Malitzen was born around the year 1500, the eldest child of Mexican Amerindian nobility. She grew up in a region of the Yucatan Peninsula where the Mayan and Aztec Empires both had influence, though neither had complete control. Her parents named her Malinalli, after the goddess of grass. Malitzen must have been an outspoken child, because when she was still young her family added Tenepal, which means “one who speaks with liveliness,” to her name. When she was eight or nine years old, Malitzen was enslaved. It is not known whether she was sold by her family or kidnapped, because every historical text about her life tells the story differently. But it is certain that she was enslaved at a young age and moved away from her childhood home.
As an enslaved girl, Malitzen had no control over the work she was forced to do. She labored in the homes of those who owned her, cooking, cleaning, and performing any other domestic tasks she was assigned. She may have been rented to men as a sex slave. Malitzen was sold a few times during the early years of her enslavement, and traveled around the Yucatan Peninsula. During her travels, she became fluent in both Yucatec and Nahuatl, the languages of the Mayan and Aztec people.
In 1519, Malitzen’s life was forever changed by the arrival of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. When he arrived at the city of Pontonchan, the city leaders gave him twenty enslaved women as a peace offering. Malitzen was one of the women given to Cortés. The women were baptized by Catholic priests who traveled with Cortés, and each was given the European name Marina. Cortés gave Malitzen to one of the noblemen who served under him.
Cortés had come to the area with the intention of conquering the Aztec Empire. It was not long before he realized that Malitzen was fluent in the two major languages of the Yucatan Peninsula, and took her back as his personal slave. He needed her language skills to speak with the various Native leaders he would encounter during his conquest. At first, Malitzen was paired with a Spanish priest who could speak Yucatec, but she quickly learned Spanish so she could serve as Cortés’s only interpreter.
During Cortés’s conquest of the Aztec Empire, Malitzen served at his right hand. In recognition of her position within Cortés’s forces, his followers began to address her with the title Doña, an honorific meaning “lady” that was not usually used for enslaved women. It was at this time that the Aztec community began calling her Malitzen, a combination of her birth name with a Nahuatl honorific. She was so important in negotiations between the two groups that “Malitzen” became the word used to refer to Cortés as well. Montezuma, the ruler of the Aztecs, addressed all of his official correspondence with the Spanish to her. She appears in every illustration of Cortés meeting with Native leaders and nobility, and is sometimes even shown negotiating with leaders on her own. With Malitzen’s help and guidance, Cortés was able to make alliances with tribes who were tired of Aztec rule. She uncovered plots to betray the Spanish, giving Cortés time to stop them before their enemies did any serious damage. She participated in all of the major events of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, through the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521. Her work was so vital that Cortés himself once remarked to a comrade that, next to God, Malitzen was the most important factor in his success.
And yet, Malitzen’s rise came at a high cost to the Native people of Mexico. With her help, Cortés was able to kill the Aztec leader and end the rule of the Aztec Empire, ushering in a new era of Spanish domination. Some view her as a woman who single-handedly brought about the doom of her people to advance her own interests. In modern Mexican culture, her nickname, La Malinche, has become synonymous with deceit and betrayal. But this interpretation of Malitzen’s actions ignores one key fact: throughout the conquest, no matter how much power she seemed to wield, Malitzen was a slave. She had to serve the interests of her master, or risk death at his hands. She may also have had very little affection for the society that had allowed her to be enslaved and ruthlessly exploited when she was still a child. It is impossible to know for certain what Malitzen’s motivations were, because she left no written record. But when considering her story, it is important to keep all of the circumstances of her life in mind.
After the conquest of the Aztec Empire was complete, Malitzen continued to live with Cortés as his slave and interpreter. She bore him a son, Martin, in 1522. It is impossible to know whether this was something she wanted or whether it was forced upon her.
Throughout the conquest, no matter how much power she seemed to wield, Malitzen was a slave.
In 1524, Malitzen travelled with Cortés to the area of modern-day Honduras, where she again served as his interpreter while he tried to suppress a rebellion. In the same year, Malitzen married Juan Jaramillo, one of Cortés’s captains. The marriage elevated Malitzen to the status of a free Spanish noblewoman, with all the rights and privileges of that class. Cortés arranged the marriage, and it is probable that he did so to get Malitzen out of his household before his wife arrived in the colony. So even though her marriage meant a major improvement of status for Malitzen, it was still an instance where her life course was altered to suit the needs of others.
Malitzen bore a daughter, Maria, for Juan Jaramillo in 1526. Her marriage meant that both of her children became part of the Spanish nobility in Mexico and back in Spain. Their prominence as members of the new mixed-race generation earned Malitzen a new honorific: “mother of the mestizo race.”
Malitzen died in 1529 during a smallpox outbreak. Though she was only about 29 years old, in her short life she acted as one of the most important figures of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and she left the world a wealthy, free woman. Historians still debate how her life should be interpreted, but there is no doubt that her actions changed the course of Mexican history.