- Malintzin's Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico
Camilla Townsend's new book, Malintzin's Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico, is a worthy addition to the University of New Mexico Press's fine series of books, "Diálogos," edited by Lyman Johnson. Given the historiographical impact of women's and gender history, it is not surprising that Malintzin (or Malinche, as she is also known) has garnered increased attention from historians, ethnohistorians, and art historians. However sparse the historical record about Malintzin may be, more is known about her than about any other indigenous woman of conquest-era Mesoamerica. Yet there are two problems [End Page 731] any scholar writing about her will encounter: first, the paucity of sources; second, the fact that her life was atypical. Townsend's approaches to these problems are worthy of consideration.
Her primary solution to the first problem is to place Malintzin's life in the context of her times, explaining the complexities of Malintzin's gender and ethnic identity, her role in the conquest, and describing the lives of her descendants as well. While placing some emphasis on Malintzin's inner life by asking how she might have understood and what she might have thought about the many dramatic events that shaped her life, much of the book is an examination of the process of conquest, emphasizing indigenous perspectives and experiences. Showing herself to be an energetic researcher and judicious reader of sources, Townsend takes a fresh look at both the conquest historiography and sources. Describing the indigenous participants as rational actors who understood the Spanish to control a highly effective military technology, she sees that technology, in combination with the spread of smallpox beginning in 1521, as having led to the defeat of the Mexica.
Townsend organizes her narration of these events around the life and role of Malintzin. The decentering of Cortés is more than mere rhetorical strategy, because Townsend ably demonstrates Malintzin's important role as translator, strategist, and consort of Cortés. Throughout, Townsend uses the evidence—biographical, cultural, historical—to its fullest and not only describes Malintzin's actions but probes the reasons behind them. On Malintzin's thoughts as the Spanish set off towards Tenochtitlan in 1519, she writes, "It most likely did not seem incomprehensible to her that this group of strangers was determined to cross the land, find Moctezuma, and attempt to conquer him" (p. 54). Often using words such as "probably" and "certainly," the thought processes of major figures in these important events are analyzed. Townsend goes far beyond Frances Karttunen's chapter on Malintzin in her book, Between Worlds, in which she also explores the issue of Malintzin's motivation. Karttunen, however, limits her speculation to the question of why Malintzin participated in the conquest as translator for the Spanish. Townsend explores a wider array of issues relating to Malintzin's life and amorous and familial relations.
Yet a contradiction exists in the way Townsend analyzes Malintzin's life, both the life lived among others that can be traced through extant sources, and the interior life that she sensitively, yet speculatively, probes. Noting how Cortés's success at certain points depended on Malintzin, she goes on to state that "it seems equally sure that had she not existed, some other Spaniard on some other expedition would have come across another woman much like Malinche, for she was a typical product of the Mesoamerican world as it was then" (p. 6). While true that her early life was typical, after 1519 her life was not. Given the very small number of other female translators, it is highly unlikely that another woman would have played a similar role. It is this atypicality [End Page 732] that accounts for her historical significance. Thus the book's biographical and cultural analyses are not wholly congruent, but this criticism detracts neither from the importance of the questions Townsend poses nor the grace with which she tells...