Consuming la Malinche, Destroying the Myth

The myth of Mexico’s first indigenous mother holds that her betrayal marked all her descendants as bastards, but the real culprit has always been empire.

CUNNING, charismatic and sexually appealing--la Malinche of Mexico has been vilified in the historical record. She was one of the twenty slave women given by the indigenous group of present-day Tabasco, the Chontal Maya of Potonchán, to conquistador Hernán Cortés after the Spaniards defeated the Aztecs in battle in 1519. Educated and adept in language, she served as Cortés’s translator. According to written accounts by one of Cortés’s soldiers, la Malinche saved the Spanish Army by revealing the Aztecs’ battle plans to Cortés before the Spaniards’ decisive victory in Tenochtitlán. She also bore one of Cortés’s children, a son named Martín, who is now known in Mexico as the first mestizo. As Cortés’s translator, confidante and mistress, she is consecrated in Mexican history as the indispensable indigenous arm to the European colonial project.

Nobel Prize-winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz, author of the 1950 essay “Sons of la Malinche,” identifies the union of Cortés and la Malinche as the first instance of violation against the Mexican female body, and by extension, as the origin of Mexican existential suffering. Paz’s essay uses Cortes’s sexual consumption of la Malinche’s body to argue that as descendants of a traitor to her people, Mexican men are forever marked as bastards, incapable of successful leadership or successful relations with each other. Other prominent men in Mexico, like acclaimed artist José Clemente Orozco, depicted la Malinche as a traitor well before Paz did, but Paz's telling was the first to locate the root of Mexico’s political constitution in her betrayal.

However, while the blame that Paz places on la Malinche’s body ignores the racial and gender conditions which compromised her position, Paz’s argument remains useful because he explains how colonialism’s psychological effects can withstand the departure of the colonial power. As the political and economic architecture of colonialism evolved into their current form, the psychological effects of the original colonial power remain and instigate more violence, often from those who are unable to contest their place in a sociopolitical hierarchy through democratic means. In Mexico, these historical marks manifest in the endemic murdering of women.

The figure of la Malinche is bound up in contradiction: She is referred to both as “la chingada” for passively accepting her rape, and “the Mexican Eve” for actively seeking out her own ruin. “Chingar,” Paz writes in his treatise on la Malinche, “denotes violence, an emergence from oneself to penetrate another by force. It also means to injure, to lacerate, to violate--bodies, souls, objects--and to destroy.” La Malinche opened her body, and her land, to be violated by foreigners. Paz’s meaning of “chingada” is double; her body may have been taken temporarily, but it allowed for her land to be exploited for centuries, from the moment of colonization into the U.S.’s present-day exploitation of Mexico.

But la Malinche is also ascribed a certain agency that caricaturizes her as a manipulative whore. (This is similar to the agency granted to Eve and similar figures like Penelope of The Odyssey and Scheherazade of One Thousand and One Nights). These are women who knew too much, who were resourceful and shrewd in hostile situations in order to protect themselves. Their survival came at the cost of their reputations during their lifetimes and well after it. As Mexican-American literary critic Luis Leal points out, in Mexico’s iteration of the virgin-whore dichotomy, la Malinche lies opposite the Virgin of Guadalupe, representing both sexual and political ruin. In popular Mexican culture, la Malinche continues to be used both in public and in the media to signify a particular strain of betrayal. Mexican sports journalist José Ramón Fernández was recently called a “malinchista” by co-host Hugo Sánchez on his television show Fútbol Picante for defending the British Manchester United professional football club; and acclaimed Mexican author Elena Poniatowska called actress Kate del Castillo a “malinchista” for arranging Sean Penn’s interview with el Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, which supposedly led to his arrest.

Although many writers have shown Paz’s account to be factually inaccurate, la Malinche seems to have been mythologized beyond resuscitation. Cortés’ exploitation of her body has been ensconced in popular memory not as his transgression, but as la Malinche’s consent, no matter how many people attempt to rehabilitate the history of its subject. According to University of Maryland historian, Sandra Cypess, la Malinche was sold by her family into Spanish servitude, and Chicana feminists like Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga and Ana Castillo

Beginning in 1973 with Adaljiza Sosa-Riddell’s poem “Como Duele”--she writes “como duele ser Malinche”
have argued that the depiction of la Malinche as a “whore” sustains patriarchal structures seeded first in the moment of colonization--structures whose persistence forecloses the possibility of revolutionary action in the present.

