A multifaceted exploration of La Malinche, the ballet created by José Limón, one of the leading figures of modern dance in the twentieth century.
Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture, Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture
José Limón (1908-1972) was one of the leading figures of modern dance in the twentieth century. Hailed by the New York Times as "the finest male dancer of his time" when the José Limón Dance Company debuted in 1947, Limón was also a renowned choreographer who won two Dance Magazine Awards and a Capezio Dance Award, two of dance's highest honors. In addition to directing his own dance company, Limón served as artistic director of the Lincoln Center's American Dance Theater and also taught choreography at the Juilliard School for many years.
In this volume, scholars and artists from fields as diverse as dance history, art history, Mesoamerican ethnohistory, Mexican American studies, music studies, and Mexican history come together to explore one of José Limón's masterworks, the ballet La Malinche. Offering many points of entry into the dance, they examine La Malinche from various angles, such as Limón's life story and the influence of his Mexican heritage on his work, an analysis of the dance itself, the musical score composed by Norman Lloyd, the visual elements of props and costumes, the history and myth of La Malinche (the indigenous woman who served the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés as interpreter and mistress), La Malinche's continuing presence in Mexican American culture, and issues involved in a modern restaging of the dance.
Also included in the book is a DVD written and directed by Patricia Harrington Delaney that presents the ballet in its entirety, accompanied by expert commentary that sets La Malinche within its artistic and historical context.
- Introduction: José Limón and La Malinche (Patricia Seed)
- Chapter 1. La Malinche: The Inspiration for the Dance (Shelley C. Berg)
- Chapter 2. José Limón's La Malinche (Patty Harrington Delaney)
- Chapter 3. The Music: Interview with David LaMarche, Musical Director, Limón Company and American Ballet Theater (Patty Harrington Delaney and David LaMarche)
- Chapter 4. Visual Communication: Props and Costumes (Carol Maturo)
- Chapter 5. Marina, Malinche, Malintzin: Nahua Women and the Spanish Conquest (Susan Kellogg)
- Chapter 6. Malinche in Cross-Border Historical Memory (Sonia Hernández)
- Chapter 7. José Limón and La Malinche in Mexico: A Chicano Artist Returns Home (Margarita Tortajada Quiroz)
- Chapter 8. The Director: Thoughts on Staging José Limón's La Malinche (Sarah Stackhouse)
During the 1950s and 1960s, one of the great Mexican American artists of the century traveled to more than a dozen countries in Europe and Latin America as a cultural ambassador of the United States. He trained a generation of students at New York's famed Juilliard School in his technique, received two of the highest honors in his field, and created theatrical pieces that even today remain widely performed. Yet despite all these achievements, outside of a tightly knit community of artists few people know his name.
José Acadio Limón (1908-1972) attained renown in a new twentieth-century art form. Apprenticed to Charles Weidman and Doris Humphrey, two major figures in the second generation of the modern dance movement, Limón assumed his place as the lone Mexican American among an elite circle of twentieth-century modern dancers—a field whose founders were mainly female and included Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and Mary Wigman as well as the talented African American choreographers Pearl Primus and Kathleen Dunham. While excellent studies of the early impact of female and African American choreographers on modern dance have appeared, relatively little has emerged on the distinctive impact of the first Mexican American dance composer.
Born in Mexico to a middle-class family, Limón fled north with them to avoid the turmoil of the Revolution. Like many immigrants to this country, his family lost their financial security in the move north. In the northern Mexican province of Sinaloa, Limón's father, Florencio, had directed the state band. But state governments in the United States do not hire full-time musicians, let alone musical directors. Rather, artists depend primarily on private philanthropy, occasionally supplemented by grants from government agencies. In the highly competitive world of U.S. orchestras, a musical director from a northern Mexican provincial town did not have a chance of assuming a position of equivalent status. As a result, the family struggled to make ends meet as Florencio taught music to individual students, an uncertain living in the best of circumstances. Occasionally he played in small Mexican bands that performed on holidays and special occasions.
