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The Conqueror and the Concubine

September 04th, 2012

The Conqueror and the Concubine: How the most influential woman in North American history translated her way to the top

The Spanish conquest of the New World casts shadows on the lives of all the contemporary characters in Amanda Hale’s The Reddening Path (Thistledown), more about the story of a Guatemalan adoptee, try raised in Toronto, sales who returns to Guatemala to search for her Mayan birth mother.

In particular, Hale has re-imagined the love affair between the Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortéz and his indigenous translator and concubine, Malinche. The resourceful Malinche learned Spanish, became Cortéz’s mistress, enabled him to overcome Montezuma and bore him a son named Martin. To this day, the derogatory word malinchista is used by Mexicans to describe someone who unduly apes the language and customs of another country. The essay that follows is a review of The Reddening Path that originally appeared in the Summer 2007 issue.

To appreciate the life story of Malinche, it’s necessary to revisit the year 1511 when Diego Velázquez was sent from Hispaniola to conquer and explore Cuba. He brought along an ambitious young secretary, Hernan Cortéz, who became the first mayor of Cuba’s second largest city, Santiago de Cuba, on the eastern end of the island.

Charming and well-educated, Cortéz was also untrustworthy. At age 34, having jilted a Spanish noblewoman and upset Governor Velázquez, he hurriedly sailed from eastern Cuba for the Mexican mainland in 1519, eager for riches. With 508 soldiers, plus about 100 sailors, Cortéz easily overcame some coastal Indians at Tabasco. They had never seen horses before and initially thought a man on a horse was a single beast.

A truce was arranged on March 27, 1519. Defeated chiefs in the Tabasco area brought Cortéz gold, food and 20 female slaves. Among these ‘cooks’ was a 16-year-old woman who spoke the local dialect, as well as the Nahuatl language of the much-despised Aztecs who occupied the interior of Mexico. Evidently high-born by virtue of her intelligence and bearing, she was christened Doña Marina.

It wouldn’t do to have sex with an infidel.

Cortéz initially gave this unusual woman to his close friend, Alonzo Hernández Puertocarrero, but when it soon became apparent Marina could be extremely useful for his expedition—and she was beautiful in the bargain— Cortéz conveniently sent Puertocarrero to deliver an update on his success to King Carlos V in Spain, thereby making it easy for him to keep Marina for his own purposes.

Also in Cortéz’s entourage was a previously shipwrecked Spanish priest named Aguilar who could translate between Spanish and the local dialect.

With the help of the Spanish priest, Marina’s background became clear. She was the daughter of a Nahuatal nobleman or cacique, meaning chieftain. She had been sold into slavery by her mother after her father’s death. Marina’s mother had wanted to ensure her son from a second marriage would gain ascendancy.

A foot soldier with Cortéz, Bernal Díaz, described Marina as “good looking and intelligent and without embarrassment.”

She was “a cacica with towns and vassals” and she learned Spanish quickly. Doña Marina soon became indispensable to Cortéz as his translator and constant companion. Without her, a contingent of 1,300 Spaniards and Indians could never have defeated the Aztec empire.

To her own people, Marina would forever be known as La Malinche, meaning betrayer.

THE MAN WHO WOULD BE QUETZALCOATL

Continuing further west, Cortéz established a settlement called Vera Cruz, not far from present-day Veracruz, where he learned of an enormous inland city, Tenochtitlán, on the site of present-day Mexico City.

At Vera Cruz, Cortéz also first learned about the Aztec emperor, Montezuma II, who was represented by Teudilli of Quintaluor. When the explorer learned about Montezuma’s magnificent inland city of Tenochtitlán (Cortéz called it Temixtitlan—now it’s Mexico City), he burned some of his own ships to prevent his men from turning back and informing Cuba’s Governor Velázquez of his plans.

The Aztecs were a nomadic civilization that had migrated from western Mexico to the valley of Mexico during the 14th century, supplanting the Toltecs. As luck had it for Cortéz, the Aztecs were anticipating the return of their ancient Feathered Serpent god, Quetzalcoatl, from the east. Bringing gifts of gold to Vera Cruz, the Aztec delegations wanted to know if the strange and powerful visitors were gods or mortals.

With essential assistance from Marina, Cortéz was able to take advantage of the situation and pretend to represent their prodigal god. Quetzalcoatl was from the city of Tula, north of Tenochtitlán, formerly the seat of power for the Toltecs who had dominated Mesoamerica from 850 A.D. to 1200 A.D.
When the Aztecs, or Mexicas, replaced the Toltecs in the Valley of Mexico, Aztec rulers had taken the name of Quetzalcoatl. The god had deserted the people and became known as Kukulcan among the Maya.

