Re-envisioning the Malinche Myth: A Failed Transformation of a Whore into a Mother

kgbrown's picture

Kendalyn Brown

Anne Dalke

Critical Feminist Studies

14 November 2008

 

Re-envisioning the Malinche Myth: A Failed Transformation of a Whore into a Mother

Feminist have reinsribed Malinche with new ‘flesh,’ with a new imagined history. For Chicana feminists, Malinche has become the powerful mother—not the phallic mother feared by modernist, patriarchal nationalists, but an enduring mother, a cultural survivor who bore a mestizo race. (Pérez 410)

 

The myth of Malinche is built on two conflicting images: the whore and the mother. Chicano nationalists defined her as a whore, the betrayer of “her people.” Thus, Malinche, as a mythic figure, has been internalized be female Mexicans, as she has become an unspoken piece of the Chicana identity. Chicana feminists, working to change the perception of the myth, have reclaimed Malinche in an attempt to re-construct the identity of Chicanas, replacing the complacent whore with the thoughtful mother. However, the image constructed by Chicana feminists of Malinche as the mother is a simplified picture of the woman and, in some ways, this image fails to counteract the image of Malinche as a betrayer of her people.

The real woman Malintzin Tenepal was the Aztec princess turned Mayan slave who acted as the translator for Cortés during his conquest of present-day Mexico. For the purposes of this paper, when referring to the actual woman, she will be called by her birth name, Malintzin Tenepal. When referencing the images or myths based upon this woman, she will be called by her more-commonly-known, given names, Malinche or Doña Marina. This attempt to differentiate between woman and myth is based, in part on Deena González’s assertion that “[s]he is known, that is, as Malinche or Doña Marina, but rarely Malintzin Tenepal” (González 9), demonstrating how the woman has been transformed into a mythic figure with little agency. The differentiation is an effort to give the woman more agency than has previously been attributed to her by historians.

González, in her work “Malinche Triangulated, Historically Speaking,” deliberately attempts to redefine Malinche in a Chicana feminist context. González begins her assessment with the assertion that the currently accepted conception of “Malinche is all image, imagined, unreal” (González 6). By saying that Malinche is “unreal,” González is attempting to show how the mythic image was constructed based upon the little information that the Spanish conquers have left us in their reports. Malintzin had no role in telling her own story and thus, she was transformed into Malinche with the words of male conquerors.

Just as she was stripped of the right to tell her own story, González also asserts that there are attempts to rid Malintzin of her agency in the creation the mestizos, the race of people from mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry. One attempt to prevent Malintzin from having agency has made her into a passive rape victim. In her work “The Breakdown of the Bicultural Mind,” Cherríe Moraga describes the birth of the mestizos as the culmination of rape: “We are the products of rape and the creators of a new breed. We are Malinche’s children and the new Malinches of the 21st century” (Moraga, “Breakdown” 237). Though Moraga takes a stab at removing Malinche’s responsibility for the creation of the mestizos, she can do so only by making Malinche an innocent victim. However, Moraga does not remove the entirety of Malinche’s agency as she still calls Chicanas “creators” in their role as “the new Malinches of the 21st century.” Despite the implicit passivity in rape, Moraga is unwilling to make Malinche an entirely submissive figure.

In the Chicano nationalist view of Malinche, she is a betrayer of her people, the whorish and willing mother of the mestizos. Though perhaps Malinche gains agency through her role as the mother of the mestizos, she is defined only with relationship to her Spanish counterpart. The image of Malinche as the mother is often contrasted with the image of the ideal and easily definable father: “The father was and remains Spain…” (González 9). Further, González asserts that in Malinche’s son, who is imagined to be “of ‘pure’ Spanish descent,” “Chicano nationalists would find their father,” (González 11). With this connection, González is demonstrating the way in which a direct link between the father (Spain) and the son has been drawn, leaving Malintzin out of the equation.

