The original interpreters. First encounters between Europe and The Americas.

October 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

A few days ago the world commemorated, and debated, a most controversial date. Depending on culture and history, it is known as “Columbus Day”, “Native-American Day”, “Hispanic Heritage Day”, “Day of The Race”, “National Day (of Spain)”, “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”, and maybe other names I do not know. Because it is a widely observed date, and not getting into the political, cultural, and historical debates, I thought it was an appropriate occasion to talk about the first encounters between the European and American civilizations from the perspective of the interpreters’ work.

There were many contacts between explorers, conquistadors, and missionaries from Europe and rulers, warriors, ad common people from the Americas; this meant there were many interpreters struggling to facilitate the communication between peoples who did not know their counterparts’ language. The interpreters often spoke one language and learned the other “on the job”.

There are not enough accounts of what many of these interpreters went through to facilitate communication, but there is enough information about some for us to get an idea of what happened during the first half of the Sixteenth Century in what is now Mexico.  This post deals with two individuals who played a vital role in the conquest of the Aztec Empire by the Spanish Crown, and it includes historical facts, my interpretation of what happened from the interpreter’s viewpoint, and my conclusions on the services provided.

Their backgrounds could not be more different, but these two humans would meet and collaborate in an awesome task that would forever change the world as it was known. I am referring to Jerónimo de Aguilar and Malinalli, also known as Malintzin or “La Malinche”.

Jerónimo de Aguilar.

Jerónimo de Aguilar was a Franciscan friar from Écija, Spain who most likely traveled to The Americas to convert the native population to Catholicism. As all Spaniards, he first arrived in Cuba where he was assigned to a mission in the colony of Santa María La Antigua del Darién (now Panama) where he served for a few years, until some internal strife among the Spaniards forced him to sail to Santo Domingo (now Dominican Republic). His expedition shipwrecked near the Yucatán Peninsula where apparently they hit a sand bar. He survived, but the strong currents took him and the rest of his crew to the beaches of what is today the Mexican State of Quintana Roo. The Spaniards were captured by the locals who sacrificed them to the Maya gods, but Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, a Spanish conquistador, escaped alive just to be taken prisoners and enslaved by the Mayan chief Xamanzana (his name according to Spanish records).

Aguilar and Guerrero learned Chontal, the language of their Mayan captors. Because of their loyalty, the Mayan ruler offered them freedom if they married a Mayan bride. Jerónimo de Aguilar, a friar, refused to break his vows and lived as a slave for eight years. Gonzalo Guerrero married Zazil Há, daughter of Nachan Can, Lord of Chactemal, fathered three children, and became a general in Nachan Can’s army. By applying his military experience, and his knowledge of the Spanish culture and language, he was instrumental on the defeat of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in Champotón in 1517. Although Hernández de Córdoba died from his wounds shortly after his return to his military base in Cuba, this expedition is well documented because among its surviving crewmembers were Christopher Columbus’ pilot: Antón de Alaminos, and famed historian Bernal Díaz del Castillo.

When Hernán Cortés invaded México in 1519 he heard of some Chontal-speaking white bearded men living among the Maya in the Yucatán region. Thinking they might be Spaniards, and envisioning their help as interpreters and translators, Cortés dispatched letters to both, Aguilar and Guerrero, inviting them to join him in his quest. Aguilar accepted the offer and join the expedition. He visited Guerrero, by now an influential general, to convince him to join Cortés. Gonzalo Guerrero explained to Aguilar he had a happy life with a wife and children. He said that because of his current physical appearance (he had tattooed his body and face, and pierced his ears) he could not face the Spanish army, so he declined, asking Aguilar to reassure Cortés of his Catholic faith and loyalty to the Spanish monarch. Maybe he also feared punishment once Cortés learned of his involvement in the defeat of Hernández de Córdoba’s expedition two years earlier.

Once Jerónimo de Aguilar joined Cortés’ army and the general was convinced of his loyalty to Church and Crown, he became Hernán Cortés’ personal interpreter Chontal<>Spanish. This was very useful during the campaign in Mayan lands.

Malinalli.

Malinalli was probably born around 1500 in Oluta (near present Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, Mexico) to a wealthy family. Her father was Lord of Copainalá, Oluta and Xaltipa. Some say that he was married to a young and beautiful noble woman named Cimatl. Her place of birth was a border region between the Maya city-states and the Aztec Empire. She got the name Malinalli to honor the Mayan goddess of herbs and vegetation. As she grew up and showed her personality, friends and relatives called her Tenepal (She who speaks lively).