José Limón's economically insecure family moved first to Arizona and then to East Los Angeles in 1923, where they joined the swelling Mexican American community. While only a handful of immigrant families in East Los Angeles had started out, like the Limóns, in the middle class, economic prosperity eluded his family, as it did most others in the 1920s and 1930s.
Los Angeles was not particularly welcoming to new Spanish-speaking arrivals. Viewed largely as a source of cheap labor by the ruling Anglo community, most newly arrived Mexicans and Mexican Americans struggled to eke out a living amid competition from workers from other ethnic communities—Filipino, Japanese, and African American—seeking similar jobs. But the larger numbers of Mexican Americans made them easier targets for antiforeign sentiment, feelings that were fueled by the declining number of jobs during the Depression. In 1931 the Immigration Service began large-scale roundups of hundreds of Mexican Americans, deporting them regardless of their immigration status. Over the next nine years an estimated forty thousand people, including many legal residents, were deported to Mexico. Even those who had entered the country legally had to spend years reestablishing their legal right to reside in Los Angeles. Life for Mexican Americans in 1920s and 1930s Los Angeles was, at the very least, precarious.
Succeeding despite the double burdens of poverty and discrimination, José Limón graduated from high school. He studied art for a semester at the University of California, Los Angeles but abandoned college and headed east to establish a career as an artist. Initially he planned to paint, having demonstrated a talent for drawing from an early age. But after seeing El Greco's masterpieces in New York, he despaired of making a career in art. A chance ticket to accompany a friend to a modern dance concert and an equally lucky visit to a modern dance classroom, however, showed Limón where his true vocation lay. From his very first lesson, he demonstrated a remarkable ability to use his body as a means of artistic expression.
Only a year after having taken his first dance class, Limón was performing professionally. This feat alone is remarkable. Most people begin dance training when they are young; a few have succeeded after beginning in their early teens. But Limón was nineteen before he even knew what modern dance was and twenty when he began performing on stage.
Limón commenced his professional artistic career with his first teacher, Charles Weidman. Together with Doris Humphrey, Weidman had created one of the two leading modern dance companies of the 1920s and 1930s. Limón soon began performing regularly with the company, and he toured the United States with it in 1935. During the 1930s he also began to choreograph, demonstrating yet another talent in the field of dance. The Second World War interrupted Limón’s dancing career, but he returned to it in 1946. That year he again joined forces with Humphrey, who by that time had split from Weidman. When financial misfortune overtook Humphrey's company, Limón founded his own company with her as its artistic director. The newly formed dance troupe would take his name, and thus the José Limón Company was born. That company and its dances would propel this young man from East Los Angeles to stages throughout the world and to international renown within the field of modern dance.
Writings and films about Limón, while relatively few, have rightly focused on his considerable artistic achievements. The dance writer and former Limón dancer Daniel Lewis has produced an outstanding guide to the techniques for learning modern dance that Limón developed during his career. Two well-regarded essay collections and a biography have analyzed the trajectory of his career as an artist, properly celebrating his artistry as a performer and as a choreographer. His deft interpretations of Shakespearean classics in dance have been appropriately celebrated, including his interpretation of Othello in The Moor's Pavane. The dance historian Ann Vachon produced an excellent documentary film, Limón: A Life beyond Words, containing valuable insights into Limón's life as well as his work.
Yet we know very little about the impact his Mexican heritage had on his artistic imagination, in part because during his lifetime Limón publicly remained relatively reticent. Vachon's film, for example, contains the surprising revelation that in the makeup box he took with him to every performance Limón carried a picture of Mexico's illustrious nineteenth-century president, Benito Juárez, the mestizo son of a Spanish man and a Oaxacan Indian woman. Throughout most of his career, Limón refused to answer questions about the identity of the figure in the portrait he carried with him, revealing that information (without elaboration) only as his career neared its end.
In his own elegantly composed published writings Limón remained equally taciturn regarding the impact of his Mexican and Mexican American background on his artistry. In his unfinished autobiography Limón recounts his early childhood in Mexico, the hair-raising journey across the border, and his early struggles to learn English, but he passes over his life in Arizona and California and leaps forward to the time he describes as his rebirth in the dance studio. In only one of the well-designed essays he composed does he allude, very briefly, to his Mexican American and Catholic heritage before passing on to the subject of modern dance.
