Malinche (also known as Marina, Malintzin, Malinal…) remains one of the most enigmatic and controversial characters in Mexican history.

According to Texan historian T. R. Fehrenbach, “If there is one villainess in Mexican history, she is [Malinche]. She was to become the ethnic traitress supreme.”

Meanwhile, Colorado Professor Cordelia Candelaria called her a “prototypical Chicana feminist. La Malinche embodies those personal characteristics — such as intelligence, initiative, adaptability and leadership — which are most often associated with Mexican-American women unfettered by traditional restraints against activist public achievement.”

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Born to a royal family, Malinche was sold into slavery as a young girl, perhaps by her own mother. She was eventually given as tribute to Hernán Cortés who, once he recognized her noble bearing and especially her mastery of multiple Native languages, made her his interpreter, mistress, and even adviser. …

At first it was my nightmare, then my curse, briefly my cross to bear, and finally one of life’s greatest blessings.

I never chose to be gay. Indeed, I spent nearly two decades attempting to deny it, run away from it, pray it away…anything.

As a teen, I furtively scanned the ladies’ bra and underwear sections of the Sears catalog, desperately trying to find the featured women sexy. What was the matter with me?

Later in the full throes of puberty, my gut would clench tightly whenever I saw an attractive boy. “No! No! No!” …

Cortés was intelligent, courageous, ambitious, insubordinate, greedy, and ruthless — the quintessential conquistador. He established the Spanish empire (New Spain) in Mexico.

In 1511, Cortéz joined the conquest of Cuba, and impressed the island’s first Governor, Diego Velázquez, who chose him for his secretary, appointed him mayor of Santiago (Cuba’s capital), and made him wealthy with vast encomiendas. But Cortés wanted more. Much more.

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When, in 1818, Velázquez asked Cortés to lead an expedition to explore the mainland, Corteś saw his chance. Even though Velázquez quickly revoked the command (suspecting too late that his protégé was ungovernable), Cortés set off anyway. When Veláquez sent another force to arrest him, Cortés defeated it, and incorporated the survivors into his own troops. …

Moctezuma I went down in oblivion, while his namesake, Moctezuma II, went down in infamy. The former is a terrible shame, the latter a vexing mystery.

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Moctezuma I transformed the small Aztec city-state of Tenochtitlán into an empire. With his brilliant statesmanship, he created The Triple Alliance with Texcoco (ruled by his friend and ally, Nezahualcoyotl) and a lesser city-state, Tlacopan. Under his leadership, they conquered virtually all other tribes and states in central Mexico, shared the spoils, and grew incredibly wealthy.

Sally’s postcard arrived like a love-letter — not just from her, but from the city she’d been visiting: Santander.

Santander! That beautiful town on the northern coast of Spain where Fate had brought me after college, city of laughing sea and stoic mountains, winter rains and summer mirth, desperate loneliness and oh-so-kind welcome.

Santander! How the memories came tumbling back, like so many disparate, long-forgotten pieces to a beloved puzzle I’d never managed to put together.

First, I recalled the Farol, the lighthouse out beyond the city, from where, forlorn and near despair, I’d braved the winds, stared out at the whitecaps, and strove to think great thoughts. …

Twenty-seven cities worldwide and a South-American country bear Columbus’ name, as do innumerable streets throughout Mexico.

No, Columbus wasn’t unique in believing the world was round. He argued that the world was small, with India to the east just beyond the point-of-no-return (when a ship was half-way done with its water). If he was wrong, everyone on the voyage would die. If he was right, well, the potential riches (silks and spices) could fuel an empire.

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The Greeks had accurately measured the Earth’s circumference more than 1,700 years before Columbus. But neither he nor the Spanish monarchs who sponsored him were mathematicians. …

“So, what’s it all about?” my uncle Fred used to ask me over the sumptuous meals we shared at yearly reunions.

“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to tell me,” I responded laughing.

Uncle Fred had been a Catholic priest. But, when told by the bishop to abandon his ministry to alcoholics in order to say more masses (He had PhD in psychology.), Uncle Fred gave up the priesthood instead.

Shortly after, he met my beloved Aunt Marge. She’d been a nun as well as a patent-winning PhD chemist; but she, too, gave everything up to become an acclaimed artist. …

Quetzalcoatl was an enduring, often even preeminent god of all the great pre-Columbian Mexican civilizations, including the Olmecs, Teotihuacán, Mayans, Toltecs, and Aztecs. The amazing pyramid at Cholula (near Puebla), the most massive ever built in the Americas, honored Quetzalcoatl.

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A plumed snake, Quetzalcoatl was at various times the god of water, wind, air, learning, knowledge, the dawn (Venus), merchants, the arts, and the priesthood. He was even credited with creating the human race.

The Toltecs fought an ethnic/religious/political civil war over Quetzalcoatl. Their priest/king (with the honorific name of Quetzalcoatl, so his and the god’s stories become entwined) was head of the Quetzalcoatl religious cult which eschewed human sacrifice. He confronted militaristic newcomers who favored another god, Tezcatlipoca, depicted, not with feathers, but with a spear and shield; and which demanded human blood. Quetzalcoatl, the king, lost; and he and his followers were banished. Subsequent Toltec religious lore told of Quetzalcoatl, the god, having similarly lost to Tezcatlipoca, disappearing as well. …

Nezahualcoyotl was born about a century before Cortés’ conquest, the heir-apparent to the city-state of Texcoco, on the eastern side of the lake by the same name. However, when he was fifteen, he witnessed his father, the king, murdered by an invading tribe, and spent the next decade in precarious exile (saved on more than one occasion by one of his subjects offering to die in his stead — he was that beloved).

A decade later, leading a coalition he’d formed of more than 100,000 soldiers, Nezahualcoyotl defeated the invaders and claimed his rightful throne. …

In 1984, I visited the monument to Los Niños Héroes (The Children Heroes). The six towers stood guard below the castle atop Grasshopper Hill in Mexico City’s beautiful Chapultepec Park. At their base, a small plaque read in Spanish, “To the memory of the young cadets who here gave their lives, defending their homeland from the invader.”

After reading it amid a large crowd of tourists, I turned to the fellow next to me and asked, “Who were the invaders?”

He looked back at me in astonishment. Others walked away shaking their heads.

How was it possible for me, a United States citizen, a college graduate and a teacher no less, to have been so stupid? I’d heard of the Mexican-American War, of course; but knew only that the United States had won. I’d assumed it was merely another example of my country “making the world safe for democracy.” We’d certainly never invaded anyone. …



David Ellison, author of Santander: Rambling on Borrowed Time, retired after 36 years in education to Ajijic, Mexico.

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