Activities: Context Activities
Model Women: La Virgen de Guadalupe, La Llorona, and La Malinche as Archetypes of Mexican Femininity
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 Anonymous, Florentine Codex, plate 49 (1500-99), courtesy of the School of American Research and the University of Utah Press.
In Mexican culture, female identity has traditionally been structured around three principal archetypes: La Virgen de Guadalupe (a vision of the Virgin Mary that appeared to an Indian convert in the sixteenth century), La Llorona (a woman who, after being spurned by her lover, killed her children), and La Malinche (the Indian woman who served as Hernán Cortés's translator, negotiator, and mistress during the Conquest of Mexico). While these figures have usually represented a very limited spectrum of possibilities for women, Guadalupe, La Llorona, and La Malinche have also shown themselves to be flexible myths. They have been manipulated and restructured to meet the political and spiritual needs of different cultural moments in Mexican history.
Since her appearance in the sixteenth century, La Virgen de Guadalupe has been one of the most powerful symbols of Mexican national identity and pride. According to a legend first published in 1648, La Virgen de Guadalupe appeared several times in 1531 to Juan Diego, an Indian who had recently converted to Catholicism. She appeared on a hill outside Mexico City and spoke to him in his native language of Nahuatl, instructing him to lead his community in building a shrine to her on the hill. When the bishop of the Catholic Church in Mexico City demanded physical proof of Juan Diego's vision, the Virgen appeared to him again and told him to gather roses in his tilma, or peasant cloak, and to bring them to the bishop as evidence. When Juan Diego unwrapped his tilma to present the flowers to the bishop, he found the Virgen's image imprinted on the fabric. The tilma with La Virgen de Guadalupe's image hangs in the Basilica in Mexico City, where it is an object of pilgrimages and veneration. Today, the image of La Virgen--a young woman with dark hair, an olive complexion, humble downcast eyes, her hands clasped in prayer, and an angel at her feet--is reproduced on everything from T-shirts to candles to bumperstickers to tattoos.
In the colonial era, La Virgen de Guadalupe was celebrated as a long-suffering, loving mother and heralded as a symbol of obedience, forgiveness, and peace. The circumstances of her appearance were cited as evidence of Mexico City's favored status as an outpost of the Spanish empire. More recently, she has lost some of her passive, colonial attributes and evolved into an emblem of liberation, national pride, and Indian heritage. Mestizo activists have celebrated the Virgen's ties to Tonantzin, a pre-Conquest Aztec earth mother deity. In their view, La Virgen de Guadalupe is best understood as an amalgamation of Christian and pre-Columbian religious imagery, since she appeared to Juan Diego on a hill that had originally served as the site of a shrine to Tonantzin, wears a cloak decorated with astral symbols sacred to the Aztecs, and has a dark complexion and some Native American facial features. Feminists including Gloria Anzaldúa and Sandra Cisneros have celebrated La Virgen de Guadalupe as a mystical, lifegiving earth mother who symbolizes the power of womanhood and provides an alternative to more patriarchal spiritual figures.
Just as the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe has been manipulated and transformed to accommodate different political and cultural needs, the myth of the female phantom La Llorona has taken on many forms within Mexican culture. Translated as "The Weeping Woman," La Llorona began as an oral legend about a ghostly woman who can be heard wailing for her lost children. In some versions of the story, La Llorona is doomed to wander and weep to expiate her own guilt for murdering her children. The motivations for the murders range from depression or anger at being abandoned by their father (who is sometimes portrayed as an Anglo), to the need to conceal an illegitimate birth, to a selfish rejection of motherhood. In other versions, she is portrayed as a loving mother who loses her children in a tragic accident or to foul play. She is almost always represented as wandering near lakes and rivers, since in most versions of the myth her children died by drowning. At its most basic level, the story serves as a cautionary tale to keep young children away from dangerous bodies of water. At the same time, it constructs an archetype of failed motherhood and tragic femininity.
In some versions of the La Llorona story, the phantom woman appears in the streets of cities and towns and lures young men into following her, usually with tragic consequences. In these versions she represents a dangerous feminine sexuality, out to punish or destroy male pursuers just as she destroyed her children. Occasionally, La Llorona is conflated with the spirit of La Malinche, who is wailing because she is remorseful about having betrayed the native Mexican people by assisting Cortés. These versions of the myth reinforce stereotypes of women and women's sexuality as untrustworthy and traitorous.
The fact that La Llorona has been frequently conflated with La Malinche testifies to the symbolic importance of the Malinche legend. Identified as a slave, a princess, a mestiza, a cultural and linguistic translator, a mother, and a traitor, the figure of La Malinche functions as a powerful amalgamation of anxieties about race, gender, class, and nationality. According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo's account of La Malinche (whom he calls by her Spanish name, Doña Marina), she was born into a royal family but sold into slavery when her mother and stepfather decided her existence might threaten their son's position as sole heir to their throne. They gave La Malinche to a group of itinerant traders from Xicalango, who then sold her to a Tobascan chief, who in turn gave her as a gift to the conquistador Hernán Cortés. Since she had lived among so many different tribes, La Malinche had an extraordinary facility with native languages. Her rapid acquisition of Spanish made her an extremely valuable asset to Cortés, who called her "mi lengua" ("my tongue" or "my language") and used her to negotiate with the tribes he encountered on his march through Mexico. She also became his secretary, mistress, the mother of his child, and eventually the wife of one of his officers.