In order to understand how Mexico figured in Limón's artistic imagination, the essays in this book will turn to the set, costumes, music, unpublished choreographic notes, and historical content of his most famous Mexican-themed dance, La Malinche. From these diverse records emerges a clearer picture of the role his Mexican heritage played in his artistic creation. Limón’s initial forays into choreography included several themes from Mexican history, including the Conquest and the Mexican Revolution as well as historical figures such as Hernando de Soto and Hernán Cortés. Furthermore, Limón first realized he had a gift for choreography when creating the Danzas Mexicanas (Mexican Dances), the predecessor of La Malinche, early in his career. Mexican and Spanish art influenced the costumes and set design he created, and his memories of the Mexican music he had heard as a child inspired the music he commissioned for his production of La Malinche. Limón’s Mexican heritage remains most strongly embedded in his dances.
Limón employed overtly Mexican themes in seven of the dances he choreographed after forming his company. Four of those pieces were created in Mexico, which he visited at the invitation of the artist Miguel Covarrubias, then director of dance at the National Institute for the Arts, partly to create a set of dances for a new national modern dance company. Composed relatively rapidly in early 1951, these four works combine the artistic interests of Limón with those of his hosts, many of whom were Mexico's leading intellectual advocates of artistic nationalism. One of his dances drew upon a well-known novel entitled Los Redes (The Nets) by the gifted José Revueltas, whose writings have remained little known or appreciated outside of Mexico. A second piece, Dialogues, drew upon Mexican history by contrasting the struggles between Hernán Cortés and Montezuma during the Conquest with a corresponding conflict between two prominent nineteenth-century figures, President Benito Juárez and Emperor Maximilian. Two other dances he choreographed while in Mexico drew upon the country's indigenous pre-Conquest history, a favorite theme among artistic nationalists of the time. In Limón's interpretation of Aztec mythology Quetzalcóatl became the god of civilized people battling Tezcatlipoca, depicted as a god of barbaric tribes, in a dance entitled Cuatro Soles (Four Suns). In their struggles the earth was created and destroyed four times—hence the title. A church in the tiny Mexican provincial town of Santa María Tonantzintla decorated by sixteenth-century Indian artists inspired the last of the dances created in Mexico. With the exception of Los Redes, the themes of these dances came from Mexican history and art.
As the Mexican dance historian Margarita Tortajada notes in her essay in this book, three of the four dances Limón created in Mexico seemed unfinished at the time. His host and principal Mexican patron, Miguel Covarrubias, would later describe one of these works as "premature" and another as an "interesting experiment." Despite the disappointment of the dances produced during his stay, Limón memorably exhorted Mexican choreographers to try for greatness, and he encouraged them to find their visions of Mexico from within their artistic creativity, rather than beginning with the popular, politically motivated nationalist interpretations of Mexico's past.
Of the three Mexican-themed dances Limón choreographed for his company in the United States, one, La Piñata, is a lighthearted tribute to the mainstay of Mexican American birthday celebrations of his childhood. That dance along with several preliminary compositions from 1951 has vanished from the repertory. Two of Limón's dances on Mexican themes have survived as regular pieces in the repertory, both drawing upon well-known episodes of Mexican history. One historical dance dealt with the ill-fated couple Maximilian and Carlota, who briefly became the monarchs of an independent Mexico only to be ignominiously deposed in 1867. Unfortunately, Limón succumbed to cancer only a few months after this piece debuted, leaving La Malinche as the most frequently and widely performed treatment of a Mexican subject during his lifetime.
In La Malinche Limón revisited the history of Mexico's Conquest and its most famous female participant and cultural icon in a uniquely vivid dance form. Presented first in the United States, then in Mexico, and subsequently in Russia, Canada, Western Europe, and the Middle East, La Malinche remained for decades among the company's most popular presentations overseas. Though its critical reception in those countries remains buried in newspaper archives around the world, members of the company recall the enthusiastic reception given the dance. Having circulated so widely around the globe, Limón's representation of La Malinche merits consideration as an artistically important interpretation of a Mexican subject conceived and rendered in the United States.