Malinalli’s father died when she was a child, so her mother remarried and had a baby boy. This relegated Malinalli to the role of stepdaughter and put her under the care of her grandmother. During this time her mind is stimulated and motivated to learn. Her grandmother taught her the oral history and traditions of their people and forced her to develop her memory by playing a game every night: Before bedtime, her grandmother would tell her a story that young Malinalli had to visualize and memorize, because the next evening she had to tell the story back to her grandmother before she shared a new story with her. Soon Malinalli’s excellent memory became famous among her peers in the village.

As Malinalli entered her teens, her stepfather sold her as a slave to some Aztec slave traffickers from Xicalango in the Yucatán Peninsula. After hew masters lost a war against the Maya, she was claimed as a slave by the Mayan Lord of Tabasco: Tabscoob. To this point in her life, young Malinalli spoke only her native Náhuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire. Now she quickly learned Chontal, the Mayan language of her masters and became fluent.

When Cortés arrived in Tabasco, already accompanied by Jerónimo de Aguilar as his personal interpreter, he defeated Tabscoob in the Centla battle. Among the spoils of war, he received gold, blankets, and 20 slave women as a present. Among them Malinalli.

Cortés baptized the women so they could be given to his soldiers. Legally, for a good Catholic to be allowed to have concubines, the women had to be baptized and single.  He baptized Malinalli as Marina, and gifted her to his loyal captain Alonso Hernández Portocarrero.

By now, Cortés is advancing towards the Great Tenochtitlan (present Mexico City), site of the Aztec Empire, and he realizes that Jerónimo de Aguilar’s knowledge of Chontal is useless among peoples who speak Náhuatl. It is now that he discovers that Marina speaks both: Náhuatl and Chontal, so he uses her interpreting services combined with those of Aguilar, because Marina did not speak Spanish.

Soon after, Cortés sends Portocarrero back to Spain as an emissary to King Charles V, but he keeps Marina, or “Malinche” as many call her by then, as his Náhuatl interpreter.

Marina and Jerónimo.

It is clear from all accounts that Marina and Aguilar turned into an indispensable asset to Cortés. At the beginning, they practiced relay interpreting on the consecutive mode with Cortés addressing Náhuatl-speaking lords and commoners in Spanish, the source language, Jerónimo de Aguilar consecutively interpreting from Spanish into Chontal, the relay language, followed by Marina’s consecutive rendition from Chontal into Náhuatl, the target language. The answers would have been interpreted back to Cortés through the same process.

There are records showing the use of relay interpreting as described above. I chose consecutive interpreting as their mode of choice for several reasons: It was the customary mode of interpretation in Europe, and explorers and conquerors had been using consecutive interpreters during their campaigns throughout history. Neither Marina nor Aguilar were trained interpreters, they were empiric interpreters, and it is doubtful that they even considered a simultaneous rendition; there is no evidence as to the level of fluency that Aguilar had in Chontal, and they both had to explain concepts and develop vocabulary for things and ideas that were unknown to the counterpart. We must remember that European concepts such as Christianity, and things like horses, harquebuses, and body armors were new to the Native-American population; and the Spaniards had never seen tomatoes, turkeys, tobacco, or chocolate.  These linguistic and cultural difficulties are usually resolved with consecutive interpreting.  We cannot lose sight of the fact that, even today, interrogations, or question and answer sessions are rendered in consecutive mode. Finally, we have information about Marina’s excellent memory, a skill she had developed in childhood because of her grandmother. In her case, consecutive interpreting would have seemed the natural thing to do.

Marina and Aguilar were able to learn foreign languages. Aguilar had learned Chontal, in an environment where nobody else spoke Spanish, by observing his Mayan masters in the Yucatan Peninsula. Young Malinalli mastered the Chontal language while held as a slave. By the time they were part of Cortes’ expedition they had both discovered their interest in foreign languages, and they had realized that interpreting was their ticket to working with the top ranking Spanish officers, including Cortés himself.  As they got deeper into Aztec territory, and Chontal speaking became less of a necessity, Aguilar must have learned Náhuatl, and as historical records show, Marina became fluent in Spanish. I believe that at some point relay interpreting was unnecessary anymore. From that moment on Aguilar and Marina must have rendered interpreting services separately.

