A Contemporary Trial: Talking with the Curators of “Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche”

by Teresa Eckmann January 2, 2023

Para leer este artículo en español, por favor vaya aquí. To read this article in Spanish, please go here.

Figurative lithograph of a woman sitting at the knee of a kneeling man

Jesús Helguera, “La noche triste (The Sad Night),” 1949, offset lithograph. 24 x 12 inches. Calendarios Landin, Querétaro, Mexico. Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

The traveling exhibition Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche is currently on view at the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA), through January 8, 2023. On the exhibition’s opening day, co-curators Victoria Lyall (curator of Ancient Americas at the Denver Art Museum) and Terezita Romo (independent curator and affiliate faculty at University of California, Davis), along with SAMA’s curator of Latin American collections, Lucía Abramovich Sánchez, met with Teresa Eckmann, associate professor of Latin American art history at UTSA’s School of Art, and her class of eight MFA and Art History Master’s students. The students are enrolled in Eckmann’s semester-long graduate seminar in conjunction with the exhibition. Responding to questions posed by the professor and her students, in this interview the curators address the many challenges and accomplishments they experienced in taking a revisionist approach to the provocative, complex topic of La Malinche. Student participants include: Amy Estes, María de los Ángeles Salinas Barreda, Iliana Pompa, Zachary Jones, and Joseph Schell.

Teresa Eckmann (TE): Tere and Victoria, thank you for meeting with us. I studied the accompanying publication for Traitor, Survivor, Icon, closely. This content brings up more questions than answers. Could you talk about the extent of your relationships with the topic, such that Malinche became important enough for you to dedicate time and energy to making this exhibition a reality? How is her revision significant to contemporary times?

Terezita Romo (TR): I talk about the personal nature of my relationship with her in my catalog essay. My family immigrated when I was very young, but one of the things that I remember was an image of la Malinche in La noche triste (The Sad Night), a calendario image by Jesús Helguera. The scene was a reenactment of what happened after the Spaniards had to leave Tenochtitlán. The Aztecs finally decided to drive the Spaniards out. It is the “noche triste” because the Spaniards lost, and many men drowned because their pockets were filled with Aztec gold. It is an image of Malinche and Cortés. He is looking downcast because of this, but she is looking right at the viewer. I always related to her through that image that had been cut out of the calendar, framed, and hung on the wall in the living room, a prominent place. I always saw the image of this woman as positive. She was looking at you and had a beautiful huipil. I was too young to recognize that her features were European, that they were not Indigenous; later I learned that was something Helguera did a lot. To me, she was this beautiful Indigenous woman, and this was an image from Mexican history. My parents were proud of being Mexican. It also explained why my family members were of every different shade of eye, hair, and skin color. 

It was not until later, when I was in college, in the 1970s during the Chicano Movement, that I started to hear of Malinche being used in a negative way; being called a “traitor.” Octavio Paz’s essay, “Los Hijos de la Malinche,” referred to her as this treacherous person, called a “chingada,” which is vile and crass. And I heard other Chicanas being called “malinches” as a slur. For me, there is a dissonance there. I grew up with this positive image of her, more nuanced, while the Chicano movement, which is all about liberation and self-determination, leveled slurs at Chicanas, as if they were stepping out of their role and being betrayers or disloyal to their own people.

Years later, I was a curator at the Mexican Museum in San Francisco. It was 1999, an anniversary year. Cortés landed in Mexico in 1519, so I thought this would be the opportune time to do something on La Malinche, as an inaugural year exhibition for the new space the museum was going to have, which, unfortunately, never happened. I kept the exhibition in the back of my mind while collecting images. Finally, in 2016 when I left a position in San Francisco as program officer for a foundation, I decided to return to being a curator because I missed it, and fortune brought me Victoria Lyall. She and I met each other when she was at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), but she came to San Francisco to work at San Francisco State University. We reconnected and I told her about this project. Fast forward to my return to Sacramento, and she called me to say, “I am the curator at the Denver Art Museum. I remembered your project and I would really like to talk to you about it.”

Figurative painting of a nude male and figure of a female

Alejandro Arango, “Cortés y la Malinche,” 1986, oil paint on canvas, 67 x 55 ½ inches. Private Collection, Mexico City. Courtesy of the Galería OMR.

