Malinche and Cortés: When Liberty and Patriotism Conflict

Malinche with Cortés. Source: Jujomx, Wikipedia

Cortés’s Nahua translator Malinche is reviled in Mexico as a traitor. Is this reputation one she deserved? Why should we put patriotism above liberty?

1492 is widely recognized as a pivotal moment in History. That year, Christopher Columbus reached the New World, and thus began Europe’s expansive wave. But that particular event was not as dramatic as another event that happened in 1519: Hernán Cortés’ arrival in the Yucatan Peninsula, and the beginning of his adventure to conquer Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire at the heart of Mexico. 1992 was an occasion to revisit the meaning of Columbus’ voyage after 500 years. 2019 should now be an occasion to revisit Cortés’ deeds, and most especially, his relationship to Malinche.

Historians dispute, exactly, a force of no more than 200 conquistadors managed to defeat a mighty empire with tens of thousands of soldiers. It is now increasingly recognized that germs were a huge factor: the Aztecs were not immunized against pathogens brought about by the Spaniards, and by 1520, a major smallpox epidemic struck Tenochtitlan, thus speeding up the collapse of the Aztec empire.

Yet the epidemic was the final blow, but not the initial strike that began to break the back of the Aztec empire. Even with the advantage of germs, in order to accomplish their mission, the Spaniards required a military advantage. How, then, did they achieve it? The usual answer is that the Spaniards had superior military technology, and conducted a more savage type of warfare. But, over the last few decades, this theory has been questioned. The Aztecs had their own variant of military technology, and were as fierce in warfare as their European enemies.

In a famous book, cultural critic Tzevetan Todorov argued that Cortés’ real advantage was his interpretative ability1. He managed to understand Aztecs far better than the Aztecs were able to understand the European invaders. And thus, Cortés learned about the myth of Quetzalcoatl’s return and used it to his advantage, persuading the Aztecs that he, Cortés, was a personification of that god, and it was futile to resist him. More importantly, Cortés soon realized that the Aztecs were extremely despotic. He thus had little difficulty persuading other native tribes in joining him to overthrow Aztec rule.

In this process of communicating with local tribes, Malinche’s role was crucial. She originally belonged to a Nahutal-speaking tribe, but was sold as a slave to a Maya-speaking tribe. When Cortés arrived in 1519, he had some initial skirmishes with Mayan tribes, and as part of a truce with one of those tribes, he was offered Malinche (along with 19 other girls) as war tribute. Although she was never formally emancipated by Cortés, it appears that she ceased to be a slave. The Spaniards always referred to her as “Doña Marina” an honorific title that would have never been used with a slave, but instead, had aristocratic connotations. Cortés had a son with her, Martin
Cortés (symbolically, he is considered Mexico’s first mestizo). Malinche eventually learned Spanish, and because she already knew Maya and Nahuatl, she was instrumental in facilitating Cortés’ negotiations with local chiefs.

As Mexico emerged as an independent republic in the 1820s, Malinche became a much-hated figure. To proud nationalist Mexicans, Malinche represented the betrayal of one’s own people. In a sense, her role was analogous to Uncle Tom in the African American community: a self-hating collaborator with the oppressors. Octavio Paz wrote a famous essay in which he analyzed the meaning of the very popular expression “hijos de la chingada” (children of the raped woman) in Mexico2; this chingada is none other than Malinche, and in Mexican (and more generally, Latin American) idiosyncrasy, she represents the dishonor of being a sell-out to foreign domination. As Mexico went through new rounds of confrontations with major imperial powers in the 19th and 20th Centuries (i.e. France and the United States), this interpretation of Malinche was further reinforced, and amongst many Latin Americans (most especially those on the nationalist Left), this judgment of Malinche is standard.

This image of Malinche also neatly fits with Latin American machismo: after all, in this narrative, she is a femme fatale whose sexual exploits brought shame on her people. Not surprisingly, Latin American feminists in the last few decades have been calling out the way proud nationalists indulge in the slut-shaming of Malinche.

The 500th anniversary of her encounter with Cortés should be occasion for some revisionism. It is absolutely true that some dishonor permeated Malinche’s relationship with Cortés (although, again, she was not his slave), and this was a microcosmos of European-native relations for the next five hundred years in Latin America. Cortés refused to take Malinche as his legitimate wife, and their son was taken away from her, perhaps under the racist assumption that natives were not up to task in raising children with Spanish blood. But Malinche still deserves a defense.

