CONSIDER THE ALTERNATIVES Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico By Camilla Townsend Reviewed by Martha Gies


Someone new to the observation of Mexican politics might imagine, having watched the six-year impasse of Vincente Fox’s presidency, that the success of the president rises or falls in direct proportion to his or her ability to capture and hold the attention of the United States.  Fox started out strong: supported by banks and corporations, he was decidedly the US choice.  A tall drink of Coke in cowboy boots, he talked pardner-to-pardner with President Bush, at least in that first year, as the two ranchers visited each other’s spreads. But the cowboy cookouts ended dramatically on 9/11, when Bush turned his attention to Afghanistan and how to make the US borders impermeable.  Fox spent the next five years of his term waiting to get another hearing for the issues on which his campaign was based: a fair application of NAFTA, less death at the US border, and amnesty for Mexican workers in the US.  As his term came to an end, late last summer, Fox had begun to look like a malinchista. 

            A malinchista, explains Octavio Paz, in his now classic 1950 book El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude), is someone who is eager to get screwed by foreigners. “Doña Marina [the translator for and consort of Cortés] becomes a figure representing the Indian women who were fascinated, violated or seduced by the Spaniards,” Paz writes. Camilla Townsend, in this wonderful new volume, means to peel off the dishonor attached to Doña Marina, or Malinche.

            But first, Townsend explains how the name came about in the first place.  The Spaniards had called the girl by the Christian name of Marina when she, along with 19 others, was first given to them by the Chontal Maya to be a cook and concubine.  Marina, having no “r” sound in her language, heard it as Malina.  The indigenous people whom she and Cortés met on their travels added an honorific ending, and she became Malintzin.  The Spanish, in turn, thought they were hearing Malinche.

            Townsend touches on the popular depictions—seducer, conniver, betrayer—of Malinche in film and literature (to which can now be added the new novel Malinche by Laura Esquivel), then explains in her introduction:

[T]here is probably only one compelling reason why a traditional biography of Malinche was not written years ago: that it cannot be done.  The evidence simply does not exist to write such a book.  The woman left us no diaries or letters, not a single page.  We do however, have enough ethnographic evidence about Nahuas and Spaniards for another kind of book, for one that provides full details on every aspect of Malinche’s context and places her actions in their proper setting, allowing readers to see what kind of thoughts she might have entertained in such a situation, as well as the extent to which her decisions mattered.


In fact, they mattered a lot, as anyone reading Townsend’s book will come to believe. 

But first, by way of dismissing any notion that Malintzin took up voluntarily with the Spaniards, let alone betrayed her own tribe, Townsend, who has studied Nahuatl—Malintzin's first language—and sifted through early accounts, indigenous codices, and legal documents, pieces together a probable early biography, painstakingly documenting her reasoning in fifty pages of footnotes that read like a detective novel. The joy Townsend takes in these minute discoveries makes the notes a pleasure to read, as does her habit of generously commending other scholars on their work and insights.  


            Malintzin was born in the region of the River Coatzacoalcos, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico (today the south Veracruz coast).  Her family, the author convincingly conjectures, probably “comprised a lineage of conquerors from an earlier era.”  Nahautl was the language of the minority elite. Then Malintzin was kidnapped.  Townsend accepts the theory that she was stolen away by merchants. 

Somewhere between about age eight and age twelve, Malintzin herself suddenly faced the abyss: one devastating day, she found herself in the hands of long-distance slave traders.  They took her by canoe down the wide, muddy river to the billowing salt sea and then headed east, following the coast.  The roots and tendrils connecting her to family, calpolli [big house], and altepetl [settlement clustered around a hill with water] were severed in an hour.


The merchants—if that is who her kidnappers were—rowed her 150 miles south along the coast, where they sold her to the Chontal Maya, who were wealthy producers of cotton.

This was a darker world than Malintzin had yet known, for along the river the tropical forest made a canopy that cut off the light.  She saw huge ceiba and mahogany trees and smaller palms and rubber trees.  They left the boats and followed the paths where passing feet had worn away the grass and exposed the gray earth.  It was hard packed sometimes but could be muddy in this rain-inundated world, requiring that little wooden footbridges be laid here and there.  Birds called piercingly to each other, some familiar to her, some strange.


            In 1519, when the “bearded men” arrived at this same coast, intending to explore the mainland from their base in Cuba, the natives didn’t have a chance: their armor was made of cotton.  The Chontal Maya lost 220 men within a matter of hours.  It was after this disaster that the Chontal gave the Spaniards gifts of submission: food, gold—and twenty women.  Cortés, in turn, gave Malintzin to the most prominent of his men, Alfonso Hernández Puertocarrero, who was related to a count back home in Spain.

