Obscure Historical Figures of the Day #7 and #8: The Translators of Cortez


Continuing our regular series….

Any moderately educated individual should know that the Spaniards, led by Hernan Cortez (spelling may vary), conquered the Aztec Empire in the mid 16th century, culminating with the taking of Tenochtitlan, one of –if not the– greatest cities of the world.

Many think that this was Central America’s first exposure to Europeans.  This is not true.  Several episodes had preceded this most profound clash of worlds.  One was the shipwreck of Gerónimo de Aguilar on the Mexican coast, near the Yucantan Peninsula, at around 1510.

The unfortunate Spaniards were found by the local Mayan people. The members of de Aguilar’s party were in turn murdered, enslaved, and/or eaten, until only de Aguilar himself remained alive and in captivity.

When Cortez arrived some years later, he was stunned to be greeted by Mayans who knew to call him a “Castilian”. Upon discovered that de Aguilar was the source of this knowledge, Cortez was clever enough to free his countryman and to engage him as a translator.

As the conquistadors moved further into Mexico and out of Mayan reach, de Aguilar’s usefulness waned. But the Spaniards had also been accumulating hostages/followers/slaves up to that point. One of them, a woman whom history remembers as “Dona Maria” or “La Malinche”, stepped forward and identified herself as an intermediary translator (she could translate between other Mexican languages and Mayan, which de Aguilar would then translate to Spanish.)

La Malinche rose to be the First Lady of the Cortez conquest, becoming the mistress of the “great” man himself.

History is still torn on how to remember La Malinche: as one of the founders of the Mexican nation, or as a traitor to indigenous Mexico. Regardless, it behooves us to remember her role in history.