men almost never sold women who bore them children away from their offspring), the obsession with “virginity” was not introduced to Mesoamerica until the Spanish and their Catholic priests brought it.
Averill: Different groups of Europeans approached sexual relationships with indigenous women differently. Julianne Barr “argues that the Spaniards were alienated from a rewarding alliance because of their refusal to intermarry and because of their lack of family life in presidios and missions. Wandering foreign men, without the presence of women and children, were identified as suspicious and dangerous, whereas men in the company of women and children were identi- fied as having peaceful intentions. Barr describes the Indian wives of French men as symbols of an amicable cross-cultural relationship that allowed economic and political cooperation.” Rebecca Jager agrees with Barr, but suggests further that some Indian women were active agents in establishing a mutually productive relationship. More than mere symbols, they served as translators, mediators, cultural informants, and advisers.
Elizabeth: Within days, Malintzin began to piece together parts of the Spanish language and culture through conversations with Jeronimo de Aguilar. Aguilar was a Spainiard who’d spent 8 years stranded on the Yucatec peninsula before being rescued and ransomed by Cortes a few weeks before the invasion. The first victory was followed by others – for the Spanish did wear steel armor and, even outnumbered, they could deal more damage to the Indians they encountered than they took. As they defeated altepetls in battle, many were willing to forge military alliances with this force of foreigners. Cortes drove his men forward into the Yucatan toward Tenochtitlan, seeking audience with the “king” of Mesoamerica, Moctezuma. After only a few weeks, Malintzin’s linguistic skills became evident to the Spaniards. Cortes claimed her for himself, intending to use her for her translating and, as was custom, to take her to bed as well.
Averill: According to Townsend, “She did what almost anyone in her situation would have done. She worked with Jeronimo de Aguilar to translate between Cortes and the emissaries from Moctezuma. Overnight, she was accorded a new level of respect; some of the men even began to refer to her as dona Marina, just as they referred to noblewomen from Spain.”
Elizabeth: Over the next two years, Malintzin negotiated with leaders of altepetl, facilitated treaties, spoke for the Spanish as a group to the various leaders and warriors and kings of Mesoamerica. Notably, for months the Spanish lived in Tenochtitlan with Moctezuma; by indigenous sources and some Spanish accounts later, they were his guests, and learned the city, met its people, and lived comfortably in the Aztec king’s palace. Cortes’ accounts insisted that the Spanish occupied the palace, holding Moctezuma prisoner and puppet-governing the Mexica through the king, but the evidence doesn’t seem to suggest that. Cortes was undoubtedly painting a more secure picture for King Charles than the reality, as he had in spring 1519, when he claimed the Indians worshipped the Spanish – but not so much, it would seem, that the Spanish actually felt safe in those occupied territories, for they slept in their armor lest they be attacked at night.
Averill: In April 1520, Moctezuma’s messengers brought word that 800 Spaniards on 13 ships were moored off the Yucatan coast. Cortes was shaken – he couldn’t be sure if these were friends sent to reinforce his campaign, or his rivals, like Panfilo de Narvaez, who wanted Cortes brought back to Spain in irons for his treachery in Mesoamerica. Representatives from the new arrivals were brought to Tenochtitlan; it was Narvaez. Cortes had to ride out to meet them. Before he did so, he put Moctezuma in chains, to demonstrate his control of the kingdom in the name of Charles V. He left a contingent of his men behind to keep Moctezuma hostage, and took the rest with him to the coast. He released the Spanish messengers into the general population, had them spread the word that there was plenty of Aztec gold to go around if they joined Cortes. They celebrated, and Cortes had his reinforcements after all.
Elizabeth: Which he needed, because meanwhile, back at the palace in Tenochtitlan, the Mexica had started to starve out the Spanish who’d remained behind. They brought them no food, no water. They attacked the Spanish when they could. Tlaxcalans smuggled a letter from the Spanish out of the palace. Jeronimo de Aguilar later swore in court “I saw the messenger they sent from Tenochtitlan begging the captain for help.” Cortes wrote in his account after reading the letter, “I must, for the love of God come to their aid as swiftly as possible.”
