Malinalli; Malintzin; Doña Marina

La Malinche (born circa 1500), the native woman who was Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes’ mistress and interpreter, remains incredibly controversial. Is she a goddess or a whore? An unwilling accomplice, a traitor, a collaborator or an avenging angel? Impassioned arguments are made for all those possibilities and interpretations.

La Malinche is shrouded in mystery. Even her real name is subject to speculation. Malinche may be a Spanish corruption of Malintzin, the affectionate diminutive for Malinalli, which is generally believed to be her name, if only because it resembles Marina, the name by which the Spanish called her. Virtually no documented information regarding this woman survives. Whatever does exist derives solely from Spanish sources. Although La Malinche translated for others, her own voice is silent. She is an ephemeral, if powerful, presence. It is difficult to know what to call her. The names Malintzin and Malinalli are used within this encyclopedia to refer to her prior to her encounter with Cortes and her transformation into Doña Marina and the infamous Malinche.

She was probably born near Coatza coalcos (“the place of the snake”), now part of Veracruz but then on the frontier between Aztec and Mayan territories. Her father was reputedly a local ruler. When she was a child, her family sold or gave her to Mayan slave traders. (Why this occurred is subject to speculation. Spanish chronicler Bernal Diaz who knew her personally wrote that her mother sold her to ensure that a favoured brother would inherit what was rightfully Malintzin’s. A young slave was murdered and passed off as Malintzin; a funeral was held so that no one would search for the princess.)

La Malinche may be the restless spirit (or one of them) who roams the night as La Llorona. Although elsewhere her name is synonymous with “traitor”, in Mayan regions, she is venerated as a goddess, sometimes alongside Guatemalan deity Maximon.

In 1519, the Chontal Maya gave Cortes a gift of twenty women including Malintzin. He insisted on baptizing them. She was renamed Marina, possibly because it resembles Malinalli. (If you switch the r in Marina to an l, the names are almost identical.) She was originally assigned to Alonso Hernando Puertocarrero, technically the most noble of the Spanish party, but Cortes eventually took her for himself. She was Cortes’ interpreter, counselor, consort, and mother of his son, Martin. Malinche/Marina, who spoke Nahuatl and Mayan languages and quickly learned Spanish, played a crucial role in the conquest. Cortes allegedly said that after God, she was the primary reason for his victory.

Cortes is described as communicating with various Aztec leaders including Emperor Moctezuma but, in fact, the Aztecs spoke to Malinche, who conveyed their meaning to Cortes. The Aztecs had an extremely hierarchical society, especially in terms of who could address whom. By no means was it acceptable for a female slave from the hinterlands to address the emperor. Whether Cortes was aware of this (and he may have been), Malinche was surely aware of her subversive role.

The Spanish referred to her with respect, calling her Doña Marina (Lady Mar ina). She is the only woman among the twenty whose name was recorded. The Aztecs were very conscious of her power, too, but not in a good way. Whether or not the Aztecs really thought that Cortes was a returning god (this may be Spanish fantasy), Malinalli was perceived as an avatar of their nemesis, the return of the goddess Malinal xochitl.

When Moctezuma’s successor, Emperor Cuauhtémoc surrendered on 13 August 1521, he addressed Cortes as the equivalent of “Mr. Malinche”. Whether this was intended to slight Cortes or because he truly perceived Malinche as the dominant power is now subject to speculation.

The resemblance is greater than their names. Legend says that the beautiful teenage Malinalxochitl was abandoned for talking too much. Beautiful, youthful Malinche talked a lot, too, sabotaging Aztec resistance by revealing plans to attack the Spanish army. Malinche became the lightning rod for Aztec rage against the conquistadors. Perceived as a willing collaborator, not a slave, Malinche became symbolic of betrayal to foreign interests:

• Malinchismo is a modern Mexican term that indicates betrayal.

• A Malinchista is a traitor to one’s own people, a lover of foreigners.

Of course, she was not one of them. Instead, Malinche was among the most marginalized members of their society, a slave who must have learned from a very young age to protect herself. Her romantic relationship with Cortes eventually ended and she was married to another. Malinche, as the mother of Martin Cortes (born 1522), is frequently described as the mother of the first mestizo, those of mixed indigenous Mexican and European ancestry. She may have had other children, too: when the Spanish first received Malinche, she was accompanied by a small girl who is presumed to be her daughter. (Malinche kept the little girl close and personally cared for her.) She may also have had one or more children with her husband. Malinche may be venerated as an ancestral spirit.

The mysteries continue: how, when, and where Malinche died is unknown. She disappears from history after March 1528. Rumors suggest that she was killed by her husband, Juan Xaramillo, her body dumped in Mexico City’s canals. This is possibly the basis for her identification with La Llorona. If, however, she was truly an avatar of Malinalxochitl, then maybe she never died.

Malinche is identified with Mary Magdalen. (This is intended as an insult, implying that she was a prostitute.) So-called Malinche Dances were once held throughout Mexico, usually coordinated with the feast of Mary Magdalen. Some dances portray her as a villain, others as a prophetess who tells Moctezuma’s future.

La Malinche is a spirit of empowerment, of refusing to be devalued—a goddess of the marginalized and angry. Invoke her when survival is in doubt. She is the subject of many paintings, books, and films:

• José Clemente Orozco’s painting Cortes and Malinche depicts them as Adam and Eve.

• She is the only woman in Diego Rivera’s mural La Historia de México.

• Anna Lanyon’s Malinche’s Conquest (Allen & Unwin, 1999) describes the author’s quest for the true Malinche.


Translators, interpreters, slaves, the defamed, those who must please others in order to preserve their own safety


Described as very beautiful; Bernal Diaz said she had “manly valor.”


Although she was an Indian woman, traditional Mexican dance masks portray her as a blond European with gold-capped teeth. In artist Jesus Helguera’s famed calendar print, she rides romantically cradled in Cortes’ arms. Because she sits before him on his horse, technically she leads the armed conquistadors who follow them. The tarot card for the Wheel of Fortune may be used to represent her.

Date: 22 July, coinciding with the feast of Mary Magdalen

Sacred site:

La Malinche, an inactive volcano in Mexico, is named in her honor.


Llorona, La; Malinalxochitl; Mary Magdalen; Maximon; Quetzalcoatl and the Glossary entries for Avatar and Identification


Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by : Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.