Cortés and La Malinche
Part 1 of the Spanish Invasion
La Malinche, his consort, translator and advisor, without whom the diplomatic maneuvering which was as much a part of the conquest as the fighting would have been impossible, is often regarded as a whore and traitor. Her name has come to be used to describe a person who turns his back on his own culture: malinchista.
That Cortés was able to wheel and deal with the natives on a complex level was due to two great strokes of luck. The first, while he was still at Cozumel, was the addition to his band of Jerónimo de Aguilar, a priest who had been shipwrecked on the coast eight years before and kept as a slave by Yucatan Mayas. He spoke Spanish and Mayan.
Then, after their first military victory in what is now the state of Tabasco, they received among other forms of tribute 20 Indian women; one of them was Malinche, christened Doña Marina. Malinche was the daughter of the lord of a Náhuatl-speaking town. After her father died and her mother remarried, she became an inconvenient stepchild and was secretly sold as a slave to a Mayan lord, while her mother and stepfather gave out that she had died. Now she had been given to these strangers. No one could have guessed how important that would be.
Now Cortés could speak to the Aztecs, not with grunts and signs but with precise and often devious detail. Cortés would speak to Aguilar in Spanish, Aguilar would speak to Malinche in Mayan, and she would translate into Náhuatl, the language of the central Mexican highlands.
NOTE: Quotes from DÃaz and CortÃ©s are from the following sources:
The Conquest of New Spain, Bernal DÃaz del Castillo. Translated by J. M. Cohen. Penguin Books, 1963.
Letters from Mexico, HernÃ¡n CortÃ©s. Translated by Anthony Pagden. Yale University Press, 1986.