While conducting research for Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche (at the DAM through May 8), co-curators Victoria Lyall and Terezita Romo, and I sought artworks to help us tell the story of an influential, but much maligned, Indigenous girl we have come to know as Malinche. This research took place in libraries, online, in museum storage rooms, in homes of private collectors, and in artist’s studios. We met Vicente Telles, a young santero (someone who dedicates themselves to making images of saints) from my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Vicente’s painting of La Malinche as a girl dressed in a finely woven huipil (tunic) uses the compositional format traditionally associated with the Virgin of Guadalupe. In the following interview, Vicente discusses what inspired him to paint Malinche.
If people tried harder to understand each other’s stories, or listen to stories like that of La Malinche the nuances of human existence would be less polarizing.
Jesse: You were one of the few contemporary artists who engage with La Malinche as a subject. Can you talk about why you created a work that focused on her story?
Vicente: It just felt right. I had been wondering what it must have been like to be a woman at that time, and relating it to the machismo that contemporary Chicana/Mexicana/Latina women still deal with today. When I was in San Diego, I started trying to create a series focused on powerful Chicana/Latina women—trailblazers in their field. Ellen Ochoa, for example, was one of the first female astronauts, or Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina Supreme Court justice. I wanted to explore and highlight the stories of powerful brown women in my art.
I first came upon Malinche in Rudolfo Anaya’s story “The Legend of La Llorona,” (1984), and I started thinking about why she was considered a traitor if she was doing what was best for her and her people at that time? She knew multiple languages. She was savvy. She understood the complexities of her situation. What person, what man wouldn't be applauded for that? I was trying to think about feminism in a different way. I think about how strong my mom is; the women in my family have done really big things. For us to succeed as a culture, we have to acknowledge that women play an integral part of that success. I think that goes back to the birth of who we are as a people and the decisions that were made by Malinche.
Jesse: Can you tell me more about your research into Malinche’s history. Did you hear about her story growing up in Albuquerque? Or what sources did you read, what images did you look at?
Vicente: I was aware of her growing up. Initially, I read Anaya's book was because I was interested in the story of La Llorona, the woman who cries for her children, and his book touches on this idea of the missing children. And then I started going through the ancient codices while living in California. I thought about the two sides of the coin—Spanish and Mexican—and how even though some people identify with being one or the other, most everybody falls in the middle. And who's in the middle of the story of the Conquest? It’s Malinche. She is the middle, and I think that’s the most beautiful part of us as a people, the grey areas. A lot of my work is trying to bring things to the middle where reality is, as opposed to the extremes of one side or the other.
I looked for any image of her in the codices, really anything that had an image of her. I asked myself, what story do I want to tell? How does it related to the powerful females in my life, who are educated and have had to make tough decisions. This work is my ode to them. Being a santero, you look at the stories of these saints and they all have icons and implements related to their path to sainthood. And I thought, what if she was a saint what would be her icons? And for me the story of Guadalupe fit perfectly. You have: 1) first contact; 2) her acceptance of Christianity; and finally 3) the conversion of the Indigenous people to Christianity.
Malinche’s story is as important as Guadalupe is to the history of Mexicanos and Nuevo Mexicanos. When you take somebody who is perceived as a villain and paint them using the familiar iconography (associated with the Virgin of Guadalupe) that people understand, you change that figure’s stature, and, hopefully, it begins to change minds and gets the viewer to question. How do I view this person? Why do I view this person as a traitor when I don’t even know or understand their story? And I wanted to attack the idea of that what we know is final, but it’s not. So why is it set in stone for some people?
Jesse: How did you decide to become a santero? Had you trained as an artist? I know it is often a tradition practiced in Northern New Mexico that is passed down through families and apprenticeships.
Vicente: I guess the genesis of how I became a santero speaks a lot to why I got into making images of Malinche. I was taking a Chicano studies class at the University of New Mexico and the professor said, “People who visit New Mexico have this idyllic idea that the people here are either Navajo silversmiths or santeros.” Well, I knew what a silversmith was, but what the heck is a santero? And trying to find information on this practice was difficult. And, the information I found had me asking more questions than answering them. I started thinking about the santero art form as a political device.
As I matured in my practice, I began to use my art to question things or tell new stories. I wasn’t a trained artist, but I started painting when I moved out to LA. I had a lot of time on my hands, and I just dove into practicing my craft. Being a santero made sense to me because I could use my physical skills to carve the wood I painted on. I also became a used-book junkie; I was just trying to get my hands on any information I could find including the ancient codices. I started melding the imagery from the codices and the New Mexican santos. There was a formal connection there that just clicked; you can see it in the profile of the figures and in the color choices.
Jesse: Can you tell me more about the materials and iconography of your painting and how they tie into Malinche’s story for you?
Vicente: I made this painting for a show in San Diego. Two days before I had to leave, I had a vision of this piece. I worked on it for 24 hours straight. As far as the materials, I knew I wanted to incorporate micaceous clay from Northern New Mexico to give it some sparkle and glitter. I also like the idea of painting with some of the earth from New Mexico and have it affected by the stories from Mexico. It’s an ode to my history. I wouldn't exist if that encounter between Malinche and Cortés didn't happen. I also thought about how I could stay true to my aesthetic, but make the work regal enough for this story. It’s a combination of material ideas and processes, but it also gave me a chance to push my skill set. Then I thought about what is my favorite dress that they have her in in the codices? And how do I replicate it? At the time, I had never painted multiple figures, multiple times in same piece and I needed them to look the same. I didn’t want it to look like a random story of all these different people.
When I paint, I don’t want to simply tell a story or shock viewers. I paint works that can live in a home like another family member. Traditionally santeros make santos that become a part of the family. These works are supposed to communicate with you, draw you into the community. Art should be like that; it needs to be able to speak with you without shouting.
Jesse: What does Malinche mean to you as an artist, as a Chicano, as a Nuevo Mexicano?
Vicente: She was a strategic decision maker, and yes, these decisions were made for survival, but by making them, she allowed communities to survive, and she didn’t have to rely on male input for acceptance or validity. I think it’s beautiful when people make decisions based on the trust, faith, and confidence they have in who they are. When people make decisions to help the broader community, I think that's showing empathy on a level that I don't think we understand. If people tried harder to understand each other’s stories, or listen to stories like that of La Malinche the nuances of human existence would be less polarizing. People would be a little more accepting of the decisions others make not only for themselves, but also for family members and their community in order to survive.