Good versus evil? Hero or traitor? Art History of La Malinche at the Denver Art Museum

The exhibition “Traitor, Survivor, Icon” at the Denver Art Museum addresses the question: Was Malinsh a hero or a traitor?

Was a local 16th-century mystery known to have been sold into slavery as a youth before becoming the mother of modern Mexico a victim and therefore a righteous role model for generations of women?

Or was she a conspirator who profited by selling her people to the enemy of the Spanish conquistadors, helping to bring about the tragic, violent fall of a proud civilization?

The exhibition does offer an answer to this direct, albeit too voluminous question: that Malinche, who worked as a translator for Hernán Cortés and bore him a child, was a noble sufferer who did everything she had to to survive. Or perhaps museum goers, five centuries later, in an age of belated sympathy for the exploitation of women, will inevitably see her as such.

But the exhibition, convincing both in its arguments and ingenious proofs, leaves room for doubters. This rightly reflects the point of view of popular opinion, both past and recent, that Malinche was a devil in braids and whipilea traditional tunic that was the fashionable stable of the time.

Alfredo Arreguín’s portrait of Malinche in 1993 adorns her with symbols of both indigenous and European beliefs. (Courtesy Denver Art Museum)

Surprisingly, and thanks to the diligent efforts of its organizers, the exhibition showcases both cases through art, paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, textiles and videos that show how artists have expressed their judgments of Malinche over the past 500 years.

Collecting exhibits from different times, curators Victoria E. Lyall and Teresita Romo have crafted a narrative that combines Malinche’s biographical history with a dramatic story of how public opinion has turned for and against her over time.

In this sense, it is a show within a show that offers the double pleasure of learning a bit about the history of North America, as well as appreciating works of art, starting with the Aztec stone female figures of the 1400s, who set the stage with video performances created in a real, multimedia moment that highlight the conflict in the various interpretations of Malinche.

There are a number of inspirational offerings in the mix, including Antonio Ruiz’s 1934 Dream of Malinche, a surreal oil painting depicting Malinche deeply asleep, her body intertwined with scenes of the city of Cholula, which was brutally destroyed by Cortés in 1519.

There are also contemporary works, such as a series of black-and-white Annie Lopez family photographs superimposed on text, that link Malinche’s story to the plight of contemporary women, who are often stigmatized for their physical appearance.

There are works that glorify Malinche in something close to holiness. Jorge González Camarena’s 1964 “Couple” is a monumental painting depicting Cortes and Malinche as tall and bold, like Mexico’s mother and father, sharing power and friendship. The mixed-race fruits of their union shaped the diversity that defines Mexico today.

Conversely, there are works that question Malinche’s character with a similar lack of subtlety, such as Chicano artist David Avalos’s 1989 “Combo Plate No. 3” assembly, in which a cap, saw, and other materials are made into a “notched vagina” with every possible consequences of such an invention.

The exhibition label for Avalos’s work includes a quote from the artist: “The circumstances of our birth are still a source of both horror and fascination” – and this goes straight to the essence of “Traitor, Survivor, Icon” as a whole.

If you go

“Traitor, Survivor, Icon: La Malinche’s Legacy” will run until May 8 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 W. 14th Ave. parkway. Call 720-865-5000 or visit for information.

Most people in Mexico today are mestizo or mixed race with both indigenous and European DNA. They are neither purely descendants of the oppressed natives, nor are they fully oppressors themselves. They are something of both, and these conflicting aspects of self-identification manifest themselves in the alternating ways that history has identified Malinche.

You can critically extrapolate this notion as an exploration of the light and darkness that exists within all of us.

There is anger and shame in treating Malinche as a traitor, which dominated after her death in 1529. Also, in later depictions of her, often by Chikan artists, there are great moments of pride in power that resurrected her reputation. as a hero and source of strength. The show is full of more recent examples, including a 1995 portrait of Cecil Concepción with the subversive title “Malinche had his reasons.”

But the curators have been wise to let the art speak for itself and the record fall where it can, and they do it in a dramatic way. The show stopper of the exhibition is a double presentation of two large and very similar oil paintings, never before exhibited together and borrowed by the DAM team from Mexican churches with great curatorial skill.

The first is The Baptism of the Lords of Tlaxcala and was painted in 1630 by an unknown artist. The second is The Baptism of the Lords of Tlaxcala, an almost exact copy of that first painting, painted in 1690 by Joseph Sanchez.

Both glorify (for better or worse, depending on the beliefs of the beholder) the conversion of indigenous leaders to Christianity when they are anointed with holy water, and both have Malinche in the baptismal crowd of onlookers, an agent and collaborator of the conquerors, a supporter of their cause, to whom viewers pictures could imitate.

But in the opening scene, intended primarily for a Spanish audience, Malinche is fair-skinned, like the European invaders of modern-day Mexico. In the second, intended for an increasingly mixed population that developed over the following decades, Malinche is dark-skinned, as are many of the locals.