Averill: The Spanish rode on Tenochtitlan, but this time, the Mexica were ready. They’d destroyed all but one road into the city, where they lay in wait. The Spanish walked right into their trap. A battle ensued for seven days. According to Townsend,
Often the Indians seemed about to take the fortress or byrn the Spaniards out of it, but then their armored enemies would focus so much power at the vulnerable spot–using crossbows, harquebuses, iron bars, and lances–that they were forced to withdraw again. Somewhere in the melee, Moctezuma was killed. Most of the Spaniards said he was stoned by his own people when he tried to address them from a rooftop. Most Indian sources insist that the Spanish killed him themselves. In any case, he was by then no longer the de facto leader. Power had passed by consensus to a younger brother, the militant Cuitlahuac [kew-wi tla whack] of Iztapalapa.
Elizabeth: Cortes wrote of the incredible odds they faced.
They were all determined to perish or have done with us and I should look and see how full of people were all those streets and squares and rooftops. Furthermore, they had calculated that even if 25,000 of them died for every one of us, they would finish with us first, for they were many and we were but few. They told me that all the causeways into the city were dismantled–which in fact was true, for all had been dismantled save one–and that we had no way of escape except over the water. They well knew that we had few provisions and little fresh water, and therefore, could not last long because we would die of hunger if they did not kill us first.
Averill: Though Cortes thought they would fight til the last Spaniard was dead, the Mexia were not as committed to such a fate. Many Nahuatl sources claimed that before he died, Moctezuma made a speech entreating his people to stop fighting, to give up, for the Europeans were too powerful and would slaughter the Mexica until they were subdued.
Let the Mexica hear! We are not their match. May they be dissuaded from further fighting. May the arrows and shields of war be laid down. The poor old men and women, the common people, the infants who toddle and crawl, who lie in the cradle or on the cradle board and know nothing yet, all are suffering. This is why your ruler says, ‘we are not their match; let everyone be dissuaded.’
According to Townsend, this was the kind of language that the Nahua used to describe natural disasters. But unlike a drought or plague, if the warriors would only capitulate, the common people would not suffer so.
Elizabeth: But the young warriors of Tenochtitlan did not heed their king, nor the warnings of Malintzin, whom they referred to normally as “one of us here” when negotiating with her. They fought, killed ⅔ of the Spanish, many more of their Indian allies, the Tlaxcalans, whose bodies filled the canals of the great Mexica city. The survivors finally fled, some reportedly walking over the dead who made bridges with their corpses in the canals. They’d lost their horses, their gold; the children of Moctezuma, whom the Spaniards were holding hostage, were lost on the retreat from the city. All were presumed dead, but at least one daughter escaped with her people. Malintzin was among those who made it out alive.
Averill: In the weeks that followed, the escaped Mexica princess, Tecuichpotzin, who “carried the royal line within her person,” was married to the militaristic Cuitlahuac, making him Moctezuma’s successor. For a few weeks, the Mexica celebrated their victory, and the Spanish retreated. The Tenochca celebrated. And then the Indians started getting sick.
Elizabeth: The newly arrived Spanish, with Panfilio Narvaez, brought smallpox with them to Mesoamerica. It happened that an outbreak, which swept through the unprepared Mesoamerican population, came on the tide of the Mexica short-won victory. For sixty days, the sores spread and people died. By the end, there weren’t enough healthy people to gather food or water, or bury the dead. Those who survived were scarred for life. When it finally let up, it moved swiftly to the next altepetl, and began its destruction there.