Besides language interpreting, these two individuals acted as cultural brokers and advisors to the Spaniards. Because of their lack of knowledge, Cortés and his troops needed plenty of explanations about the natives’ culture, social structure, government, and religion. This was an essential part of their plan. Cortés had only some four hundred Spanish soldiers, fifteen horses and seven cannons; for the campaign to succeed, he needed the military support of some of the native nations enslaved by the Aztecs. This meant plenty of convincing first, and learning how to live side-by-side during the war against the Aztec Empire.   This is how Cortés was joined by the Totonac nation in Cempoala, after he convinced them to turn against their Aztec oppressors, and how he negotiated a peace agreement with the Tlaxcalans after he defeated their leader Xicoténcatl. Both negotiations showed a great deal of diplomacy and awareness of the political situation and tribal hatred these state-nations had for the Aztecs. The role of Marina and Aguilar as interpreters and cultural advisors was the key to success. At this point we see how they were working as diplomatic interpreters, dealing with very sensitive matters at the highest level, and most likely under extreme pressure and total secrecy. These interpreting skills had to be developed by practicing their craft. In Aguilar’s case by putting into practice his knowledge of history acquired through formal education as a friar, and in Marina’s case, by mere intelligence, social skills, and perhaps some memories of her early childhood as the daughter of a nobleman. They also took advantage of what they learned by observing their masters during their years of slavery.

These interpreters’ versatility was crucial for Cortés’ victory over the Aztecs. Aguilar and Marina were interpreters in conflict zones working under unique conditions: Aguilar raised suspicion among the native troops and lords who joined Cortés in his war against the Aztecs, and Marina was perceived as a foreigner by the Spanish soldiers. There is evidence that at least Marina acted as a military interpreter once. While the Spaniards were in the city of Cholula, Marina learned from a local woman that the locals, who outnumbered the Spaniards, were planning a surprise attack against the Spanish troops. Marina took this intelligence straight to Cortés who confronted the Choluteca lords and priests, arrested them, and helped by three thousand Tlaxcalans, killed about six thousand Cholultecas as a warning to all natives who may consider betraying the Spanish forces. Thanks to Marina’s actions, the surviving Cholultecas joined Cortés’ army, and the Spaniards turned a sure defeat into a decisive moment in the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Here Marina’s actions are military interpreting textbook.

The highest point of Marina’s interpreting career (and of Jerónimo de Aguilar’s, even though he is not specifically mentioned or depicted on surviving records) were the encounters between Hernán Cortés and the ninth Aztec Emperor: Montezuma II Xocoyotzin. These face to face meetings involved complex concepts and terms about the fundamentals of Christianity, Emperor Charles V’s divine right to govern all peoples, and questioning about gold and treasures. There were also welcoming speeches of peace by Montezuma, and presentation of gifts, including an Aztec calendar, in the understanding the presents were in exchange for Cortés’ withdrawal from Tenochtitlan. Many written and painted accounts of the event depict Marina beside Cortes and right in front of Montezuma. A common positioning for modern diplomatic interpreters, but something that must have made her very uncomfortable and proud at the same time.

Aztec Emperors were deities. Most Aztecs would live and die without ever seeing their emperor. Marina was the daughter of another Nahua nation that had been vassal to the Aztec Empire. She had been enslaved by the Mayans, and she was now a slave woman acting as the interpreter for the most important encounter in Aztec history. She must have known of this, and must have realized that because of her condition of Native-American, she was despised and hated by all Aztecs. The same circumstances must have made this woman “who speaks lively” very proud. I could not imagine these meetings between Cortés and Montezuma without Cortés demanding that Jerónimo de Aguilar be present nearby if Marina needed his assistance, or if the Aztec Emperor refused to speak through a slave of Cortés. It is also possible that despite the loyalty Marina had exhibited since day one, Cortés feared a double-crossing once she was in the presence of such intimidating figure as Montezuma. He needed Aguilar nearby just in case.

Although not documented, it is possible that, after Cortés’ return from defeating Cuba’s envoy Pánfilo de Narváez, either Marina or Aguilar were present during the last exchanges between Cortés and Montezuma once the latter had been taken prisoner by the Spaniards and was asked (or ordered) to speak to his people from the balcony of his palace. The Aztecs revolted against the Spaniards, when absent Cortés, his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado had ordered what is now known as the “Great Temple Massacre”.  Forty-year old Montezuma was killed that evening.

