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Malinche, by Laura Esquivel.

February 21, 2013

Malinche, by Laura Esquivel.  NY: Washington Square Press, 2006.

GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR

An historical novel reinterpreting the legend of the Nahautl woman who was Cortez’s translator and lover during the conquest of Mexico.

Malinche is an historical figure who appears briefly in the records of the Spanish Conquistadors.  More importantly, she is a legendary figure for Mexicans, often condemned for having treacherously betrayed her own people.  Her name is still used to label a person as a traitor to Mexico and its culture.  Some, including Esquivel, see her in a different light– as having given birth to the first mestizo and thus beginning the story of a new race of people.

I enjoyed Esquivel’s novel and found her depiction of the Conquest interesting. This is an unusual book, however, and I can understand why it is frustrating to others like Olduavi. (See her review for Global Women of Color.)  Esquivel has not simply written the account of a woman’s life in another time and place.  She is retelling a national legend, about, we are told, “the Adam and Eve of mestizo culture.”    Malinche and Cortez are not simply a man and a woman.  They carry symbolic meaning that distances them from readers.  Empathizing with a legend is often difficult.

In addition, the spiritual belief system and language patterns of the Natuatl are central to Esquivel’s narrative.  Their holistic view of the universe connected all acts and all beings, giving great meaning to daily life.  Central to it was the combination of opposites in the creation of new beginnings.  Earthly reality is illusionary and “slippery” making humans prone to fall into suffering.  Like Malinche, Esquivel connects daily decisions to spiritual forces.  You will not like this book it you are not interested in beliefs about the cosmos.
350px-Cortez_&_La_Malinche
Esquivel insists that  Malinche never betrayed her own people.  Montezuma and the Aztecs had conquered and oppressed the Natuatl and had no claim on her loyalty.  When she was first given as a slave to Cortez, she wanted to believe that Cortez was the reincarnation of Quetzalcoatl, the god who had promised to return and save his followers.  She had hoped that Cortes would end practices like human sacrifice.  But the cruelty and greed of the Spaniards quickly disillusioned her.  By then, Cortez was using her unusual fluency in languages to translate his negotiations with Montezuma and with the tribes that joined the Spanish against their Aztec oppressors.  She was playing an important role as Cortez’s Tongue.  Esquivel assures us that Malinche did not did not pass on information to Cortez, but she could not prevent his massacres of native peoples.  Knowing that the Aztecs would kill her, Malinche stayed with him and bore his son.  Finally in a fit of anger, Cortez gave her as a wife to another Spaniard by whom she had a daughter.  Together they built a life and a home.  Esquivel describes Malinche’s death as occurring on a pilgrimage to the female goddess, Tonantzin.

For Esquivel, Malinche is the communicator between the Spanish and the various groups in Mexico that made conquest possible. More deeply, she produces the first mestizo child, combining the opposites of the Spanish and the Mexican, just as Tonantzin, at whose feet she died, combined with a Christian saint to become the mestizo Virgin of Guadalupe. A nice idea, but hardly enough to wipe out the brutality of the Spanish colonizers who benefited from Malinche’s assistance.

Esquivel presents Malinche as a positive figure, yet she often appears to be confused and undecided, and her own inner contradictions are never resolved. She is divided over whether or not to support the Spanish. She values her power as an interpreter and wants to be “special,” but Esquivel’s describes her as enjoying Cortez rape of her.

She had for the time being ceased to be “The Tongue” to become simply a woman, silent, voiceless, a mere woman …[She] felt relief in reclaiming her condition of submission, for it was a more familiar sensation to be an object at the service of men than to be a creature of destiny.

Later, when she finally expresses her anger at Cortez, her speech moves back and forth between pleas that he let her leave his service and pleas that he give up his military conquests. Certainly there are plenty of ambivalent characters in literature, but the Malinche we see here is hardly a figure to be held up in honor.

This book made an interesting comparison for me with the historical novel, Inez of the Heart, by Isabel Allende, about a woman who was involved in the conquest of Chile. Importantly, Allende’s heroine was Spanish, not Indian.  Also, Allende used her skills at writing fiction to create Inez and the men she loved as human beings, enough like people today for us to share some of their feelings.  Unlike Esquivel, she was not rewriting legends.

I recommend Malinche to readers who like to read about legends and spirituality and those curious about a woman who is so important to Mexicans.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2013 11:01 am

    Trying to rewrite a legend sounds like an interesting project. But it seems that to some degree the legend resisted rewriting, which is also interesting. Do you think it could have been more convincing in a different version or do you think it might not be possible to really make Malinche into a positive figure?

    (Unrelatedly, the link to GWC at the top of your blog doesn’t seem to work.)

    • February 21, 2013 5:04 pm

      Very good question. Actually I have heard of this version of Malinche before, but not as often as the more popular negative story. For me her story raises all sorts of ethical issues. It is not simply whether or not Esquivel convinces us that she didn’t tell Cortez about one particular massacre. Can we “unite opposites” as Esquivel says, without the “bad” destroying the “good”? Should we in the US today compromise with the radical right and only destroy half of those at risk from their demands? We have tried that and look at where we are.

      Thanks for telling me about the trouble with my GCW button.

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