If the Chicano gains his identity from the Spanish father and son, the image of the conquistador, the Chicana implicitly receives her identity from the whorish mother, the female Amerindian who submitted to Spanish conquest. Thus, all Chicanas have been transformed into “a Malinche figure—the indigenous woman who participates in her own violation and then acts as an agent of the transgressor” (Torres 111). As Moraga describes Malinche’s influence over the Chicana, she states that “the myth of the inherent unreliability of women, our natural propensity for treachery, has been carved into the very bone of Mexican/Chicano collective psychology” (Moraga, Loving 93). In fact, the vision of Malinche as a betrayer of her people and a woman subservient to her Spanish conquerors, is an idea that has penetrated Moraga’s life. Moraga portrays her mother as a reincarnation of Malinche: “Malinche sold out her indio people by acting as a courtesan and translator for Cortéz, whose offspring symbolically represent the birth of the bastardized mestizo/mexicano people. My mother then is the modern-day Chicana Malinche marrying a white man, my father, to produce the bastards my sister, my brother and I are” (Moraga, Loving 108). Still, Moraga chooses to identify with her mother because “[t]o be a woman fully necessitated my claiming the race of my mother” (Moraga, Loving 86). For Moraga, race and gender are so intertwined that there can be almost no distinction between the two. To be a woman is to be a Chicana. To be a Chicana is to be Malinche.

Paula Moya’s discussion of Moraga’s Chicana feminism takes this idea of the absorption of Malinche into the Chicana identity further by saying that “[a]s the ‘dark’ mother, the ‘fucked one,’ the ‘betrayer of her race,’ [Malinche] is the figure against which women of Mexican decent have had to define themselves” (Moya 130). In essence, Chicana women must try to prove that they are not the whore that their “mother” was. In order to prove that they will not betray their people as their “mother” did, they must first relinquish themselves of the whorish image of Malinche, their “mother.” However, the image of betrayer is not one that Moraga will be able to shed, not because she has interracial children, but because she is a lesbian. Ultimately, just as her mother did by marrying a white man and birthing his “bastard” children, Moraga has enacted Malinche’s betrayal through her sexual deviance, reinforcing the Chicano nationalist stereotype as women as the betrayers of culture.

Still, González attempts to produce a feminist figure from the scraps of Malinche that have been left by Chicano nationalists. González undertakes to make Malinche’s agency a positive characteristic, believing that the nationalist attempts to erase Malintzin from the Chicano identity have to do with her, as a woman, holding too much agency as, “[i]n many ways, she was too smart, too much a woman for her time…” (González 10). Adelaida de Castillo would agree with this feminist view of Malinche as a powerful and active woman as, in her re-evaluation of Malinche, “Malintzín Tenepal: A Preliminary Look into a New Perspective,” she claims that “Doña Marina is significant in that she embodies effective, decisive action in the feminine form, and most important, because her own actions synchronized two conflicting worlds causing the emergence of a new one—my own” (del Castillo 122). In Castillo’s view of Malinche, she is so powerful that she is able to create a new world through her mothering of the first mestizo, an act so dominant that it would challenge the male domination of Chicano society, and thus must be controlled by making it shameful.

Though Castillo extends power to Malinche as the creator of a new world, González acknowledges the difficulties in granting Malintzin agency due to the lack of documentation of Malinche’s own thoughts, her own writings. Instead, we are only able to see her through the eyes of her male counterparts. Thus, to view her as a powerful woman “requires a leap of faith that perhaps she knew what she was doing, perhaps she was using Cortés, perhaps women simply, plainly, as we say in lesbian-feminist discourse, are appropriating semen, agency of the worst kind” (González 11). In this statement, there is a major attempt to reclaim the sexual agency that is often taken from Malintzin. If, through the acquiring of semen and thereby the production of a new race, Malintzin is able to gain an active position of mother, the image of her as mother becomes permanently empowering.

Certainly, agency and power are two qualities that González is willing to give to Malintzin, again transforming her into the mythic Malinche. This Malinche, though, is that of a powerful, mythic woman whose image is a model for Chicana feminists: “Malinche had a tongue and used it, had space and occupied it, had knowledge and applied it. Hence, I offer my call that she be labeled or recasts as not just the first feminist of the Americas, but the first lesbian of the Americas, too” (González 12). González ends her essay with this claim that Malinche is “the first lesbian of the Americas” and she (purposefully) does not inform her reader of the basis for this argument. However, perhaps by asking her reader to make “a leap of faith” about Malinche’s agency in general, González can thus make another great leap about Malintzin’s sexual orientation. As González is basing all of her declarations on “faith” and not on fact, she is able to push the limits in order to create an image of Malinche that encompasses all of the criteria that González believes Chicana feminism needs.