Victoria Lyall (VL): I did not grow up with the idea of La Malinche. She was not someone that we referenced in my family, even though my dad is from South Texas. But I learned about her in college and I thought it was such an interesting story. As a curator I am really interested in adding something that is not already on my shelf; being a curator is being a storyteller. I have lived across the United States and have been a Latina on the East Coast, in the Central time zones, in the Midwest, and on the Pacific Coast, and the stories of Malinche are not being told on a daily, institutional level. Now they are. It has been interesting to see what it is like for every community in each of these time zones. When I got to Denver, I already had Tere’s project in mind, but I also inherited a messy relationship between the institution and the community. There was a big chasm. They did not trust us. People, the Latinx population, did not go to the museum. I knew that I wanted to do this show and everything fell into place. This is the show for this museum and for this community right now. It has been an exercise of curating in community.

The exhibition was five years of outreach, conversations, thinking through what the language meant to different people, how the reframing was going to be, but at the end of the day both Tere and I thought, “We’ll see how it goes!” We could never have predicted the outpouring of support, love, and emotion that this show provoked in the community of Denver. I am hopeful that it will do the same here in San Antonio.

I cannot tell you the number of tours that I gave for high school students, for MECHA clubs, for La Raza clubs, groups that had just formed and made their inaugural meeting a visit to the show. I gave a tour, and at the end of it there was a girl in her twenties who looked super lost in the Chicana section. I asked her, “Are you okay? Do you have any questions? Can I help you?” She said, “I’ve moved here from North Dakota, I am Mexican, and I have never seen myself in a museum.” That is why we do what we do. That has been my personal experience with this exhibition thanks to Tere.

What other kinds of stories do we want to bring to this level? Institutions mal que bien (for better or worse) occupy a space, and people come to them. What is the face that you are showing? What is the story that you are sharing in those venerated halls? How can we use these institutional spaces to have these conversations? A lot of girls would write to me and say, “I just had a real conversation with my family about the stereotypes and expectations that I grew up with that I do not think are right.” The exhibition provoked a lot of conversations and that is all that you can ask for: to spark questions and discourse.

TR: One of the strengths of co-curating was to bounce ideas off of each other. My expertise is Chicano art and some Mexican art, such as the neomexicanos because of their correlation with Chicano art. Victoria works on pre-conquest art, colonial, and so she knew the context and the history of Malinche during her time period. Victoria had connections with INAH and other Mexico institutions to bring those pieces to facilitate the vision. What object is going to get across what we are trying to say? You have to pick and choose. We could not put everything we really liked in the show. Towards the end there was a lot more that we were able to discover. Just yesterday I told Victoria, “I found two more pieces we should have included in the show!”

I like that there is more work out there. We do not feel that this is the end, but a beginning. We want other people to say, “You know what, I have another story to tell about Malinche. Here is my story.” We want audiences to have those conversations with others about what her story really means. How was she portrayed? What agendas were they driving in that story they were telling about her? What I was trying to communicate with the Chicana portion of it was, “No. This is another story about her. This is how we relate to her. This is what we think she was about, and it was not about treachery, or traitor, or even being the madre of mestizaje, the Eve of Mexico.” 

Amy Estes: I believe you have already answered the first part of my question as to why the exhibition was primarily directed at U.S. audiences (Denver-Albuquerque-San Antonio), but did you consider presenting the exhibition in Mexico? If so, what are some of the challenges that curators here face when securing an arts venue in Mexico?

TR: Initially, we looked at 2021. The official end of the conquest happened in 1521, when the empire fell; we thought this exhibition would interest Mexico as an alternative. Our checklist included pieces to be loaned to us from Mexico. We established a relationship with many Mexican museums who could have been interested in taking the exhibition. But from my outside perspective, the pandemic put a wrench in that. It seemed impossible. 

VL: I do not think that there is a single answer. There are some economic barriers. An exhibition like this is not cheap. It costs a lot of money. We are grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities for the infusion of cash that they gave us to help make this happen and to Denver’s resources. Mexican museums will never pay you to make a show. The way that it works is from institution to institution: Denver originates the show, which means that it is our staff time writing the grants and doing the research. Tere is our consulting curator. We are investing all of those resources into making this project. Then we talk to Lucía and SAMA: “We are going to do this show. Are you interested? Here is the fee.” I am renting you my intellectual property. We are all nonprofits. No one is making money on it. But you have to not go bankrupt, so there is cost-sharing.

