The lasting influence of La Malinche, the Nahua translator


Sandy Rodriguez’s painting “Mapa for My Malinche and our Stolen Sisters” (2021) welcomes visitors to the Albuquerque Museum exhibit Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche. The show presents a reinterpretation of the turbulent story of La Malinche, the indigenous woman who translated for Hernan Cortés during the Spanish invasion of central Mexico. Some consider her the “Eve” of Mexico, while others criticize Malinche for her role in colonization. Yet she continued to promote diplomacy during her negotiations.

Rodriguez paints his work on a buddy, a paper made since the Mesoamerican period. She traces pivotal moments in Malinche’s life across Mexico while painting handprints on the map in a bright red pigment, most visible at the border. These marks allude to missing or murdered Indigenous women across the country, an ongoing problem.

Alfredo Arreguín, “La Malinche (with Tlaloc) (Malinche [with Tlaloc])” (1993), oil painting on canvas, 48 ​​× 36 inches (courtesy Keller family, © Alfredo Arreguín, image courtesy Rob Vinnedge Photo)

Rodriguez’s work depicts historical and contemporary violence against Indigenous women, highlighting the continued silence of the subject. She establishes a tension between the story of Malinche – the one that men have manipulated throughout history – and the stories of women removed from current history. The exhibition provides a space to confront and critique Malinche’s continued appropriation and the cultural tensions that are established within it.

Hailing from the Denver Art Museum (DAM), the exhibition brings together Mexican and American artists and more than 60 works in the first comprehensive exploration of the historical and cultural significance of La Malinche. Born around 1500, Malinche was sold as a slave as a teenager, offered to Cortés and baptized with the Christian name “Marina”. Malinche spoke Mayan and Nahuatl, a valuable resource for Cortés, and was his chief negotiator with native societies. Native accounts of Malinche refer to him as “Malintzin”. The Nahuatl suffix “-tzin” was honorific, but many modern interpretations label Malinche a traitor.

The exhibition presents a critical reading of La Malinche, showing how artists have used her image to express reverence, betrayal and resilience. The exhibition explores these tensions by exhibiting historical works alongside contemporary works, tracing its importance within the Mexican and Mexican American communities.

Robert C. Buitrón, “Malinche y Pocahontas Chismeando con PowerBooks (Malinche and Pocahontas chatting with PowerBooks)” from the series El Corrido by Happy Trails (with Pancho and Tonto) (1995), gelatin silver print (photo Nancy Zastudil/Hyperallergic)

Co-curator Terezita Romo proposed the exhibition design to Victoria Lyall, Jan and Frederick Mayer Curator of Ancient American Art at DAM, following the five archetypes described in her 2005 essay “Malinche as Metaphor”: “Language/The interpreter,” “The Native/The Aboriginal woman”, “The Madre of Crossbreeding/The mother of a mixed race”, “The Traidora/The Traitor” and “Chicana: Contemporary Claims”.

“La Lengua” section highlights Malinche’s role as Cortés language, his “language” during their chronicles, underlining the essential role of Malinche as a translator and first communicator. “Malinche and Pocahontas Chatting with PowerBooks” (1995) by Robert C. Buitrón focuses on this element from a contemporary perspective. His black and white photograph shows two people speaking in the foreground, asserting themselves as protagonists. Their communication is the point of contact for opinions and information, replicating Malinche’s powerful position as a link between the two communities. Their dialogue encourages viewers to think of Malinche as an active agent rather than a passive figure.

Jesús Helguera, “La Malinche” (1941), oil painting on canvas, 6 feet 9 inches x 5 feet 7 inches (a collaboration between Carolina Performance, a socially responsible company whose mission is to preserve the cultural heritage of their country, and the Family Quintana Corral, in honor of the mestizo roots and heritage of our Mexican people; © and courtesy of Calendarios Landin)

The “La Indígena” section emphasizes Malinche’s Indigenity and how people used it to further nationalist rhetoric. Printed works like Biblioteca del Niño Mexicano (1899–1901), booklets illustrated by the famous engraver Guadalupe Posada, were a series of children’s pamphlets on the history of Mexico with stories written by the Mexican journalist and novelist Heriberto Frías. These pamphlets placed the moral burden of the nation on the children, grounding the masses with historical narratives that emphasized Malinche’s role in aiding Cortés in the violent process of colonization against the indigenous peoples. The popularity of these booklets ensured that Malinche’s story was first conceivable in homes, where the nation could inculcate ideas of religious virtues, racial homogeneity, and gender binaries.