Despite the attempts to break down the Chicano nationalist symbol of Malinche as a betrayer of her people, in the end, both Moraga and González identify with this image of Malinche. They cannot escape this image; it is a part of their identity as Chicanas. Because Malinche is so ingrained in Chicana culture, she must be molded so that she fits with the prescribed feminist perspective, just as the Chicano nationalists used her before. Thus, González’s assertion that Malinche is “the first lesbian of the Americas” is an attempt to make Malinche into the model of her personal feminist agenda. Though González asserts that Malinche did not betray “her people” through her birthing the first mestizo, in González conception of Malinche as the first lesbian of the Americas, she has once again transformed her into a betrayer. In this way, perhaps both Moraga and González are demonstrating that when Malinche is stripped of her identity as a betrayer, she loses her power. Perhaps, Malinche’s betrayal should be embraced by Chicanas as their most powerful tool.


Works Cited

del Castillo, Adelaida R. “Malintzín Tenepal: A Preliminary Look into a New Perspective.”

Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings. Ed. Alma M. García. New York: Routledge, 1997.

González, Deena J. “Malinche Triangulated, Historically Speaking.” Feminism, Nation, and

Myth: La Malinche. Eds. Rolando Romero and Amanda Nolacea Harris. Huston, Texas: Arte Público Press, 2005.

Moraga, Cherríe. Loving in the War Years. Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press, 2000.

Moraga, Cherríe. “The Breakdown of the Bicultural Mind.” Names We Call Home:

Autobiography on Racial Identity. Eds. Becky Thompson and Sangeeta Tyagi. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Moya, Paula M. L. “Postmodernism, ‘Realism,’ and the Politics of Identity: Cherríe Moraga and

Chicana Feminism.” Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures. Eds. M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Pérez, Emma. “The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History.” Latino/a Thought:

Culture, Politics, and Society. Eds. Francisco H. Vázquez and Rodolfo D. Torres. Lanham, Maryland: Rowmand and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003.

Torres, Edén E. Chicana Without Apology: The New Chicana Cultural Studies. New York:

Routledge, 2003.

Comments

Davitzín's picture

Malinalli

Her birth name was not "Malintzin Tenepal" "-tzin" is the honorific of the Nauhuatl language. Her birth name was, "Malinalli".

Anne Dalke's picture

On speaking for another

Kendalyn--

Very complicated, and very richly researched. I see you working your way carefully here through several layers of myth-making: from the original construction of Malinche as "whore," to the replacement of that myth with that of the "mother," then to the replacement of that with one of the "lesbian"--a cycling back to claiming the power of the betrayer. All versions of the myth, as you also acknowledge, are possible in large part because Malintzin Tenepal left no story of herself: it is because of the gap in her own documentation of her life that others have been free (and felt invited?) to devise such a range of new, powerful scripts about her.

In this way, your project here operates as a fascinating corollary to your first paper, about Gender and Religion in Middlesex, where I thought the implied definition of feminism was "an ability to re-write the script." You're showing here how various generations of Chicano nationalists and Chicana feminists have written scripts for a woman who did not leave a record of her own.

Such a process is commonly traced in feminist annals; I'm thinking of Virginia Woolf's evocation of the sad, failed life of "Shakespeare's sister," at the end of A Room of One's Own, as well as all the myth-making that has grown up around Sojourner Truth. As you may remember from our first class session, Isabella Baumfree (who renamed herself) was illiterate. Her now very famous speeches about expanding the category “woman” from "lady" (to include women like herself who were not isolated @ home but labored in the field and enslaved) were transcribed (the most famous perhaps even invented) by literate white women who heard her speak. Since she wrote nothing herself, these texts of her speeches (and the narrative of her life, clearly ventriloquized by the author, Olive Gilbert) raise the same questions you do here about authenticity and agency.

In asking If the Subaltern Can Speak, Gayatri Spivak asked us to think about the complexities of representing those who have been silent about their own lives. Your project shows the subaltern being "spoken," and so appropriated, in ways that Spivak would appreciate, and critique, as you do.

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