Doña Marina/Malinche: Traitor, Victim, or Survivor?

Time Estimate

Three 50-minute class periods.


After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. read and analyze a variety of sources, both primary and secondary, including poetry and examples of visual art.
  2. determine the point of view of the creators of the sources, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each.
  3. interpret and evaluate the sources, especially the role of women as seen in these sources.
  4. reach a possible conclusion as to the accuracy of the portrayal of Malinche by the various sources.
  5. determine what other sources would be useful (e.g., a map showing the location of those who hated the Aztecs and were willing to join the Spaniards to fight their enemy).
  6. consider how the interpretation of historical information changes over time.
  1. Hook: Hand out and read the two excerpts. Have students discuss what it means to be a traitor, a victim, or a survivor. On the board, create three columns, one for each term. Then list the points made by the students beneath the appropriate term. Lead a discussion on the types of sources needed to make a reasoned, rational judgment. Discuss what students know about the Conquest of Mexico and the role of women in that region during the 16th century. Read Doña Marina, Cortés's Translator Introduction.1

  2. Images: Create a chart that has three columns: Traitor-Victim-Neither. This chart will help the students decide between different perceptions of Doña Marina/Malinche and will assist them later in the lesson when a trial is held based on the sources.

    Distribute copies of the image sources: (Source 3: Painting, Mexican Manuscript, Source 4: Painting, Florentine Codex, Source 7: Painting, The Dream of Malinche, Source 12: Sculpture, Durham) Distribute four copies of Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Images to each student. Divide the class into two groups. Have students examine these sources carefully, noting that two are from the 16th century and two are from the 20th century. As the documents are read and evaluated, each group decides how valid it thinks a document is, what image is projected of Doña Marina, what changes occurred to her image over time. Students should decide which role is suggested by each source, (e.g., the personal account of Diaz del Castillo suggests reasons to believe that Doña Marina was a victim, while the painting from the Florentine Codex implies that she was a collaborator.) Students should complete a worksheet for each source.

    Students should also consider the following questions:

    • What can we infer about the painters? (What does indigenous mean? Does the name Ruiz suggest anything about the painter's background?)
    • What can we infer about the painters' point of view?
    • What does each painting tell us about Doña Marina?
    • What details suggest her role?
    • What similarities or differences are there between the works of the two different time periods?
    • What does this tell us about the interpretation of history?
    • How valid is each image as a source of historical knowledge?

    Students should try to decide if the paintings portray Doña Marina as a traitor or a victim, using the criteria listed on the board to help make decisions. Note reasons for the choices made.

  3. Texts: Distribute copies of the following two sources: Source 1: Letter, Hernan Cortés, Source 2: Personal Account, Bernal Diaz del Castillo. Distribute two copies of Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts to each student. Have students read the sources documents silently. Complete a worksheet for each of these primary sources.

    Students should also consider the following questions:

    • Who are the authors?
    • When were they written?
    • How are they alike?
    • How are they different?
    • Both men knew Doña Marina. Circle the words used by each to describe her. Why would Cortés be so abrupt in his description of a woman he knew intimately? Why is Diaz del Castillo's account more detailed? How valid is each man's assessment of Doña Marina?
    • What are the strengths/weaknesses of each account?

    Where would each student place these two documents on the Traitor-Victim-Neither chart? Why?

  4. Texts: Distribute copies of the following two sources: Source 5: Nonfiction, Florentine Codex (Spanish), Source 6: Nonfiction, Florentine Codex (Nahuatl). Students read aloud the two versions, one in Spanish, one in Nahuatl, of the Spanish entry into a private home and what happened. Note the author and date of the original source and the translators and source for the later edition. Compare the two (Spanish and Nahuatl) versions of the event.

    Students should also consider the following questions:

    • What is different in them? Write specific examples of these differences. What does this tell us about translations of sources?
    • Look back in the Images sources and find the one that is also from the Florentine Codex. How well does the painting reinforce the account or does it?
    • What do we learn from the three examples taken from the Florentine Codex about the role of women?
    • Would Doña Marina be a typical example of women of her time and place?
    • Where might these two sources go on Traitor-Victim-Neither chart? Why?

