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La Malinche was a young linguist forced to serve the Spanish conquerors


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Alfredo Ramos Martinez; La Malinche (Young Girl of Yalala, Oaxaca); c. 1940; oil, canvas; Framed: 1 3/4 x 52 1/4 x 42 1/2 in. (4.4 x 132.7 x 108 cm) 50 x 40 3/8 in. (127 x 102.6 cm); Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, museum purchase with funds provided by the Friends of Mexican Art


A young Indigenous woman known as La Malinche played a central role in communicating between the Spanish and Indigenous populations of Mexico 500 years ago. The teenager had been gifted to Hernán Cortés, and she translated negotiations and conflicts between him and Aztec Emperor Montezuma. She is remembered as a survivor and sometimes as a traitor for aiding the Spanish conquerors, but always as a woman with valued linguistic skills.

La Malinche is the centerpiece of festivals

It’s a blustery day in the village of San Isidro de Sedillo, a cluster of adobe houses around a church in the mountains east of Albuquerque. Dozens of people are pulling on their beaded suit jackets decorated with the Virgin of Guadalupe. They wear tall hats with fringe covering their eyes, preparing for the Matachines dance which represents the introduction of Catholicism to Indigenous populations. Leading the procession is a young girl dressed in white with a veil.

“The easiest part is when you put one foot in front of the other. I missed a couple steps, but I’m pretty good,” said nine-year-old Jasmine Trujillo, who has played La Malinche six times in her village, taking over from her sister who outgrew the role.

As in most New Mexican villages, here La Malinche is a symbol of purity, the connection of Indigenous peoples to the Catholic faith brought by the Spanish. But in other villages including in Mexico, she is represented as a traitor. Theodore Chavez is the lead Matachines dancer called a Monarca.

“Here she just represents goodness. She’s the goodness of the play and the goodness of the dance,” Chavez says.

Exploring her complex legacy

La Malinche was a young Indigenous woman given to the Spanish conquistador Cortés as a slave along with 18 other women. She was a linguist, who facilitated negotiations between the Spanish and Indigenous populations. Her controversial legacy inspired an array of images that are now the focus of the art exhibition Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche at the Albuquerque Museum, where Josie Lopez is head curator.

“At the end of the day, she was an enslaved Indigenous woman. And she was forced into a situation that she had to negotiate,” says Lopez. “The legacy of La Malinche is really a fascinating history story narrative. And you will see all of those iterations of storytelling developed in the exhibition.”

The art works were last in Denver. Lopez and other Chicana curators created the traveling exhibit to examine La Malinche’s symbolic importance and her relevance to women today.

“I think Malinche also has come to embody an important element of how we think about the roles of women in Latino culture, and how women have had to take on these various identities, everything from traitor to survivor to icon, to really negotiate the worlds that we have to live in and transfer between in our lives,” she said.

Delilah Montoya, a Chicana artist with multiple pieces in the exhibit, says that although this young woman was enslaved, historical accounts show she helped bring together two powerful nations.

“We’re talking about a teenager having to take on this amazing, tremendous responsibility. We don’t know what she felt about being Cortés’ tongue. We don’t know when she died. But what we do know is that she survived. And along with her other people survived,” said Montoya. “We also know that the Native American people, the First Nation, revered her. We do know that because the way in which she’s presented in the codices, she’s presented as somebody that’s just a little bit taller. She’s always there. I think they understood how important she was. Two powerful worlds came together in her mind first.”

Although La Malinche was revered in some Indigenous records, Montoya points out that the Spanish may not have seen her in that light, even as she navigated several languages.

“I mean, they didn’t even know for sure what she was translating. For all they know, she was saying something completely different than what it is that they wanted her to say. … I mean, here was a language, the Spanish language that nobody ever heard before. And she had to figure it out. And there were other languages that she figured out,” she says. “She was this amazing person who was able to feel these other cultures.”

One of Montoya’s pieces in the exhibit is a codex, a wide paper panel painted with scenes of the evolution of women throughout 500 years of Spanish occupation in Mexico and New Mexico. It includes women important to Chicano history such as the Virgin of Guadalupe and ends with a Chicana activist. Montoya says she was inspired by the women in her family who have always been active in their community, yet historically women’s contributions were rarely recorded. Her codex aims to change that.

The exhibit includes a wide variety of works incorporating La Malinche, from photographs to traditional wood altars.

Reflection on descendants in the same communities

Lopez says it also seeks to clarify the true nature of the state of New Mexico, going beyond the idea that Anglo, Hispanic and Indigenous communities lived peacefully alongside one another for centuries.

“We know that’s a mythology. It was a very violent history that brought many of those cultures together here in New Mexico, at the same time, where we are trying through exhibitions like this to do the work of acknowledging the violence that happened upon the intersections of those cultures,” says Lopez. “We’re also trying to pivot toward a sense of healing and a sense of understanding of how are there intersections between our indigenous and Chicano cultures.”

She says the inclusion of the Matachines dancers in the Albuquerque iteration of the exhibit is one example of those intersections.

“Those rituals still exist today, in both of those communities,” she said.

The interpretation of the dance and La Malinche varies among communities. For Jasmine Trujillo, who has played La Malinche in San Isidro de Sedillo most of her life, her reasons for dedicating herself to the role are rooted in her Catholic faith:

“Because I love Jesus so much and I want to dance for him.”

Jasmine and other successors of La Malinche are evolving their complex roles in the celebrations and in their communities.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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