The NEH grant was shared with the different venues: Denver Art Museum, the Albuquerque Museum, and SAMA all got a portion to offset their costs. Everyone is putting something into it. Mexico is not going to put something into it, generally. You pay to send your project there. Many institutions in the United States after COVID are struggling to do that. All of our budgets were slashed. At least ours for the upcoming fiscal year — because it just started in October — is a little more measured. Even if we could find a venue, we are not in the position to say, “We are going to pay for the crating, the shipping, and insurance to send it over there, and not get a fee.” So that is number one. Two, it is a complicated topic in Mexico. 

Map of mexico and the southern region of the united states with the figures of women

Sandy Rodriguez, “Mapa for Malinche and our Stolen Sisters,” Dedicated to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) and families, 2021, hand-processed watercolor and 23K gold on amate paper, 97 x 97 inches. Collection of the artist. © Sandy Rodriguez. Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

María de los Ángeles Salinas Barreda: Would you consider the exhibition, along with all the investigative and creative efforts around it, a contemporary trial for Malinche in all her facets: as an individual, mother of the Mexican and Latino people, and role model for Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and Latinos? How much do you think the results of this trial can impact the female psyche for all these Spanish-speaking women?

TR: I do not think we saw this exhibition as her on trial. We wanted it to be another way to look at her. To put her on trial would be to say she is being accused of certain things and that we are trying to defend her. We did not want to do that. We felt that the whole idea of having to defend her was flawed. We wanted to present, not only one way, but a different way to look at her and to look at her as being used.

In the introductory essay we talk about the fact that there is no written voice, as she did not write anything herself. We do not have her voice, so everybody steps in and talks for her. They tell their story through her and get whatever their agenda is forward with her in mind. We wanted to show that a lot of it had to do with how she was being perceived, the narratives being created about her. We used the five metaphors (La Lengua/The Interpreter; La Indígena/The Indigenous Woman; La Madre de Mestizaje/The Mother of a Mixed Race; La Traidora/The Traitor; and ‘Chicana’: Contemporary Reclamations), but there could be others. That was more about how she was being portrayed by others, why, what could be some of the reasons, and to have it go throughout history from the colonial period all the way through contemporary times.

The Denver Art Museum commissioned Sandy Rodriguez to create her Mapa for Malinche and our Stolen Sisters to be able to talk about her in the various ways that she had been talked about so that people could draw their own conclusions and complicate her, rather than to offer answers. You had commented that the exhibition raises more questions, and yes, that is what we are about.  

What was really powerful for me was the Denver Art Museum’s ability to be interactive with the people that went through the exhibition. Anyone who wanted to could write six adjectives about her. The ones that got me were the little kids with their little handwriting stating “strong,” or “smart.” I thought, “Here is a child who is seeing her in a different way, and they will become adults. Hopefully as adults they will also be able to complicate her for the next generations.” That was an effective way to gauge that people will draw their own conclusions about what story they want to tell about her. 

Installation view of an interactive pegboard on a black wall

Interactive pegboard in “Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche” at the Denver Art Museum. Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

VL: We were trying to pull back the curtain, like the Wizard of Oz. If she is a construction of all of these different ideas, concepts, and perspectives. If we are reflecting a zeitgeist of her in any given moment, then we want you to understand that is a construction, so you can reflect on that. It was not that she is one thing or another. We got to the end of the project understanding there really is not a single truth. The truth is inalcanzable (unreachable). You see yourself in her. 

A lot of Latina women responded powerfully to the exhibition, but there were also Korean women, American men, and a wide range of individuals who responded. I taught a seminar like this one alongside the exhibition, and my students went through all of the responses. For them it was incredible, because it was a tangible way of seeing what questions and what conversations were sparked as a result of these reflections. So not a trial, but a series of questions.

Iliana Pompa: Victoria, in your joint essay with Jesse Laird Ortega, “Uprooted Reconsidering Indigenous Representations of Malinche,” you describe Malinche as a “soldier,” which is a term none of us has heard associated with her in a scholarly text. Is this title you ascribe to her indicative of her role within the Conquest where she is depicted in 19th century paintings holding a shield, or is it a metaphor for the importance of her role as translator? 

VL: It was more of the first. Actually, Alicia Gaspar de Alba also talks about her in that way in her introductory essay. She is thinking metaphorically, while I was just doing the visual description. Jesse and I were fascinated by the fact that you grow up with this idea of the altépetl, where your whole identity is the town where you are from. “You are from San Juan Ixtenco? I got you. I know who you are, who your family is, who you are related to.” What happens when you are completely divorced from that?