Another reason for examining La Malinche resides in the importance of the actual historical figure as a cultural touchstone for Mexicans and Mexican Americans alike. According to Rosario Castellanos, a prominent Mexican writer, Malinche, along with two others—the seventeenth-century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and the Virgin of Guadalupe—ranks as the central female character in the contemporary Mexican cultural imagination. Furthermore, as Sonia Hernández writes in this book, the historical figure remains equally well remembered among recent as well as longtime Mexican immigrants to the United States. In that sense Malinche remains a shared female cultural icon bridging the boundary between Mexican and Mexican American culture.
The gender of the title character is noteworthy for yet another reason. Limón often drew upon history and literary classics to inspire his dance, and he might simply have retold the Conquest of Mexico as a battle between Spanish men on the one side and indigenous men on the other. However, he chose to center the dance on the more enigmatic female figure, La Malinche, who stood between the two, perhaps as Limón saw himself standing between Mexico and the United States.
As Cortés's mistress and interpreter, the historical Malinche was present during all of Cortés's encounters with Montezuma and other native leaders. Malinche also spied for Cortés, providing him with crucial military intelligence without which he and his men might not have survived. A woman from a Nahua family, Malinche (who converted to Catholicism) demonstrated unswerving loyalty to the man who led the troops that would eventually raze the capital of the Nahua empire.
Malinche appeared five hundred years ago during a military struggle, but unlike much of history that passes by in a readily forgotten dusty cloud of dates and facts her story was kept alive, albeit primarily in unpublished, native-informed accounts in the decades following the Conquest. Although her tale largely faded from written Spanish accounts of the Conquest, she continued to appear occasionally in colonial painting. The narrative of her story reemerged in Mexico's literary tradition as the eighteenth century neared its close. In the years leading up to independence from Spain in 1821, Mexican intellectuals, as part of a larger effort to distinguish themselves from their Spanish overlords, became increasingly interested in indigenous themes. Reversing the previous neglect of Malinche's role in the Conquest, the late colonial Jesuit historian Francisco Javier Clavijero transformed her into a romantic heroine.
Nevertheless, this Indian woman who sided with the Spaniards presented post-Independence writers with an interesting conundrum—whether to celebrate her indigenous background or condemn her for allying with Cortés. As Sandra Messinger Cypess notes, the first literary appearance of La Malinche cast her as a villain, while another (Cuban) author from the same period envisioned her as romantically involved with Cortés, a tragic victim rather than a villain. The romantic tendency in literature in Mexico, as elsewhere, extended through the end of the nineteenth century, sweeping representations of La Malinche along with it.
Historical literature continued to paint the romantic, heroic portrait of Malinche that Clavijero had popularized. William Prescott, the U.S. historian whose Conquest of Mexico (1843) enjoyed tremendous popular success in both the United States and Mexico, depicted her as a grande dame, elegant yet soft-spoken, and even included a suitable fictitious reconciliation with her family of origin. This upper-class family fiction became one of three nineteenth-century versions of the romance.
In the second, spiritual version of the romance, Malinche becomes enamored of the true faith, setting an example to all other natives by renouncing idolatry and embracing Catholicism. Other versions of Malinche as a Catholic heroine have her leading Native Americans to the faith by example. Fernanda Núñez Becerra characterizes this interpretation as Malinche the catechist. A slightly different reading transformed Malinche into Cortés's ethical conscience, a most suitable nineteenth-century woman's role.
This spiritual version of Malinche had also appeared earlier in a different artistic medium, folk dance. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, indigenous dancers from central and southern Mexico regularly depicted the Conquest in dance. While Malinche always appeared to lead her people into Christianity, in separate performances she accomplished that goal differently. In one rendering she did so by allying with Cortés and in another by betraying an idolatrous Montezuma (who, oddly, appears as her husband). In these folk arrangements she chose to side with Cortés out of religious conviction.
More earthly nineteenth-century romantic portraits envisioned Malinche as being swept away by her all-encompassing love for Cortés. In the words of one author, "It was without a doubt extreme passion that inspired her from the first moment." To other writers in the same vein, the romantic passion signified that she could be forgiven for the treason she committed by aiding the Spaniards.
