About 500 years ago, Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors captured Tenochtitlán, the great Aztec city known today as Mexico City.
While this history is well documented, Victoria Lyall, the Jan and Frederick Mayer curator of art of the ancient Americas at the Denver Art Museum, and Terezita Romo, an independent curator, did not want to talk about Cortés.
“It’s time to reconsider the Indigenous woman who was the heart of this story,” Lyall said.
Lyall is referring to a young woman named Malinche, whose legend portrays her as both a betrayer of her people and the mother of Mexico.
Lyall and Romo are two of three co-curators of the Denver Art Museum’s exhibit, “Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche.” The project was about six years in the making, originating in Denver. It opened in February and will end on May 8.
Following its Denver run, the show will head to Albuquerque and then San Antonio.
A purpose of the show is to revitalize Malinche’s legacy, Lyall said.
“For five centuries, Malinche has remained a contentious figure, revered and reviled on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border,” Lyall said in a news release. “She is a historical figure about which very little factual and biographical documentation exists. In examining and presenting the legacy of Malinche from the 16th century through today, we hope to illuminate the multifaceted image of a woman unable to share her own story, allowing visitors to form their own impressions of who she was and the struggles she faced.”
Malinche was born near the Gulf Coast of Mexico and was enslaved at a young age, perhaps between the ages of 11 to 16. It is believed she was eventually sold to a Mayan chief in Tabasco, a southern Mexican state with a northern coastline on the Gulf of Mexico that is near the Yucatán Peninsula.
By the time Cortés arrived in 1519, Malinche was fluent in both Yucatec and Nahuatl, the languages of the Mayan and Aztec people, respectively.
Malinche was one of 20 young women gifted to Cortés to serve as slaves to the conquistadors, but realizing the value of Malinche’s multilingualism, he took her as his personal slave.
As the Spaniards traveled inland toward Tenochtitlán, it was Malinche who played a key role as Cortés’ interpreter and cultural translator.
The exhibit at the Denver Art Museum boasts 68 artworks created by 38 artists from the U.S., Mexico and France. Among them is Denver’s own Emanuel Martinez, whose work can be found all over the Denver-metro area, as well as in other states.
There are two notable artists being featured in the exhibit. The first is Ramos Martinez, a Mexican painter who lived from 1871 to 1946 and is considered by some to be a founding father of modern Mexican art. The second is Sandy Rodriguez, a Los Angeles-based Chicana artist and researcher.
“As a figure embraced by Chicana writers and artists, Malinche is the subject of a narrative that had been reframed and recently invigorated to reflect a Chicana feminism that resists male-dominated interpretations of her life and significance,” Romo said in the news release.
While Malinche’s legacy is maligned by many — the word malinchista means to be a traitor to one’s own people — many also revere it.
Malinche eventually became Cortés’ mistress and whether complacent to it or not, she gave birth to his first-born son. That child became the first-known mestizo, a term used to describe one of a mixed race, particularly, Spanish and Indigenous descent. This makes Malinche “the symbolic progenitor of a modern Mexican nation, built on both Indigenous and Spanish heritage,” the news release said.
The Denver Art Museum exhibition begins with a video that introduces Malinche to visitors. It establishes the historical, cultural, chronological and geographical contexts behind the invasion of the Spaniards and the fall of the Aztec Empire in 1521.
The exhibit is divided into five different sections that demonstrate five identities that have been linked to Malinche during the past 500 years.The sections include:
• Malinche as La Lengua/The Interpreter
• Malinche as La Indígena/The Indigenous Woman
• Malinche as La Madre de Mestizaje/The Mother of a Mixed Race
• Malinche as La Traidora/The Traitor
• Malinche as Chicana/Contemporary Reclamations.
Malinche continues to emerge as a figure of interest, Lyall said, adding that her story is timeless. But her story has never been documented in her own words, Lyall added, so she is one of many women whose voices, historically, have been marginalized or told only by men.
Additionally, prior to 1848 when the U. S. and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the southwestern part of Colorado was Mexico. Today, at least 30% of Denver’s population identifies with Latino culture.
Malinche is “a figure they know well,” Lyall said. But even visitors to the Denver Art Museum who may not know who Malinche is will enjoy the exhibit, she added. “Once they hear her story, they will be hooked.”