- Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico
Malinche is so well know in Mexico today—and probably as well known to scholars of Latin American history—that it is hard to imagine that she was given merely passing attention in the sixteenth century and more or less forgotten until the nineteenth. But, of course, the well-known Malinche is not the historical Malintzin, but a post-1820s construct, one batted about over the last two centuries between competing visions of Mexico's national genesis and identity.
That mythical Malinche has been thoroughly deconstructed and reassembled, but the historical figure has been relatively ignored. This is partly because Malintzin lived a short, poorly-documented life. As Camilla Townsend observes at the start of Malintzin's Choices, "a traditional biography of Malinche . . . cannot be done" (p. 5). Not to be deterred, Townsend insists that "we have long needed a thorough book about the real young woman" (p. 4). She achieves this by building upon the ground-breaking essays written in the 1990s by Frances Karttunen, and by turning an obstacle (the paucity of archival sources specifically on Malintzin) into a framework for the book (making it more about her times than her life). This "book about contexts" (p. 8) is thus really a different way of telling the oft-told tale of the Spanish conquest of the Mexica.
The book follows the conventional narrative of the Spanish invasion: the first chapter on the Mexica or Aztecs on the eve of invasion; the second chapter on the Spaniards' arrival; the third on interpreters and the initial Spanish-Mexica contacts; the fourth on the war of 1519-21; the fifth on the fall of Tenochtitlan; and the sixth on the aftermath of Mexica defeat. But where Townsend's book differs is in her consistent attempt to show us this world and its events through indigenous eyes—specifically, wherever possible, Malintzin's. Consequently, instead of following Cortés or the lives of other Spaniards after 1521, Townsend follows Malintzin to her premature death in 1529. In this sense, the book has a cinematic quality to it; Townsend's camera crew stays with the Nahuas.
For many, this well-crafted and unusual way of narrating the invasion will be the best part of the book (and I expect students will respond positively to it). However, I found its final third to be even more engrossing, as it contains less familiar material [End Page 278] and draws far more on archival sources than the earlier chapters. Townsend deftly evokes the tense and violent times of Malintzin's Mexico in the 1520s, convincingly arguing that Malintzin "bargained for a husband" (p. 154) and an encomienda by leveraging her status and strength of character. Townsend then follows the fate of Malintzin's two children until their deaths in the 1560s; the closing chapter on don Martín (Cortés and Malintzin's only child) is no substitute for Anna Lanyon's recent fine book on him, but it brings the book to an effective and poignant close.
Townsend is not able to tell us a great deal that is new about Malintzin herself. But her evocative and engaging writing style (also put to great effect in her Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma ) does succeed in bringing Malintzin to life. More significantly, Townsend also brings those around Malintzin to life, thereby making sense of the tough choices she was forced to make. The book is a pleasure to read (I could not put it down), and recommended on that basis alone. Specialists should also read it for its scholarly content. And it is a welcome addition to the growing library of accessible volumes that help open students' minds to new ways of viewing the Spanish conquests, ethnohistory, women's history, and the processes of invasion.
University Park, Pennsylvania