Of the three romances—the upper-class family, the spiritual, and the sexual—the first two faded as the nineteenth century waned, leaving the sexual variant as the prevailing perspective. Several early versions of this romance condemned Malinche for her lascivious conduct in having a relationship with Cortés. The novelist Ireneo Paz stressed a novel dimension of Malinche's sexual relationship with Cortés, the birth of a son whom Cortés acknowledged as his own. Malinche thus bridged the gap between Spaniard and Indian by giving birth to a mixed race (mestizo) child.
The outcome of the sexual romance—a mixture of Spaniard and Indian—began to inspire a new political vision for the nation during the second decade of the twentieth century. The first such works saw the Spaniard becoming submerged in the Indian, then gradually becoming an equal partner with him. The renowned Mexican political writer José Vasconcelos celebrated the mestizo in his widely read book La raza cósmica (The Cosmic Race) (1920), a paean to mixed-race peoples in which Spaniards did not appear entirely as villains but were lauded for having brought Catholicism to the country.
Yet not all Mexican writers of the early twentieth century shared this celebratory attitude toward the mestizo as the apparent resolution of the conflict between the Spanish and Indian heritage of modern Mexico. Miguel Ángel Menéndez saw the birth of this offspring as the result of a relationship Malinche did not choose, but one which, as Cortés's slave, she had no option but to enter. As a result, the appearance of the mestizo remained a sorrowful rather than celebratory event.
Focus on the mestizo offspring of the sexual relationship, however, continued to dominate Mexican political and cultural discussions of Malinche through the middle of the twentieth century. As the ethnohistorian and Nahuatl scholar Susan Kellogg notes, sexual relations betyween Spaniards and Indians ranged from consensual to coercive. Thus a mestizo could as easily have been conceived in love as in violence. At midcentury, Octavio Paz strengthened the critical view espoused earlier by Miguel Angel Fernandez. Setting aside interpretations of the sexual relationship as consensual or structurally enforced he also declared Cortés's relationship with Malinche to be a form of rape. In his widely read essay “El laberinto de la soledad” (The Labyrinth of Solitude), Cortés's violating of Malinche meant that she and her offspring (and all others of mixed race) were literally screwed.
Shortly before Paz's portrait of Malinche as sexual victim appeared, another opinion about her was gaining popularity and soon became bound up with Paz's. In this perspective, Malinche was not victimized, but actually had chosen an unpopular alliance with the overseas invaders. Beginning in the 1930s, her name became used as an adjective—malinchista—to malign individuals who displayed a seemingly irrational admiration of foreigners. In this respect dislike of Malinche stemmed from the perception that she had allied with a foreigner in preference to her own people. Swelling nationalistic, antiforeign sentiment from the 1940s to the 1970s sustained this image of a politically treacherous Malinche.
Limón created his dance in 1949, two years after Paz composed his now-famous essay on La Malinche (and her offspring) as both victim and traitor and amidst prevailing Mexican nationalistic antagonism to a disloyal figure. His own interpretation, however, differed both from Paz's and from the prevailing popular political view in Mexico. In the dance only three characters appear: the Conquistador, Malinche, and El Indio. Bearing a cross in the shape of a sword, the Conqueror defeats El Indio with Malinche at his side. After his defeat, the Indian reproaches Malinche, who, realizing what she has done, weeps and then reunites with the Indian.
Unlike the nineteenth-century romantics, who mentioned but often sidelined her, Limón made Malinche central to the story of Conquest. She alone remains on stage while the male dancers enter and exit. As Carol Maturo shows in her essay in this book, Limón's interpretation parallels visual portraits of the sixteenth-century indigenous Tlaxcalans, whose stories also portray her as central to the Conquest.
The finale to Limón's dance, however, provides a cryptic resolution to the conflict between Conqueror and Indian by reuniting all three characters, who dance offstage arm in arm. This enigmatic conclusion is open to multiple interpretations. Three essays in this book, in fact, offer three divergent interpretations of the ending. One of two dance historians, Shelley Berg, sees Malinche's joining with the Indian as a form of unresolvable cultural hybridity. Carol Maturo sees reconciliation in the visual imagery of Malinche’s mestizo costume and the ending a moment of hope. The dance director Sarah Stackhouse, who has frequently staged the dance for various companies, sees the three characters reconcile as performers, linking arms on the way to another performance.
