Women of Royalty
La Malinche & The Mexican Conquest

Riches to Rags      

The princess Malinali Tenepal was born around 1505 to the cacique, lord, of Paynala, a Mayan city near present-day Coatzacoalcos, which at the time was an isolated and frontier region between the Aztec Empire (called Anahuac by the Aztecs) and the Mayan of the Yucatan Peninsula. Supposedly a prodigy in linguistics, Malinali Tenepal was educated in not only her Náhuatl language of Nahuatl but also in Yucatec Mayan, a language indigenous to the Mayans of the Yucatan. Destined to become the heir to her familys fortune, Malinalis life was quickly abrupt when her father died even though she was still a child. Her mother remarried and so Malinalis stepfather (who was the cacique of a neighboring village) non-hereditarily became the cacique of Paynala. Unfortunately Malinali found that her family life was ruined with the infiltration of this new man and to her distress, her mother gave birth to a baby boy within the next few years. Malinalis life changed forever after this event. Power-hungry, Malinali's stepfather plotted to get rid of her and put his son in the succession line. Eventually, Malinalis mother gave into the plot. And so on one cold December night, Malinali was tied up and locked away. Unbeknownst to her, her mother and stepfather had planned out their ruination of Malinali carefully and cleverly. To have success with their plan to disown Malinali, her mother and stepfather took the body of one of the familys slaves child who resembled Malinali and told Paynala that Malinali had tragically died. As the funeral ceremony took place or afterwards, slave traders from Xicalango, an important coastal city of the time, came to the household and took Malinali away. Malinalis young stepbrother then fulfilled the place of heir to the lordship of Paynala. Eventually, Malinali was sold as a slave to the Chontal Maya, the military chief and lord, of Potonchan (present-day Tabasco). Although a mere slave, Malinalis master took notice of her strong linguistic skills. And then in April of 1519, Malinali took her role in the fate of Mexican history.

Hernán Cortés

Hernán Cortés was born in 1485 in Medellin in the Spanish province of Extremadura to Martín Cortés de Monroy and Catalina Pizarro Altamirano. An unsuccessful student in Salamanca (he was studying to be a lawyer), Cortés turned to a career in exploration in 1502. After taking part in the conquests of Cuba and Hispaniola he received a large estate and a handful of slaves. In 1517 and 1518, Cortés heard of the stories of the expeditions of Hernandez de Cordoba and Juan de Grijalva, who had searched for gold out towards the west of Cuba. They returned with little gold but instead with many stories of riches and exuberant amounts of gold much farther west than they had traveled. Entranced, Cortés sold his estate and lands and bought ships and supplies. After coming to an agreement with the Governor of Cuba in 1519, Cortés set out to explore the Eastern Coast of Mexico with 11 ships, 500 men, and 15 horses. After landing in Vera Cruz in early March, Cortés was told of the riches of the Aztec capital of Tenóchtitlan by the Cempoala. Cortés began his expedition out west and in April he reached Potonchan, where the Chontal Maya gave him a lavish welcome and the gift of fourteen slave girls. One of them was Malinali Tenepal.

Mistress, Interpreter, and Partner

Malinali never chose to be part of the gift to Cortés, but was rather forced into it. The first thing Cortés did once he received his slaves was to have them all baptized. Malinali took the name Doña Marina. Then Cortés decided to give the women to his highest ranking or favorite men. He singled out Malinali for Alonzo Hernando Puertocarrero. However, Puertocarrero was soon called to do work for Cortés: to be his emissary for Emperor Charles V in Spain. Cortés took Malinali to be his own. Despite her reluctance to be subjected to this mysterious bearded man, Malinali turned out to be a great asset to Cortés from the start. Cortés quickly discovered her ability to speak two languages after she communicated with Cortés' priest, Jerónimo Aguilar, who knew Yucatec Mayan after spending years in the Yucatan shipwrecked. Within a few weeks, Malinali was no longer a slave to Cortés but rather his affiliate. During the many conversations with natives Malinali would translate their Nahuatl into Mayan. Aguilar would then translate the Mayan into Spanish for Cortés to understand. The cycle seemed to work out successfully, but there is reason to believe that Malinali altered sentences and details to benefit Cortés before translating them to and from the Aztecs and non-Mayan natives. This especially came into play when Cortés received ambassadors from the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma. The men identified Cortés as the Aztec god Quetzacoatl, who had been prophesized would return that same year to destroy Anahuac. Malinali either urged Cortés to stick with this idea that he was the Aztec god or she chose to tell the men that indeed he was Quetzacoatl. Either way, Cortés soon became known as Quetzacoatl.     