Averill: The pox decimated the Spanish allies too. When Malintzin, Cortes, and their surviving army retreated to Tlaxclala, they encountered the deadly sickness sweeping through those who would’ve helped them recover after the noche trieste, as they called their resounding defeat in the Aztec capital. They couldn’t stay in Tlaxcala; they limped along back to the coast, to their ships. They “ate the scraps of corn they found; they also ate a horse that died.” When they made it to their ships, they ate, rested, and negotiated with the Tlaxcalans, who debated among themselves if they should just kill off the rest of the Spanish and be done. The camp who decided it would be better to befriend these Spanish and make deals to protect themselves long term, rather than wait for the next wave of Europeans, won out.
Elizabeth: The indigenous were ravaged by disease, and the Spanish took advantage. They sent in mounted raids, kidnapping women and children, branding them on the cheek, and selling them into slavery on the islands already controlled by the Europeans. A number of altepetl and sub-altepetl thought much like the Tlaxcalans and sent messengers to sue for peace. According to Townsend, in the end, the Indians seemed to have understood that the Spanish were not just another powerful altepetl, but the most powerful altepetl — with their horses, steel, and ability to bring in reinforcements by boat seemingly endlessly, the peoples of Mesoamerica were outmatched. The Spanish sources mark August 1521 as the moment of total conquest of the Aztec empire.
Averill: Throughout all of this, Malintzin went with Cortes everywhere. Even after the birth of her first child, Martin, Cortes’ first son, she went with Cortes on a mission to Honduras, leaving her young son behind. By 1524, Malintzin lived comfortably in Cortes’ palace in the fallen Tenochtitlan, with the son she’d born him, overseeing a contingent of indigenous domestic servants. Townsend suggests that Malintzin could have stayed behind with her son rather than travel into Honduras with Cortes, but that she chose not to. Some historians would argue that she loved or at least felt loyalty to Cortes for all that he’d given her; others argue that she went under duress, that she was forced to go; Townsend suggests that maybe she bargained for a husband in exchange for her translating on this new mission. And indeed, just before they set out, Malintzin wed Juan Jaramillo, one of Cortes’ trusted captains. On the Honduran mission, Malintzin bore Jaramillo a daughter, Maria.
Elizabeth: Maltinzin died before February 1529, but her legacy survived her. Not just in her two children – Don Martin, who moved to Spain with his father after her death, and Maria, who claimed her mother’s encomienda with the help of her half brothers. But also in the memories of the Tlaxcalan, Mexica, Spanish, and other peoples whom she engaged with. We see this in the way she figures prominently in the writings of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who may or may not have harbored romantic feelings of his own for her. (If he did, they probably weren’t realized, and may have been a kind of chaste love; either way, he wasn’t well-positioned enough for Malintzin to consider marrying. For her own security, she needed a match that would ensure the livelihood and protection of herself and her daughter if and when the conquistadors didn’t need her translation skills anymore.) Diaz del Castillo described her as a rare beauty, and spoke of her with the respect and even reverence that men of his ilk spoke of noble women in Spain.
Averill: In the Nahuatl sources produced in the 16th century – the Codexes commissioned and overseen by the Catholic friars and priests, and the murals painted by Nahua artists in their indigenous history-writing style – she is a central figure. Literally. She’s the focal point of many of the images, stands above the men she worked with, and is always the one speaking in a painting. (Well duh – she was “la lengua” for a reason).
Elizabeth: Translators were as respected in Nahua society as in Spanish. Undoubtedly her service to Cortes meant she was released from her enslavement; her binding religious marriage to Jaramillo suggests as much. But we can also infer her significance in these indigenous sources because, unlike in European society, women were often expected to be these kinds of intermediaries in Mesoamerica. As Rebecca Jager points out, women were the negotiators, even for war treaties. The Indians she entreated with referred to her as “one of us from here”; though distinct ethnic identities divided Mesoamerica, she understood the cultural, political, and historical contexts through which the Spanish sought to move. And the Indians would have accepted her authority easily, because she was playing a role expected of her gender.
