Thursday, May 29, 2008

In search of La Malinche

From top: 1) La Malinche Between Cortés and the Indians, 1519; 2) José Clemente Orozco, Cortés and Malinche, 1926; 3) Antonio Ruíz, El sueño de la Malinche (The Dream of Malinche), 1939. All images are from Domestic Issue.

It's difficult to think of a more unifying image in Mexican culture than that of the Virgen de Guadalupe. It's difficult to think of a more contentious one than that of Cortés' translator and mistress and bearer of his son, La Malinche (also known as Doña Marina, Malintzin and, in Laura Esquivel's 2006 novel Malinche, Malinalli--I'll explain the reason for that in a bit). The three accompanying images here bear out the Mexicans' cultural schizophrenia regarding how to think of this person who is so central to their history: each of these images, to the exclusion of neither of the other ones, is fundamentally correct in its depiction of La Malinche. Esquivel (whose best-known novel in this country is Like Water for Chocolate), sums up well the prevailing image and the alternate one that she and other Mexican writers (mostly female, I gather) are working on articulating, in this excerpt from an interview in the magazine Críticas:

In the collective subconscious, Malinche plays the role of the mother and Cortés the father, and if we think that she was a traitor and a whore and that he was a thief and an assassin, what does that make us? I think that it is important to change our perception of the Conquest. We must stop seeing ourselves as “victims” of the Spanish. The process of the conquest was painful, yes, but it was also the basis of a wonderful cross breeding. It was the encounter of two worlds, of two belief systems. The Aztec Empire gave up to an idea, not to a group of soldiers. Their reverence of the Spanish and the way they gave up their empire are proofs of how certain they were that the Spanish were returning gods coming from eternity to reclaim their land and people. The Aztecs must have felt a lot of guilt and fear of punishment for having betrayed the spiritual heritage of the Toltecs, and these feelings influenced the outcome of the Conquest. Similarly, the idea we have about our past affects our self-esteem. How can we ever be good if our parents were so evil? This is the type of thinking that we must change. It is important to revise history, to see it with different eyes and, hopefully, discover that the blood in our veins is the blood of all bloods; that our skin contains all colors; that our eyes contain all glances; that in Mexico, for the first time, the history of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America came together. If we saw things this way, wouldn’t we feel proud of our past?
For many reasons, I'd prefer not to wade too deeply into this passage, the reasons being implicit in the passage itself: no matter how she is read, La Malinche ends up being understood as a synecdoche of the Mexican people. To begin to talk about the historical figure is, inevitably, to begin either to psychoanalyze a people and their culture or to project onto them through her. As with so much else I have found myself telling other people when talking about Mexico, we in the United States have no comparable figure.

I'll have more to say in a future post over at Domestic Issue on La Malinche as a historical and cultural figure--I have more reading and thinking to do before that post will be ready. I'm writing this post now because I'm approaching the end of Esquivel's novel, finding it aesthetically disappointing, and comparing it to the (to my eye) fascinating, very different depictions of La Malinche in the images you see here, and wondering what went wrong with her novel.

Almost every review of Malinche I've looked at today begins by saying something along the lines of, Anyone who attempts not only to novelize Malinche's life but to offer a re-imagining of her as an on the whole sympathetic figure is risking a great deal. That part is exactly right, as evidenced by Esquivel's words above. To the extent that I, as someone who deeply respects Mexican culture, have any say in this that ultimately matters, I'm more than sympathetic to Esquivel's intent. If anyone needs persuading of the potential healthiness of this, have a look sometime at "The Sons of La Malinche," the chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude in which Octavio Paz discusses how La Malinche is something of an anti-cult among Mexicans, having led to a devaluing of the Mother in favor not of the Father but of the macho, the dominant-male. It's this depressing and unfortunately correct take on Mexican culture that Esquivel's novel is writing against. Her quarrel is not with Paz; both make clear in their respective way that the traditional cultural thinking about La Malinche is an ugly and even destructive self-victimizing.

All this material is also, you'd think, the ideal sort of raw stuff for a novelist intent on reassessing his/her culture: the unquestioned symbolic Mother of Mexico. So, then, what went wrong with Esquivel's novel? The bibliography that accompanies it is one indication that she has done her homework; one thing she recently uncovered is that some early sources give her protagonist the name "Malinalli," a Nahuatl word for a kind of grass. Something I learned from Esquivel's novel for which I'm grateful is that Malinche, the Nahuatl word for "chief" or "boss," was actually how the Aztecs addressed Cortés; Malinalli, because she served as his translator, was seen as something like Cortés's proxy: hence La Malinche. But maybe the research is indirectly to blame. According to Jay Parini's New York Times Book Review of Malinche, Esquivel's novelistic imagination is bound by the research she's conducted rather than informed by it. (Also, like me, Parini suspects a clunky translation.) But I personally find her choice of a 3rd-person omniscient narrator, along with the fact that many crucial events are narrated in retrospect, to be the problem. Too often, the sense I have of Esquivel's Malinalli is precisely that: it's her Malinalli we're reading and not the woman revealing herself through her thought and action. (I know, I know. But this novel isn't some sort of meta-fiction in which there's interaction between the author and her protagonists.) We almost never see her actually wrestling with her confusion, whether it be over why she was sold into slavery as a child or why she finds Cortés simultaneously so repellent and so attractive. When we do, it's at a remove: we're told about it and not shown. Moreover, Esquivel's narrator also lets us into Cortés's mind; personally, I'd have preferred that he remain as much a mystery to us as he does to Malinalli--especially given the novel's goal of revealing her in a new way to the reader. Nor do we see much beyond the platitude that words can heal or wound on Malinalli's vital role as Corté's translator. That may be because Esquivel, intent on depicting Malinalli as something like a bridge between Spanish and indigenous culture, wants as much as possible to avoid reminding her reader of just how instrumental her translating was to aiding Cortés's defeat of the Aztecs.