When Limón was invited to Mexico he had already choreographed La Malinche, which he performed for Mexican audiences. The dance historian Margarita Tortajada Quiroz notes in her essay in this book that the almost universal praise for Limón's choreographic and performing talent in the land of his birth did not extend wholly to La Malinche. Reactions at the time ranged from adulation to dismissal, the music (despite its indigenous inspiration) coming in for the harshest criticism.
Local hostility may have stemmed from Limón's failure to adopt the prevailing Mexican popular view of Malinche as expressed in Paz's essay. Limón's Malinche is no victim; she joins willingly with the Conqueror against the Indian, and no hint of treachery mars their association. Limón's attitude toward the mestizo also fails to follow the nationalistic political agenda of the time. His dance itself alludes to the mestizo political solution only at one dramatic moment, when the Indian disappears beneath Malinche's skirts only to be reborn. The ambiguity of the identity of the individual renewed through this rebirth—either an Indian or a mestizo—suggests a more equivocal resolution to the conflict between Spaniards and Indians, hinting at the potential reawakening of a not entirely defeated indigenous culture after the Conquest.
Since its initial performance (and revision in the 1960s) Limón's composition has continued to be performed. The ongoing appeal of the dance lies first of all in its artistic achievements, many of which are spelled out in this book. But a second reason for the continued attention to the dance derives from the ongoing appeal of the subject matter— Malinche's continuing role as a contested cultural icon.
Different interpretations of her character have continued to unfold since 1950 in literature and in political struggles both in Mexico and the United States. During the 1950s and 1960s, few Mexican writers differed significantly with Paz's position on Malinche. Several theatrical productions returned to the theme of the Conquest but usually foregrounded the relationship between men—Spanish and Indian—(unlike Limón), relegating Malinche to a peripheral role. Other productions presented an updated version of the nineteenth-century romantic construction of the relationship between Malinche and Cortés.
The 1970s saw interpretations of the myth taking a different direction in Mexico: Malinche was rehabilitated from her twenty-year-old status as a traitor and sexual victim. In the hands of Carlos Fuentes, Rosario Castellanos, and other prominent recent Mexican authors, Malinche became the more powerful figure, manipulating Cortés and in the process defending her people. Several of these writers employed satire to establish Malinche's power. Although Limón's interpretation anticipated this new attention to her strength, his remains a sober, not satirical, piece.
Also during the 1970s, Malinche captured the attention of yet another group of writers, this time in the United States. The first generation of Mexican American women intellectuals turned to the figure of La Malinche in part because the 1930s term malinchista (traitor) was being used largely to defame Mexican American women (but not men) who consorted with American partners. Women who challenged (male) political authority or who had any intellectual or other ambition beyond the local community were also smeared with the same label. Seeking to challenge this sexist usage, Chicana feminists revived the image of Malinche as translator between two cultures—in their interpretation, however, she also mediated contending Mexican and American influences instead of just warring Indians and Spaniards.
Like Mexican feminist writers of the same decade, Chicana intellectuals also constructed Malinche as more powerful than she had been depicted previously. To some she also symbolized sexual independence, a rejection of two previously popular images equally: the sexually enslaved nineteenth-century romantic heroine and Paz's mid-twentieth-century rape victim. In Carmen Tafolloa's "Yo soy La Malinche," (I am La Malinche) (1978) Malinche alone understands how her mestizo offspring will redefine the future.
In one sense, Limón's Malinche anticipated these writers' belief in the Indian woman's strength. Susan Kellogg finds a similar strength in the historical record. Aztec women exercised reaal authority and power in their communities. Whereas many Chicana authors and Shelley Berg viewed her as a negotiator (paralleling their own experiences), I see her differently, powerfully using her talents alternately for one side and then the other, seeking but never finding a final moment of hybridity.
