Malinalli or Malintzin (Castilian deformation as Malinche) was the daughter of a feudal cacique in the provincial town of Paynala on the southeastern borders of the Aztec Empire, her native tongue was Nahuatl.
She was born in 1502 in the town of Painala, close to the larger settlement of Coatzacoalcos. Her father was a local chieftain, and her mother was from the ruling family of the nearby village of Xaltipan. When she was very young her father died, and she stood to inherit his title. Malinche’s widowed mother took another husband, a nobleman much younger than herself, and soon bore him a son. Apparently wishing the boy to inherit all three villages, Malinali’s mother faked the death of he daughter mourning over the body of a young slave child of similar age while Malinche was secretly sold to traders from Xicallango. After a war between the Mayans of Potonchán and the Mexica of the area of Xicalango, Malinalli was ceded as tribute to Tabscoob, the Mayan cacique of Tabasco and lord of Potonchan. It is there that she learned Mayan. Although she was a slave, she was a high-born one and never lost her regal bearing.
In 1519 the cacique and his forces were defeated while trying to prevent Cortés and his men from landing on their beach. The reparations paid by the Tabascans to the victorious Spaniards included twenty young women slaves, among whom stood Malinche who was baptized Marina. The women were distributed amongst Cortés’ men, and Malinche was assigned to Alonso Hernández Portocarrero, who had to leave for Spain a few months later, commissioned by Cortés. Since then, Malinche became the lover of the future conqueror of Mexico, as well as his interpreter. At first she counted on the
collaboration in the translation of Jerónimo de Aguilar, forming a linguistic chain of three links – Spanish, Mayan, Náhuatl – allowing the invaders to effectively communicate with the Aztecs. Soon, Malinche achieved a working fluency in Spanish. This allowed her to supersede the role of Aguilar, and Cortés promptly promoted her to his personal staff.
The only detailed written historical account about her from anyone who might have known her comes from Cortés’s companion, conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Díaz del Castillo was pleased to record that Dõna Marina was one of New Spain’s first Christians and described her as “good-looking, intelligent, and self-assured.” His account then goes into some detail about her life. He wrote that her parents were “lords and caciques” of a town called Paynala. Her father died when she was young and when her mother remarried, she gave La Malinche to some Indians from Xicalango, so that there would be no disputed inheritances with her stepbrother. The Indians of Xicalango then gave her to the people of Tabasco, who, in turn, gave her to Cortés. Díaz del Castillo honors her with the respect he accorded to Spanish women by calling her Dõna Marina. In his view “Doña Marina was a person of great importance and was obeyed without question by all the Indians of New Spain.” He also makes it apparent that she was extremely useful to the Spaniards. According to Díaz del Castillo, she married one of Cortés’ men, Juan Jaramillo, during the Honduras expedition that followed the conquest of Tenochtitlan. Why she did so is not clear, but in addition to her son Martin, which she had with Cortés, she had a daughter, Maria, with Jaramillo. On the basis of letters from her children found in Spanish archives, it appears that she died some time between 1551 and 1552. Almost nothing else is known about her.
After a war between the Mayans of Potonchán and the Mexicas of the Xicalango area, Malinalli was ceded as a tribute to Tabscoob, the Mayan cacique of Tabasco.