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Alfredo Ramos Martinez; La Malinche (Young Girl of Yalala, Oaxaca) (c. 1940). Photo: Denver Art Museum.
Alfredo Ramos Martinez, La Malinche (Young Girl of Yalala, Oaxaca) (c. 1940). Photo: Denver Art Museum.

Traitor, survivor or icon? Uncovering the taboos of La Malinche

An exhibition at the Denver Art Museum explores the evolution of this mythical figure of the Mexican imaginary.

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According to Mexican legend, La Malinche, also known as Malinalli (from the Nahuatl Malintzin 'grass') or Doña Marina, was one of 19 slave women given as tribute to the Spaniards by the Indigenous people of Tabasco after the battle of Centla, one of the key battles in the conquest of Mexico.

La Malinche became known for contributing to the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire by acting as an interpreter, advisor, and intermediary for Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. He chose her as a consort, and she later gave birth to his first son, Martín — one of the first Mestizos.

Over time, La Malinche has become a mythical figure in the Mexican imagination: while some consider her the symbolic "mother" of the new mestizo nation that is Mexico today, others consider her a "traitor" for having had a son with the conquistador, or a "heroine-victim" for having been enslaved. 

Now, a landmark exhibition at the Denver Art Museum (DAM) explores the woman's complex legacy and her impact on artistic culture on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. 

“This is the first time there’s ever been an exhibition like this,” Terezita Romo, the Latina curator in charge of the exhibition, explained to Artnet. “Even in Mexico, La Malinche’s story is always connected to Cortés — it’s always about the conquest. This exhibition really pushes that out. It’s more about this young indigenous teenager and what she did in terms, not only surviving, but of actually changing history.” 

The exhibition explores La Malinche's role as an interlocutor between the Aztec and Spanish peoples, from Cortés' first written description of her, "the language I have," to "the mother of the mestizo," to "the mother of the mestizo. To that of "mother of mestizaje" after the end of the Mexican Revolution, as a symbol of a new mixed race. 

In another section, the exhibition explores the role of La Malinche as a traitor,  a role she played for much of the 20th century: as a person who turned her back on her people, inviting generations of ethnic cleansing. It was during this time that the word "malinchista" became popular as a pejorative term for someone who prefers foreign cultures to her own. 

One of the goals of the exhibition is to invite the visitor to reflect on this insulting view of La Malinche, based on a sexist and misogynistic view of a woman's influence, according to the exhibition curators. 

In response to this period of denigration, La Malinche was vindicated as an icon of the Chicano movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The exhibition features some works that show how her image has been embraced by different communities, from feminists to trans activists.

Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche, brings together 68 artworks that will be on display at the DAM through May 8, 2022. The exhibition will then travel to the Albuquerque Museum and the San Antonio Museum of Art.

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