“Malinchista” was a taunt I heard regularly during my childhood in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands. “Malinchista” means traitor, but where did the name come from? 

It turns out it comes from an indigenous woman in the Spanish conquest of Mexico: Malintzin (c. 1500-c. 1529), better known as “La Malinche.” Malintzin became part of Mexico’s national imagination in the recent past, and the association of her Hispanicized name with “traitor” is a modern invention.

As a history professor, I believe we need to take a closer look at Malintzin’s real story. 

Malintzin was a cultural broker who made choices under limited, rapidly evolving circumstances. Baptized “Marina” by the Spanish, she was Hernando Cortés’s translator and advisor during his war on Tenochtitlan (today, Mexico City) in 1519-1521. Though unfortunately we have few insights into how she may have viewed the relationship, Malintzin bore Cortés a son, Martín, symbolically called the “first mestizo.”

Historical sources from her time demonstrate that indigenous and Spanish alike generally respected Malintzin for her intelligence and linguistic ability. Evidence suggests she learned languages quickly. Indigenous and Spanish records portray her as an extraordinary individual.

Centuries later, Malintzin was maligned as a traitor. A nineteenth-century novel vilified her, but the notion was crystallized with Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950). Paz grappled eloquently with the foundation of the Mexican psyche upon conquest. 

The great writer may have intended to use Malintzin as a metaphor, but regrettably, popular culture has often read her choices too literally — and anachronistically. Maybe it speaks to larger issues around views of women. Certainly Malintzin’s story has complex threads of gender, sex, sexuality and motherhood, as Malintzin is known as the proverbial “mother of mestizos.” In popular imagery, the part about her having betrayed her people struck a special chord.

But who were “her people”? Born a Nahua — a member of a large, Nahuatl-speaking indigenous group in the region — Malintzin was sold as a young girl to Maya who later turned her over to Cortés. The category of indigenous was only vaguely coming into being when Malintzin lived. Mexico did not exist yet.

The Aztec empire fell quickly. Historians point to disease, violence, and warfare, including the higher level of technology and weaponry of the Spanish as possible reasons.  

Another set of reasons has to do with the rivalries in the region of what is today central Mexico. When the Spanish arrived, hatred of the brutal Mexica ran rampant, and some indigenous chose to cast in their lot with the newcomers in hopes of toppling the Aztec empire, a power that had for decades extracted resources and tribute from other indigenous peoples whose blood was shed under this dominant realm. Malintzin’s story is best understood in light of these nuances.

Throughout the Americas, nations imagine their colonial pasts by recalling indigenous-European ties, with emphasis on how indigenous women aided colonizers. In the United States, Pocahontas (c. 1596-1617) and Sacagawea (c. 1788-c. 1812) are well-known figures whose stories have also been shrouded in myth and falsehood.

The conquests of the Americas were complicated, and Europeans and indigenous forged relationships as well as engaged in conflicts. Violence and tragedy are part of this history, as are many forms of resistance and multiplicity. Some stories are incomplete, others unknown. In recalling my childhood memories of the use of Malintzin’s name as a synonym for traitor, against a backdrop of only disembodied images and narrow understandings of the woman herself, I reflect on history and historical empathy. 

Let’s search for evidence wherever we can and work to treat historical subjects fairly. Let’s not refract stories from the past through modern categories, identities and ways of seeing the world that did not exist during the subjects’ lifetimes.