On October 14, the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) opened an expansive exhibition that examines the cultural significance of La Malinche, an Indigenous girl who served as translator and intermediary to the Indigenous populations of Mexico for the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. She was given to Cortés as a slave and later became the mother of his first born son. Although Malinche did not leave behind any first-person accounts of her experiences, her role in the global politics of her time made her an icon: one beloved and reviled at different moments in history. With Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche, SAMA examines Malinche’s story and the ways in which it has come to embody a broad range of evolving political, social, and cultural meanings, agendas, and movements.
Traitor, Survivor, Icon features approximately 70 works of art by nearly 40 artists from across Mexico and the U.S. made between the 16th century and the present day. The incredibly diverse range of objects includes paintings, sculpture, photography, drawings, textiles, and mixed media works and installations. Together, the works establish a visual and material landscape that captures how Malinche’s image has been appropriated to fit different contexts, needs, and perspectives over the course of more than 500 years. Malinche continues to serve as a source of inspiration for art and dialogue about identity, empowerment, colonialism, and the impact of historic events on contemporary communities. Didactic materials within the show will be presented in Spanish and English.
“La Malinche and her story have permeated Mexican and Mexican-American history and popular culture for hundreds of years—for better and for worse,” said Lucía Abramovich Sánchez, Associate Curator of Latin American Art at SAMA. “This exhibition explores the various ways her story has been interpreted, appropriated, and ultimately reclaimed, and I hope that this presentation of her legacy resonates with our community here in San Antonio.”
To support active engagement with the exhibition, SAMA is working with a group of advisors composed of local cultural leaders to develop a slate of programs that engage with the history and contemporary relevance of Malinche. To mark the opening of the exhibition, SAMA will present La Malinche: Traitor | Savior, a new opera by Mexican American composer Nathan Felix. The opera celebrates Malinche as a fearless woman who forged her own path to survive. Additional forthcoming events include talks with artist Santa Barraza and scholar Teresa Eckmann, as well as other performances and family-oriented activities. A full slate of events can be found on SAMA’s website.

“SAMA relishes the opportunity to learn and work in conjunction with our community leaders to present a robust calendar of events for all ages that complements this multifaceted exhibition and illustrates Malinche’s relevance to our city and culture,” said Emily Ballew Neff, PhD, The Kelso Director at SAMA. “Part of SAMA’s mission is to strengthen our shared understanding of humanity, so we hope this exhibition and our thematic programming will provide greater context and appreciation for a cultural figure who is often invoked but seldom understood.”
Traitor, Survivor, Icon opens with a video that introduces Malinche, establishing some of her life history and the socio-political context in which she lived, including the Spanish invasion and fall of the Aztec Empire. The exhibition then unfolds in five thematic sections:
La Lengua/The Interpreter
With this section, the exhibition explores Malinche’s legacy as an interpreter and the significance of her linguistic abilities in securing both her survival and position within the campaign to claim new land for Spain. Malinche was fluent in both Nahuatl and Mayan languages and quickly learned Spanish. She was integral to facilitated communication between the Spanish and Indigenous nobility throughout the 36- month campaign, which enabled the Spanish to recruit Indigenous allies ready to resist Aztec imperial rule, especially in the fiercely independent kingdom of Tlaxcala. The artworks in this gallery illustrate how Malinche’s historic importance grew from her role as translator during the Conquest.
La Indígena/The Indigenous Woman
Malinche’s identity as an Indigenous woman serves as the foundation of artistic representations of her, with imagery that ranges from reminiscences of Mexico’s glorious Aztec past to reflections of contemporary notions of race and beauty. In the 1500s, at the height of Aztec dominion, Indigenous women expressed their power and status through clothing and hairstyle. The earliest images of Malinche depict her in embroidered huipiles (tunics). Later artists focused on hairstyles and fashion to convey their own, or culturally prescribed, notions of Indigeneity. Here, artworks, calendars, and other images illustrate racialized standards of beauty in the depictions of Malinche and other Indigenous women through the centuries.
La Madre del Mestizaje/The Mother of a Mixed Race
In the wake of the Mexican Revolution (1910–20), the country struggled to form a national identity. The idea of a new, hybrid race took hold—one born from the union of Malinche’s Indigeneity and Cortés’s Spanish background. The term mestizo (“an individual with mixed European and Indigenous ancestry”) was first used in the 1700s by casta (caste) painters in Mexico, who illustrated the racial hierarchy by painting different racial combinations as families. Over the centuries, Malinche and Cortés were mythologized as the founding couple of the modern Mexican nation, and their son, Martín, as the first mestizo. In the U.S., activists united around the idea of mestizaje (“the mixing of European and Indigenous ethnicities”) during the 1960s Chicano Movement. In this period, depictions of Malinche portrayed her as the beloved mother of a new country.
La Traidora/The Traitor
Since the 1500s, Indigenous, European, and Mestizo chroniclers have interpreted Malinche’s baptism into the Christian faith as a pledge of allegiance to the Spanish Crown. In 1950, Mexican author Octavio Paz’s essay “Sons of La Malinche” popularized the view that she betrayed her people by siding with the Spaniards. In his eyes, her son with Cortés was a visible manifestation of her betrayal. This perspective
continues to dominate Mexican and American opinions of Malinche. The contemporary Mexican Spanish term “malinchista,” derived from Malinche’s name, refers to a cultural traitor. In this section, Malinche’s perceived spiritual and sexual betrayals appear in artworks that show changing sentiments toward her in both cultural and political realms.
“Chicana”/Contemporary Reclamations
Negative narratives about Malinche persisted until the 1970s, when Chicana artists began reclaiming and rehabilitating her identity. Poets and writers imagined Malinche’s side of the story. They also saw themselves in Malinche—a woman who survived despite sexism, racism, and trauma, including abuse. Beginning in 1992, Chicana and Mexican artists protesting the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas claimed Malinche as their icon. Here, the artworks explore Malinche’s spirituality, indigeneity, and self-empowerment. Others are self-portraits that identify with Malinche’s legacy. Poets, writers, and artists continue to use the power of words and images to recontextualize Malinche.
Traitor, Survivor, Icon is organized by Denver Art Museum and was curated by Victoria Lyall, Jan and Frederick Mayer Curator of Art of the Ancient Americas at the DAM, and Terezita Romo, independent curator. Lucía Abramovich Sánchez is the presenting curator at SAMA. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalog published by the Denver Art Museum.

Traitor, Survivor, Icon:
The Legacy of La Malinche
On View at SAMA
October 14, 2022 – January 8, 2023