La Malinche

Date: 1892
Owner: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale
Source Type: Images


This image from 1519 depicts a fundamental part of Cortes' conquest of the Aztecs--intercultural communication--a necessity that would have proved far more difficult without the aid of the woman pictured here, Dona Marina (also known as La Malinche). The Iberian voyages of discovery are most often remembered as distinctly masculine affairs in which courageous men overcame many obstacles, both at sea and in bizarre new countries, with the help of European technology. To be sure, there is much truth in this, but Indian women also played a crucial, even technological, role in the various New World campaigns.

Many Indian women from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries acted as both concubines and interpreters for conquering Europeans. Dona Marina was given as a slave to Cortes and proved his constant aid in negotiations with Moctezuma and other Indian leaders throughout Mexico. Historians recognize her as an expert linguist, but only recently has language been disassociated from "technology," a term that has come to connote "manly" pursuits, especially engineering (Oldenziel 1999). In terms of which technologies were the most crucial to the era of American exploration, the largely female skill of translation should be considered equally important as firearms and navigation.

Oldenziel, Ruth. Making Technology Masculine: Men, Women, and Modern Machines in America, 1870-1945. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999.