This scene, a detail of a larger manuscript page, depicts two famous alliances in the history of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. The first is between Xicotencatl, the head of the indigenous state of Tlaxcala (who wears a cloak decorated with red) and Hernán Cortés, the leader of the Spanish conquistadors. These men banded together in order to defeat their mutual enemy, the Aztecs. The second alliance is that between Cortés and his translator, who appears in the center of the image. Known today as doña Marina or La Malinche, she was one of 20 women given to Cortés by a Maya lord on the Gulf Coast. During the Spaniards’ march across Mexico, she quickly distinguished herself as an able linguist (she spoke Maya and Nahuatl and learned Spanish). In this image, doña Marina’s position between the two leaders confirms her central role in their negotiations.
The Lienzo de Tlaxcala is a pictorial manuscript created by indigenous painters, for indigenous viewers. It records the many ways that Tlaxcala aided Spaniards during the war of conquest (1519-21), and this page offers central insights into the theme of mestizaje. First is the fact of biological mixing that quickly followed the Spanish entry into the New World: doña Marina herself bore Cortés a son, one of the first mestizos born of conquest. Second is that mestizaje never happened in a vacuum: its participants were always enmeshed in different power relationships and these changed through time. When Cortés and Xicotencatl first met, a meeting recorded in this painting, Cortés was an anxious supplicant, eager to enter into an alliance with the Tlaxcalans, whom he needed to help him fight the Aztecs. When this painting was created, about the middle of the 16th century, the tables had turned, and now it was the Tlaxcalans who were eager to reassert their early alliance with the Spaniards.
The changeable circumstances of mestizaje are nowhere better illustrated than in the figure of doña Marina herself. In the 16th century, she was recognized as a key figure in the wars of conquest, respectfully included in histories like this one by indigenous artists. Today, she is understood as a more complicated figure. Doña Marina has become a powerful symbol for seemingly contradictory ideas: treachery, since she aided the conquistadors, and strength, for in rising from slave to powerful political figure, she made the best of a fate she did not choose.
Alarcón, Norma. 2003. “Traductora, Traidora: A Paradigmatic Figure of Chicana Feminism.” In Perspectives on Las Américas: A Reader in Culture, History and Representation. Matthew Gutmann, et al., eds., pp. 33-49. London: Blackwell Publishing.
Bakewell, Liza and Byron Hamann. “Lienzo de Tlaxcala.” Mesolore. Accessed January 2014 at www.mesolore.org.
Herren, Angela. 2000. “Representing and Reinventing Doña Marina: Images from the Florentine Codex and the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.” Latin American Indian Literatures Journal 16 (2) :158-180.
Navarrete, Federico. 2007. “La Malinche, la Virgen y la montaña: el juego de la identidad en los códices tlaxcaltecas.” História (São Paulo) 26 (2): 288-310.
Núñez Rodríguez, Manuel. 2012. “El Lienzo de Tlaxcala: Otra forma de escribir la historia?” Semata, Ciencias Sociais e Humanidades 24: 55-72.
Townsend, Camilla. 2006. Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.