Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro

Marina and Cortés

Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

The conquest of Mexico in 1521 was one of the most dramatic, tragic, and frankly bizarre of historic events. One of the principals was a woman, who was called Doña Marina by the Spaniards. I first read her strange story in Frances Karttunen's excellent Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors.

Marina was the Amerindian woman who translated between Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador who destroyed the Aztec empire, and Montezuma, the Aztec emperor. Like Cortés, Marina had an unusual and forceful personality. She was not Aztec. The Aztecs, who were the Nazis of pre-conquest Mexico, were hated by the Mexican groups that they victimized. (The Spanish, of course, were the Nazis of post-conquest Mexico.)

The basic facts of the conquest are well told in Cortés and Montezuma by Maurice Collis. I highly recommend this straightforward, thoughtful, and fascinating book: part adventure tale, part exploration of the clashing belief systems of the Spanish and the Aztecs.

Of course Doña Marina caught my imagination. She was with Cortés during the entire conquest, beginning as a prisoner-concubine in the Yucatan; she was in every battle and at the center of every event in the conquest (with her words and actions documented in eyewitness accounts); she lived in Cortés's "palace" as the mother of his child; and she eventually married one of Cortés's officers.

From my reading, I had an impression that the descendants of Cortés, Marina, and Montezuma (all of Montezuma's surviving daughters married Spanish aristocrats) became the ruling class of Mexico. Was this true? I went to the university library to verify this, but it turned out not to be a simple matter. Yes, all three had related descendants, but the genealogy of post-conquest Mexico was considerably more tangled than I had anticipated.

I came across Anna Lanyon's The New World Of Martin Cortes. Anna Lanyon traces Marina's son with Cortés, Martín Cortés, from Mexico to the court of the Spanish king and back to Mexico. I enjoyed the book, both as a rather emotional detective story that leads through archives, churches, and villages--for Lanyon feels personally involved with these historical figures--and as the biography of a man of the 16th century.

I then read Anna Lanyon's equally personal Malinche's Conquest. In Mexico, Doña Marina is called La Malinche, where she has taken on mythological status with overtones of disaster and betrayal. Lanyon tries to uncover fact and untangle myth about a woman who is barely traceable despite the fact that a volcano near Mexico City bears her name.

Personalizing history--this man signed this paper, this woman lived in this house--is  a powerful emotion. "Rightly or wrongly," Lanyon writes in Martin Cortes, "it is the 'ephemera' of the past, and the frailties and strengths and sins of those who lived it, that we seem to find eternally enticing."

Copyright © 2004 by Heidi Boudro