In short: for such a risky undertaking, Esquivel's Malinche is a very timid book. That could be, though, precisely because she knew it to be a risk. Anxious not to offend, her novel ends up not satisfying this reader, at least.


R. Sherman said...

In reading this, it struck me how little most of us know about our neighbor to the south beyond. Obviously, as a kid, I learned about Cortés and the conquest of the Aztecs in the context of the Age of Exploration, but I'd never heard of La Malinche. Thanks for the insight.


John B. said...

You're most welcome, Randall. La Malinche is far more interesting than, say, Pocahontas, and we can be grateful that her story is Disneyfication-proof (knock on wood).

Growing up in Texas, I got a sort of peripheral glimpse of Mexican history--chiefly, the mid-19th-century, because of the Texas Revolution and the Mexican War. Then, at least in my Texas history class, Mexico was pretty much ignored, except for that pesky Pancho Villa. But Mexicans, for good and for ill, have long historical memories. I get the feeling I've told this story elsewhere on this blog before, but it's worth retelling in this context: Santa Anna was president of Mexico something like 33 times (you think Italian post-WWII politics is chaotic . . . ) and yet no monument to this man exists anywhere in the country, I've read. When I told a Mexican friend this, he said, "Texas is a monument to Santa Anna."

aaron said...

I'd like to hear you say more about why you draw such a sharp distinction between Pocohantas and La Malinche, actually. I'm not going to argue they're the same, but the distinctions don't leap out at me as clearly as they seem to for you. And there are certainly elements of the mother of the nation / betrayer of the nation schism in narrative in things like the Sacajawea story.

Maybe the distinction is that, within the US, the mainstream can portray American identity in all-white terms (white founding fathers, without dark founding parents), wiping out all the mestiza/o aspects of American history? But even someone like Paz, who has blue eyes and doesn't *look* of mixed race to a norteamericano, cannot help but identify his sense of nationality with a story of mestizaje?

John B. said...

Thanks (seriously!) for calling my bluff re the Pocahontas/Malinche distinction. I have a LOT of reading about Pocahontas ahead of me, so keep in mind that what follows is my very under-informed sense of her place in American culture. My impression is that the popular sense of Pocahontas is that she serves as a bridge, a reconciler, between the colonists and her people--something, incidentally, that Esquivel wants La Malinche to serve as in her novel but which she traditionally is assuredly not seen as in Mexico. Sacajewea, now that I think about her, is a somewhat closer match to La Malinche; but, given La Malinche's conceiving a child by Cortés--the symbolic First Mestizo--what she stands for resonates so deeply in the Mexican psyche and culture (Paz doesn't quite say it this way, but he suggests as much: but every birth of a Mexican is a symbolic reenactment of that First Mestizo's birth) that the cultural significance of Pocahontas and Sacajewea pale (no pun intended) by comparison.

But let's keep the pun for a bit: Just as you note, despite our nation's inarguable ethnic diversity, we don't think of ourselves as being a "mixed-race" people, considerable demographic evidence to the contrary. That's not our popular narrative of ourselves. For Paz (who, interestingly, says in the first chapter of Labyrinth that he began writing it while living outside Mexico, in the United States) and, he argues, for Mexicans collectively, the union of Cortés and La Malinche signifies at a level far deeper than skin color. It is the story of their conceiving--in every sense of that term--of themselves. The Mexican nation (read: "people") thus precedes not just Mexico the nation but, even, New Spain. Speaking only for myself, the story of Pocahontas and John Smith tells me nothing about being an American in the way that the story of La Malinche tells Mexicans something about being Mexican.

zunguzungu said...

That all seems right to me. One of the things that's particularly weird about the Pocahontas story, if I recall correctly, is that Smith not only added a lot of the most famous Pocahontas material in later editions of his book, but he essentially plagiarized the story from an earlier account he had written about being saved from execution by a Turkish princess, while captured by her father. Or something. Which I offer only as a suggestion of the ways that particular story was already part of an orientalist narrative that effectively distances the other (the key thing is that Poca takes Smith's side *against* her people), whereas the key moment in La Malinche, as I mistily recall Paz telling it, is the birth of the child. A union story, as opposed to an othering story, maybe?

Maybe the modern day equivalent of the Pocahontas story would be stories about the children of immigrants becoming "American" by distancing themselves from their ethnic families. My Big Fat Greek Wedding, for excample, seems cut straight from the mold of early twentieth century novels like Bread Givers. In the norteamericano version of La Malinche, in other words, you become American by getting rid of the un-american parents.