Averill: Still, in the centuries following her death, the memory of Malintzin has been warped and remolded and complicated. In the last two hundred years in particular, nationalists have worked to coalesce a cohesive concept of “Mexico” as a blending of Spanish, indigenous, and mestizo identities, languages, religions, and cultures. Where someone like Malintzin – ripped from the cultural context in which she actually acted and lived, detached from the actual choices she had at her disposal – Malintzin has been cast as traitor, victim, Mexican Eve/whore, mother of Mexico, and everything in between.
Elizabeth: Whether she’s been represented as a mere interpreter or traitor to “her people,” Malintzin has been part of the European narrative of the Spanish conquest of central America since the first accounts of the Spanish invasion. Though Hernan Cortes made little of her role, only referenced her twice by name in his letters to King Charles V of Spain, one of his soldiers, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, remarked on her “monumental role” in the Spanish conquest of central America in 1519. Diaz del Castillo’s fascination with Malintzin ensured that she was an integral part of the European narrative of the invasion and conquest. According to scholar Roberto Valdeón, American historian William Prescott’s 1843 The Conquest of Mexico popularized Malintzin, who thereafter figured prominently in the scholarship and popular representations of the conquest. In 1992, when Spain organized commemorative events to mark the 500 years since Spanish contact/conquest in the Americas, she was as fascinating to the general public and scholars as she’d been to Bernal Diaz del Castillo half a century earlier.
Averill: I counted 22 books published between 1840 and 2021 that are just about Malintzin, not even counting the dozens more that are about the conquest more broadly and in which she is a leading figure. These books range from biographies to children’s books and novels. (The novels tend to romanticize Malintzin’s relationship with Cortes, which is problematic at best. More recently, Edward Rickford’s The Serpent and the Eagle, in which Malintzin is motivated by revenge, is problematic in its own way, but that’s a story for later.)
Elizabeth: Of course, Europeans do not own the memory and complicated legacy of Malintzin. During and after the immediate Spanish defeat of the Aztecs, she was recognized by the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of Mexico. That memory was complicated by the 19th century Mexican War of Independence, and then again at the end of the 19th century, and during the Franco period of dictatorship in Spain, when nationalists and politicians wanted to use her story as a joining in love of the two worlds–Spain and indigenous Mexico–in the creation of a mestizo state. And more recently, Chicana feminists have reclaimed Malintzin. Her life was short, but her legacy is long.
Averill: There are several historiographical essays on the changing nature of Malintzin’s legacy. Goyadol and Valdeon each interrogate the ways that historians and public intellectuals have misused or mistranslated European sources, coloring the possible representations of Malintzin. Rebecca Jager in particular, in her book on Indian women as cultural intermediaries and national symbols, focuses on four particular periods in which Malintzin’s story took on new meaning to successive generations of Mexicans in particular. The first was the Mexican independence movement – that was the first major shift in the ways that people talked about the conquest itself, and Malintzin in particular. Nationalists in this period rejected Spanishness, and all those who aligned themselves with Spain. This was the first time that the adjective “malinchista” entered the Mexican lexicon. In the early 19th century, malinchista meant traitor. Up until that point, Malintzin was a powerful Indian intermediary in indigenous storytelling, as conveyed in the codexes of the 16th century. The Spanish represented her as a minor character in their storyline, usually just to justify Spanish actions. For example, there was a famous story that Malintzin revealed to Cortes that the Cholula altepetl were planning to ambush the Spanish, and so Cortes ordered the entire village to be slaughtered. There’s little evidence that she actually learned of this supposed ambush, and most scholars assume that Cortes retroactively claimed to know of an impending attack to justify his actions when he was reporting to the Spanish crown.