When the emissaries for Montezuma asked if this strange, helmeted man with the floating houses could be Quetzalcoatl, Hernan Cortéz— much like Sean Connery in the movie The Man Who Would Be King—wasn’t about to disappoint. With the help of Marina, he did little to disabuse them of this notion. To this end, Cortéz encouraged Indian suspicions that his men were immortal by burying his dead quickly. He also pretended to talk to his horse, as if his horses were rational creatures, like men.

Whereas the Aztecs had only seen Chihuahuas, the Spanish had ferocious attack dogs. Armed with crossbows and arquebuses (Spanish muskets), escorted by a dozen cavalry the Spaniards overwhelmed and formed an alliance with the fearsome Tlaxcalan Indians nearthe coast, enemies of the Aztecs.

While on the coast, Marina infiltrated the local people and learned from an elderly woman that the Aztecs were planning a surprise attack. The woman’s husband was a Tlaxcalan captain who had received gifts from Montezuma II to encourage the ambush. Cortéz was able to launch a preemptive attack in Cholula, close to present day Puebla, killing 3,000 Cholulans and sending the Aztecs fleeing back to Montezuma.

The foot soldier Díaz praised Marina for helping to spare them from the Axtec priests who were known to cut open captives’ chests, sawing through the breastbone with an obsidian knife, then ripping out still-beating hearts.

According to Díaz, Marina “possessed such manly valour that, although she had heard every day how the Indians were going to kill us and eat our flesh with chilli, and had seen us surrounded in the late battles, and knew that all of us were wounded and sick, yet [she] never allowed us to see any sign of fear in her, only a courage passing that of a woman.”

The Tlaxcalans marched with Cortéz into the magnificent Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (‘the place where men become gods’) on November 8, 1519. They crossed Lake Texcoco on a “broad causeway running straight and level.”

TAKING TENOCHTITLAN

Cortéz and his men were overwhelmed by the size and richness of the Aztec capital with its 250- foot Pyramid of the Sun. Tenochtitlán had been developed over centuries by various peoples from approximately 150 B.C. to 750 A.D. Some five hundred years after its builders had disappeared from the site, the Aztecs arrived to possess it. By 250 A.D. it had spread to include nine square miles; by 450 A.D. it was possibly the largest city in the world. It has been estimated the city had a population of 300,000 in 60,000 dwellings amid floating gardens.

Presents were exchanged but tensions grew after two Spanish envoys were killed. Surrounded by thousands of Aztecs, Cortéz famously seized Montezuma II as his hostage. It was an impasse worthy of a Hollywood thriller. Montezuma II offered bribes to Marina if she would forfeit her allegiance to Cortéz. Marina wasn’t dissuaded. Montezuma II was ninth in a succession of powerful Aztec caciques; he had been in power for 18 years—longer than Marina had been alive—but Marina somehow managed the negotiations between the two powerful men.

The Aztecs numbered 20,000 but by seizing their leader, Cortéz dealt them a psychological blow. Cortéz’s distant relation, Francisco Pizarro, would adopt the same manoeuvre when he treacherously took the Inca leader Atahualpa hostage in 1532, defeating thousands of Incas with only 168 Spaniards.

Back in Cuba, Velázquez was determined to bring Cortéz to trial. When Cortéz learned that Velázquez was sending an 18-ship expedition with 900 soldiers under Panfilo de Narvaez to capture him, he decided to leave his lieutenant Alvarado and only 140 men, setting off to surprise the Spaniards with only 260 men of his own, taking Malinche with him to serve as his translator.

The surprise attack worked. Cortéz co-opted much of the Spanish forces and hastened back to Tenochtitlán where the Aztecs had rebelled against Alvarado. Back at Tenochtitlán, Cortéz asked Montezuma II to quell growing unrest among the Aztecs. As in The Man Who Would Be King, Cortéz never understood that a tribal council of Aztec priests actually held sway, guided by oracles. When Cortéz ordered Montezuma II to appear in public, the crowd hurled stones. One rock hit the emperor. Montezuma died three days later.

The Aztecs drove the Spanish out of the city on June 30, 1520. Aztecs attacked from canoes on both sides of the causeway as the Spanish fled. Cortéz was almost captured in the confusion. At the ensuing Battle of Otumba, he lost 860 men. He lost 72 more men at Tustepec while retreating to his allied city of Tlaxcala. Once again he was fortunate. An outbreak of smallpox, brought by his men, decimated the Aztec population. Cortéz reorganized that summer, incorporating equipment and reinforcements from Vera Cruz, and laid siege to the Aztec capital once more.

On August 13, 1521, the new emperor named Cuauhtemoc was captured. Entering the city Cortéz found it in ruins “like some huge churchyard with the corpses disinterred, and the tombstones scattered about.” Famine and smallpox had been more lethal than guns. Cortéz began building the Aztec capital that would become the world’s most populated city. This marked the onset of Mexico’s 300-year colonial history, ending in 1821.

