In the Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), Octavio Paz argues that to understand Mexico we need to return to its violent origins in the Spanish conquest and the Colonial Period of 1521-1821. The Nobel Prize-winning author draws attention to two women: La Virgen de Guadalupe and La Malinche, who supposedly offer the key to understanding the penchant for Mexican nihilism and solitude which he sees as defining characteristics of the people of Mexico. Paz appears to take for granted that La Virgen and La Malinche went hand in hand from 1531, the year of the Marian miraculous appearance at Tepeyac, all the way to the present. This, however, is not the case.
During the first half of the colonial period, the appearance of La Virgen de Guadalupe was one of the best-kept secrets; only the masses of semi-converted indigenous natives seemed to be aware of the miraculous image she had left behind as a sign of her divine presence in Nueva España. To the natives, though, the image was none other than Tonantzin, the Mexica goddess that had previously been worshiped at Tepeyac in pre-Colombian times. Around 1648, these Tonantzineros were set straight when Miguel Sánchez brought the story of La Virgen to the attention of the Criollos (the progeny of Spanish born in New Spain) who would begin to itch for independence in the following century. The Criollos then promptly appropriated the miracle of La Virgen to legitimize their emerging nationalism. They saw themselves as the chosen few of La Virgen, now called de Guadalupe, and became Guadalupanos who believed she had given them the right to rule over the colony and to send their Spanish parents home across the ocean.
How the Indians took all of this, we don’t know. Did they say to themselves, dude, here we got the last surviving goddess from our ancestors, who looks like us, and talks like us, and helps us put up with this whole colonial crap, and now she goes and abandons us for the white Criollos. What’s up with that? She’s going all Malinche on us. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. What we do know is that the Criollos, like el Cura Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, knew of the power La Virgen Morena had over her native followers. So when El Cura began the independence war, he quickly turned La Virgen into the first flag (I almost wrote Mexican flag but that category of nationalism hadn’t been created yet. The Criollos of New Spain still called themselves Americanos!)
In 1821, the Criollos win independence from Spain and after a more or less 40 years in power they are defeated by Benito Juárez and the Reformers (great name for an alternative rock band) for whom La Virgen didn’t represent a political tool, just a religious icon which they interpreted as irrational superstition since they had seen the light of the American and French revolutions. The funny thing is that Juárez and the Reformers liked the indios as long as they separated the Virgen de Guadalupe worship from their civic duty. Moreover, these enlightened rulers demanded that the Indians add the adjective, mexicanos to their ethnicity. That’s right. No more indios purépechas, zapotecos, mayas, tarahumaras, mayos, all of them had to fuse into los indios mexicanos, with emphasis on mexicano, o sea, the nationalist element. The Indigenous noun could eventually be dispensed with for the goal was to create a Mexican citizenry, based on equality before the law, private ownership of land, and individual rights. The Indian communities would have none of it, of course, and to this very day they have resisted and have said, No gracias, to this type of nacionalismo mexicano.
Well, anyone can see that La Virgen de Guadalupe was put in the background as she was of little use to the Reformers in their quest to create a country, a nation-state as they came to be commonly known. Their goal was the same as any other nation-builders around the world: invent or reinvent a national history with a flamboyant mythology with a cast full of good and bad guys, heroes and traitors. Though many of the Reformers saw themselves as atheists, they could not escape their Judeo-Christian upbringing so they included a bad woman, a Mexican Eve, in the foundational myth. And thus, la pobre Malinche was dragged into this hallucinating historical drama.
There is little evidence that La Malinche had a bad reputation prior to the Reform Period. There are only a few historical documents that can give us an idea of who she was, which has allowed historians, novelists, and essayists to create a Malinche myth. This mythmaking begins with Reformer historians like Justo Sierra who wasn’t so justo with this Indian woman since he unfairly represents only her as the opposite of Cuauhtémoc, the defeated Aztec hero of the conquest who fought and resisted the foreign invader to the end. La Malinche is the opposite, she sides with the enemy and helps them defeat not just the Aztecs but also all the indigenous people of Mexico; and anyone else who was willing to be Mexican. The historians forgot, of course, the one hundred thousand Tlaxcaltecas and other Indians who fought alongside Cortez; I’m sure their military might was more important than La Malinche’s translations in achieving the conquest.
