That a small force of Spaniards, under Hernan Cortes, was able to conquer Mexico in 1519 was due to several factors. The first was an incredible stroke of luck. They arrived a time of transition in the Aztec calendar, when momentous events had been foretold. For a time the Indians believed them to be gods. Also, the ruling Aztecs had many enemies among the tribes they'd conquered. Cortes was able to unite these tribes against their overlords. Diseases brought by the Spaniards played a major role as well. But the real outcome of the conquest hung on the abilities of one remarkable woman--the woman christened Marina and known as La Malinche.
Much of her life story relies on legend. She was born the daughter of a chief into a tribe whose people spoke Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. While she was still a young girl her father died. Her mother remarried and gave birth to a son. Wishing her son to become chief, the woman sold her daughter to some traders, who, in turn, sold her to another tribe on the coast. These people spoke a different language, similar to the one used by the Mayans. Thus she grew up with a knowledge of two languages.
Her new tribe was among the first to meet the Spaniards. As a gesture of friendship, the chiefs presented the newcomers with a group of beautiful girls, who were promptly baptized, given Christian names, and passed around to the conquistadors to be their mistresses. Marina, as she was named, was given to Alonso Puertocarrero, one of Cortes's young lieutenants. Her abilities went unnoticed until after the Spaniards picked up a castaway from an earlier expedition. Geronimo de Aguilar, a monk had lived among another Mayan-speaking tribe and spoke their language.
Marina's value became clear when Cortes received a delegation from the Aztecs. Only Marina could understand their language. With her translating into Mayan for Aguilar, and Aguilar translating into Spanish, communication became possible. Cortes took her for himself, and Marina rapidly learned Spanish, so she could translate directly between Spanish and Nahuatl.
The story of the conquest is far too long to relate here. Marina remained at Cortes' side while the Aztec empire crumbled. During that time she bore him a son, whom he later took to Spain. When her usefulness came to an end, Cortes married her to Juan Jaramillo, one of his loyal soldiers. About 1527, few years after giving Jaramillo a daughter, Marina evidently died.
Marina's pivotal role is still open to dispute. Some view her as a traitor who turned against her people (even though she had no choice in the matter). Others view her as a heroine who protected her people and prevented the conquest from being even bloodier than it was. She is the figure behind La Llorona, the legendary weeping woman of Mexico.
Marina was the subject of my very first novel, MISTRESS OF THE MORNING STAR, which was published in 1980. The book has been reissued by ereads.com and is still available.