The evolving image of La Melinche is explored in an ambitious new exhibition
Temptress and renegade. Mother of a new nation. Chicana heroine.
La Malinche has lived many lives in the cultural imagination since his death in the 16th century, as generations of people appropriated his image to promote their own political agendas. Today, a landmark exhibit at the Denver Art Museum (DAM) explores the complex legacy of womanhood and its impact on art culture on either side of the US-Mexico border – the first major science-based presentation to do so.
A Nahua slave who became the interpreter and wife of Hernán Cortés during his conquest of the Aztec Empire, La Malinche proved to be a key player in one of the defining moments in world history. Whether she did it on purpose or not, we don’t know. In fact, there’s a lot we don’t know about his life. And yet, for five hundred years, La Malinche has held an important place in modern Mexican legend.
Evidenced by the 68 works that make up “Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche,” on view at DAM through May 8, 2022. (Following its presentation at DAM, the exhibit will travel to the Albuquerque Museum and San Antonio Museum of Art). It’s an important presentation that doubles as a statement in itself.
The exhibition took six years to come together, with independent curator Terezita Romo working with Victoria I. Lyall, DAM’s curator for art from the ancient Americas, and Matthew H. Robb, chief curator at the Fowler Museum of London. ‘UCLA.
“It’s the first time there’s been an exhibition like this,” Romo explained. “Even in Mexico, the story of La Malinche is always linked to Cortés, it’s always about conquest. This exhibit really pushes that. It’s more about this young native teenager and what she’s done in terms of not just surviving, but also changing history.
The show is divided into five sections, each devoted to a different personification of La Malinche’s legacy. The first, “La Lengua” (or “The Interpreter”), examines her role as an interlocutor between the Aztec and Spanish peoples, beginning with Cortés’ first written description of her as “la lengua que yo tengo” ( “my tongue”) – an appeal he used instead of acknowledging her name – to posthumous depictions of her as a woman empowered by language.
Next is ‘La Indígena’ (‘The Native Woman’), which examines how the racial designations imposed on her by the conquistadors form the basis of her mythology, an altered object of beauty of a defeated people; and “La Madre de Mestizaje” (“Mother of a Mixed Race”), an exploration of how, following the Mexican Revolution, the country adopted La Malinche, the mother of Cortés’ first son, as symbol of a new mestizo.
By far the biggest section of the show, “La Traidora” (“The Traitor”), focuses on how La Malinche was portrayed for much of the 20th century – as someone who turned her on back to his people, inviting generations of ethnicities to cleanse. (Roma points out that the most prominent examples of this portrayal “come mostly from men, which is no coincidence.”) It was around this time that the word “malinchista” was popularized as a pejorative term for someone who prefers foreign cultures to their own. Even today, it is through this word that most Mexicans know La Malinche.
“One of the things we wanted to accomplish with telling this story was for visitors who know its story to re-examine their preconceptions and really understand how pernicious some of these metaphors can be,” Lyall said. “Having her name become the basis of a very popular slur is a way of passively highlighting a woman’s sexist and misogynistic view of influence.”
In response to this period of denigration, La Malinche was reclaimed as an icon of the Chicana movements of the 1960s and 1970s. This is the subject of the show’s fifth and final part, a section that extends to the present day. today, looking at how her image has been embraced by a number of different communities, from feminists to trans activists.
Despite the myriad ways in which the La Malinche mythology has been exploited, it has always resisted reduction, Romo explained.
“That was always at the heart of what interested me about her – she was such a complex being,” the curator said. “That’s what makes it so powerful: it elicits these different representations in people.”
Thanks to their work, more people will bring their own contemporary interpretations to his story. Before the show opened, DAM launched a series of outreach programs, trying both to gauge the perception of La Malinche in the community and to educate people about her story.
“The best comment we had was, ‘How come there’s no Disney princess movie about her? ‘” Lyall recalls with a laugh. “It certainly wasn’t the avenue we wanted to take, but for me it really underscored how, even though our visitors don’t know who La Malinche is, once they hear her story, they are hooked. .”
“Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malincheis on display at the Denver Art Museum until May 8, 2022. It will travel to the Albuquerque Museum from June 11 to September 4, 2022 and to the San Antonio Museum of Art from October 14, 2022 to January 08, 2023.
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