The City of Gold

For the next few months, Cortés and his entourage traveled the Yucatan and eastern Mexico. At every stop they were greeted with celebration and pomp and Cortés was praised as a god. Showered with gold and gifts, Cortés and his men could only imagine the fineries of Tenóchtitlan that had been the stuff of legend and lore for months beforehand as told in Cuba. Malinali played her part in Cortés achievements. Not only was she his translator but she also served as his assistant in his affairs with the Aztecs and the non-Mayan natives. Being well educated in the cultures and customs of the people of Mexico, Malinali was able to help Cortés successfully gain the praise of the Mexican natives that he visited cities occupied by. Cortés was sure that he would one day gain everything he saw before him and it would one day belong to himself and Spain.  There were setbacks to the expedition however. Not all of the tribes accepted Cortés as Quetzacoatl or as a friend and lead attacks on Cortés that delayed his journey to the Aztec capital.                               

In the fall of 1519, Cortés, Malinali, and their entourage and armies reached the fabled city of Tenóchtitlan.  By now, not only had Malinali learned enough Spanish to be able to talk directly between Cortés and the Aztecs and non-Mayans but she had also become very close to Malinali and was pregnant with his child. She had become his mistress and was certainly more privileged and consulted than most of the men in Cortés entourage. Upon their entrance in Tenóchtitlan, Emperor Moctezuma welcomed Cortés and his party into his palace at the center of the capital. The city was more than Cortés could dream of. Gold and fine things were everywhere. The temples and buildings were drenched in jewels and gold. The very rivers that could have flowed with gold there was so much of it. Men of the party compared the grand city to the European wonders of Venice which Tenóchtitlan resembled very much because it too was built on water (Lake Texcoco) and divided into canals and Constantinople. Emperor Moctezuma set up Cortés in the late Emperor Axayacatls palace.  Moctezuma was eager to appease his guest whom he devoutly believed to be Quetzacoatl returned and fulfilled Cortés every whim. Cortés asked for vast amounts of gold to be given to himself and each of his men and it was given to him. Cortés pushed farther by demanding that a certain amount of gold be sent to him and the King of Spain each year as tribute and Moctezuma granted Cortes demand. But Cortés deeply angered the city when he had the idols in the temples of Tenóchtitlan removed and destroyed and then replaced them with statues of the Virgin Mary.

As the weeks progressed, Cortés continued to control Moctezuma and therefore the city and Malinali continued to aid him in both a professional and a personal way. She continued to hold his child, but Cortés had other plans in mind. Upon his arrival in Tenóchtitlan, Cortés received a few of Moctezumas daughters, princesses, as a gift. With these princesses, Cortés intended them to bear his children so that his blood would stay in the lineage of the Aztec royalty. But this was never to be.

The people of Tenóchtitlan had had enough of Cortés and the strangers that had come into their lives and were now on the verge of controlling their empire that they knew nothing of only that it flowed with gold and riches. By the summer of 1520, revolution broke out. When Cortés received overwhelming complaints that the people of Tenóchtitlan were mistreating his men he decided to take action by imprisoning Emperor Moctezuma. His idea was that the citizens were on the verge of revolt and that they would not dare to do so as long as this stranger held their ruler hostage. But instead this plan backfired. Upon losing their ruler, who they had portrayed as a weak ruler upon his devotion to the pretender that Cortés was, the people of Tenóchtitlan simply elected themselves a new ruler Cuitláuac. Upon his election, Cuitláuac ordered that the palace be surrounded so that Cortés and Moctezuma be imprisoned and unable to do anything but give into Cuitláuac. Quickly running out of ideas, Cortés had Moctezuma go out on one of the palace balconies to speak to his people to gain sympthay for himself, and more importantly, Cortés. But the people had no intention of listening to Moctezuma and so they screamed and yelled and jeered, threatening and humiliating their former ruler. Soon the scene became violent and someone in the crowd threw a stones at the balcony. The stone hit Moctezuma, fatally injuring him. Within a few days, Moctezuma, once the emperor of a city that rivaled the greatest kingdoms in the world, was dead.

