Vicente Telles, “La Malinche,” 2018.
Jorge Gonzalez Camarena, “La pareja (The couple),” 1964
Alfredo Arregun, La Malinche ) (Malinche with Tlaloc), 1993.
Santa Barraza, “La Malinche,” 1991
Jess Helguera, “La Malinche,” 1941.
Both revered and reviled, La Malinche was an enigmatic figure whose legacy has inspired controversy, legend and adulation since the 16th century.
Depending on your point of view, the Indigenous woman who became the Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés’ translator and mistress was a survivor, traitor, sinner or saint.
Beginning Saturday, June 11, The Albuquerque Museum will present the first comprehensive exhibit examining the historical and cultural context of the woman at the heart of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico in a traveling show from the Denver Art Museum. The exhibition includes 68 artworks by 38 artists, several of them from New Mexico.
No one knows La Malinche’s real name.
In 1519, Cortés landed along the Gulf coast of Mexico with a small expedition. As he and his men fought with the Maya and the Nahuatl-speaking people, language became a nearly insurmountable barrier.
When they reached the present-day state of Tabasco, a ruler gave Cortés 20 young indigenous women. One of them was a teenaged girl referred to as Malina/li and later, Malinche.
Although her origins remain obscure, she was fluent in both Nahuatl and Maya. She skillfully leveraged those linguistic gifts in order to survive. Over the next two years, as the Spanish suffered setbacks before their final triumph over the Aztecs in 1521, Malinche would become Cortés’ translator and cultural interpreter.
The exhibition organizes her impact through five distinct archetypes or metaphors: the Interpreter, the Indigenous Woman, the Mother of a Mixed-Race, The Traitor and Chicana: Contemporary Reclamations.
“We know of La Malinche from both Indigenous and Spanish chronicles,” said Victoria Lyall, Denver Art Museum curator.
“She’s mentioned twice by Cortés in his letters to King Charles V.”
“Even though she is an historic figure, we don’t know a lot about her – her birth, death and her real name,” independent curator Terezita Romo added. “That left a big gap.”
Photographer Delilah Montoya, who has taught at the University of New Mexico, summed up the contradictions orbiting La Malinche in her portrait of a young girl wearing a communion dress. A hazy brothel background looms behind a drape. The scene sums up the dichotomy of the promiscuous traitor enmeshed within the chaste Christian.
“It’s this idea of the ambiguous look she has of being a good woman and a bad woman,” Romo said.
La Malinche gave birth to a son named Martin, who, because of his gilded parentage, came to represent the birth of mestizos in the New World. La Malinche later married a Spaniard named Juan Jaramillo and gave birth to a daughter.
“(La Malinche) was probably snatched during a battle,” Lyall said. “She was sold into slavery and raised among a Mayan-speaking community. She was baptized and given the name Marina by the Spaniards.”
Her mythology exploded after the Mexican Revolution, where politicians invoked La Malinche’s name to try to bring unity and develop the concept of a cosmic Mexican race. The ensuing chaos produced the legend that she gave birth to the first mestizo, a myth Lyall crushed.
“The Spanish had already been there for 36 months” before she met Cortés, she said.
Today, calling someone a La Malinche in Mexico remains an insult.
“It basically says she is the main protagonist of the fall of the (Indigenous) empire,” Romo said. “She was a spiritual traitor. If someone is a La Malinche, you turn your back on your own people.”
New Mexico santero Vicente Telles’ oil painting of La Malinche takes a gentler approach to its subject. Telles designed his portrait using the composition of a retablo reflecting the Virgin of Guadalupe.
“He was living in California when he made that work,” Romo said. “In his family, the people who were powerful, who got ahead and studied were the women. He identifies as a mestizo. He sees her as the mother mestizo.”
The work’s four medallions contain scenes from La Malinche’s life.
Texas-based artist Santa Barraza’s painting of her also contains symbolic echoes of retablos. La Malinche gazes down at a fetus curled on a plant while Cortés stands behind her. Above them hang shadows of the brutality of the conquest, including a hanging.
Barraza is saying “We are the product of that, but it wasn’t always romantic or consensual,” Romo said.
The Chicana section carries Malinche’s story into the 20th and 21st centuries, when artists began reclaiming Malinche as a survivor and inspiration for Chicana and Mexican artists.
The Los Angeles-based artist Mercedes Gertz portrayed Malinche as a bride framed by legs sprouting black stilettos like swords.
“That is (Gertz’s) face on her mother’s body,” Lyall said. “She’s addressing the dichotomy of the virgin as pure and Malinche as profane. She’s taking the format of the Virgin of Guadalupe, but you have a woman in a white dress surrounded by the black stilettos. She’s saying a woman is neither one or the other.”
“We’re living in a time when people are questioning the history we’ve been told,” Lyall added. “I had people crying in the gallery. I had people tell me it was the first time they saw themselves in a gallery.”