Let us recall that originally she was a slave, and that her oppressors, the Aztecs, were a brutally violent civilization. These days we rarely hear the gruesome stories of human sacrifice in Tenochtitlan and the so-called Flower Wars, carried out by Aztecs to collect victims for the ritual sacrifices (an estimate of 20,000 victims were sacrificed each year), but those facts are unavoidable3. Malinche, as most of the natives that joined Cortés’ coalition, saw in the Spaniards a possibility for liberation.

Did Cortes truly bring liberation? The Spaniards were ruthless in their conquest, and once they seized power, they imposed a very despotic system of domination. But, given the even greater viciousness of the Aztecs, it still debatable whether or not the Spaniards were liberators in some sense. Be that as it may, what is clear is that, in her desperate situation as a slave and as someone subject to the plight of horrible Aztec oppression, Malinche did what any reasonable person would have done. She betrayed no one. More than Uncle Tom, Malinche resembles a Southern black slave who in the 1860s would have collaborated with Union soldiers because he saw them as liberators, even if later on, those yankee soldiers became very despotic in their treatment of the South. Would such a slave have been a traitor to the South? Of course not.

For proud Latin American nationalists, Malinche stands as the symbol of betrayal. For me, she actually represents the understanding that, contrary to doctrinaire nationalism, some other values are more important than loyalty to the nation. Stephen Decatur is reported to have said, “My country, right or wrong!”4. Malinche would have said something along the lines of “My freedom is more important than my country”. I cannot help but side with Malinche.

Ever since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, Western nations have come to embrace the principle of sovereignty: no nation shall interfere in the internal affairs of other nations. Had it been in effect in 1519, this would have entailed that regardless of how brutal Aztec oppression was, liberation could only come from within the Aztec nation itself. Given the constant imperialist interventions of the United States in the region throughout the 20th Century, most Latin Americans have also come to be strong adherents of this principle. In their view, no matter how bad the conditions of a Latin country may be, only the citizens of that country are entitled to work it out. Foreigners must never step in.

But already in the 16th Century, in the aftermath of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, some philosophers were considering that, in times of severe crises, foreign nations can indeed step in. Francisco de Vitoria, for example, provided good arguments to explain that, under some conditions (which in practice, were never met), the Spaniards could have intervened in Mexico to eradicate human sacrifice and other atrocities committed by the Aztecs5. Malinche would have agreed.

Vitoria’s ideas are now making a comeback, under the principle of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P)6. Basically, this principle states that to save populations from extreme oppression, humanitarian interventions can override considerations of national sovereignty. The fact that these ideas are being taken more seriously now, I believe, is a revindication of Malinche.

And I also believe that this has important implications for the most dramatic humanitarian crisis currently taking place in Latin America. Second to Syria, Venezuela is the greatest exporter of refugees in the world7. This is because an oppressive and extremely corrupt regime has taken the country on a path of self-destruction. Malnutrition, crime, illness and desperation abound in that South American nation.

Recently there has been much talk about a possible American intervention. Although most Venezuelans seem to reject a foreign intervention8, it does seem that it would have more local support than the American interventions in say, Afghanistan or Iraq. Some of the most oppressed people in that country do see Donald Trump as their possible liberator. Regardless of what you think about an American intervention in Venezuela (I for one would not support it, as it would get very messy), it would be extremely insensitive to disregard the desperate Venezuelans who ask for foreign powers to intervene, as traitors. They, very much as Malinche, are doing what most of us would do in their unfortunate situation. Let us be more respectful and less judgmental of them, and let us revendicate Malinche after 500 years of unfair slandering.

1 https://www.amazon.com/Conquest-America-Question-Other/dp/0806131373

2 https://www.amazon.com/Labyrinth-Solitude-Mexico-Return-Philanthropic/dp/080215042X

3 https://www.historyonthenet.com/aztec-culture-how-many-were-killed-as-human-sacrifices

4 https://www.thoughtco.com/my-country-right-or-wrong-2831839

5 https://www.e-ir.info/2009/09/24/francisco-de-vitoria-and-on-the-american-indians-a-modern-contribution-to-international-relations/

6 https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/humanitarian-intervention-0

7 https://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2018/11/5be4192b4/number-refugees-migrants-venezuela-reaches-3-million.html

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