One of the things that has not been talked about in the way that we think about her is, where she was from. And that the people who are describing her also have no idea where she was from. What does that do to your perception of her? In the Nahuatl version of the Florentine codex, James Lockhart translated it as, “Yes, she is one of our people here.” But they are not claiming her as “one of us,” they are just saying, “hey, she is an Indigenous too.” That is it. But actually, they are negative to her. “We are Mexica,” or they are from Tlatelolco. They are seeing her as one of the Spanish, but not really, because clearly, she is Indigenous. That is what Jesse and I were thinking about. It is interesting that the Tlaxcaltecans, in all of the versions of the Lienzo, show her fighting on the field. She is on horseback only once, and that is pretty notable.

TR: In some of them it looks like she is not only fighting, but she is directing, commanding what is going on, which is interesting. I had never thought about it in that way in terms of the different ways she is portrayed in the codices. Again, that was their perspective and their narrative about her and her role as they saw it.

VL: Lisa Sousa, in her essay “Reexamining Malinche’s Betrayal,” talks about the Lienzo de Tlaxcala [Texas fragment] in that way, and Delia Cosentino has looked at all of the Tlaxcalan documents from the 16th century and she talks about how women are shown vis-à-vis men, as though they are not the same in scale — they are even bigger. They are the ones who are in command of certain spheres of influence, including marriage.

Painting of the cast hierarchy in mexico with a couple and their child

Unknown Artist, Mexico, “De Español, e India, sale Mestizo (From Spanish and Indigenous, Mestizo is born),” ca. 1775, oil paint on canvas, 31 ½ x 40 3/16 inches. Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

Zachary Jones: Speaking of storytelling, building questions through the artwork, showing depth of character, historical context, and complications, can you address the audience reception of the casta (caste) painting, De Español, e India, sale Mestizo (ca. 1775) in this exhibition? 

VL: We were trying to make sure that the checklist spanned 500 years (since the Spanish Conquest of 1519-21, the fall of Tenochtitlán, capital of the Aztec Empire and the beginnings of colonialism in the New World). We wanted to have work from all of the centuries. The casta painting that we used shows that, from Spaniard and Indian Woman, you get a mestizo son, which in this case is Martín (Malinche’s son). For us, this casta painting is a stand-in for that marriage between Malinche and Cortés. That is why it is in conversation with Jorge González Camarena’s La pareja (1964). John Valadez’s Adam and Eva Double Exposed (1991) and María Cristina Tavera’s screenprint La Malinche conquistada (2015) challenge that union, while Delilah Montoya’s photograph La Malinche (1993) is its product. And then we have the casta painting, which shows the delineation of race; it is literally parsing the blood. The Camarena is this romantic notion of the two, of the new race, the cosmic race. I don’t think that we were engaging with casta paintings as a concept in the way that you are asking. 

TR: For me, the casta painting grounded this idea of where this madre de mestizaje comes from. It is rooted in this historical period where these combinations of race are really important, not because they wanted to see how diverse the culture is, but that they wanted to show you what the hierarchy is: mestizaje is one level below the union of Spaniard and Spaniard, and even below the Spaniards that are born there, the criollos. And they wanted to show you that way at the bottom were the Afro-Mexicanos and those mixtures.

Some castas showed that mixtures were actually going backwards, called “salto atrás,” instead of forward, with the sangre pura (pure blood) concept. Even though our casta did not show Malinche per se, you see the grounding in terms of that historical period where that idea of mestizaje is inscribed and carries through, so that after the Mexican Revolution, when the government wants to unite the country, well, “Let’s look at the illustrious history of Mexico and the first founding mother and father of our nation.” At the time, José Vasconcelos talked about the cosmic race, this mixture. Malinche feeds into that as she becomes this figure that supposedly is the mother of the first mestizo child, which is not historically correct, but fits the agenda and the narrative.

Image of a young woman in a communion dress

Delilah Montoya, “La Malinche,” 1993, Collotype, 21 ½ x 17 x 1 ¼ inches. The Abarca Family Collection, Denver. Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

Joseph Schell: What are some of the considerations that go into using exhibitions to tell a narrative and a historiography, and what are some of the complications with the mediums of curation and exhibition? How do you balance biases and historiographies?

