(ca. 1504-ca. 1528)
Interpreter for Cortés
An Indian woman who became an interpreter and indispensable guide for the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortés during his conquest of Mexico, Malinche--also known as La Malinche--is one of the most controversial figures of early modern history. She is revered by some as a woman of remarkable courage and leadership and criticized by others as a traitor to the native people, but it is generally accepted that Cortés would not have been successful in defeating the Aztec Empire without her help.
We know little about her early life--not even her given name is certain--but she was born in the region of Coatzacoalcos in central Mexico in the early 1500s. Her father was a powerful lord, or cacique, but he died when Malinche was young; her mother remarried and gave birth to a son. According to one historical account, Malinche's mother wanted to ensure her son's inheritance, so she secretly sold Malinche to slave merchants and pretended that her daughter had died, although another account claims that Marina was kidnapped by the slave merchants. She was resold several times to chiefs of various tribes, which is most likely how she acquired her linguistic skill.
In 1519, Malinche was owned by a group of tribal lords on the Tabascan coast who decided to give some young slave women to the invading Spaniards; the gift was most likely intended to pacify the leader, Hernando Cortés, and encourage him to continue his march against Moctezuma, the feared leader of the Aztecs. Malinche was one of a group of twenty young Indian women who were presented to Cortés and his followers to provide domestic and sexual services. Cortés distributed the women among his officers; he first gave Malinche to one of his lieutenants, Alonso Puertocarrero, but soon after Cortés decided to take her for himself when her facility with lan-