Monday, September 24, 2012

History and Identity

This week after talking a little tangentially (surprising I know) about female historical figures, La Malinche came to mind. In Mexican cultural identity there are three important and pervasive female figures; La Virgen de Guadalupe, La Llorona, and La Malinche. Of these three only one is an actual historical figure, La Malinche.

La Malinche, Dona Marina, or Malintzin, lived in the early 14th century throughout Mexico and Central America. Born into a prominent indigenous family, after her father’s death her mother remarried.  Historical accounts detail her mother and step-father selling her to Mayan slave traders, who then "gifted" her to Hernan Cortez and his group of Conquistadores. By this time Malinche was only 14 years old.  Malinche became Hernan Cortez’ lover and interpretor. Speaking both Mayan and Nahuatl she became extremely important and in many depictions of Cortez she is seen standing by his side. Eventually she gave birth to his son and later married another conquistador after the fall of Tenochitlan.

What I find interesting about La Malinche is that although few disagree with the facts of her life, interpretations of her role in Latino (specifically Mexican) identity differ drastically. Throughout Mexico historians and intellectuals (exclusively male) labeled Malinche as a traitor. The word Malinchista became synonimist with traitor, especially during the war for Mexican Independence and the Revolutionary war. At that time a Malinchista described a Mexican national allied with western foreigners. One of the most well respected intellectuals and historians of the 20th century Octavio Paz, describes la Malinche in The Labyrinth of Solitude:

Doña Marina becomes a figure representing the Indian women who were fascinated, violated or seduced by the Spaniards. And as a small boy will not forgive his mother if she abandons him to search for his father, the Mexican people have not forgiven La Malinche for her betrayal. She embodies the open, the chingada, or our closed, stoic, impassive Indians.... This explains the success of the contemptuous adjective malinchista recently put into circulation by newspapers to denounce all those who have been corrupted by foreign influences. The malinchistas are those who want Mexico to open itself to the outside world: the true sons of La Malinche, who is the Chingada in person. 
Octavio Paz was not a fan of La Manlinche.  But is this fair, to lay an entire conquest on one person?  In my view Malinche owed no loyalty to a people who had twice sold her into slavery.

It is also important to remember that Malinche's son with Hernan Cortez is one of the first mestizos born in Mexico.  Unlike North American settlers, when the Spanish arrived in this part of the "new world" they intermingled with the Indigenous population.  The end result being that in Mexico the majority of the population has both indigenous and spanish roots.  For example, my family is both P'urhepecha and Spanish (although I am not as aware of any Spanish ancestrial ties).

Beginning in the 1990s many Chicana Feminist began to reimagine La Malinche and her role in Mexican identity.  Although this is the same historical figure, the way her "myth" has been reevaluated or recentered is drastic.  Adelaida de Castillo sees La Malinche as a powerful and active woman in her work “Malintzín Tenepal: A Preliminary Look into a New Perspective,” she claims that,
“Doña Marina is significant in that she embodies effective, decisive action in the feminine form, and most important, because her own actions synchronized two conflicting worlds causing the emergence of a new one—my own” (del Castillo 122).
In Castillo’s view of Malinche, she is so powerful that she is able to create a new world through her mothering of the first mestizo, an act so dominant that it would challenge the male domination of Chicano society, and thus must be controlled by making it shameful.

Chicana Feminist find action in Malinche's role as a mother.  She is almost literally the mother of a people and a nation.  Ultimately both Paz and Castillo are discussing the same woman yet it's their interpretation and the lense with which they view her that bring the myth to life. 


MC said...
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Elizabeth said...

Very interesting post. There are several other female historical figures who played a similar role, but the reactions and historical interpretations differ.

Take for example, Pocahontas who also served as a bridge between the native population and the conquering peoples. In American popular culture she's been transformed into a Disney Princess. Of course the history books about her are written by descendants of the conquerors, not the indigenous peoples.

Then there are the French women who formed relationships with the Nazis in German-controlled Vichy France. They were vilified and terrorized after the war, having their heads shaved in humiliation. They were treated as traitors in their own time, not just in retrospect.

MC brings up a good point. It is certainly debatable whether these women really had a choice when they had such little power in their society to make decisions. Sometimes putting themselves in such positions was a matter of survival. In Doña Marina's case, having been sold into slavery, she clearly did not have a lot of options. Using her intelligence and sexuality to ingratiate herself with the Spaniards was probably her best option to grasp some small amount of power in a world that had treated her harshly.

It is easy to label these women as traitors, but it's hard to know what any of us would do in similar circumstances.

MC said...

I appreciate Adelaida de Castillo's view of La Malinche as powerful, by virtue of her mothering the first mestizo child, and creating a new race. However, I'm reluctant to believe that this act was of La Malinche's own accord, without any force by Hernan Cortez.

Latin American history informs that most of the female indigenous population was subject to forced submission by the Conquistadors. The Spanish Conquest was characterized by rape, violence, and enslaving the indigenous population. The Mestizo was then considered an outcast, and a representation of Spanish domination over the native people of Latin America.

Despite her parents selling her into slavery, I question the idea that La Malinche had a choice in rebelling against the Mayan people, and carrying on romantic relationship with Spaniards. Today, even The Guardian refers to Malinche as "a turncoat who helped Hernán Cortés conquer Mexico." My inquiry is whether or not she had a choice. If not, is it fair to paint this woman as a traitor?

It also fascinates me that Mexican historians continue to portray La Malinche in such a negative way, when most modern Latin Americans are in fact Mestizo.