Elizabeth: In this early 19th century context, the nationalists cast Malintzin as a kind of Mexican Eve – one who betrayed her people by succumbing to her sexual desire for Cortes. She was presented in contrast to the famed Virgin of Guadalupe, a vision of Mary said to have revealed herself to Juan Diego. The virgin’s appearance in Mexico was believed by many to be evidence that God chose the New World for an unadulterated and more pure Catholicism to grow. According to Jager, “in the Independence era, the Virgin Mary chose Mexico, a pristine environment with advanced civilizations, as the site for a renewed Christian paradise… and Malinche came to be interpreted as the Mexican Eve who had given into temptation, slept with the conquering Spaniards, and led Native Mexico into ruin.” This was cemented in popular culture by Xicotencatl, the first historical novel written against the backdrop of the conquest. In that story, the “fallen” sexual deviant Malintzin is held up against a virginal woman named Tetuila, a fictitious “good” Indian woman who remained loyal to “her” people. Tetuila fights the sexual advances of the Spanish, while Malintzin seduces the Spanish. And, as Jager notes, “By impregnating [Malintzin], Cortés deposited a toxic foreign influence that resulted in a morally deficient Spanish tyrannical rule.”
Averill: These negative representations of Malintzin continued throughout the 19th century, and were revived in the 1990s around the quincentenary of Spanish contact/invasion. But not all representations were dualistic. Prescott’s three-volume 1843 history, The Conquest of Mexico,includes Malintzin in the story of the conquest, though he relies heavily on Cortes’ version of the narrative. Still, he writes of her:
That remarkable woman had attracted general admiration by the constancy and cheerfulness with which she endured all the privations of the camp. Far from betraying the natural weak- ness and timidity of her sex, she had shrunk from no hardship herself, and had done much to fortify the drooping spirits of the soldier; while her sympathies, whenever occasion offered, had been actively exerted in mitigating the calamities of her Indian countrymen.
Prescott’s history made some space in Mexico for less volatile representations of Malintzin at the end of the century. By the 1860s, the Mexican elite were interested in reviving relations with Spain, and the hard line about Malintzin was abandoned in favor of a recognition that she and Cortes birthed a new generation of people – the mestizo, the heart of Mexico.
Elizabeth: Despite these idealizations of Cortes and Malintzin, however, the reality of Mexican “national identity” was far from the pristine merging of two worlds. Mexico in the 19th and 20th centuries was highly stratified and segregated, with Spanish-born elites at the top, the Creoles (Spanish born in the Americas) and mestizos in the middle, and Natives at the bottom. In the 1880s, Ireneo Paz wrote two novels with the “love” story of Cortes and Malintzin (of which there seems to be no evidence – it would be challenging to describe the Maltinzin-Cortes relationship as one of love. And undoubtedly she understood that he was a dangerous man, so if he loved her, she would have stayed with him and not made her way into marriage to his captain.) Nationalists in this period attempted to romanticize the ideal Mexico through the birth of Don Martin, the first mestizo. They assigned Ireneo Paz’s novels as required curriculum in high school education to try and cultivate good will toward the marriage of the Spanish and indigenous parents of modern Mexico.
Averill: Half a century later, Paz’s grandson, Octavio Paz, sparked a national debate echoing his grandfather’s sentiments, demanding that Mexico get over its colonial past, and accept Cortes and Malintzin for what they ostensibly were – the metaphorical parents of Mexico, as a mestizo culture. Naturally lots of people were like – no way, man. Octavio Paz also dedicated his work to tracing the evolution of the myth of La Malinche, from the biblical figure of Eve, to the Mexican archetypes of La Llarona (the weeping woman) and La Chingada (the fucked woman).
Elizabeth: In the more recent waves of Mexican national interpretations of Malintzin, both Pilar Godayol and Rebecca Jager point to the Chicana feminists. While “Anglo feminist scholars tended to define her as a female slave oppressed by Indian and Spanish men,” both Godayol and Jager argue that Chicana feminists reclaimed Malintzin as a figurative mother, highlighting her gifts as a linguist and mediator. They foreground her talents, unlike most of the 20th century (mostly male) scholars of the 20th century, who foreground again and again her sexuality. Too many scholars obsess over whether she had sex willingly, whether her sexual behavior transgressed or was appropriate, describe her as “Cortes’ mistress and interpreter” rather than his interpreter and then, in a secondary capacity, mistress/concubine/sex slave. According to Jager, “Chicana feminist scholars often celebrated Malinche as a strong female activist who threw off the shackles of patriarchy.”