Following the death of the Aztec Emperor, Cortés and his army were driven out of Tenochtitlan by the Aztecs in the biggest defeat of the Spanish army during “La Noche Triste” (The Night of Sorrows). During their retreat to Popotla, Marina and Aguilar were to the back of the column. Almost immediately, Cortés inquired about the whereabouts of his interpreters, and gave orders to make sure that neither Aguilar nor Marina were lost during the escape.

Cortés eventually regrouped in Tlaxcala and launched the decisive campaign that would put an end to the Aztec Empire. During this period, his interpreters were crucial in developing battle plans and recruitment of more allies. After the fall of Tenochtitlan, the role of Marina and Aguilar changes as they become the main interpreters in the collection of tribute and taxes. Cortés built a palace in Coyoacán, near Tenochtitlan, where he lived with Marina for about a year and fathered a son: Martín Cortés.

Because of her service during the conquest of Mexico, and perhaps because of his legitimate Spanish wife Catalina Xuárez, Cortés freed Marina from her slavery by marrying her to one of his captains, who eventually became Mayor of Mexico City: Juan Jaramillo. This way, Cortés fulfilled the promise he made to Marina at the beginning of the expedition. Cortés made her a free woman, married to a good family, and he granted her the lands of Huilotlán and Tetiquipac, once property of her noble biological family.

The following year Cortés would require of her services (and perhaps Aguilar’s as well) one more time for a trip to Las Hibueras (present Honduras) to suffocate a revolt organized by his former lieutenant Cristóbal de Olid. Accounts of this trip indicate that on his way to Honduras, Cortés stopped in Coatzacoalcos (presently in the Mexican State of Veracruz) where Cortés called a meeting with all the local Lords to tell them, through Marina, that they had to be loyal to the Spanish Crown. Among those present were Marina’s mother and half-brother, now baptized as Marta and Lázaro. Apparently, they were very afraid of her; after all, her mother had sold her as a slave and Marina was now Cortés’ closest collaborator. Apparently, Marina called them aside, consoled them, forgave them, and gave them plenty of gold and clothing.  Marina was pregnant by her husband Juan Jaramillo. During this trip, Cortés executed Cuauhtémoc in what is now Campeche, Mexico, extinguishing this way the royal hereditary line to the Aztec Empire.

We know little about Jerónimo de Aguilar after the fall of Tenochtitlan. He probably worked as an interpreter in the collection of taxes for some time. He remained in what was now known as Mexico City until his death in 1531. His house later became the home of the first printing press to operate in the Americas. As far as we know, he observed his celibacy until his death.

After the Honduras campaign, Marina and Cortés never saw each other again. Marina and her husband lived in Mexico City where she gave birth to a baby daughter who they named María. Unfortunately, she was denied access to Martín, her son with Cortés, who was raised by Juan Altamirano, a cousin of Cortés’. We have no official records of her death, but we know it was before 1529. It is speculated that she probably died of smallpox, or perhaps from health problems derived from the trip to Honduras.

Both, Jerónimo de Aguilar and Marina with many other Native and Spanish interpreters that followed, contributed enormously to developing a new Spanish language full of words, concepts and cultural values until then unknown. They played a crucial role in the fusion of these two cultures, races, and (many) languages, and by mere instinct, without knowing it, they were the precursors of consecutive, relay, military, diplomatic, and escort interpreting as well as cultural brokerage.

The fall of the Aztec Empire would have taken longer, and the outcome of the conquest would have been different without the interpreting services of Aguilar and Marina.  Rodríguez de Ocaña, a conquistador that served during the conquest relates Cortés’ assertion that “…after God, Marina was the main reason for (his) success…”  In the “True Story of the Conquest of New Spain,” the widely acclaimed eye-witness account of the conquest, Bernal Díaz del Castillo repeatedly calls her a “great lady” always using the honorific title: “Doña.”

I invite you to share your thoughts about these historical figures so important to the interpreting world, and relevant during this time of the year. I also ask you to remember that this is a post about interpreting, so please abstain from making any politically charged comments.

Is Cinco de Mayo an American holiday?

