In February of 1519, Hernán Cortés anchored his ships along the coast of modern-day Mexico and sank his feet into his New World for the very first time. Having landed in Mayan territory, he and his men soon found themselves clashing with the locals in the battle of Tabasco and, not much later, receiving gifts for their victory. Among this prize package were 20 female slaves, and among these 20 female slaves was a woman that would give birth to an entire nation. A woman of many names.
Malinalli was born into a powerful family in the Aztec Empire. In a Disney princess-esque twist, however, her father died during her childhood and her mother remarried, relegating her from a noble heiress to inconvenient stepchild. So, Malinilla’s family did the only reasonable thing possible: faked her death and pawned her off into slavery to the Mayans. Thus, Malinalli toiled in Cinderella servitude until the clandestine arrival and subsequent victory of Mr. Cortés, at which point she was pawned off again.
II. Doña Marina
Fortunately, Doña Marina, as the Spaniards soon baptized her, had a few advantages: beauty, intelligence, and opportunity. In fact, from amongst the 20 women won, Spanish historian Bernal Díaz de Castillo mentions only her by name and appraises her as “a very excellent woman.” Contributing to this excellence was the fact that Doña Marina spoke both her native Aztec and adoptive Mayan tongues and made quick work of Spanish. Thus, Doña Marina fast became the constant companion and interpreter of Mr. Cortés. In fact, when the party traveled to Doña Marina’s homeland to eventually topple it, she and Cortés had become so inseparable that the Aztecs referred to them by one name—El Malitzín.
III. El Malitzín
According to Bernal’s tidy, Christianized account, after the slow small pox death and defeat of the native persons, Dona Marina was returned to her hometown and married off into a happily ever after. We’ll never know if that’s true. What we do know is that it did not happen before she first mothered Cortés’ bastard son, symbolically giving birth to the modern “mestizo” (or “mixed”) heritage that characterizes modern Mexican identity and coronating herself an undying symbol of Mexican history.
IV. La Malinche
Nowadays, Doña Marina is commonly known as “La Malinche” but is also referred to contemptuously as “La Chingada,” which can most politely be translated as “the screwed one.” The word “malinchista” has also evolved to mean “traitor.” However, La Malinche’s legacy is one that continues to oscillate alongside the pendulum of time, and the eternal question remains: what was she? A victim of oppressive assailants, crushed by unprecedented cultural clash? A traitor, aiding in the overthrow of her own people? Or a badass heroine, making her own luck and seizing opportunities to secure herself a better life?
Today our country will inaugurate a new conquistador, a new Cortés. Today a man will ascend to the most powerful post in our country—and arguably the world—who is at best someone that brags about sexual assault for self-aggrandizement and at worst is a repeat sexual assailant, who at best feeds the xenophobic insecurities of vulnerable Americans and at worst embodies them, who is at best ignorant and at worst malicious.
What he is not, however, is interesting. Let us not confuse entertaining with interesting (or uninteresting with unimportant (or important with good)). Seeing the worst in people and bringing out the worst in people is not interesting. In fact, it may be the easiest and least remarkable thing that someone can do. So, today, I refuse to write any further about Mr. Trump. What really interests me is the Malinche standing beside him.
Melania Trump’s story bears some similarities to La Maliche’s: she’s a product of cultural confluence, she has a power-hungry partner, she is set to be enshrined in the national memory, and she is a polyglot, speaking five languages herself. But, the true resonance between the two is the question of their intentions. What is Melania: victim, traitor, or badass heroine?
As one of the least involved candidate’s spouses in recent history, it has been easy to cast Melania as a reluctant participant in this political theater, a woman thrust onto the national center stage before she had a chance to read through her lines. The best defense of this view is Melania’s appearance at the Republican National Convention in which she delivered one of the most memorable paragraphs of the campaign season: the one she lifted from a Michelle Obama speech. Poor, unfortunate Melania plagiarized her way to a failing grade in a course she never even wanted to register for.
This view of Melania as a victim was only compounded when the sleazy Access Hollywood footage (recorded during her pregnancy with Trump’s son) oozed to light and anecdotes of Trump’s alleged coercions of beauty queens compounded. Was Melania another victim that had simply never escaped? How would she explain this to their son? How could she withstand another bout of media scrutiny?
There are those, however, who treat Melania with less sympathy. Two pillars of Trump’s thoroughly fetid campaign were his degradation of women and his plans to plug the flow of immigrants on all sides. However, Melania is poised to become the first foreign-born First Lady since Louisa Adams, served a brief stint as an illegal worker here, and is, in fact, a woman. It may not be a stretch, then, to envision Melania as a modern-day Malinche, betraying her own kind by association. And while Melania may not have done much on the campaign trail, her role as an expert witness in the scandal surrounding Trump’s sexually aggressive comments and willingness to wave them off as “boys talk” may have been the only turn of the knife needed.
To be a traitor, however, one must have allegiances to uphold. Where are Melania’s? A native of Slovenia, Melania now resides in a country with less-than-cozy Eastern European sentiments and a largely Latino immigrant population with which she shares precious little in common.
Additionally, American women have not doled out many favors for Melania to return. The fact is that Melania would probably not be the caricature of an ideal First Lady anyone would draw; she lacks the strong, working mother bravado of a Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama and seems far removed from the comforting, maternal warmth of Barbara and Laura Bush. She is a woman whose risqué modeling pictures appeared in smear ads to dissuade Trump support in Mormon Utah but yet received curiously little defense from the liberal feminist blogosphere. Perhaps, Melania’s only allegiance is to herself and her own happiness, in which case it is beyond any of us to call her anything but savvy and successful.
This narrative of Melania as a sly badass emerged through a series of clickable Internet conspiracy theories: Melania sporting a pussy bow blouse to a debate after the leaked tapes, Melania trolling her husband by committing to combat cyber-bullying, Melania casting a ballot that draws her husband’s suspicion on Election Day.
And here I will reveal my biases: I prefer this final theory. I like to picture Melania as a covert Soviet spy seizing every opening and rising along the opportunistic path of least resistance, a patronizing amusement of her husband’s delusional self-perception smoldering behind her smize. She is Angelina Jolie and Scarlett Johansen, deftly and alluringly using men like rungs on the ladder of life. I think I like this theory because it’s the one that doesn’t make me want to cry.
However, I recognize that as a man in American society I have the awful privilege of first dibs (or any dibs, really) on determining in which tidy female archetype I’d like to pigeon-hole Melania. That said, if history holds true, the office of the First Lady will continue to be a matter of national curiosity for all citizens, and the truly interesting thing is that only Melania, seated at the top of Trump tower, gazing out the window at the fast city and the placid ocean, can decide if she wants or needs to be rescued.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.