The First New American

Jane Eppinga adds to the legend of Doña Maria in her thrilling 'La Malinche'

She had many names: La Malinche, Malintzin, Malinalli and, in the end, Doña Marina.

Some call her a whore and a traitor; others call her a proto-feminist and the mother of all Mexicans. Her history is complex, her legend more so. She remains one of the most fascinating and mysterious figures from the conquest of Mexico: the native interpreter who loved Cortés the killer, the mother of Don Martin Cortes, the so-called first mestizo, the first New American.

According to the great Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the Aztec empire would not have fallen to that undermanned band of Spanish adventurers without her help. Diaz was there in Tenochtitlan when it all went down, and as an old man, he recorded what he had seen in his The True History of the Conquest of New Spain.

"Without the help of Doña Marina, we could not have understood the language of New Spain and Mexico," Diaz wrote, adding that "Doña Marina was a person of greatest importance and was obeyed without question by the Indians throughout New Spain."

Diaz tells us that Marina was a chieftain's daughter from Veracruz who had been sold into slavery to make way for a beloved half-brother. She spoke Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, as her primary tongue, but also learned to speak Chontal Maya. She was part of a group of women given to Cortés after the battle of Cintla in the Gulf Coast region, after which she was often seen at the captain's side and in his tent.

Aztec depictions of the conquest show her ever at his ear. Diaz writes that Marina would translate Nahuatl into Chontal Maya for Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spaniard who had gone native after being shipwrecked in 1511, who would then translate Chontal Maya into Spanish for Cortés. Later, it seems that Marina picked up Spanish as well, thus eliminating the need for a system that likely caused a few misunderstandings.

Cortés himself was less than effusive about Marina, and he later gave her to conquistador Juan Jaramillo. In his second letter to King Charles V from the New World, Cortés mentions her only as "my interpreter, who is an Indian woman from Putunchan." But his actions reveal, or at least suggest, that his feelings for Marina ran deep. In his will, he gave their son Martin 1,000 gold ducats a year for life.

Such suggestions, combined with the relative paucity of hard facts about her life, have inspired countless writers and artists to use and abuse Marina, variously celebrating her power and independence, and condemning her apparent complicity in the destruction of an indigenous empire.

The Marina depicted in local author Jane Eppinga's unabashedly romantic novel, La Malinche, is a commoner brought to the palace of the Aztec emperor Ahuitzotl as a secret replacement for the stillborn child of the emperor's favorite wife. Taunted with evil omens from the start, the girl is tossed into the middle of a war between gods. The pale-faced god Quetzalcoatl haunts her dreams, and she sees in these dreams her destiny. She is beautiful, confident, intelligent and lusty, and is a favorite of Ahuitzotl. She is meant to marry the up-and-comer Moctezuma, who will soon replace her father as emperor, only to lose his empire to strange men from across the sea, realizing too late that they are not the returning gods he took them for.

Eppinga is at her best when she is describing daily life in Tenochtitlan, the gleaming Aztec capital. She is not afraid to let her imagination color and play around with her obviously deep knowledge of life in the Valley of Mexico in the early 1500s. She takes the reader inside the Aztec world and also inside the Aztec mind. In this passage, she describes the preamble to Marina's marriage to Moctezuma:

Moctezuma arrived in a bright red and green canoe from across Lake Texcoco. Six gorgeously attired servants transferred him to a solid gold litter with an eagle and a serpent carved into each corner post. Heavy drapes covered with feathers of the blue cotinga, the roseate spoonbill and the green quetzal, shielded his eyes from having to gaze upon the poor.

The relatively short novel is full of this kind of detail, along with a fair amount of blood, sex, adventure and cannibalism.

Eppinga has given us a thrilling read with La Malinche. It is a visionary, fantastical tale, strange and violent, and a worthy addition to the ever-growing legend of Doña Marina.

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