May 5, 2015 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Cinco de Mayo (May 5th.) is perhaps the biggest mystery of the American holiday calendar.  It is an enigma for almost everyone in the United States: Native citizens with no Mexican background wonder why, as a nation, we celebrate another country’s holiday; Hispanic-Americans are puzzled by the significance of the date; Mexicans living in the United States can hardly believe that American society commemorates a date of their national calendar that is practically non-existent in Mexico; and the rest of the world, people who live outside the United States and non-Mexican Hispanics who live in the United States, find the festivities on this date quite strange.

Historically, on May 5, 1862 the Mexican army faced the French Imperial army of Napoleon III.  The French had disembarked in Veracruz harbor along with the British and Spanish almost a year earlier. Their purpose was to collect heavy debts owed by the Mexican government to these three nations after Mexican President Benito Juarez declared a moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for two years.  Mexico had incurred in those debts during a Civil War motivated in part by the expropriation of all church assets ordered by Juarez.  Eventually Mexico negotiated with France and Spain and they withdrew, but Napoleon III decided to take advantage of the American Civil War and take this opportunity to establish an empire that would look after the interests of France.  The French move was seen favorably by the Confederate army as Napoleon III supported the existence of a slave state.

On May 5 the French army approached the city of Puebla which was defended by the Mexican armed forces under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza.  The Mexicans resisted the attack from the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. After a bloody battle against the better-trained French soldiers, the Mexican army, aided by the machete-armed northern Puebla Zacapoaxtla Indians, prevailed. The Mexican victory was shorted-lived as the French army regrouped and returned a year later when they took over Puebla and eventually Mexico City, establishing the Mexican Empire under Emperor Maximilian I from the Austrian House of Habsburg-Lorraine.

Although President Benito Juarez encouraged the observance of the May 5th. battle as a national holiday, the event is not part of the official holiday calendar. Only the State of Puebla (and parts of the neighboring State of Veracruz) observes this date as a local official holiday.  On May 5, the rest of the Mexican society goes about their daily lives as on any other day.  It is understandable that Mexico does not celebrate this date as a big holiday; it is not their independence day (Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16), the stories that spread right after the May 5th. battle describing how a handful of Mexican soldiers and Zacapoaxtla Indians had defeated a much larger well-equipped French army were quickly discredited by the truth of what happened: in reality the French had an army that was six-thousand strong, while the Mexicans had a four-thousand men army; hardly a handful battling an imperial army; but more importantly: The Mexicans won the battle but lost the war.  Moreover, it was not until April 2, 1867 that Mexico recovered the city of Puebla in a decisive battle that eventually defeated Maximilian’s empire.  This was the real victorious battle of Puebla; unfortunately for Mexican history, on April 2 the victorious army that beat the French was led by General Porfirio Díaz who later became a hated political figure because of his hold on the Mexican presidency for 32 years (inexplicably, or perhaps due to a manipulated “official history,” to this day Mexicans still consider him as the great dictator despite the fact that he was followed by a dictatorship that was twice as long: The 70 years of the PRI government)

Now, let’s get back to the United States in 1862, specifically California where there was a large first and second generation Mexican population. Keep in mind that until 1848 when California and other western territories became part of the United States by the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, officially entitled “Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic”, they were part of Mexico; their citizens had fought against Spain during the Mexican War of Independence only three decades before, and many of them became victims of discrimination, embezzlement, and forced labor by their fellow Anglo-American citizens.  Most of these individuals did not speak English, were Catholic, and almost all of them were against slavery. In other words, it was in their best interest to see the Confederate army defeated in the American Civil War. Therefore, as Hayes-Bautista, a UCLA professor of medicine describes during an interview about his book: “El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition” that when he was researching for his book, he reviewed the Spanish language newspapers of California and Oregon from the 1880s, he noticed that the American Civil War and Cinco de Mayo Battle were intertwined: “…I’m seeing now in the minds of the Spanish-reading public in California that they were basically looking at one war with two fronts, one against the Confederacy in the east, and the other against the French in the south… In Mexico today, Cinco de Mayo means that the Mexican army defeated the French army,” he continued. “…In California and Oregon, the news was interpreted as finally that the army of freedom and democracy won a big one against the army of slavery and elitism; and the fact that those two armies had to meet in Mexico was immaterial because they were fighting for the same issues…” (Hayes-Bautista interview with CNN)  In early spring 1862 the Union army was unable to move against the Confederates, so this victory in Puebla was a welcomed sign by these Hispanics. Another significant aspect of the Cinco de Mayo battle is that the commander of the Mexican armed forces in Puebla, General Ignacio Zaragoza, was born on March 24, 1829 in a town by the name of Bahía del Espíritu Santo. The town’s name was later changed to Goliad, and it is located in Texas. That is right: The hero of the Cinco de Mayo battle was a Texan! At the time of his birth the town was in Mexico where it was part of the State of Coahuila y las Tejas, but by the time of the battle, its name was Goliad, a name given by the Texans as an anagram of the hero of the Mexican Independence: Hidalgo, omitting the silent “H”