            Though bilingual in her native Nahuatl and the Popoluca spoken by the lower class majority where she was raised, and trilingual since her capture and sale  to the Chontal, Malintzin’s skills were not initially used by the Spanish;  

they had with them Jerónimo de Aguilar, who had learned Yucatec Maya during his own captivity among the Indians, and he had ably served as the only translator  Cortés needed.  But some weeks later, when the conquistadors sailed north to the present site of Veracruz, they were met by Aztecs sent by Moctezuma to keep an eye on the coast.  Jerónimo de Aguilar had never heard this new language.  When Malintzin stepped forward to translate from Nahuatl into Maya, she stepped forward into her destiny.

            "It would be well to pause to consider Malintzin’s options,” Townsend writes. 

She knew that she could certainly continue in silence as the concubine and slave of Puertocartero –a man who had once even abandoned a Castilian woman whom he had persuaded to run away with him.  When he tired of his Indian girl, or when he was killed, she would be at the mercies of whichever of the Spaniards were left alive–perhaps even their common property, as some of the young women probably had already become.  Or alternatively, she could speak aloud, earning the respect and gratitude of all the men present, and especially of their charismatic leader.  In that case she herself would probably live longer, as she might stave off battles with the locals and could certainly help to obtain food.  She could not possibly have harbored any loyalty to Moctezuma or desire to shield him from these well-armed newcomers.  Any assertion that she should have entertained such feelings would literally have confused her.  He and his kind had always been the enemy; the merchants who sold her in Xicallanco almost certainly were numbered among his people.  In what way could she be construed as his ally or as owing him allegiance?

            She did what almost anyone in her situation would have done.  She worked with Jerónimo de Aguilar to translate conversations between Cortés and the emissaries from Moctezuma.


And so she traveled 263 miles from the coast, where the Spanish had newly established the town of Veracruz, up and over the Sierra Madre Oriental, passing near Mexico’s highest peak, to Moctezuma’s empire at Tenochitlan.  At the side of Cortés, who was mounted on horseback, Malintzin walked.

            Townsend reconstructs what it must have been like for her to arrive at the great Mexica (we call it Aztec) capital at last:

That night, Malintzin slept in fine quarters in the finest city of her known world.  The brightly painted walls and stairwells were alive with carved animals and the images of gods, the floors and beds lined with the softest mats.  It was the city of her people’s enemies, a city that lived by making war, a city full of captive women–as she had once been herself.  But she was no longer one of the expendable, invisible ones.  Servants now brought her succulent foods.  Everyone sought her out; she alone could resolve the difficulties that arose as living arrangements were sorted out between two groups of people who could not understand each other at all.


            Malintzin’s Choices is a thrilling read, chronicling the fall of the Triple Alliance, the great and powerful empire headed by Moctezuma at Tenochtitlán, which had spread empire across 80,000 square miles.  Townsend takes Malintzin’s story beyond the Spanish victory:  she bore Cortés a son whom he named Martín, after his own father; traveled in 1523 with Cortés to Honduras; and married the Spaniard Juan Jaramillo in 1524, with whom she had a daughter.  In January 1529, shortly after Cortés returned to Spain, taking with him their six-year-old son, Malintzin died.  The record does not tell us how, though Townsend speculates that one of the epidemics that killed so many of the indigenous took her too.     


Not only does Townsend write lovely prose, but her work is enlivened with real voice, with judgments informed by compassion and sense.  Writing on the daily routine in a polygamous household, for instance, Townsend notes: “[T]he women all worked together in the one well-lit area—the courtyard they shared in common—joking together and helping to care for each other’s babies.  They lived together for years, sharing good times and bad; this is the stuff that love is made of.” The book is illustrated with indigenous documents—maps, fragments, codices—that clearly show Malintzin's prominence at significant meetings between the Spanish and the various tribes.  An appendix includes a dozen pages of Nahuatl songs that a concubine might sing.

            As a teacher of creative writing, I get journalists, publicists, scholars, and lawyers in my class who, by their own account, want to shed some imagined déformation professionnelle—some cramp in their style they believe their work has forced upon them.  I am quick to remind journalists who imagine themselves stifled by the inverted pyramid structure of the news story that the great literary stylist Gabriel Garcia Marquez was and is a journalist.  To the very next academic who complains she is mired in the passive constructions and polysyllabic style “required” for her doctoral thesis, I shall recommend Camilla Townsend’s beautiful and scholarly book.



Martha Gies is the author of Up All Night (2004), a portrait of Portland, Oregon, told through the stories of 23 people who work graveyard shift, as well as many short stories and essays published in literary quarterlies over the last twenty years. She teaches in the graduate writing program at Lewis & Clark College in Portland and at Traveler's Mind, a summer writing program in Veracruz, Mexico.

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