Malinche, Tecuelhuetzin, and Tecuichpo: the forgotten women

Antonio Díaz
Malinche, Tecuelhuetzin, and Tecuichpo: the forgotten women
A mural depicting Malintzin and Hernán Cortés - Photo: File Photo/EL UNIVERSAL

Malinche, Tecuelhuetzin, and Tecuichpo: the forgotten women

Antonio Díaz
Mexico City
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For centuries, historians have ignored several women who played essential roles in the colonization of Mexico

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Five-hundred years ago, Hernán Cortés arrived in the place that would later be known as New Spain. After his arrival, a political, social, and cultural process began in the territory, where both women and men participated; nevertheless, the research projects have focused on men such as Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Pedro de Alvarado, Moctezuma, and Cortés but ignored women.

“The women of the conquest were cultural mediators because they fostered the new nation. For those women, their destiny was to be mistresses or sexual slaves. On one hand, they were abducted by the Spanish, who took them away as companions. Some were given away as slaves by their families or in the case of the nobility, as the 'wives' of the Spanish to create alliances. In any case, their destiny was not in their hands,” says Miriam López, a Dr. in Anthropology by the UNAM's Anthropological Research Institute.

Miguel Pastrana, a researcher at the Historical Research Institute, says that women's participation during colonization was essential because they were in charge of managing the home, cooking, and educating the children: “We couldn't talk about women's passiveness, we would also have to place her in the habits and customs of both the Hispanic and Mesoamerican worlds. (Nevertheless), we lack researches about women's involvement.”

La Malinche

She was “gifted” to the Spanish along with other 19 young women after the Centla battle in 1519. She was baptized as “Marina” but once she became a translator and spokeswoman, they called her “Mrs. Marina.”

Malintzin was branded as a traitor, nevertheless, Miriam López explains that the use of those adjectives began after colonization:

Indigenous groups and the Spanish appreciated her in a certain way, some people like Bernal Díaz del Castillo remembered with affection and admiration. Meanwhile, the groups that were against the Spanish, such as the Mexicas, distrusted her because her participation was notorious in the interactions they had with the Spanish. Also, the Indigenous groups didn't see themselves as a country, they were different ethnic groups against each other. The Mexicas, which dominated a large part of the territory, were the enemies of many groups. She was not Mexica, she has Nahua, (she was born near Coatzacoalcos), therefore, it can't be said that she betrayed Moctezuma,” López said.

The researcher adds that “La Malinche” was sold as a slave twice before she could show Hernán Cortés that she could translate, that “innate ability to understand different cultural contexts and learn new languages would lead her to become a bridge during those confusing moments and its' even been said that thanks to her participation, lots of deaths were prevented.”

López explains that after the colonization process was over, Mrs. Marina was forgotten until the 19th century and during Mexico's Independence when she appeared in the anonymous novel titled Xicoténcatl (1826).

“In that novel, “La Malinche” appears as a seductress who betrays her people for the first time. Since then, literature has replicated this intriguing character and (who is also) a traitor. It would be worth it to reevaluate her role and understand her circumstances. What was the destiny for a woman who had been “gifted” as a slave twice?,” López said.

The expert says that in time, Malintzin became the Cortés' sex slave: “He didn't show her affection and reduced her to 'the tongue,' as his translator, although she gave birth to his first son (Martín Cortés), who was recognized by the colonizer. Nevertheless, Cortés separated Martín and Marina to take him to Spain and she never saw him again.”

Malintzin played an essential role during colonization because besides speaking Náhuatl and Maya, she also learned Spanish. López explains that “she had the gift of diplomacy, which implied the evaluation of the contexts before talking in order to make the best decision during difficult situations.”

The figure of "La Malinche" appeared in the “Texas Fragment” of the Florentine Codex and the Aperreamiento Manuscript.

Malintzin is depicted talking and in some cases, Cortés is only an observer. She is painted wearing beautiful clothes, wearing a huipil and a cueitl; with sandals and the majority of the times with her hair down. She is shown with her head upright or inclined backward, which distinguished the nobility,” the expert explains.

Other women

There were two other Indigenous women who stood out in the narrations that told the story of the colonization process. The first was Tecuelhuetzin, the daughter of Xicoténcatl the Old, the governor of Tlaxcala, and the other is Tecuichpo, the daughter of Moctezuma II and the legitimate heiress of the Mexica throne.

The Tlaxcaltecas signed an alliance with the Spanish and “gifted” them some noblewomen, one of them was Tecuelhuetzin, who was later baptized as María Luisa Xicoténcatl and became Pedro de Alvarado's wife.

When Tecuichpo was 11 years old, she married her uncle Cuitláhuac, who died a few months later of smallpox. Then she married her cousin, Cuauhtémoc but when he surrendered in 1521, he asked protection for his wife and the women in his family and “by 1526, Hernán Cortés granted her and her descendants the benefits and resources of the people of Tacuba. She was evangelized and baptized as Mrs. Isabel of Moctezuma,” López explained.

In total, Tecuichpo married 5 times. Her last marriage was to Juan Cano de Saavedra, with whom she has 5 children: Gonzálo, Pedro, Juan, Isabel, and Catalina

Spanish women

According to Miriam López, they arrived in New Spain at the end of the military conquest: “Before, only María de Estrada was mentioned as one of Cortés' soldiers. We have very little information about her although there are novels created around this enigmatic character based on the few details and filling the gaps with fictitious tales.”

López explains that the women who participated in the colonization are not remembered “because of the lack of testimonies with full names. Marina, Luisa, and Isabel were noblewomen and we know part of their biography because of their abilities or for being part of a ruling family of the first order.”

Another factor is the fact that “the crooners, as the men in their times, didn't think it was relevant to record events related to women. Another factor was that historians haven't been interested in researching the role of women in history. Recently, academics have started studying groups that had remained marginalized in historical investigations: women, children, and other minorities.”


Malinche, the untold story

Some studies suggest Hernán Cortés and Malintzin met on March 6, 1519
Malinche, the untold storyMalinche, the untold story


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