The Mexican population in the United States identified with Zaragoza, he was one of them who had to leave Mexico and come to Texas if he wanted to visit his hometown. The Cinco de Mayo victory was then memorialized by a network of Hispanic groups in California, Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona called “juntas patrióticas mejicanas.”  (Mexican Patriotic Assemblies). While they celebrated the Cinco de Mayo victory every year with parades and other festivities, Mexico continued to be at war with France for another five years.  Eventually, the meaning of the holiday changed over time becoming the mythical story of David versus Goliath, and later embodying the U.S.-Mexico unity during World War II and the Chicano Power movement of the 1960s.

On recent times this date has been adopted by business people all over the United States and many parts of the world and transformed into a festival, the second largest in the United States just behind St. Patrick’s Day, where people eat Mexican-American food and drink Mexican beer and tequila.  Although most Mexicans and Mexican-Americans do not know the history of Cinco de Mayo, despite the fact that many of them do not even know why they get together, have parades and listen to Mexican music on that day, they all seem to share the feeling that this is a uniquely American celebration that has extended to all Hispanics in the United States, Mexican or not, natives and foreigners, and even non-Hispanics; because every year for one day, all Americans celebrate Hispanic food, culture and traditions with pride. It has even reached the White House where President George W. Bush, a former border-state governor with Mexican-American family members, who also speaks Spanish, started a tradition of inviting Hispanics to the White House for this celebration. Because of the increasing importance and participation of Hispanics in America’s mainstream, President Barack Obama has continued the celebration, and it looks like it is here to stay, because after all, Cinco de Mayo is not a Mexican holiday, it is an American celebration.  I invite you to please share your thoughts about this unique celebration and its significance in the history and culture of the United States.

Is Cinco de Mayo an American holiday?

May 5, 2014 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Cinco de Mayo (May 5th.) is perhaps the biggest mystery of the American holiday calendar. It is an enigma for almost everyone in the United States: Native citizens with no Mexican background wonder why, as a nation, we celebrate another country’s holiday; Hispanic-Americans are puzzled by the significance of the date; Mexicans living in the United States can hardly believe that American society commemorates a date of their national calendar that is practically non-existent in Mexico; and the rest of the world, people who live outside the United States and non-Mexican Hispanics who live in the United States, find the festivities on this date quite strange.

Historically, on May 5, 1862 the Mexican army faced the French Imperial army of Napoleon III. The French had disembarked in Veracruz harbor along with the British and Spanish almost a year earlier. Their purpose was to collect heavy debts owed by the Mexican government to these three nations after Mexican President Benito Juarez declared a moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for two years. Mexico had incurred in those debts during a Civil War motivated in part by the expropriation of all church assets ordered by Juarez. Eventually Mexico negotiated with France and Spain and they withdrew, but Napoleon III decided to take advantage of the American Civil War and take this opportunity to establish an empire that would look after the interests of France. The French move was seen favorably by the Confederate army as Napoleon III supported the existence of a slave state.

On May 5 the French army approached the city of Puebla which was defended by the Mexican armed forces under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza. The Mexicans resisted the attack from the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. After a bloody battle against the better-trained French soldiers, the Mexican army, aided by the machete-armed northern Puebla Zacapoaxtla Indians, prevailed. The Mexican victory was shorted-lived as the French army regrouped and returned a year later when they took over Puebla and eventually Mexico City, establishing the Mexican Empire under Emperor Maximilian I from the Austrian House of Habsburg-Lorraine.

