Esquivel Redefines Mexican Icon

Nearly five centuries after she helped Hernan Cortes conquer the Aztec Empire, Malinche is still a controversial figure in Mexican history.

malincheA noble-born child sold into slavery by her mother, she used her unusual ability as a linguist to enable the Spanish to negotiate alliances with the native tribes against the Aztec Emperor Montezuma. As a result, she’s reviled as a traitor to her people and, because she was Cortes’ mistress and bore him a son, regarded as the symbolic mother of the Mexican people.

In “Malinche,” Laura Esquivel, known best for her 1992 best seller “Like Water for Chocolate,” re-imagines her in this latter role, as a deeply devout woman caught in a clash of civilizations and attempting to make sense of what she experiences.

Because so little is known about Malinche’s life, Esquivel gives her imagination free play, renaming her heroine Malinalli and giving her a grandmother who teaches her reverence for the gods and the natural world.

Malinalli’s beliefs are challenged when she is given to the Spanish, where her beauty and linguistic gifts are recognized, and she becomes Cortes’ translator.

At first, she sees him as the personification of Quetzalcoatl, the benevolent god who will put an end to human sacrifice and free her people. But the massacre of a town and his hunger for gold disillusions her, and her baptism into Roman Catholicism challenges her to integrate the two belief systems.

“Malinche” is a short novel, unusual in that Malinalli spends much of it reflecting on her beliefs or recalling scenes from her childhood. The result is a distant, cool narrative that tells of awful events but is emotionally distant.

“The search for the gods is the search for oneself,” Esquivel writes, and in the end, Malinalli’s quest for her gods remains firmly within herself.