While European explorers' portraits of La Malinche are mostly positive, Mexican and Chicano writers have traditionally seen her as a traitor who sold out her own people to help Cortés destroy the Aztec Empire and conquer all of Mexico for Spain. Both she and Martín, the mestizo son she had by Cortés, are often viewed with contempt for embracing foreign domination and turning their backs on their native culture. In actuality, La Malinche's role was probably far less important to the fall of the Aztec Empire than Cortés's military skills, the Aztec chief Montezuma's weakness, the military contributions of rival indigenous tribes, and the spread of European diseases that decimated native populations. In any case, La Malinche had been repeatedly sold among tribes as a slave and thus probably did not perceive any particular group as "her people." Indeed, she may have felt that she was working with Cortés to conquer groups she herself identified as enemies for holding her in slavery.
Despite the facts of La Malinche's involvement with Cortés and the Conquest, she has functioned for centuries as a scapegoat for the destruction of Native American cultures in Mexico. Writer and critic Octavio Paz, for example, saw La Malinche as the central representative of a negative tradition of subjugation and cultural impoverishment that began with the Conquest. Assigning the pejorative name "La Chingada" ("the violated one"), Paz associated her with a history of shame, violation, and defamation. She is a symbolic reminder that indigenous people were "violated" by Spanish invaders, and that a woman enabled this violation (importantly, the word "malinchista" has come to mean "traitor" in Spanish). In this reading, La Malinche acquires the mythical status of a "Mexican Eve," who has brought about the "fall" of her people through her own selfishness or heedlessness.
Recently, feminist cultural critics have begun to resist such portraits of La Malinche, both because they are historically inaccurate and because they promote misogynistic attitudes toward women. Instead, they have attempted to rehabilitate the myth of La Malinche in order to celebrate her strength, flexibility, intelligence, and extraordinary skill at mediating between cultures. As a figure of mediation, she provides a model to mestizas, whose identity is built upon balancing a complex, multifaceted heritage. Chicana writer Cherrie Moraga has written a play about La Malinche, and she is a popular and recurrent figure in Chicana poetry.
- Comprehension: Why do some critics understand La Virgen de Guadalupe as an amalgamation of Christian and indigenous pre-Columbian religious traditions? What characteristics mark her as a particularly Native American figure?
- Comprehension: Why was La Malinche so valuable to Cortés? In what ways did she help him in his drive to conquer the Aztecs?
- Context: How does Bernal Díaz del Castillo represent La Malinche in The True History of the Conquest of New Spain? How does his portrayal of her role in the Conquest compare to later representations of her "betrayal"?
- Context: Examine the drawings of La Malinche with Cortés in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala featured in the archive. How does the Lienzo portray La Malinche's work as Cortés's "lengua" or "tongue"? What other roles does Malinche seem to occupy in the drawings' representation of her position within Cortés's army?
- Context: Compare the notions of womanhood present in Garcilaso de la Vega's Florida of the Inca to those at work in the narratives of Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Cabeza de Vaca. What role does each of these authors envision for women in the New World?
What sorts of feminine behavior do they valorize?
- Context: How does Gloria Anzaldúa's construction of a "new mestiza consciousness" challenge the traditional archetypes of Mexican femininity?
- Exploration: The figures of La Virgen de Guadalupe, La Llorona, and La Malinche have historically structured the identities and opportunities available to Mexican and Chicana women. What kinds of archetypes shape the lives of women of other ethnicities in America?
- Exploration: In Sandra Cisneros's novel Woman Hollering Creek, the creek of the title is named for La Llorona. Why do you think Cisneros makes this reference? How does The House on Mango Street (Unit 16) address the issue of cultural stereotypes about Mexican women? To what extent does it revise or accept these stereotypes?
- Exploration: Compare the poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes and Gloria Anzaldúa. How does each revise the myths and ideals that structure Chicana identity?
 Theodor de Bry, The Widows Approach the Chief (1591),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62- 75947].
A large group of new widows supplicate their chief, as Spanish soldiers stand in the background.
 Anonymous, Florentine Codex, plate 49 (1500-99),
courtesy of the School of American Research and the University of Utah Press.
This plate shows a Spanish soldier looting the treasure house of Moctezuma. The Florentine Codex was illustrated by Aztec scribes in a style that reflected a mixture of pre-Conquest manuscript traditions and European illustration convention.
 Jorge Gonzalea Camarena, Visit Mexico [poster] (c. 1940-50),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory.
A pretty young Mexican woman is shown holding out a bowl of tropical fruits in this poster, which was intended to encourage U.S. tourists to vacation in Mexico.
 Anonymous, Sheet from the Huejotzingo Codex [1 of 8] (1531),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.
In 1531, the people of Huejotzingo asked conqueror Hernán Cortés to initiate a lawsuit against the high court of New Spain concerning the unjust use of indigenous labor and tribute. As part of this petition, eight pages of drawings were made on amatl (fig bark); these drawings are known today as the Huejotzingo Codex.
 Cortes(?), La Gran Ciudad de Temixtlan (1524),
courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago.
This map of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán is often attributed to Cortés. It is European in style, but the map-view contains information suggesting a native source.
 Anonymous, Cortés, Montezuma and Dona Marina, from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala Facsimile (1890),
courtesy of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Bancroft Library.
The Lienzo de Tlaxcala employs the res gestae strategy and provides an interesting counterpoint to the Florentine Codex. Here Cortés is depicted with Montezuma and Dona Marina.
 Janjapp Dekker, Sandra Cisneros with Virgen de Guadalupe Boots (n.d.),
courtesy of El Andar Magazine. Here, Cisneros wears boots with pictures of La Virgen de Guadalupe, a vision of the Virgin Mary that appeared to an Indian convert in the sixteenth century.
 N. Currier, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe: Our Lady of Guadalupe (1848),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-2890].
This image shows a fairly Anglicized version of La Virgen de Guadeloupe, buoyed by an angel.
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