The Lasting Influence of La Malinche, the Nahua Translator

Sandy Rodriguez’s painting “Mapa for My Malinche and our Stolen Sisters” (2021) welcomes visitors into the Albuquerque Museum’s exhibition Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche. The show presents a reinterpretation of the turbulent story of La Malinche, the Indigenous woman who translated for Hernan Cortés during the Spanish invasion of Central Mexico. Some consider her the “Eve” of Mexico, while others criticize Malinche for her role in colonization. Yet, she continued to promote diplomacy during her negotiations. 

Rodriguez paints her work on amate, a paper made since the Mesoamerican period. She traces crucial moments in Malinche’s life across Mexico while painting handprints across the map in a bright red pigment, most noticeable at the border. These marks allude to Indigenous women who went missing or have been murdered throughout the country, an ongoing problem. 

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Alfredo Arreguín, “La Malinche (con Tlaloc) (Malinche [with Tlaloc])” (1993), oil paint on canvas, 48 × 36 inches (courtesy the Keller Family, © Alfredo Arreguín, image courtesy Rob Vinnedge Photo)

Rodriguez’s work outlines historical and contemporary violence against Indigenous women, shedding light on the continual silencing of the topic. She draws tension between Malinche’s story — one that men manipulated across history — and the stories of women removed from current history. The exhibition makes space to confront and critique the continued appropriation of Malinche and the cultural tensions established within it. 

Originating at the Denver Art Museum (DAM), the exhibition unites Mexican and US artists and over 60 works in the first comprehensive exploration of La Malinche’s historical and cultural significance. Born around 1500, Malinche was sold into slavery as an adolescent, gifted to Cortés, and baptized under the Christian name “Marina.” Malinche spoke Maya and Nahuatl, a valuable resource for Cortés, and was his primary negotiator with Indigenous societies. Indigenous accounts of Malinche call her “Malintzin.” The Nahuatl suffix “-tzin” was honorific, but many modern interpretations label Malinche as a traitor. 

The exhibition presents a critical reading of La Malinche, showing how artists used her image to express reverence, betrayal, and resilience. The show explores these tensions by exhibiting historical works alongside contemporary ones, tracing her importance within Mexican and Mexican American communities.

Robert C. Buitrón, “Malinche y Pocahontas Chismeando con PowerBooks (Malinche and Pocahontas gossiping with PowerBooks)” from the series El Corrido de Happy Trails (Starring Pancho and Tonto) (1995), gelatin silver print (photo Nancy Zastudil/Hyperallergic)

Co-curator Terezita Romo proposed the exhibition design to Victoria Lyall, the Jan and Frederick Mayer Curator of Art of the Ancient Americas at the DAM, following the five archetypes outlined in her 2005 essay “Malinche as Metaphor”: “La Lengua/The Interpreter,” “La Indígena/The Indigenous Woman,” “La Madre de Mestizaje/The Mother of a Mixed Race,” “La Traidora/The Traitor,” and “Chicana: Contemporary Reclamations.” 

The “La Lengua” section underscores Malinche’s role as Cortés’ Lengua, his “tongue” during their chronicles, highlighting Malinche’s essential role as translator and primary communicator. Robert C. Buitrón’s “Malinche and Pocahontas gossiping with PowerBooks” (1995) focuses on this element from a contemporary perspective. His black and white photograph shows two sitters speaking in the foreground, asserting themselves as protagonists. Their communication is the point of contact for opinions and information, replicating Malinche’s powerful position as the link between the two communities. Their dialogue prompts viewers to consider Malinche as an active agent rather than a passive figure. 

Jesús Helguera, “La Malinche” (1941), oil paint on canvas, 6 feet 9 inches x 5 feet 7 inches (a collaboration between Carolina Performance, a socially responsible company whose mission is to preserve the cultural heritage of their country, and the Quintana Corral Family, in honor of the roots and mixed-race heritage of our Mexican people; © and courtesy Calendarios Landin)

The “La Indígena” section stresses Malinche’s indigeneity and how people used it to foster nationalist rhetoric. Printed works like Biblioteca del Niño Mexicano (1899–1901), booklets illustrated by famed printmaker Guadalupe Posada, were a series of children’s pamphlets about Mexican history with stories written by Mexican journalist and novelist Heriberto Frías. These pamphlets placed the moral burden of the nation onto children, ingraining the masses with historical narratives that emphasized Malinche’s role of assisting Cortés with the violent process of colonization against the Indigenous people. The popularity of these booklets ensured Malinche’s story was first conceivable within homes, where the nation could instill ideas of religious virtues, racial homogeneity, and gendered binaries. 