As a Mexican-born Mexican American choreographer, Limón introduced these perspectives to modern dance. Unlike early African American performers, who often integrated spirituals and dance steps into their pieces, Limón incorporated into the new dance medium not dance steps or a specific song genre but themes from Mexican art and history. Although his personal early artistic vocation may have inspired his use of Mexican art for scenery and costuming, his choice also reflected the historical artistic traditions of Spain, indigenous America, and the great twentieth-century Mexican mural renaissance. His preference for themes from the past, while likely also personal, additionally reflects the unique way in which historical memories—of the Conquest in particular—continue to feature prominently in both contemporary Mexican and Mexican American cultural imaginations.
While bringing history and artistic traditions to modern dance, Limón also incorporated both a Mexican and Mexican American twentieth-century cultural fascination with a historical female cultural icon.
From grande dame to slave, from national inspiration to rape victim, the image of Malinche has changed greatly since its revival at the end of the eighteenth century. Although Limón's La Malinche was choreographed more than half a century ago, its subject seems likely to continue to intrigue observers, as she continues to fascinate and attract many outside of literary and intellectual circles. Her status as a cultural icon in Mexico is likely to continue to evolve in years to come.
Yet she is not just a Mexican symbol, but a Mexican American one as well. In today's Mexican American communities in the border states of California and Texas, the image of Malinche remains complex and full of contradictory points of view, not unlike Limón's. Alternately embraced and rejected, Malinche appeared as heroine and rape victim. As Hernández notes in this book, the name Malinche continues to bewidely recognized. Even recent Mexican American immigrants she interviewed, people who had never attended school past third grade in Mexico, knew La Malinche and had an opinion about her.
In Mexico, several of the dancers who had seen or performed with Limón in the early 1950s remain divided over which side of the border his portrait of Malinche originated in. Some of those interviewed for the first time in this book saw his Malinche as the product of an exile from the homeland. One well-known dancer declared that Limón was not unlike many who left Mexico yet "keep their roots and feel part of a culture that supports them, but this becomes a ghost, a childish ghost," and their creations are hybrids, products of a "third culture, valid and valuable, but a non-Mexican one." Yet others interviewed believed his La Malinche to be wholly Mexican. The famous Mexican dancer and actress Rocío Sagaón declared that Limón had captured "the core of the Mexican dilemma, of the woman that is caught in between the Spanish and the Indigenous. I have never seen anything so perfect and stylized that goes straight to your heart. One does not need flags or uniforms to say that 'this is Mexican', and José was able to capture it with his North American education on his back." In this respect, Limón's La Malinche appears as a different kind of mestizo, one both Mexican and Mexican American. In the end, the DVD that accompanies this book will allow readers to make up their own minds.
The essays that make up this book will look at the sources from which Limón drew his inspiration, his artistic contributions, and public reaction to his portrayal of the character; finally, they locate his interpretation between the historical and art historical knowledge of Nahua women like Malinche and identify contemporary Mexican American attitudes toward her.
The contributors to the book are a diverse lot. Three are professional dancers (Berg, Harrington Delaney, and Stackhouse), a fourth (Tortajada) is a well-known Mexican dance historian. Two of the dancers (Harrington Delaney and Stackhouse) and a musical conductor (LaMarche) have staged La Malinche for performances and draw upon that experience to provide readers with their own understanding of the character. Tortajada uncovered all of the published Mexican reviews of Limón's performances in Mexico City. In addition, she interviewed all the surviving Mexican modern dancers who either saw or performed La Malinche with Limón in Mexico in the 1950s. The other three nondance contributors are historians of varying backgrounds. Carol Maturo examined all the images of Malinche in the most famous indigenous pictoral account of the Conquest, the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. Susan Kellogg places Malinche's life in the context of Native women of her class and time. The Mexican American historian Sonia Hernández, whose field is twentieth-century Mexico, interviewed present-day Mexican Americans in the border states to explore their understanding of La Malinche. The results of this collection do not form a single story, but rather a set of ten prisms through which José Limón and his dance can be viewed. It shows not a single Mexican or Mexican American voice, but many, and among those many the choreographic voice of one of the preeminent artists of the twentieth century can be heard.