“When Cortés set out to conquer Aztec Mexico”. Revista National Geographic History, Nº 3, agosto-septiembre 2015: 8-11
In March 1519 Hernán Cortés had little notion of the extraordinary campaign of conquest he was about to launch against the mighty Aztec Empire. He had landed on the Tabasco coast, Mayan lands, and had just won a crucial battle at Cintla. The local Maya lord visited the Spanish camp one morning and showered Cortés with lavish gifts of gold, blankets, and food. He also brought him 20 young women. Nobody could have guessed that one of these, Malinalli, would prove worth her weight in gold as Cortés pitched into a life and death struggle to conquer Aztec Mexico.
Malinalli was born around 1500, possibly near the former Olmec capital of Coatzacoalcos in the southeast of the Aztec Empire, near modern-day Veracruz. Her father was the chief of Painala, and as a noble-born child she was looking forward to a promising future. That changed dramatically when her father died and her mother remarried a local lord. The couple had a son whom they made their universal heir: little Malinalli was no longer wanted. In a deception worthy of a Grimm fairytale they pretended young Malinalli had died (using the body of a dead village girl) play a decisive role in Cortés’s success. It allowed him to talk to natives and question them about their political situation and allegiances, assessing their fears, hopes, strengths, and weaknesses. A master politician, Cortés used this knowledge, and his own persuasive words, to exploit tensions within the empire and win allies to fight Montezuma II. An Ally and a Lover Marina’s position changed immediately. Cortés told her “if she was a faithful interpreter, he would do her great kindness, marry her and grant her freedom.” While a chronicle describes the 19-year-old Marina as being as “beautiful as a goddess,” contemporary sketches of her reveal little of this. However, Cortés wasted no time in making Marina his lover. Perhaps to make matters easier, Cortés ordered Portocarrero back to Spain bearing a letter to the king. From now on Hernán Cortés and Doña Marina worked very closely together, so closely in fact that according to fellow conquistador Bernal Díaz, “Since Doña Marina was always in his company, they and under cover of darkness bundled their daughter into the hands of travelling merchants. These sold her as a slave to Mayan traders who sold her to the Lord of Potonchan. It was he who made a gift of Malinalli to Hernán Cortés.