Although President Benito Juarez encouraged the observance of the May 5th. battle as a national holiday, the event is not part of the official holiday calendar. Only the State of Puebla (and parts of the neighboring State of Veracruz) observes this date as a local official holiday. On May 5, the rest of the Mexican society goes about their daily lives as on any other day. It is understandable that Mexico does not celebrate this date as a big holiday; it is not their independence day (Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16), the stories that spread right after the May 5th. battle describing how a handful of Mexican soldiers and Zacapoaxtla Indians had defeated a much larger well-equipped French army were quickly discredited by the truth of what happened: in reality the French had an army that was six-thousand strong, while the Mexicans had a four-thousand men army; hardly a handful battling an imperial army; but more importantly: The Mexicans won the battle but lost the war. Moreover, it was not until April 2, 1867 that Mexico recovered the city of Puebla in a decisive battle that eventually defeated Maximilian’s empire. This was the real victorious battle of Puebla; unfortunately for Mexican history, on April 2 the victorious army that beat the French was led by General Porfirio Díaz who later became a hated political figure because of his hold on the Mexican presidency for 32 years (inexplicably, or perhaps due to a manipulated “official history,” to this day Mexicans still consider him as the great dictator despite the fact that he was followed by a dictatorship that was twice as long: The 70 years of the PRI government)

Now, let’s get back to the United States in 1862, specifically California where there was a large first and second generation Mexican population. Keep in mind that until 1848 when California and other western territories became part of the United States by the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, officially entitled “Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic”, they were part of Mexico; their citizens had fought against Spain during the Mexican War of Independence only three decades before, and many of them became victims of discrimination, embezzlement, and forced labor by their fellow Anglo-American citizens. Most of these individuals did not speak English, were Catholic, and almost all of them were against slavery. In other words, it was in their best interest to see the Confederate army defeated in the American Civil War. Therefore, as Hayes-Bautista, a UCLA professor of medicine describes during an interview about his book: “El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition” that when he was researching for his book, he reviewed the Spanish language newspapers of California and Oregon from the 1880s, he noticed that the American Civil War and Cinco de Mayo Battle were intertwined: “…I’m seeing now in the minds of the Spanish-reading public in California that they were basically looking at one war with two fronts, one against the Confederacy in the east, and the other against the French in the south… In Mexico today, Cinco de Mayo means that the Mexican army defeated the French army,” he continued. “…In California and Oregon, the news was interpreted as finally that the army of freedom and democracy won a big one against the army of slavery and elitism; and the fact that those two armies had to meet in Mexico was immaterial because they were fighting for the same issues…” (Hayes-Bautista interview with CNN) In early spring 1862 the Union army was unable to move against the Confederates, so this victory in Puebla was a welcomed sign by these Hispanics. Another significant aspect of the Cinco de Mayo battle is that the commander of the Mexican armed forces in Puebla, General Ignacio Zaragoza, was born on March 24, 1829 in a town by the name of Bahía del Espíritu Santo. The town’s name was later changed to Goliad, and it is located in Texas. That is right: The hero of the Cinco de Mayo battle was a Texan! At the time of his birth the town was in Mexico where it was part of the State of Coahuila y las Tejas, but by the time of the battle, its name was Goliad, a name given by the Texans as an anagram of the hero of the Mexican Independence: Hidalgo, omitting the silent “H”

The Mexican population in the United States identified with Zaragoza, he was one of them who had to leave Mexico and come to Texas if he wanted to visit his hometown. The Cinco de Mayo victory was then memorialized by a network of Hispanic groups in California, Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona called “juntas patrióticas mejicanas.” (Mexican Patriotic Assemblies). While they celebrated the Cinco de Mayo victory every year with parades and other festivities, Mexico continued to be at war with France for another five years. Eventually, the meaning of the holiday changed over time becoming the mythical story of David versus Goliath, and later embodying the U.S.-Mexico unity during World War II and the Chicano Power movement of the 1960s.

