A Historic Figure Is Still Hated by Many in Mexico

March 26, 1997


MEXICO CITY -- There is no museum at 57 Higuera St., not even a plaque.

When foreign tourists ring the doorbell of the stone house, they are shooed away by the owners. Mexicans just walk right by, shunning the place because of its historical associations and popular fears of the ghosts that supposedly stalk any visitors who dare to go inside.

But the house, which is one of the most graceful in the colonial neighborhood of Coyoacan, receives a modest mention in tourist guidebooks as "La Malinche's house," named after Hernan Cortes' beautiful and reputedly treacherous Indian translator and mistress.

Not only did La Malinche live in the house almost 500 years ago. This was also the place where Cortes wrote the chronicles of his brutal conquests for King Charles V, and where historians believe he strangled his wife for reasons that are still the stuff of popular rumor and historical speculation.

Mexico City has museums that commemorate its modern art, its Indian heritage, stamps, and even the house where Leon Trotsky lived and was assassinated. But the only commemorative to the woman who helped Cortes forge alliances with various Indian nations against the Aztecs is an insult.

To be called a malinchista is to be called a lover of foreigners, a traitor.

"For Mexico to make this house a museum, would be like the people of Hiroshima creating a monument for the man who dropped the atomic bomb," said Rina Lazo, a prominent Mexican muralist who lives at 57 Higuera Street with her family. "We're not malinchistas, but we want to conserve Mexican history."

La Malinche, who took part in the Spanish conquest and gave birth to one of Cortes' children, has become a symbol of a nation that is still not entirely comfortable with either its European or its Indian roots.

Some Mexican feminists say she is even at the root of much of the disdain Mexican men display toward Mexican women, expressed in the country's high rates of infidelity and domestic violence.

La Malinche is present in the murals of Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. She has been described and analyzed in the writings of most of Mexico's great authors, from the essays of Carlos Fuentes to the plays of Salvador Novo and Rodolfo Usigli.

But even though Mexican and Mexican-American intellectuals have begun to rethink her meaning, La Malinche is for the most part portrayed as the perpetrator of Mexico's original sin and as a cultural metaphor for all that is wrong with Mexico.

For Octavio Paz, La Malinche was "the cruel incarnation of the feminine condition." In his book "The Labyrinth of Solitude," Paz wrote, "The strange permanence of Cortes and La Malinche in the Mexican's imagination and sensibilities reveals that they are something more than historical figures: They are symbols of a secret conflict that we have still not resolved."

But while Cortes and La Malinche are still on the minds of Mexicans, they are kept in the closet. When Coyoacan officials constructed a fountain and statue depicting Cortes, La Malinche and their son about 15 years ago, street demonstrations became so fierce that the monument was destroyed.

Visitors who are lucky enough to gain entrance to 57 Higuera Street are treated to an array of riches. Ms. Lazo and her husband, Arturo Garcia Bustos, who is also a prominent painter, use the ample two-story house as their studio. Amid their own work and that of their teachers, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, are Aztec jade jewelry and other artifacts they found in the garden.

The house sustained a rich history between the time La Malinche lived there and when Ms. Lazo and Garcia Bustos moved in 35 years ago. It has been restored and rebuilt several times, but the foundation and several walls remain from the original house, and stone rings to tie idle horses still grace the facade.

In colonial times, Indians wove blankets and clothing in the house for their Spanish masters. It was left in ruins in the 17th century.

But a group of Catholic monks clandestinely converted the house into a convent in the middle of the 19th century, resisting the anti-clerical policies of President Benito Juarez. Some peasants betrayed the monks, and the house was confiscated and turned into a prison.

Jose Vasconcelos, the Mexican philosopher and unsuccessful presidential candidate, bought the house in the '30s and rented it to various people, including Lupe Rivera Marin, Diego Rivera's daughter. She used the house as headquarters when she successfully ran for Congress.

"It will take another century before this house could become a museum," Ms. Lazo said. "The gringos and Spaniards will keep knocking on the door, but the Mexicans will only knock when they no longer hold grudges and feel resentments, and that will take time."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

As published online by Dr. Michael Perri, Texas A & M University - Texarkana, at http://www.tamut.edu/academics/mperri/Mex/MEX.htm.