Averill: The more recent writings on Malintzin grapple with her legacy, the most plausible and possible biographical details of her life, and her role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Of those texts, I found Malintzin’s Choices by Camilla Townsend to be the most useful for thinking through Malintzin’s life. Though I consulted a range of sources, including those that critique Townsend for being too enamored of Malintzin, this episode is largely based on Townsend’s book, and the rich unspooling of the historical context in the footnotes of Maltinzin’s Choices. It’s not particularly recent – published in 2006 – but Townsend brought together scholarship based on Nahuatl sources with scholarship based on the Spanish sources, and did the kind of against the grain reading of both kinds of sources that makes for really special social histories. There are more recent academic books that dig into Malintzin’s life, like Rebecca Jager’s Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea: Indian Women As Cultural Intermediaries and National Symbols (2015) which is also really good, but none focus so singularly and intently on Malintzin’s story, her plausible lived experience. So if you enjoy this episode and want to dig in further, I highly recommend Malintzin’s Choices.
Elizabeth: What does Camilla Townsend think? Townsend reminds us that we can’t really look at Malintzin as a traitor to “her people” – after all, “her people” – her own family, most likely – sold her into slavery, probably for some bolts of cloth, and then gave her over to the Spanish to be used as a concubine (at best). But she was smart, and made the best of the situation – she made choices that saved and even improved her own life, perhaps to a better status than she ever would have attained as the daughter of an unfavored wife or concubine in her own family.
Averill: Today, beyond academic circles and the fictional representations of the conquest, the negative representations of Malintzin’s legacy lives on in pop culture. “Malinchista” is a term some Mexicans use to describe other Mexicans who show a preference for foreign things, speak gushingly of the order and tidiness to be found abroad, or are critical of Mexico and Mexican ways vis-à-vis their foreign counterparts.” Though not as hard-core negative as it was in the 1820s during the Mexican independence movement, when it explicitly was used to mean traitor or someone who has been tainted by contact with the outside, it is still slung as an insult. If you listened to Marissa’s episode on Recogimiento, you probably remember the depth of machismo and patriarchy that rooted itself in Mexico in the centuries following Spanish conquest. Futbol commentators use this phrase constantly on Futbol Picante, a sort of Mexican sports center show where they regularly run down the hot goss in the soccer world.
Elizabeth: And she is still part of the public conversation. In July 2021, a televised panel discussed the on-going unfair treatment of Malintzin in Mexico. According to an article in the Mexico News Daily:
La Malinche – the indigenous woman who was an interpreter, advisor and companion to Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés – has been treated unfairly by history, and the role she played in Mexico’s past should be reevaluated with justice and greater historical knowledge, according to some experts.
A panel of specialists who appeared on a television program hosted by outspoken senator and thespian Jesusa Rodríguez defended La Malinche – also known as Malintzin, Malinalli and Doña Marina – as a “brave woman who was placed in an adverse situation and who, contrary to what has been said about her, cannot be described as a traitor,” the newspaper Reforma said in a report published Thursday.
Yelitza Ruiz, a lawyer and writer, said that Cortés’s young companion – an enslaved woman given to the Spanish by natives of Tabasco – has been subjected to hostility, slander and libel over the years, adding that other prominent women in Mexico’s history have received the same unfair treatment.
Obviously, her life, and her legacy, continue to be relevant to Mexican identity, politics, and lived experiences.
