La Malinche, or actually Malinalli, was not the Aztec princess legend says. She was royalty in the Aztec empire, but was discarded by her mother as a baby out of preference to her siblings and dodged being sacrificed upon the intervention of her loving and mystical grandmother who raised her. Well, so relays acclaimed author Laura Esquivel who is writing about a legendary character born in a time when public record was chiseled rather than written. Esquivel brought us one of the most adored narratives in Latino literature: “Like Water for Chocolate,” a novel also became an award-winning movie.
La Malinche tells us the story of a young woman finding out who she really is through the power of language. And, though it is set in the late 1500s, early 1600s, it’s as timeless as any story about a girl finding her power in her own voice, beliefs and self.
If you are not familiar with La Malinche, legend says she is the mother of all Mexico, or, for many, she is also remembered as the destroyer of all Mexico . La Malinche, represented by the character Malinalli in Esquivel’s book, was multi-lingual and could translate Nahuatl of her elders to Spanish and vice versa. As a result, she gained the fondness of Spanish conquerer Hernán Cortes. In Esquivel’s story it’s clear Cortes is drawn to Malinalli, but we are not sure if it is his bloodthirst for power that drives his admiration. Feeling discarded by her mother, Malinalli gains worth in Cortes’ troops as a translator and in a romance with him that produces beloved children of her own.
But, after Cortes repeatedly uses her to conquer and kill the native people of Mexico, she sees him more for the short, unhappy, power hungry villain that earned the nickname early on: La Malinche, in which she was named for. It is so rare we get to read a story of Mexican or any Latino history from the point of view of a girl. It is also rare to get a whole sensory experience in a book and Esquivel is all about revealing tastes, smells and what a time feels like. Malinalli shares that the Spanish soldiers reek of the garlic they eat and don’t bathe often. Though we have perceptions of “primitive” life, such as that of the tribes that existed in what is now Mexico and that Spain was “developed” or “advanced,” in just a few short lines we realize native peoples of America were leaps ahead of their European visitors – even if it was just about good hygiene.
What I most loved about this book which I’d recommend any teen reader is how La Malinche is not demonized in this story as she is in most accounts. She is made human. We find out her need for human love, the rejection of her mothers’ love and her place as a girl in a society where human sacrifices were necessary and common. We learn about her bravery, contributions to Mexican history and a broader picture of who Malinalli (La Malinche) was.