On recent times this date has been adopted by business people all over the United States and many parts of the world and transformed into a festival, the second largest in the United States just behind St. Patrick’s Day, where people eat Mexican-American food and drink Mexican beer and tequila. Although most Mexicans and Mexican-Americans do not know the history of Cinco de Mayo, despite the fact that many of them do not even know why they get together, have parades and listen to Mexican music on that day, they all seem to share the feeling that this is a uniquely American celebration that has extended to all Hispanics in the United States, Mexican or not, natives and foreigners, and even non-Hispanics; because every year for one day, all Americans celebrate Hispanic food, culture and traditions with pride. It has even reached the White House where President George W. Bush, a former border-state governor with Mexican-American family members, who also speaks Spanish, started a tradition of inviting Hispanics to the White House for this celebration. Because of the increasing importance and participation of Hispanics in America’s mainstream, President Barack Obama has continued the celebration, and it looks like it is here to stay, because after all, Cinco de Mayo is not a Mexican holiday, it is an American celebration. I invite you to please share your thoughts about this unique celebration and its significance in the history and culture of the United States.

The First Interpreter in the New World.

August 13, 2012 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

As interpreters and translators we know that every job we do is very important and some of it will even transcend.  Today I want to focus on the pioneer of our profession in the Americas.  491 years ago, on a day like today: August 13, 1521 the Spaniards finally defeated the Aztec Empire and conquered Tenochtitlan where they founded what we know now as Mexico City.  At first glance, it seems that this incredible feat was accomplished by a handful of conquistadors and a fearful Aztec emperor who considered them gods.

Modern research has discarded that version of history as we now know that it was a more complex succession of events that led to the fall of the most powerful nation west of the Atlantic Ocean.  A big part of the outcome, if not the most important part, was brought about by a native woman of a lower-noble family from the Aztec Empire frontier, now the Mexican State of Veracruz.  Her birth name was Malinalli, the name of one of the 20 days of the Aztec month, but as she grew up, she became known as Malinalli Tenépal. The Náhuatl word Tenépal means “a person who speaks a lot with enthusiasm and fluency.”  Sounds familiar?

When Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in what is now Tabasco México and defeated the Chontal Mayans, she was among the slave women he received as a present.  The Spaniards noticed right away that Malinalli, or Marina as the conquistadors named her, spoke the local Chontal Maya language and her birth tongue: Náhuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs.  It became very clear that this girl, probably around 19 years of age, was very sharp, very pretty by all accounts, and had a gift for learning foreign languages.  At the beginning, while she learned Spanish, Cortés used her as his Chontal Maya <> Náhuatl interpreter. She worked together with Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest Cortés freed from the Mayans after years of captivity and knew Chontal, doing relay interpreting.  It wasn’t long before she learned Spanish and Cortés realized how skilled she was, so she became his personal interpreter.

Malinali and Cortes before Montezuma

Doña Marina, as the Spaniards referred to her, or Malintzin, as the natives called her (“Malin” being a Náhuatl mispronunciation of “Marina” and “-tzin” a reverential suffix for “Doña”) interpreted for Cortés in at least three combinations: Spanish, Náhuatl, and Chontal Maya, and there is reason to believe that she also spoke, or later learned other Mayan dialects as she served as interpreter for Cortés in what is now Honduras.  Testimonial and written accounts describe her interpreting consecutively and also doing whisper-interpreting for Cortés during many of the most important meetings with the native lords, including Montezuma, the Aztec emperor.  In fact Malinalli’s role went beyond mere interpreting; she was a cultural broker who helped Cortés to successfully establish alliances with natives who were enemies of the Aztecs like the Tlaxcalans. She also taught Aztec culture to Cortés, and even protected him by warning him of an assassination attempt that had been planned while they were staying in Zempoala, the same way modern-day military interpreters are trained to do if they ever find themselves in that situation.

It is clear that the fall of the Aztec Empire would have taken longer, and the outcome of the conquest would have been different if there had not been a Doña Marina.  Rodríguez de Ocaña, a conquistador that served during the conquest relates Cortés’ assertion that “…after God, Marina was the main reason for (his) success…”  In the “True Story of the Conquest of New Spain,” the widely acclaimed eye-witness account of the conquest, Bernal Díaz del Castillo repeatedly refers to her as a “great lady” always using the honorific title: “Doña.”

Very few interpreters have had the opportunity to be the “first” to do anything, and despite the fact that many Mexicans consider her a “traitor” for helping the Spaniards, on this anniversary of the fall of the Aztec Empire, as interpreters we should remember this pioneer of our profession, salute all the things that she did instinctively right without knowing formal interpretation, and recognize her for her key role in the fusion of two worlds until then apart. She was truly a bridge between two cultures that knew nothing of each other.  I would like to hear your comments about Doña Marina and her role in the history of interpretation.

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