TR: Curating is telling your story. You cannot say, “This exhibition is the definitive exhibition on Malinche. There is nothing else to be said or questions to be looked at.” It is more about what my perspective has been in collaboration with Victoria’s to work together to say, “What is the cohesive part of the portion that we want to tell, about Malinche?” And what was most important was to complicate her story. That was our main objective. That is not to say that someone could walk out thinking, “I do not care. She betrayed the people. She interpreted for Cortés. I do not care if she was a slave. She could have left. She could have killed herself. She had other options. She did not have to do what she did.” Okay, but at least they went through the exhibition and looked at what we were presenting.

Hopefully, at some point in time they will think about it again. At least they cannot unsee it. They may say, “I do not believe it,” but they still have to go through something in their heads to think about what they just saw and read. All curators do that. It is objective to a certain extent because you have objects that you choose or choose not to present, but it is still subjective in terms of how you want to present it and which perspective you want to take.

VL: This project benefitted from funding with which we were able to do visitor panels at the outset. In 2018 we did them in Denver, as well as surveys to get a sense of name recognition or how people would react. We presented the checklist and listened to people’s responses. One of the things that came out of that was that 90% of the people in those panels had no idea of who she was. Once they heard the story, they were hooked. I could take that data to my administration to say, “I think what we need is a movie, a film at the beginning that is going to set the groundwork.” How can you have a visitor engage with questions, engage with that narrative, understand the constructions that you are deconstructing, if they have no idea from the get-go who this person is?

Tere and I knew that this topic was going to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. We assembled thirty different scholars from both sides of the border (Mexico and U.S.). We had scholars from anthropology, comparative literature, art history, curators, artists, Spanish colonial, pre-Columbian, intergenerational, ethnic studies, and poets. We crossed as many disciplinary boundaries as we could. We invited everyone to the table. We wanted to make sure that it was a safe space where we could have some challenging conversations and push-back. It is much better to have those conversations inform the narrative from the beginning than to have them come back to you at the end or behind your back. It is still an imperfect process, because sometimes you just do not know what you do not know. You try to check yourself, but you are always a product of your own perspective. 

TR: A small example that Victoria told me about had to do with language. The first metaphor was going to be “La Lengua,” (The Interpreter) because that is how Malinche is described the first time by Cortés. But then, later on in the same letter he states, “es una india de esta tierra” (she is an Indian from this land). The second metaphor was going to be “La India” (The Indian). But in one of these panels someone said, “That is someone from India. Why would you call her ‘la india?’” We thought then that we needed to use “La Indígena” (The Indigenous Woman), because that communicates what we need it to communicate. It is important to get that feedback. Things that we might assume — that everyone speaks the same language, would have the same concept when seeing “la india” in a letter, and that everyone is going to know that means “an Indigenous woman” — we could not count on that.

VL: The Spanish colonial scholars in the catalog use “Indian woman,” because that is what is used in their field, whereas none of the pre-Columbian or Ancient Americas scholars use it. In Mexico, they do not use “indígena,” they use “originario.” It is an ever-changing landscape. Also, space is a tool when you are curating. You are telling a story in three-dimensions. One thing that you are always thinking about are the visual dialogues in the space. The story in San Antonio is inevitably going to be different, because it is being filtered through Lucía and it is being presented in a totally different gallery. That is something we underestimate when we think about curation as an academic position — it is about understanding objects in space, the flow of a human body in that space, and how a human body is going to look, relate, and understand. The conversations that are sparked are not because of the label content, but because they see this, and they see this, and they see this, and they think “Ah! Oh!” That is what you hope. Obviously, we spent hours writing those labels!

Sculpture of a platter made of a hubcap with a heart and saw on top

David Avalos, “Combination Platter #3: The Straight Razor Taco,” 1989, updated 2020, mixed media, 19 3/8 x 15 ¼ x 7 ¾ inches. Collection of Deborah Small. Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

TR: I think they were important. For example, David Avalos’ hubcap, Combination Platter #3: The Straight Razor Taco (1989, updated 2020). He wanted it to be discomforting to people. We needed to explain what his thinking was, rather than ask the audience to decide whatever they think he was trying to say about her. For artists who are still with us, if they can tell us what they want to have communicated through their artwork, we want to honor that as well. We give you the option of looking. You do not have to read the label if you do not want to, if you just want to experience the artwork aesthetically. We wanted the artists’ voices to come through, in writing — whether they were no longer with us, and when we could actually ask them to give us information about their work. 


Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche is on view at the San Antonio Museum of Art through January 8, 2023. Read more about the exhibition here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Kim Bishop February 8, 2023 - 07:55

Wonderful interview Dr. Eckmann.


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