THE STORY OF THE MOST HATED WOMAN IN MEXICO
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.
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.
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?
There 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.