Hispanic Heritage Month is an appropriate time to learn more about the Aztecs and Mayas and the slave girl Malinalli who lived among them. She changed the fate of Mexico and Spain when she became the Christian Dona Marina, trilingual interpreter for Hernan Cortes, later demonized in legends as “La Malinche.”

What was it like for young people in love in the world of the Aztecs and Mayas? Although many of the ancient records have been destroyed, enough have survived so that we can make some good guesses. Although the cultures in the 16th century were vastly different from those of the 21st century, human emotions were undoubtedly much like those we experience today.

The love stories of fictional characters in MALINALLI OF THE FIFTH SUN show the complications and triumphs of people who lived in 16th century Mexico.

· * the rebellious love of Green Rain and Handful of Reeds that strained relationships with his parents;

· * the tragic love of Metzli for a youth destined for sacrifice;

· * the doomed love of Water Bird for the warrior named Shield;

· * the unlikely love of the reckless gambler Spear for the saintly priestess Metzli;

· *the hopeless love of the slave Nemon for Malinalli;

· * the enduring love of the peasant couple Willow and Smoking House.

· *the love between Malinalli and Hernan Cortes, greater than a slave and a master are ever expected to feel.

History tells us that Malinalli, the young girl sold into slavery by her wicked stepfather, had very few choices. She was one of twenty slaves given to Hernan Cortes by the natives of Tabasco when he defeated them in battle. Because she could speak both Nahuatl and Mayan, Malinalli became an interpreter who helped Cortes communicate with the natives who spoke those languages. Quickly she learned Spanish, and thus could translate for him in three languages. He kept her close by his side, so close that the natives of Tlaxcala called both of them “Malintzin” – a mispronunciation of Malinalli’s Christian name “Marina” with the –tzin suffix that meant “lady” or “lord.” Spanish pronunciation later changed the name to “Malinche.”

The Tlaxcalans and the Aztecs offered some of their daughters as wives for Cortes, and history records that Cortes sired many children with women he did not love. But we can infer that he learned to love Malinalli (Marina) because he legitimized the son that she bore for him in 1522. He named the boy “Martin” after his father, which was an honor for both of them.

On a trip to Honduras in 1523, one of his captains fell in love with Marina, so Cortes gave permission for her to marry Juan Jaramillo. Strange as it may seem, this was a loving act, because if Cortes were to die on the journey, Marina would have been merely the slave of a dead man. But as the wife of a Spanish hidalgo, she would have his protection. She went to Spain with him in 1529 and bore a daughter for him there. We can assume that she cared for him and reciprocated his love for her. She died in Spain around 1551, according to historian Sir Hugh Thomas.

Fictional characters in MALINALLI OF THE FIFTH SUN also illustrate the customs of those ancient cultures. Girls of the upper classes were strictly supervised to guard their virginity. Malinalli’s father Flint Arrow expected to choose a husband for her; she was expected to obey his wishes. When he died, her mother Cimatl accepted Water Snake for her second husband, though she did not love him, and he married her just to further his own ambitions. Love was not considered essential for marriage, but an unmarried woman would quickly lose social status.

Life has never been easy for women, but it was especially harsh for the women of Malinalli’s time. Girls could become priestesses in the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent God, and as such, they were expected to remain virgins. Some became auianimes, or camp followers who loved certain warriors, but if they became prostitutes, they would bring disgrace to their families. Fortunately, the fictional characters all managed to find love in their lifetimes.

The harshness and cruelties of the Aztec and Maya civilizations are realistically depicted, but sympathetically rendered, as cultures deserving our respect in the light of their own times. They were far more sophisticated than most Americans realize today, in their architecture, arts, and astronomy. However, the Conquistadors had many advantages over the brave indigenous people – including horses, steel swords and knives, and an immunity to European diseases that ravaged the indigenous populations. But the greatest advantage Cortes had was a slave girl who learned three languages and helped him to form alliances with the enemies of Moctezuma the Younger. She has been neglected by historians and demonized by artists as “La Malinche the Traitress,” but the Hispanic cultures around the world are beginning to reclaim their histories and restore the honor of their heroines.

Further reading suggestions:

Gordon, Helen Heightsman, Malinalli of the Fifth Sun: The Slave Girl who Changed the Fate of Mexico and Spain. Bloomington: iUniverse, 2012. (Now available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara)

Thomas, Sir Hugh, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the fall of Old Mexico. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

Cypess, Sandra Messinger. La Malinche in Mexican Literature from History to Myth. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1991.


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