One of the things I loved about writing Secret of the Moon Conch was including historical figures who were in and around the Isle of Mexico during the siege of Tenochtitlan in 1521.
One of these people is the young woman history remembers as “La Malinche.”
But where does that name arise?
She was merely a teen—an enslaved worker in Pontonchan, capital of the Kingdom of Tabasco—when the Chontal Maya, in the wake of their defeat by Spanish invaders, gave her to Cortés. The conquistador discovered that she knew Nahuatl in additional to both Chontal Mayan (Yokotʼan) and Yucacatec Mayan (Maayaʼ tʼàan), so she became one of his two interpreters, without whom he could not have forged an alliance with Tlaxcallan, one of the Aztec Empire’s greatest rivals.
The teen was baptized and christened “Marina,” the name of an early Christian virgin martyr.
There is no “r” in Nahuatl, so the Nahuas she encountered called her “Malina.” As her role in the invasion became more pivotal, their respect for her grew, and they added the respectful suffix -tzin.
In the mouths of Nahuatl speakers, that final -in was, to Spanish ears, almost imperceptible. The title sounded to them a lot like “Malinche” (mah-LEEN-cheh), so that’s how the Spaniards pronounced it.
Remember, these are the same European dudes who twisted “Huitzilopochtli” into “Huichilobos.” They found Nahuatl sounds challenging, to say the least. To be fair, the articulation of “tz” (voiceless alveolar affricate, written /ts/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet) and “ch” (voiceless palato-alveolar affricate, written /tʃ/ in IPA) are VERY similar. What is happening with “Malintzin” → “Malinche” is called “palatalization,” a super common phenomenon in language. And many words in Mexican Spanish adopted from Nahuatl have undergone the same process (e.g. “chípil,” a folk illness of children akin to melancholia, from the Nahuatl word “tzipitl”).
Over the centuries, it’s become popular to theorize about what the original name of Doña Marina (as the Spaniards called her) might have been. Most Nahuas (especially commoners) simply went by their birth signs. If you were born on the date 3 Movement, you were Eyi Olin [3 Movement in Nahuatl].
There are thirteen dates in the sacred calendar that end in “Malinalli,” usually translated as “wild grass” (and assumed to be a variety of the Muhlenbergia genus of grass, known in Mexico as “zacate del carbonero”). Here are six of them:
- Ce malīnalli—1 Wild Grass, an unlucky sign. Florentine Codex Book 4, page 55.
- Ōme malīnalli—2 Wild Grass, an unlucky sign. FC 4.82.
- Chicuācen malīnalli — 6 Wild Grass, an unlucky sign. FC 4.20.
- Chicōme malīnalli — 7 Wild Grass, a lucky sign. FC 4.38.
- Chicuēyi malīnalli — 8 Wild Grass, a VERY lucky sign, like all the ones that start with an 8. FC 4.74.
- Chiucnāhui malīnalli — 9 Wild Grass, a day on which wizards work dark magic. FC 4.102.
Could one of these have been her name? Could Doña Marina / Malintzin have been originally been called something like “Chicome Malinalli” (7 Wild Grass)?
The argument is that she might have been christened with a name that was similar to her day sign. But there is no record of such measures being taken for other converts. Nahuas becoming Catholics took on names from the Bible or those of saints without regard for Native nomenclature.
Still, as people writing historical fiction, Guadalupe García McCall and I decided to use Malinalli as Marina’s Indigenous name. Part of the draw for us of the name derives from its origin.
The verb “malīna” means “to twist or roll [on the thigh].” The passive form is of the verb is “malīnalo” -> “is twisted.”
You can take a passive verb and make it a noun by dropping the -o and adding the absolutive ending (which is -tl after a vowel, -tli after most consonants except for “l,” which takes -li).
malīnalo -> malīnalli
Which means the literal meaning of “Malinalli” is “Twisted One” (either twisted thing or twisted person). It was used for the species of wild grass most commonly used to weave into ropes and sacks.
In Nahuatl poetry, there’s the idea that the gods roll the human soul like grass. Family, communities, armies, societies: these are all perceived as being woven together like ropes (mecatl).
And Marina / Malinalli was partly responsible for the [forced] interweaving of Spanish and Indigenous culture. That’s why folks call her a traitor.
HOWEVER … It’s clear that Malintzin was helping Tlaxcallan to overthrow the Triple Alliance. According to her daughter, she was from Ototlan (in modern Veracruz), a vassal state of the Mexica inhabited by groups known as Popolocah, who speak Mixe–Zoque languages (though Nahuatl functioned as a commercial and diplomatic lingua franca).
Malinalli wasn’t Nahua. Her people had been CONQUERED by Nahuas, specifically the Mexica-Acolhua-Tepaneca alliance we call the “Aztec Empire.” She was captured / sold into slavery as a child. Before being given to the Spaniards, and then aped by Cortés and his men.
She did what she could to survive.
Once Tenochtitlan fell, she was no longer a vital tool for Cortés, who gradually pushed her aside. Her first son, Martín (product of Cortés’ rape) was taken from her and shipped to Spain. She died when she was only 28 years old.
It’s horrifying that folks revile her.
She didn’t sell herself out. She didn’t sell her people out.
She survived, as long as she could, mustering what little agency she might, in a world that did all it could to snuff her existence out like a feeble flame.
I doubt many of us would have made it as long.