ONE TOO MANY MARTINS

In 1522, Cortéz’s his first wife arrived unbidden from Cuba. She died almost overnight, inexplicably. This didn’t help Cortéz’s already notorious reputation. Velázquez was conspiring against the disobedient and ungrateful Cortéz in court, charging Cortéz with failure to remit the quito, one-fifth of the booty required for the king. Cortéz returned to face these charges in Madrid and was exonerated. Cortéz was named governor, captain-general and chief justice of New Spain by King Carlos V in 1523.

During the conquest, Marina bore Cortéz a son named Martín. After Cortéz’s second Spanish wife also bore him a son named Martín, the Mestizo (mixed blood) Martín became like a servant for his fully Spanish half-brother. When they were both arrested for plotting against the Spanish crown, the younger Martín was spared; the Mestizo Martín was tortured.

In 1524, having conquered Mexico, Hernan Cortéz learned Cristobal de Olid had proclaimed the independence of Spanish Honduras. To remove this upstart official, Cortéz began a gruelling, fantastical overland trek towards Spanish Honduras that ranks with Hannibal’s journey over the Alps. Departing from Vera Cruz on the Mexican coast, he marched in a straight line towards Trujillo on the east coast of Central America, torturing and hanging Cuauhtemoc along the way, having become obsessed with the notion that somehow Cuauhtemoc was planning a revolt.

This entrada of about 140 soldiers and several thousand Indians had to traverse high mountains and dense jungles. While slashing his way through uncharted territory, Hernan Cortéz would have passed through the southwest corner of Belize, making them the first Europeans to set eyes on Belize from the east. Order was easily restored in Honduras in 1525. (Cortéz once said it was more difficult contending with his own countrymen than fighting against the Aztecs.)

Several attempts by Cortéz to return to Mexico by sea ended in shipwrecks. Becoming despondent, Cortéz began dressing in the black robes of a Dominican monk, issuing morose premonitions of his own death. He returned by sea to Mexico, via Cuba, thereby encircling Belize. In 1526 he was relieved of his command in Mexico City by Ponce de León, who died of fever after only twenty days in office. His successor died after two months. Once more, sudden deaths did little to enhance Cortéz’s reputation.

While remaining in control of Mexico from 1530 to 1541, he argued with Don Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy of New Spain, about who had the right to explore and annex California. Cortéz consolidated and expanded his domain by exploring Guatemala, Honduras, Baja
California and the Pacific Coast, but like Columbus he would ultimately feel inadequately rewarded.

Cortéz was given the royal run-around for three years when he was debt-ridden and needed to make a claim on the royal treasury. His authority gradually eroded and his reputation especially waned after his participation in the unsuccessful 1541 Spanish expedition against Algiers. He became known as a chronic complainant. Accused of murdering his first wife (he strangled her but the Spanish government opted not to declare him innocent or guilty), Cortéz was also long suspected of murdering a Spanish envoy in 1526.

While attempting to return to Mexico, Cortéz was stricken with dysentery in Seville and died there on December 2, 1547. His remains were brought back to Mexico City and interred within the walls of a chapel behind the Hospital de Jesús, one of the many hospitals he founded.

As for Marina, the translator, she traveled with Cortéz on his trek into Honduras, via Belize, to Trujillo, during which she re-united with her mother and half-brother, supposedly forgiving them. It’s possible Marina was originally from the Belize/Honduras area, a Mayan descendent, but most researchers suggest she was from Paynala, the Gulf region of Coatzacoalcos, near the Tehuantepec isthmus, in which case her native tongue was Popoluca.

Having married Spanish soldier Juan Jaramillo, she settled in the province of Nogales. Cortéz gave the couple an estate 50 miles north of Mexico City, and also gave her land on the Gulf, in her homeland, so that she might return there to die. Although Cortéz has long been vilified by Latin historians and artists, it’s clear he was not merely a brutal character.

Marina had at least one other child, Fernando Gómez de Orosco y Figueroa, born in Tlzapan, who died nine years later. In Amanda Hale’s novel, Marina gives birth to a daughter. It is believed Marina died at a relatively young age, around 1530, but where and when remains unknown.

In his letters to King Carlos V, Cortéz mentions Marina only twice, he refers to her as “my interpreter, who is an Indian woman” in the second and mentions her name in the fifth.

In The Reddening Path, Hale has sympathetically re-examined Malinche’s life as a distant mirror for the complex bi-cultural path that her heroine Pamela is required to walk. In the process, she recasts Malinche as easily one of most remarkable and influential women in the course of North American history.

Essay Date: 2007

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