We begin the month of March (which will have a thematic focus on Latin American women) by looking at a film clip from the 1947 motion picture Captain from Castile. This film clip is centered on a pivotal moment both in the film’s narrative, as well as Mexican national narratives, in which the conquistador Hernan Cortes and his soldiers go to meet Cacamatzin, an Aztec chieftain and king of the city-state of Texcoco. What is important for us is the presence of Doña Marina, also known in legend and history as ‘La Malinche’. As Lorraine aptly pointed out earlier this week in her discussion of Sáenz’ book A Perfect Season for Dreaming, the telling of oral histories, regardless of whether they are based on ‘reality’ or ‘imagined reality’, are nonetheless important and central to the construction of family and community identities. With this in mind, we will look at this video clip and discuss the historical information that accompanies it on the Critical Commons feature of Captain from Castile, with a specific, critical focus on how Doña Marina is represented.
There have been so many differing accounts of how Doña Marina came to be known as “La Malinche” that her actual biography can sometimes seem nothing more than fodder for myth. Many sources agree that she was born at the end of the 1400s into a family of local nobility near the present-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco, which was at that time a sort of borderland between the imperial Aztec empire and the Mayans. Because of her geographic position and relative nobility, she was fluent in Nahual and Mayan as well as being situated near the Gulf coastal region where Cortes’ ships arrived. Named Malinali at birth, which was the Aztec Goddess of Grass and the ‘daysign’ on the Nahual calendar for her birthday, the names Malinche and Doña Marina probably did not come into use until after the arrival of Europeans and her becoming a translator and close advisor to Cortes.
In this 1947 adaptation of the Spanish conquest of Mexico as seen through the eyes of a young soldier, Doña Marina is represented by an actress from Michoacán named Stella Inda. The director, Henry King, was a typical director of Hollywood’s ‘golden age’ and was known for popular adaptations of historical narratives, such as The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Stella Inda was a part of a group of Mexican actresses of the ‘golden age’ who often found themselves straddling the border, even acting alongside Maria Felix in 1944’s Amok. It is worth checking out more images of Stella Inda and her various roles through Mexican and American cinema.
In this adaptation we see Doña Marina dressed in beautiful colors that contrast sharply with the monochromatic armor of the conquistadors. We also see vast historical inaccuracies. Not to mention the fact that her hair and dress is done in a way that was highly improbable for the time, there is an important character missing in the picture of translation: Gerónimo de Aguilar. Aguilar had learned Mayan as a captive, many years before Cortes’ army even arrived. Between him and Doña Marina the triangular translation was possible, but because Doña Marina did know Spanish, or at least not immediately, the translation never would have taken place without the presence of them both. Of course, for the sake of narrative simplification (key in Hollywood adaptations which prize the ease of comprehension more valuable than historical detail) we do not see Aguilar in this scene. Also of note is the way that the Fox studio set directors of the 40s conceptualized and designed the set, including representations of pre-Hispanic art and architecture as well as dress, weaponry, posture, custom, etc.
To the right-hand side of the video on the Critical Commons webpage, you will notice a commentary on this piece of media written by Stephen Anderson, professor of History at California Riverside. This commentary provides more discussion on the film and the lack of certain historical features. The Critical Commons is a webpage that is highly worth checking out in general, as its content and overall mission in regards to the sharing and distribution of critical and educational media sources on the internet is filled with incredibly pertinent and well-organized information.
Enjoy the film clip and the discussion about film adaptations and their role in shaping our understanding of women in history. Although the clip does show Stella Inda representing a woman who had a powerful position in this historical affair, it can absolutely be argued that legend and historical retellings such as this one have either greatly understated her power and importance, or greatly exaggerated. An interesting discussion indeed. Enjoy!!
Image: Reprinted from Ferdy on Films under CC ©