In this section, Jesús Helguera “La Malinche” (1941) stands next to his inspired calendars. Helguera’s fictionalized paintings gained popularity when the government printed them on calendars and advertisements, reinforcing a Mexican identity that glorified indigenous heritage. Yet they ignore acts of violence against the Malinche and indigenous communities. Nonetheless, people brought these calendars across the border, filling Mexican American homes across the United States, emphasizing people’s accessibility to Malinche across time and space.

Jorge González Camarena, “La pareja (The couple)” (1964), oil painting on wood with polyester and fiberglass support, 7 feet x 48 ¼ inches, private collection (© Fundación Cultural Jorge González Camarena, AC )

The gendered power structures that inform our understanding of La Malinche are most visible in the sections “La Madre de Mestizaje” and “La Traidora”. Interbreeding, or racial mixing, is the myth that all Mexicans have Spanish and indigenous ancestry. Paintings like that of Jorge González Camarena”La Pareja(1964) and an unattributed casta painting from 1775 (a genre that codified racial mixing in colonial Mexico) underscore this duality. Although the works are nearly 200 years apart, they display the enduring narrative that Malinche shaped the modern Mexican race as the “mother of all mestizos,” a striking curatorial element challenged through the exhibition. But this idea ignores the years of Spanish colonization before Malinche and restricts his role of being sexualized.

There “The TraidoraThe part reads further into this gendered dynamic by exploring how Malinche’s name inspired the term malinchist, someone who favors foreign people and customs over their national identity. This continuing slander ridicules La Malinche as the ultimate traitor.

Delilah Montoya’s “Codex #2 Delilah: Six Deer: A Journey from Mechica to Chicana” (1992–95) moves the audience into the final section highlighting contemporary claims. His work spans seven panels, recounting the journey of a young healer named Six Deer. The second panel depicts a woman in 1521 called “Llora-Llora-Malinche”, a combination of Malinche and La Llorona, a Mexican folk tale. Llora-Llora-Malinche has gone mad in search of her children. She mentions “men clad in metal” who “destroy gods” and “kill men and rape women”. But also tells Six Deer to “love your half-blood child.” The panel focuses on the tensions between traumatic colonial encounters and the love for the children born of them, an experience not limited to Malinche.

Annie Lopez (left to right), ‘Sold as a Slave’, ‘Interpreter and Companion’ and ‘Survivor’ (1995, reprinted 2021), archival pigment print (photo by Hyperallergic/Nancy Zastudil)

Other works in the “Chicana” section highlight the emotional tensions caused by the recovery of Malinche’s story. Themes such as the intersection of cross-cultural references in Cristina Cárdena’s installation “Malinche, Coatlicue, y Virgen de los Remedios” (1992), or the contestation of gender politics through the photographs of Annie Lopez, “Sold as a Slave”, “Interpreter and Companion” and “Survivor” (1995), are remarkable.

Chief Curator Josie Lopez grounds the exhibit locally with a selection of works by New Mexican artists and a performance by Matachines, a unique experience for the Albuquerque exhibit. The video rendering shows how the community continues to view Malinche’s story and its lasting influence on their culture. Rather than highlighting the tensions throughout the exhibition, the performance focuses on ongoing communal healing practices, finding hope and possibility in these violent discourses.

Cristina Cárdenas, “Malinche, Coatlicue y Virgen de los Remedios” (1992), ink on amate paper and canvas; 7 feet 10 inches x 47 inches (The Mexican Museum, San Francisco; © Cristina Cárdenas, photo by Mark Andrew Wilson)

As the exhibition finally offers a space for critical inquiry and cultural self-reflection in its treatment of La Malinche, Mexicans and Mexican Americans have been waiting for this opportunity for years. The various contemporary works and Romo’s essay testify to a desire for new conversations. Ultimately, the show is a starting point for renegotiating how and why we tell Malinche’s story and its eternal relevance and, more importantly, how we can look beyond the binaries that silence her.

Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche will continue through September 4 at the Albuquerque Museum (2000 Mountain Road NW, Albuquerque, New Mexico) and travel to the San Antonio Museum of Art. The exhibition was curated by Victoria Lyall and Terezita Romo.


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