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The term malinchistas is used by Mexicans and Mexicanorigin populations in the United States to refer to community members who “sell out,” adopt the value system of the dominant culture, and implicitly accept the terms of their own subordination. These persons seek to prove themselves as exceptions and embody traits associated with the dominant culture, while they shun those associated with their own. Malinchismo may be defined broadly as the pursuit of the novel and foreign, coupled with rejection and betrayal of one’s own culture.
This term is linked to the history and myth of a sixteenth-century indigenous woman named Malinalli Tenepali (Malintzin), popularly known as La Malinche or Doña Marina (c. 1502–1527). One of the most legendary figures involved in the conquest of Mexico, La Malinche was of Nahua origin and served as interpreter, guide, and concubine to Hernán Cortés (c. 1484–1547). Knowledge about La Malinche’s life before meeting Cortés is derived from the biography that the Spanish soldier Bernal Díaz del Castillo (c. 1495–1584) provides when he recounts La Malinche’s reunion in 1524 with her mother and half brother in his La historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, written in 1568, published in 1632). Díaz del Castillo states that La Malinche was a born a Nahua to royal indigenous parents in Tenochtitlán, experienced the death of her father and the remarriage of her mother, and was banished by her mother and enslaved to the Chontal Maya from the coastal area of Tabasco, whose cacique, in turn, gave her to Cortés, along with other virgins for sexual and domestic services, as a welcoming gift. She became Cortés’s lover, gave birth to two mestizo sons, and served as an intermediary and translator between Cortés and Moctezuma (c. 1466–1520). She later married a Spanish soldier named Juan Jaramillo, and gave birth to a forgotten mestiza daughter. She died in 1527 at the age of twenty-five.
Many historians consider La Malinche’s participation as crucial in enabling Cortés to defeat Moctezuma and topple the Aztec Empire in 1521. La Malinche’s abilities in her native Nahuatl and her proficiency in Yucatán dialects proved indispensable to Cortés. La Malinche spoke both Nahuatl (her mother tongue) and other dialects of the Yucatán Peninsula, and, most importantly, she knew the conventions of a register of Nahuatl tecpillatolli (lordly speech), a difficult and indirect rhetorical style used among the Nahuatl-speaking elite. With these special skills, she was able to negotiate successfully for Cortés and counsel him about the intentions of the people with whom he was dealing.
The concept of malinchismo emerged in post-independence nineteenth-century Mexican nationalist historiography and literature. After her representations in Spanish and indigenous sources as a powerful woman commanding respect (for example, Spanish Christian interpretations tend to redeem Doña Marina through accounts of her heroism, religious conversion, and cultural assimilation), Mexicans began to condemn her treacherous role in the conquest of Mexico and focused on her sexuality. The depiction of La Malinche’s “willful betrayal” centers on the events leading to the Spanish massacre of the people of Cholula prior to the Spanish occupation of Tenochtitlán in 1519. According to Francisco López de Gómara (c. 1511–1566) in his La conquista de México (1552) and Bernal Díaz del Castillo in the Historia verdadera, La Malinche was given the opportunity to leave the Spaniards for the protection of the Cholulans, even to the point of entering into marriage with a Cholulan nobleman, but she chose instead to inform Cortés of the Cholulans’ plans to ambush the Spaniards. Her role in interrogating Cuauhtémoc (c. 1496–1525), the last ruler of the Aztecs, during his imprisonment and in interpreting his confession prior to execution during Cortés’s expedition to Honduras is considered confirmation of her treachery. The acts have been considered acts of free and reprehensible choice. An analogue of La Malinche in African American culture is Uncle Tom from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Just as La Malinche has been stereotyped as an indigenous woman that sells out her people to the Spanish conquistadors, Uncle Tom has become the stereotype for an African American who is too eager to please whites. Both La Malinche and Uncle Tom “betray” their respective community of origin.
Numerous nineteenth-century Mexican novels depict La Malinche as Eve, the woman to blame for the fall of the Aztec Empire; the child doomed by birth prophecy; the indigenous woman desiring the white man; the ambitious schemer using men for her own egotistical ends; the whore; and the scapegoat for centuries of Spanish colonization. In the twentieth century, Octavio Paz’s (1914–1998) essay “Los hijos de la chingada” (Sons of the Violated One) from his collection El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude, 1950) depicts La Malinche as “la chingada” (the violated one), lover, and mistress. La Malinche’s redemption lies in her role as the mother of the first mestizos, though Mexicans remain alienated from their past and suffer as hijos de la chingada. In short, malinchismo portrays indigenous Mexicans as victims of Spanish aggression facilitated by Malinche’s lasciviousness and treachery.
The notion of malinchismo is profoundly misogynistic. The elements of malinchismo were set in the twentieth century: La Malinche is perceived as cursed at birth, driven by an unbridled sexual appetite, unprincipled in pursuit of her own ends regardless of the incalculable price that others must pay for her actions, and culpable for bloody deeds carried out by Cortés and his soldiers.
La Malinche entered into the United States cultural lexicon under the influence of the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s. During this period, Chicano (male) nationalists labeled Chicana feminists and Chicana lesbians as malinchistas. Chicana feminist and lesbian writer Cherríe Moraga engages these negative depictions in her essay “A Long Line of Vendidas” in the collection Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios (What Never Passed Her Lips, 1983). Chicano playwright and screenwriter Luis Valdés in his play Los vendidos (1967) labeled vendidos (sellouts) or malinchistas those working-class Chicanos and Chicanas who become middle-class Mexican Americans closely aligned with mainstream, middle-class U.S. Anglo cultural values, while they deny their own Mexican working-class heritage. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Moraga and other Chicana cultural critics and literary writers, however, began to recast the icon of La Malinche as a positive role model for women. They have sought to convert La Malinche into a woman of empowerment and to provide new liberatory potential for the myth. While La Malinche appears frequently as a traitor and scapegoat from the male point of view, feminists in the late twentieth century reclaimed her tale as that of a woman who played a central role in the Western Hemisphere’s formation.
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