LOST IN TRANSLATION

THE STORY OF THE MOST HATED WOMAN IN MEXICO

Aztec, Cortes, MalincheHernan Cortes  was probably one of the greatest of the conquistadores – which is a back handed compliment, it’s like being the best of the Nazis or Suicide Bomber of the Year.

He was a man of ruthless genius, a Christian crusader possessed of unparalleled greed, even for those times – but his achievements were breath-taking.

He conquered what is now Mexico with an army of less than 500 Spaniards, not all of them soldiers and not all of them loyal, while ostensibly on a simple scouting mission from Cuba.

He did not defeat the Aztecs with Spanish force of arms – they were a nation of a million people – but with an astonishing bluff.

He took the pot and the game with nothing in his hand.

https://colinfalconer.wordpress.com/2012/12/28/el-promo-or-how-to-sell-your-book-in-latin-america-and-have-a-blonde-in-a-black-bikini-pin-you-to-a-psychiatrists-couch-on-national-television-2/Through good fortune, steely determination, and the help of a Mexican slave girl he achieved the impossible.

The story of the invasion is one of the great epics of history, a triumph of human endurance and determination.

It was also an unmitigated disaster for the indigenous population and resulted in unimaginable misery for hundreds of thousands of people.

The story of Hernan Cortes is the story of a woman named Malinali.

Guillermo Marín

source: Wolfgang Sauber

Her exact origins are unclear –she was thought to have been a Mayan princess by some – but her place in Mexican history is unparalleled.

Without her, Cortes would have got no further than the beach.

Her name was corrupted by history to Malinche; even today the word malinchista is shouted across the floor of the Mexican parliament as a deadly insult – it means a traitor to the Mexican people.

Yet was she the monster that history make her out to be? 

Aztec, Malinche, CortesThere is only one person who ever knew the truth and that was Malinali Tenepal herself – La Malinche. Both concubine and translator to Cortes, her motives and what she said and how she said it will always be a matter of debate – it is what makes hers such a gripping and intriguing story.

It is not about the battles but the love affair, one of the most extraordinary pairings in all history.

Not everyone in Mexico agrees with me on my interpretation of  Malinali – but then they don’t agree with each other either. As with  all history, there will always be a thousand versions, and no one can ever say which one is the true one.

But what is certain is that in almost every contemporary drawing and painting she is at Cortes’ side, whispering in his ear.

Aztec, Malinche, CortesShe was the only one who ever knew what was being said by both sides, the only one who spoke both Spanish and nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.

She was the only one who could have made the bluff work.

She was also the only one to share Cortes’ bed. Did she love him? No one can say. Did he use her for his own purposes and then cast her aside? Of course he did.

He was only ever interested in gold and glory. 

Aztec, Malinche, CortesFittingly perhaps, Cortes’ life after the conquest was one of frustration and humiliation. History has not been kind to him either.

I spent the better part of an afternoon trying to track him down. I finally found him not far from the Plaza Major in the Church of Jesus Navareno.

He is walled up in a casket by the altar and you have to peer hard to make out the inscription.

That’s how much they think of him now. 

He crumbles to dust in the place where he first met the Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma.

Aztec, Malinche, Colin Falconer

Romanian translation

And Malinali?

No one knows what became of her. It is believed she died an old woman in Spain. Cortes showed his gratitude by marrying her off to someone else.

Her name is still reviled in Mexico.

Foreign authors who dare write her story still get assaulted with man bags (see previous post.)

Aztec, Malinche, Colin Falconer

Turkish edition

But for all that, her tale, and that of the conquistadores, remains one of the most intriguing and tragic sagas in history. She could not have foreseen the terrible cataclysm she unwittingly engineered.

But if you’re ever in Mexico City, don’t quote me on that.

If you do, watch out for man bags.

Aztec, Cortes, Malinali, Colin Falconer

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About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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5 Responses to LOST IN TRANSLATION

  1. rolandclarke says:

    Always fascinated by how Cortes defeated the Aztecs… ever since studying it as special subject for A levels. Don’t think anyone will ever know the whole truth as too tied up with personalities. Thanks for another informative post, Colin, and a must-read book to go with it.

    • Thanks Roland. As you say no one will ever know the real truth – which makes it such an appetizing subject. We can only ever speculate on what was said and what was understood. Montezuma was portrayed differently in every history I ever read on the subject.

  2. filbio says:

    Another cool post. Love reading about these tidbits of history.

  3. Debra Eve says:

    I’ve always been fascinated by her, Colin. That she learned Spanish at all is an amazing achievement. Great post!

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