But in their criticisms of Paz’s rendition of la Malinche, the Chicana feminists discarded an illuminating portion of his analysis. Certainly, Paz's contention that la Malinche’s bodily violation rests at the root of all national and social failures is a ridiculous reading--Mexico's future cannot be located in its “fatherless” past. However, in their attempts to rehabilitate la Malinche, Chicana feminists ignored how the framework created by Paz continues to provoke the violation of Mexican female bodies into the present. They also inadvertently obscured how the colonial moment, symbolized by la Malinche, created reverberations that can still be observed in ongoing U.S.-Mexican economic and political relations, particularly as they manifest in epidemics of violence against women.

Mexico continues to be subjected to U.S. and European economic and political domination through trade policies that take advantage of weak labor law and repressive immigration policy. This can be seen, most recently, in President Donald Trump’s xenophobic strong-arming over a border wall. Paz's telling of la Malinche reinforces and compounds gendered violence amid broader economic changes in Mexico that have been stimulated by American free trade. The explosion of “feminicide”--a term coined by Mexican feminists regarding mass killings of women in Juárez, Mexico, across from El Paso, after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the mid 1990s--is the most emblematic example of this, but such violence remains endemic across the country.

On average, six women are murdered daily in Mexico. A 2013 UN Women report counted that over 36,000 women were murdered in Mexico in the previous 15 years, and nearly 2,500 in 2010 alone. Juárez has the highest rates of murder--the result of organized crime, human trafficking, and domestic violence. “Femicide” was coined in the 1970s by Diana Russell to describe women who were killed merely for being women. In 1994 the Mexican researcher Marcela Lagarde coined a new term, “feminicidio” in a UN report and explained that in Mexico, feminicide did not just signify the murder of women, but also described the state’s active disregard for their killing--its refusal to investigate, or bring closure to, their violation. In Lagarde’s telling, feminicide in Mexico is a crime of the state.

Although the classification moved through the Mexican Chamber of Deputies, the Senate rejected the legal category of “feminicidio,” meaning that thereafter violence directed at women would be lumped in with general homicide counts.

Mexican officials have insisted on treating the murders of women in isolation, often responding with invocations of respectability: had the women not been in the streets, they say, their deaths could have been avoided. Like la Malinche, victims of feminicide are sexualized to the point of justifying their murder; the pillage of their bodies is regarded as a consequence of their profession or lifestyle, an avoidable yet justifiable fate. The state’s 2010 rejection of a legal definition--“feminicidio”--for these crimes signifies the attempt by the government to unfasten their murders from the political structures that generated them. It yet again reinforces a patriarchal social order.

“To the Mexican [man] there are only two possibilities in life: either he inflicts the actions implied by ‘chingar’ on others, or else he suffers them himself at the hands of others,” Paz writes. The subjectivity of the Mexican is two-fold: the woman, victim to the force of the European man, is passive to her violation, and, because of this, the Mexican man is born disinherited and alone, allowing him to fall victim to machismo. The structural violence marks each individual as both victim and aggressor.

Important to Paz is not the way in which Mexico’s social terrain was created by colonialism, but rather the way the colonial racial caste system reorganized the power to resist. The pacification of the colonized, whose aggressions were directed toward themselves and each other, particularly women, was a symptom of colonial subjugation. In parallel processes, the colonial pillaging of la Malinche’s body occurred in the same way that the spasms of late capitalism led to the raping and killing of women in the borderlands region--both were symptomatic of imperial systems that increased inequality and made the female body the site of violent dispossession.

To understand Paz’s mythologizing of la Malinche as merely a continuation of misogyny, an orientation developed by Chicana feminists, is to deny the ways in which Paz’s scapegoating of Malinche reflects a broader tendency of Mexican society to blame all of the country’s women for the original sin of colonization (Mexico’s first instance of getting fucked, or “ser chingado”). The logic coursing through his essay, which points to the exploitation of la Malinche as the root of alienation and Mexico’s political and social failures, also runs through racialized misogyny present in Mexico today--blaming the brown female body for its own exploitation. And yet, Paz’s reading complicates understandings of violence in the border region, rendering gang violence and misogyny as the psycho-social effects of capitalism and national inequalities, rather than understanding them as isolated social issues.

An emancipatory future is not merely about softening inequalities; it is about stopping capital’s exacerbation of deadly social relations, including violent misogyny embodied in feminicidio. We can recuperate and reclaim some of Paz’s analysis to identify the source of modern day Mexican feminicide: A patriarchal ideology that lashes out at the stressors of capitalism and repression, not towards the empire to the north, or its surrogates in Mexico, but against the bodies of women.