It was the closest I ever came to being forcibly struck with a fashion accessory.
The scene was a publisher’s office in Mexico City. My novel, ‘Aztec’, had just been published there in translation, and had attracted a lot of attention, more than the publisher had anticipated. So, because of time constraints, I was being interviewed by three journalist at once.
Two of them liked my take on their history. The third, a young man with a designer ponytail, was so upset with me, he rose to his feet and brandished his manbag.
What had made him so upset? It was the things I had written about a woman called ‘La Malinche’. I don’t think she particularly cared – by that stage, she had been dead for five hundred years.
So why did he and so many other Mexicans still feel so strongly about her?
You have to understand her unique place in their history and her role in the entrada – some would rather call it ‘invasion’ – by the Spanish conquistadores.
When Hernan Cortes landed in the Yucatan in 1519, local villagers tried to appease him with gifts – gold and girls. Cortes was happy to accept these tokens and chose a young woman called Malinali – later known to history as ‘La Malinche’ – as his personal concubine, and gave the others to his officers.
Malinali’s exact origins are unclear – some believe she was a Mayan princess who was captured and sold as a slave – but her place in Mexican history is unparalleled. She was an extraordinary young woman with an acute intelligence and learned the Spanish of the conquistadores astonishingly quickly. She could already speak several local languages as well as her own, and most importantly of all she was fluent in nahuatl, the language of the Mexican overlords – the Aztecs.
Through her, it seems Cortes discovered that Mexico was by no means united – that there was infighting among the local tribes and that all of them hated the Aztecs. He decided to use this information for his own ends. It was the oldest trick in the book – divide and conquer.
Against the explicit orders of his superiors in Cuba, he and his men set off inland. He was bombarded with a mountain of treasure by the native population along the way and his tiny army grew with the addition of thousands of native warriors. How did he achieve this? Did Malinali help him persuade local chiefs that he was a returning god, the legendary ‘Feathered Serpent’? Did she in fact believe that he was a god.
And did he, in turn, play along with it – pretend to be a deity returned to free the local people from the tyranny of the Aztecs? What is certain is that in almost every contemporary drawing and painting of Cortes’ entrada, she is at his side, whispering in his ear.
Was she in love with Cortes? We can’t be sure. Her motives, what she said, how she said it; these things will always forever be a mystery. It is what makes hers such a gripping and intriguing story.
The more the local people tried to appease Cortes, the bolder he became. Within a few weeks he was at the gates of the Aztec capital – Tenochtitlan, the site of modern day Mexico City. Suddenly he had the country and all its riches within his grasp.
He could not have got this far purely by force of arms, despite his horses and cannon. He had set off from Cuba with just five hundred Spanish troops and the Aztecs numbered millions.
In fact, it was only when he and his men were lodged inside their capital that the Aztecs realised they had been duped and that perhaps Cortes was not a god after all.
He only narrowly escaped from the city with his life but then had the temerity to return with enough men to lay siege to the Aztec capital. He won in the end, not because of military might but because of another weapon, one that is eerily resonant today. The Spanish had brought with them a disease that was common in Europe but to which the Aztecs had no antibodies.
When an epidemic broke out among the besieged Aztecs, it decimated them. It was smallpox, not force of arms, that brought them down.
No one knows what became of her. It is believed she died an old woman in Spain. Cortes showed his gratitude to her for all she had done for him by marrying her off to someone else.
Her name was corrupted by history to Malinche; and 500 years later her name is reviled in the land of her birth. Even today the word malinchista is shouted across the floor of the Mexican parliament as a deadly insult – it means a traitor to the Mexican people.
But her story, and that of the conquistadores, remains one of the most intriguing and tragic sagas in history.