Who was Malintzin?

Malintzin, also known as Doña Marina or La Malinche, was an Indigenous Nahua woman who lived in Mexico during the 16th century. She became the translator for Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés, who invaded Mexico in 1519, once she was given to him as a slave.


“She is someone who has become known in mythology and popular mythology,” explains Dr Caroline Dodds Pennock, “but I don’t think we know very much about her as a woman".

Historian Caroline Dodds Pennock
Historian Caroline Dodds Pennock

Malintzin’s life

The information we have on Malintzin comes after she was enslaved by Hernando Cortés. She was a Nahuatl-speaking woman, possibly of noble descent, who was sold into slavery in a Maya community. Pennock explains that it’s difficult to tell the details of this exchange but, at the age of perhaps no more than 16, she was enslaved by Cortés along with a group of women.

Malintzin was then enslaved to a man in Cortés’s company, Alonso Hernández Puertocarrero. However, as Cortés’s expedition progressed, he realised how useful Malintzin could be to him. She was capable of conversing in both Nahuatl and Maya with Indigenous peoples, and her talents as a linguist led to a position as Cortés’s translator.

Pennock says that Malintzin’s role as a translator was “absolutely vital” in the conquest of the Aztec empire as, although Cortés did use brutal force at times, he also built alliances with Indigenous peoples. The most famous of these alliances was with the Tlaxcalans, who became his principal allies; they formed tens of thousands in his company when he beseiged Tenochtitlan and defeated the Aztec capital city.

It is difficult to analyse Malintzin’s part in the conquest because we don’t hear much about her as an individual. Indigenous people began calling Cortés a version of Malintzin’s name, and she appears either in front or beside him in pictographic texts. The two became almost as “one person” in the Indigenous mind and, if anything, Pennock adds, they viewed Malintzin as more important than Cortés. The problem with this, however, is the slight scapegoating of Malintzin in Spanish and Mexican histories over some of the events that occurred.

Pennock notes the complex nature of Malintzin’s resultant legacy. She had a son with Cortés, and often appears in conflicting narratives. For instance, her alternate name ‘Malinchista’ is given to betrayers in Mexico, but she has also been claimed as an emblem of Indigenous femininity by the Chicana women’s movement.

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“She hasn’t got one single history,” Pennock says, on the difficulty of disentangling Malintzin as a human from the various accounts she exists within. “We often see her inside the stories, but her own agency is quite hidden”. Pennock argues that Malintzin can be seen as a woman who made the best of her situation, and elevated herself from enslavement to being an influential figure.

Why does Malintzin deserve her 15 minutes of fame?

Malintzin deserves her 15 minutes of fame, Pennock explains, because she stands as an emblem for all the intermediaries and the, usually Indigenous, people who are part of this exchange but who often get lost and forgotten.

It is also Malintzin as a woman that Pennock argues for remembrance of: "she’s often seen more as an emblem, as a figure for various movements or ideas than she is a person. She is viewed as someone who plays a critical role in a famous moment of history, but herself gets lost."

Dr Caroline Dodds Pennock is a lecturer in international history at the University of Sheffield. Her upcoming book On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe will be released in January 2023 and is available to pre-order now


Jon Bauckham spoke to Dr Caroline Dodds Pennock. Listen to the full interview and find more episodes in our 15 minutes of fame podcast series


Lauren GoodDigital Editorial Assistant, HistoryExtra

Lauren Good is the digital editorial assistant at HistoryExtra, She joined the team in 2022 after completing an MA in Creative Writing, and she holds a first-class degree in English and Classical Studies, during which she studied ancient history and philosophy