In this section, Jesús Helguera’s “La Malinche” (1941) hangs beside its inspired calendars. Helguera’s romanticized paintings gained popularity as the government printed them onto calendars and ads, solidifying a Mexican identity that glorified Indigenous heritage. Yet they disregard violent acts against Malinche and Indigenous communities. Nonetheless, people brought these calendars across the border, filling Mexican American homes throughout the US, emphasizing people’s accessibility to Malinche across time and space. 

Jorge González Camarena, “La pareja (The couple)” (1964), oil paint on wood with polyester and fiberglass backing, 7 feet x 48 ¼ inches, private collection (© Fundación Cultural Jorge González Camarena, AC)

The gendered power structures that inform our understanding of La Malinche are most noticeable in the “La Madre de Mestizaje” and “La Traidora” sections. Mestizaje, or racial mixture, is the myth that all Mexicans carry Spanish and Indigenous ancestry. Paintings like Jorge González Camarena’s “La Pareja” (1964) and an unattributed casta painting from 1775 (a genre that codified racial mixture in colonial Mexico) emphasize this duality. Although the works are nearly 200 years apart, they display the persisting narrative that Malinche formed the modern Mexican race as the “mother of all Mestizos,” a striking curatorial element questioned across the exhibition. But this idea ignores the years of Spanish colonization before Malinche and restricts her role as a sexualized being.

The “La Traidora” portion reads further into this gendered dynamic by exploring how Malinche’s name inspired the term Malinchista, someone who favors foreign people and customs to the detriment of their national identity. This ongoing ridiculing slanders La Malinche as the ultimate traitor. 

Delilah Montoya’s “Codex #2 Delilah: Six Deer: A Journey from Mechica to Chicana” (1992–95) moves the audience into the final section highlighting contemporary reclamations. Her work spans seven panels, telling the journey of a young healer named Six Deer. The second panel depicts a woman in 1521 called “Llora-Llora-Malinche,” a combination of Malinche and La Llorona, a Mexican folktale. Llora-Llora-Malinche has gone mad searching for her children. She mentions “Men in metal clothes” who “destroy gods,” and “kill men, and rape women.” But also tells Six Deer to “love your child of mixed blood.” The panel stresses tensions between traumatic colonial encounters and the love for children born from them, an experience not limited to Malinche. 

Annie Lopez (left to right), “Sold as a Slave,” “Interpreter and Companion,” and “Survivor,” (1995, reprinted in 2021), archival pigment print (photo by Hyperallergic/Nancy Zastudil)

Other artworks in the “Chicana” section shed light on the emotional strains caused by reclaiming Malinche’s story. Themes such as the intersection of cross-cultural references in Cristina Cárdena’s installation, “Malinche, Coatlicue, y Virgen de los Remedios” (1992), or challenging gendered politics through Annie Lopez’s photographs, “Sold as a Slave,” “Interpreter and Companion,” and “Survivor” (1995), are standouts. 

Head Curator Josie Lopez grounds the show locally with a selection of works by New Mexican artists and a performance of Matachines, a unique experience for the Albuquerque exhibit. The video rendition highlights how the community continues to consider Malinche’s story and her lasting influence on their culture. Rather than spotlighting the tensions throughout the exhibition, the performance centers on ongoing healing community practices, finding hope and possibility within these violent discourses.

Cristina Cárdenas, “Malinche, Coatlicue y Virgen de los Remedios” (1992), ink on amate paper and cloth; 7 feet 10 inches x 47 inches (The Mexican Museum, San Francisco; © Cristina Cárdenas, photo by Mark Andrew Wilson)

While the exhibition finally holds space for critical inquiries and cultural self-reflection in its treatment of La Malinche, Mexicans and Mexican Americans have awaited this opportunity for years. The various contemporary works and Romo’s essay demonstrate an eagerness for new conversations. Ultimately, the show is a starting point to re-negotiate how and why we tell Malinche’s story and its everlasting relevance and, more importantly, how we can look beyond the binaries that silence her. 

Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche continues through September 4 at the Albuquerque Museum (2000 Mountain Road NW, Albuquerque, New Mexico) and will travel to the San Antonio Museum of Art. The exhibition was curated by Victoria Lyall and Terezita Romo. 


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