The Reformers took a page from the Bible and turned Doña Marina (as she was known during in colony) into the Mexican Eve and Judas melded into one: she became La Malinche who sided with the enemy and sold out her country; because fresh on the minds of the Reformers was the American and French invasions where there had been plenty of national traitors. La Malinche worked well as an ideological antidote to these unpatriotic Mexicans. It was of utmost importance that the children learn this ideology as part of their historical education. Fear of the other and a healthy dose of xenophobia were needed in order to preserve the political autonomy of the nation. By the 1940s, in a so-called revolutionary Mexico, this myth and ideology became virulent. To disqualify an opponent one needed but to make a charge of malinchismo or malinchista, in a simplified way, a person who disparages lo mexicano and prefers the foreign.
In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz paints one of the most poetic and sublime versions of La Malinche myth, that’s all, and through this myth, he attempts to explain the character of the Mexican, which itself is a myth. Mexicans are not the sons (or daughters) of La Malinche, if anything they are the creation of the State.
Since the 1970s, Chicanas and other American feminists have created their own counter-Paz Malinche myths giving it a more positive spin and they have also reinterpreted La Virgen de Guadalupe. Moreover, Mexican and Chicana(o) novels, poems, plays, and films are full of representations that either reinforce the negative side of these myths or reinterprets them. Everyone invents a version that meets the political and cultural identity needs of its community.
Among all these voices, there is one that I wish we could hear but can’t because she never took the time to address La Virgen de Guadalupe or Doña Marina even though she was closer in time to them than we are. She was an intellectual of the highest order who also lived during the Colonial Period but is hardly mentioned in relation to the foundational myths. She is Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz.
Strangely enough, Sor Juana suffered a similar historical fate as La Virgen de Guadalupe and Doña Marina. Soon after her death, she was forgotten in Mexican letters, she became an obscure literary figure who was mainly remembered because of a satirical poem that dissed men, “Hombres necios que acusáis.” After almost 200 years in relative obscurity, the literary lights of the Porfirio Díaz Dictatorship “discovered” her when searching for their literary roots. In the twentieth century she became renown throughout the world, especially in the United States where feminist appropriated her as one of their champions, and her essay, “Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz,” was raised as a feminist manifesto. But as far as I know, no one has asked: Why is Sor Juana so silent on La Virgen de Guadalupe and Doña Marina if they are so essential to understanding the Mexican character as Octavio Paz and other intellectuals posit? How did Sor Juana view the other two iconic women of Nueva España? She does mention La Virgen de Guadalupe in some poems but not in any polemical way, though in the only sonnet dedicated to La Virgen, Sor Juana intimates that the apparition had an antecedent in Spain. And as far as I know, she is mum on the topic of Donã Marina.
Perhaps the reason is simpler than we think. Nowadays, we decontextualize Sor Juana the same way we decontextualize La Virgen and Doña Marina, and the process leads to mythmaking. There are those who see her as an ally of the downtrodden, the indigenous people and the Africans. There is no clear evidence of this; we only know that she owned an African slave woman and knew a little bit of Nahuátl, the language of the Mexica, which she used in some of her poetry. Because of “La respuesta,” many view her as a defender of women’s rights but, in fact, in the letter, there is no evidence that she is defending all women’s rights but only those of white, rich Criollas like her. Finally, there are people who see in her a Mexican writer, aware of her mexicanness. This is far from the truth. Sor Juana probably saw herself as a devout, faithful, Catholic, a subject of the Spanish Crown. For in her world, Catholic and Spanish were inseparable. I also doubt she saw herself impacted as a female by La Virgen or Doña Marina either negatively or positively as Paz and others argue. As for the concept of Mexican in the sense of a distinct national character, this identity did not exist for Sor Juana, and it still does not exist today.