Averill: Remember the 1982 protests over the sculpture of Cortes, Malintzin, and Martin? Though not all agreed with the protestors, they won the day; the monument was moved to a small park nearby, named after Xicotencatl [shee-ko-ten-kat], the Tlaxcalan [tlaskala] general who was nearly destroyed by Cortes, but then allied with him against the Aztec emperor. It was shunted off into a corner, left to be overtaken by nature. The protestors, those who took offense to this monument to the mestizo, won the day – 1982 was not the year in which Mexico was ready to embrace Malintzin and Cortes as the mother and father of Mexico. Years later, when someone cut baby Martin from the display, no one cared. Now just Malintzin and Cortes stand alone in Xicotencatl, their union hidden from the public view, their son torn away, and their legacy still debated on futbol programs and in every conceivable kind of writing. Metaphor? Maybe.
Rebecca Jager, Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea: Indian Women As Cultural Intermediaries and National Symbols (2015)
Anna Lanyon, Malinche’s Conquest (Allen & Unwin, 1999)
Roberto A Valdeón, “Doña Marina/La Malinche: A Historiographical Approach to the Interpreter/Traitor,” Target : international journal of translation studies, 2013, Vol.25 (2), p.157-179
Pilar Godayol, “Malintzin/La Malinche/Doña Marina: re-reading the myth of the treacherous translator,” Journal of Iberian and Latin-American studies, 2012-04-01, Vol.18 (1), p.61-76
Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Unframing the “Bad Woman”: Sor Juana, Malinche, Coyolxauhqui and Other Rebels with a Cause (University of Texas Press, 2014)
Camilla Townsend, Malintzin’s Choices, An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico (University of New Mexico Press, 2006)
“Hugo Sánchez atacó a Joserra para defender a Chicharito Hernández,” Futbol Picante “Malinchista” thrown around at 3:04
Destry Maria Sibley, “A Lesson from Mexico: How to Forgive Historical Wrongs to Do Right in the Present,” National Geographic (January 2018)
Clifford Krauss, “After 500 Years, Cortes’s Girlfriend Is Not Forgiven,” New York Times (March 26, 1997)
John Pedroza, “Malinche: A Denial of Mexican Identity – Pedroza Place,” Pedroza Place (November 10, 2019)
 Pilar Godayol, “Malintzin/La Malinche/Doña Marina: re-reading the myth of the treacherous translator,” Journal of Iberian and Latin-American studies, 2012-04-01, Vol.18 (1), p.61-76.
 Camilla Townsend, Malintzin’s Choices, An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico (2006) 29-30.
 Rebecca Jager, Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea: Indian Women As Cultural Intermediaries and National Symbols (University of Oklahoma Press, 2015). 162.
 Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 30.
 Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 31.
 Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 32-33.
 Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 34-35.
 Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 35-36.
 Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 37.
 Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 39.
 Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 40.
 Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 46-47.
 Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 49-50.
 Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 69-71.
 Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 52-54.
 Qtd. in Jager, Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea, 15.
 Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 60.
 Qtd. in Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 119.
 Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 121.
 Qtd. in Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 121-22.
 Qtd. in Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 122-13.
 Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 127.
 Townsend, Maltinzin’s Choices, 129.
 Roberto A Valdeón, “Doña Marina/La Malinche: A Historiographical Approach to the Interpreter/Traitor,” Target : international journal of translation studies, 2013, Vol.25 (2), p.157-179; 158.
 Valdeón, “Doña Marina/La Malinche,” 158.
 Jager, Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea, (University of Oklahoma Press, 2015).
 Jager, Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea, 160-161.
 Jager, Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea, 179.
 Jager, Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea, 179.
 William Prescott, The Conuest of Mexico, qtd. in Jager, Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea, 181.
 Pilar Godayol, “Malintzin/La Malinche/Doña Marina: re-reading the myth of the treacherous translator,” Journal of Iberian and Latin-American studies, 2012-04-01, Vol.18 (1), p.61-76
 Godayol, “Malintzin/La Malinche/Doña Marina,” 70.
 Jager, Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea 202.