Browse around Mexico’s museums and souvenir shops and chances are you’ll come across paintings depicting the historic meeting of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II in 1519. Look close, and you’ll likely spot a third main character in the paintings — a beautiful, dark-haired indigenous woman.
The invaders called her La Malinche — meaning something like “the captain’s woman” — but her name was really Malinalli. Born around 1500, she originally lived in an Aztec territory of eastern Mexico, perhaps in what’s now the state of Veracruz. There, people spoke Nahuatl, the common language of the seven Aztec tribes.
After her father died, legends say, Malinalli’s mother remarried and her new stepfather later sold her to some passing traders. She was eventually resold to a Maya tribe down the coast in the modern-day state of Tabasco, where she learned to speak their language.
(The two different languages are important to the story, as is Tabasco. More about this later.)
From there, the legend jumps to 1519 and the start of the conquest. It began when Hernán Cortés and his fleet of 12 ships left their home port in Cuba to explore the riches of Mexico’s nearby Yucatan Peninsula. The Spaniards first showed up on the offshore Mayan island of Cozumel, which turned out to have few riches. But they were able to free a shipwrecked Spanish priest who’d been held captive by the Maya.
(The shipwrecked priest has a big part in the story, too. Read on.)
Next, Cortés sailed around the tip of the Yucatan to a spot in the Maya territory of Tabasco he’d heard was loaded with gold and silver. But when the Spaniards got there, the only thing they found was an army of Tabascans — who greeted the invaders with showers of arrows and spears.
After slugging it out for a few days, the conquistadors made friends with the local folks. They exchanged gifts to seal the deal. Cortés gave his ex-enemies a sack of pretty green and blue beads and a large cross (fashioned from one of the Maya’s sacred ceiba trees). They gave Cortes a dozen or so hens, baskets of fruit and 20 female slaves.
(A heads up: One of the slaves was Malinalli.)
Perhaps trying to get rid of Cortés, the Tabascans told him he’d find a golden bonanza in a city way up the coast in the land of the Aztec. So off the fleet went to the rich city (now Veracruz) carrying Cortés, the ships’ crews, 508 troopers armed to the teeth, 16 war horses, a pack of attack dogs, the freed priest and the 20 slaves.
Along the way, Cortés figured out how to communicate with the Nahuatl-speaking Aztec. First, he learned the priest, Gerónimo de Aguilar, had picked up the Mayan language while he was in captivity. Then, someone told Cortés about Malinalli, who not only spoke Mayan but also Nahuatl, her original language. Promoted from slave to interpreter, she was given the Christian name, Marina.
When they landed at Veracruz, Cortés ran across a group of Aztec who’d come from their capital city of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) to collect taxes from the local Totonaca. They communicated like this: The tax men first talked to Marina in Nahuatl, then she told Gerónimo what they said in Mayan, and then Gerónimo passed this along to Cortés in Spanish.
(Here the plot thickens. Marina, it seems, held a grudge against the Aztec, remembering that they’d sold her into slavery. So, as the tale goes, she kind of let it slip that the Aztec tax collectors had mentioned something about golden temples in Tenochtitlán.)
The next part of the story is right out of the 1947 hit movie, “Captain From Castile,” in which Cortés (played by Cesar Romero) moves his army inland on a 280-mile march to the capital. In the picture, emissaries from Moctezuma show up along the way to tell Cortés there was nothing worth looting in Tenochtitlán, so he might as well go back to Veracruz. Of course, the messages were delivered to Marina (played by the famous Mexican actress Estela Inda), who may not have translated them completely accurately.
Cortés moved forward with visions of a golden Shangri-La in the Mexican highlands.
(After awhile, Marina learned Spanish, thus freeing Gerónimo to go back to saving souls.)
One can only wonder what Cortés really said to Moctezuma (by way of Marina), and what Moctezuma told Cortés (again, translated by Marina), when the two leaders finally met on the outskirts of Tenochtitlán. In any event, Moctezuma, somehow believing Cortés was the long-lost great god of the Aztec, handed over the city without much of a fight.
There was a fight for Tenochtitlán later on, which the Spaniards won. The Aztec Empire was officially conquered a few years later. The Maya held out for another 170 years.
Cortés was rewarded for the conquest by King Charles of Spain, who named him governor, captain general and chief justice of what became known as New Spain. He lost the titles later on in political coups.
(And how was Marina rewarded for her contributions? Cortés named a volcano after her, built a house for her in a suburb of Tenochtitlán and fathered a baby with her. Cortés, who was married, arranged for Marina to tie the knot with one of his soldiers. She was last known as Señora Juan Caramillo.)
Souvenirs with the paintings of Cortés and La Malinche on them are mostly bought by foreign tourists, because La Malinche is generally reviled as a traitor by Mexicans, akin to America’s Benedict Arnold. Still, others believe she was a heroine who helped free Mexico from its bloodthirsty rulers and who aided Cortés in bringing Christianity to the country.
Just outside Veracruz is the historic settlement of La Antigua. It was built by Cortés right after he landed there in 1519 and was originally called La Villa Rica de Vera Cruz (The Rich City of the True Cross). Among crumbling buildings in the settlement is the first Spanish church in Mexico and what’s left of a vine-covered, thick-walled house where Cortés and La Malinche lived before they set off on the conquest.
Laura Esquivel, author of the New York Times best seller, “Like Water for Chocolate,” later wrote “Malinche,” one of a number of novels about Cortés’ interpreter/girlfriend. You can also read about the conquest of Mexico in a book by one of the conquistadors, Bernal Díaz del Castillo. The title of his book is “The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico.”