Now that Moctezuma was dead the people decided not to storm the palace but instead to starve Cortés and his men out. As Cortés continued to plan how he and his armies and entourage would escape, preferably with the riches they had come for, Malinali planned the same. She contemplated if she had a future with her master, for she was still carrying his child, or if she would be abandoned. She refused to become a regular mother for her skills were that to match the abilities of men in her culture. But as the weeks progressed she realized she was just a current matter with Cortés. She would probably be abandoned by him eventually or at least given to one of his men as she had seen happen to the women who had been given to Cortés as gifts. Cortés simply needed Malinali to succeed in his expedition to gain the riches of the Aztec empire.


La Noche Triste & The Sad End


Cortés finally came to his decision. On July 1, 1520, he decided that he would escape. As his armies faced the Aztecs the fighting became increasingly violent. The entire city of Tenochtitlán was consumed in fierce fighting and violence. Dead bodies were sprawled about, heads were mounted, idols of both opposing sides were destroyed, and countless women were raped. But in the midst of the fighting many of the Spanish men were content on bringing the riches of Tenochtitlán home with them. Although it was virtually impossible to escape the city alive with the treasure, the Cortés men packed bags full of jewels and gold, lugging them behind themselves and carting off idols and statues and anything in sight. Fires consumed the city and then the unexpectable happened - the people of Tenochtitlán destroyed the causeways connecting the city to the shore of the lake. Now the Spanish strangers were locked into the city. As the fighting continued, Cortés and Malinali, with Cortés highest-ranking officials, planned their escape in the palace. They knew there was a chance that their armies would be defeated but they as a group had to escape. And so the group escaped the palace on horseback (Malinali and Cortés together on one horse), carrying what riches they could find with them. Seeing that the causeways had been destroyed, Cortés ordered that his men do the only thing they could do - swim across Lake Texcoco to shore. While Cortés and a small number were on horseback and had a safer crossing, Cortés hundreds of troops were forced to swim on their own and they chose to drag their treasure with them, thus leading to many of the men drowning. As both man and beast drowned in the lake, Aztec warriors shot flaming arrows and other dangerous weapons across the lake, causing even more casualties. by the time the crossing had ended, the lake was flooded with dead bodies and most of the treasure of Tenochtitlán was had sunk into the murky deep of Lake Texcoco. This day forever became known as La Noche Triste - The Sad Night.

After the horrible defeat and humiliation, Cortés and what remained of his original brigade (a little over 400 Spaniards and almost 5 times that many Aztecs died on La Noche Triste) began to head to the Yucatan coast. On their journey, Cortés met a large group of fellow Spaniards who had been sent by the Governor of Cuba to arrest him for disobeying the orders given to him (Cortés was never originally supposed to have traveled to Tenochtitlán and done what he had done and in fact had been called back to Cuba earlier in the campaign). Cortés saved himself by describing the vast treasures that awaited the large armies if they traveled to Tenochtitlán and conquered it. In awe, the armies agreed to merge with Cortés and defeat Tenochtitlán. With the aid of many native allies who hoped to achieve Spanish favor, including the Tlaxcalans, Cortés began the siege of Tenochtitlán. Finally, on August 13, 1521, the Aztec Emperor Cuauhtémoc (Emperor Cuitláuac had since died from smallpox) surrendered to Cortés as the city fell into ruins and destruction. Almost 200,000 Aztecs were killed in the process.

The same year Malinali gave birth to her son by Cortés (she suffered miscarriages in the past) named Don Martín Cortés. For years afterwards there is no historical evidence or record of her. In 1524 she returns alongside Cortés on his campaign through Guatemala and Honduras. In the Yucatan she and Cortés parted with her marriage to Juan Jaramillo, a wealthy Spaniard whom she was given to as a gift by Cortés. After this Malinali disappears, with her death estimated to be around 1529, at the age of 24.

The Traitor



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