  5. Homework: Distribute copies of Source 8: Nonfiction, Octavio Paz. This is an essay by Octavio Paz to be read and evaluated at home. In addition to the worksheet activity, students should keep a running list of questions raised by their reading, and they should look up unfamiliar terms. The essay is lengthy, has sophisticated language and complex concepts. The reading will take a considerable amount of time and thought. Some questions to consider as the students read the essay, or for discussion on the following day, are:

    • What is meant by Mexican hermeticism?
    • How do Europeans characterize Mexican/Mexico?
    • How does Paz characterize the Mexican work ethic? the servant mentality?
    • What "vestiges of past realities" create struggles for Mexicans?
    • Who does Paz define as la chingada? hijos de la chingada?
    • What are some of the many meanings of chingar?
    • What is meant by the phrase, "I am your father."?
    • What vision of God does the Mexican venerate? Why?
    • Who is Chauhtemoc?
    • Who is the symbol of the "violated Mother?" Why?
    • What does the adjective malinchista mean?
    • What is meant by the frequent shout, "Viva Mexico, hijos de la chingada!"?
    • What does the essay tell us about the role of women in contemporary (1985) Mexican life?
    • What does Paz tell us about Malinche (Doña Marina)?
    • What does this document add to the Traitor-Victim-Neither chart and where should it go?

  6. Discussion: The homework assignment of the Paz document should be thoroughly discussed. Why is this essay "now a touchstone and point of departure for revisionist work on Malinche, particularly by feminist, Chicana writers, artists and activists?” What is there in Paz's interpretation that would lend itself to revision?

  7. Poetry: Distribute Source 9: Poem, Como Duele and Source 10: Poem, La Malinche. Have students read these aloud and discuss the meaning of each. Who wrote the poems and when? Define the concept la raza (the people). Discuss other language as needed. What phrases are used by Tafolla to characterize Malinche? What was Malinche's fate according to Sosa-Riddell? What technique does Sosa-Riddell use to weave the story of both indigenous and Chicana people? What do we learn about the image/role of women from the poems?

  8. Trial of Doña Marina: The two groups previously selected will work together in class to prepare for a treason trial of Doña Marina. One group will select the Defendant, Defense Attorney, and any witnesses needed for the case. The other group will select the Prosecutor and such witnesses needed for the case. (Witnesses could be Montezuma, Cortés, Aztec persons, neighboring indigenous people, a priest, a Spanish soldier etc. Their testimony must be based on information from the sources. The number of witnesses is optional.) The two groups work to prepare the presentation—Doña Marina's opening statement is NOT the work of one student, but all in the defense group will decide what she is to say. This is true of every speaking role. The jury will have an equal number selected from each group and should be encouraged to render a verdict based on the presentation of the sources. If this fails to bring in a verdict, the "judge" (teacher) renders a decision.

    Students should select from the documents in the chart those arguments which best fit their charters. In their statements, students should explain why the sources used are valid ones (e.g., eyewitness account, and in the concluding summation, the weakness of the opponents' arguments should be noted [e.g., too much time elapsed]).

    The trial begins with the judge addressing Doña Marina . . . is she guilty or not guilty of treason?

    Doña Marina reads her opening statement. The prosecution delivers an opening statement of intent to prove guilt. The defense delivers an opening statement of intent to prove victimization, not treason. Prosecution calls witnesses. Defense calls witnesses. Each side has a summation. Jury deliberates and reaches a verdict. Discussion by the entire class follows to determine how the image of Malinche changed over time. How were the contemporary sources different from the ones from the 16th century? Which sources do the students consider the most effective or “correct?” Which voices are the most believable, those from the 16th or those from the 20th century?


Advanced Students: Have students read from the bibliography (below) about this fascinating woman and the various interpretations of her historic role. What additional sources would be helpful? Advanced students will also take a day to write the DBQ.

Less Advanced Students: Have students create a drawing of Malinche when they have completed activity 2. Omit activity 5, homework. Compile the worksheets and create an outline for these students to use while writing the DBQ.

1For additional information on Doña Marina/La Malinche see the following sources:

PBS Conquistadors series

Frances Karttunen. Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors. (Piscataway, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press: 1994).


La Malinche: Creator or Traitor,

Reinterpreting Malinche by John Taylor,

This essay is an excellent resource for the teacher, but for those who feel some language censorship is needed for young students, some editing may be necessary before distribution to the class. There are extensive notes and links to other sources at the conclusion of the essay.

Sandra Messinger Cypess. La Malinche in Mexican Literature: From History to Myth. (Austin, University of Texas Press: 1991).