Both revered and reviled, La Malinche was an enigmatic figure whose legacy inspired controversy, legend and adulation since the 16th century.
Depending on your perspective, the indigenous woman who became the translator and mistress of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was a survivor, a traitor, a sinner or a saint.
Beginning Saturday, June 11, the Albuquerque Museum will present the first comprehensive exhibit examining the historical and cultural context of the woman at the heart of the Spanish conquest of Mexico in a traveling exhibit from the Denver Museum of Art. The exhibit includes 68 works by 38 artists, including several from New Mexico.
No one knows La Malinche’s real name.
In 1519 Cortés landed along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico with a small expedition. As he and his men fought with the Maya and Nahuatl-speaking peoples, language became an almost insurmountable barrier.
When they reached the present state of Tabasco, a ruler gave Cortés 20 young indigenous women. One of them was a teenager named Malina/li and later, Malinche.
Although her origins remain obscure, she was fluent in Nahuatl and Maya. She skillfully exploited these linguistic gifts to survive. Over the next two years, as the Spaniards suffered setbacks before their final triumph over the Aztecs in 1521, Malinche would become Cortés’ translator and cultural interpreter.
The exhibition organizes its impact through five distinct archetypes or metaphors: the interpreter, the indigenous woman, the mother of a mestizo, the traitor and Chicana: contemporary claims.
“We know La Malinche from both Native and Spanish chronicles,” said Denver Art Museum curator Victoria Lyall.
“She is mentioned twice by Cortés in his letters to King Charles V.”
“Even though she is a historical figure, we don’t know much about her – her birth, death and real name,” added independent curator Terezita Romo. “It left a big void.”
Photographer Delilah Montoya, who taught at the University of New Mexico, summed up the contradictions around La Malinche in her portrait of a young girl in a communion dress. A hazy brothel background looms behind a curtain. The scene encapsulates the dichotomy of the promiscuous traitor entangled in the chaste Christian.
“It’s this idea of the ambiguous look she has of being a good woman and a bad woman,” Romo said.
La Malinche gave birth to a son named Martin, who, due to his golden parentage, has come to represent the birth of mestizos in the New World. La Malinche later married a Spaniard named Juan Jaramillo and gave birth to a daughter.
“(La Malinche) was probably abducted in battle,” Lyall said. “She was sold into slavery and raised in a Mayan-speaking community. She was baptized and christened Marina by the Spaniards.
Its mythology exploded after the Mexican Revolution, where politicians invoked La Malinche’s name in an attempt to bring unity and develop the concept of a cosmic Mexican race. The ensuing chaos produced the legend that she gave birth to the first half-breed, a myth that Lyall crushed.
“The Spaniards had already been there for 36 months” before meeting Cortés, she said.
Today, calling someone La Malinche in Mexico remains an insult.
“It basically says she’s the main protagonist in the downfall of the (indigenous) empire,” Romo said. “She was a spiritual traitor. If someone is a La Malinche, you turn your back on your own people.
La Malinche oil painting by santero Vicente Telles of New Mexico takes a softer approach to its subject matter. Telles designed his portrait using the composition of an altarpiece reflecting the Virgin of Guadalupe.
“He was living in California when he did this job,” Romo said. “In his family, the people who were powerful, who advanced and studied, were the women. He identifies as Métis. He sees her as the mestizo mother.
The four medallions of the work contain scenes from the life of La Malinche.
Texas artist Santa Barraza’s painting of her also contains symbolic echoes of retablos. La Malinche watches a fetus curled up on a plant while Cortés stands behind her. Above them hang shadows of the brutality of conquest, including a hanging.
Barraza says “We are the product of that, but it wasn’t always romantic or consensual,” Romo said.
The Chicana section carries Malinche’s story into the 20th and 21st centuries, when artists began to reclaim Malinche as a survivor and inspiration for Chicana and Mexican artists.
Los Angeles-based artist Mercedes Gertz depicted Malinche as a leg-framed bride wearing black stilettos like swords.
“It’s (Gertz’s) face on his mother’s body,” Lyall said. “She approaches the dichotomy of the virgin as pure and Malinche as profane. It takes the format of the Virgin of Guadalupe, but you have a woman in a white dress surrounded by black stilettos. She says a woman is neither.
“We live in a time where people are questioning the story that has been told to us,” Lyall added. “I had people crying in the gallery. People told me it was the first time they had seen each other in a gallery.