Being la Malinche

Cal in Color

Photo of Marina Román Cantú

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Content warning: Eating disorder

Societies of all cultures tend to sort women into mutually exclusive categories depending on a variety of factors, ranging from what they look like to what they believe in. These are often binary categories that have historically been present in literature and in media, which are reproduced in our everyday lives (because life imitates art, right?). 

These “tropes” stem from poor representation throughout history. A good example of this is how Mexican author, Octavio Paz, argued that all women can be classified into two fixed archetypes: la Virgen and la Malinche — which are basically the tropicalized versions of Freud’s Madonna-whore complex. The ironic thing is that the exact translation of Malinche from Nahuatl to Spanish is Marina

We are taught that women can only either be cherished or vilified and that there are no gray areas within women’s experiences. 

All my life, I’ve attempted to avoid falling into the labels and categories being thrown my way, but stereotypes exist for a reason. Sometimes they can even be true to a certain extent. 

I spent 14 years of my life doing ballet. It is such a common and internalized phenomenon to associate ballet with eating disorders, that I got used to receiving numerous comments about it from strangers — and the sudden mainstream interest in ballet due to “Black Swan” didn’t help. Within a conversation, the mere acknowledgment that I danced used to bring about all types of unsolicited responses — from people telling me that it made sense that I did ballet due to how skinny I looked, to others disclosing how surprised they were because they didn’t strike me as an “anorexic ballerina.” The inconsistency of these comments made me doubt my own self-perception and body image.  

I wanted nothing to do with the label of “anorexic ballerina;” so, publicly, I ate more than I was expected to. Then, when I was alone, I deprived myself of meals and punished myself with extra exercise so I could counteract what I’d just eaten. Sometimes I would make myself throw up in the studio stalls before class. I hated myself for failing to detach from a stereotype that felt imposed on me since I started ballet professionally at the age of eight. 

I didn’t fit society’s criteria for someone with an eating disorder, so all of these behaviors went unnoticed until I stopped practicing ballet. 

Growing up in a rather conservative city in Mexico, I constantly felt as if I were swimming against the stream. This feeling was accentuated when I started college. My reputation as a “raging feminist” followed me from high school all the way to my male-dominated classes in university. 

For the first few semesters, I stayed quiet and didn’t participate much in class. Nonetheless, the word spread that I attended anti-gender violence rallies, supported pro-choice abortion laws and didn’t use euphemisms when talking about menstruation. At the end of freshman year, these traits (which I consider ordinary) led some oblivious classmates — to whom I’ve only spoken a few words — to call me a “feminazi” when I walked into class one day. 

I’ve made peace with being perceived as an enraged woman, because to some extent, I am. 

Enraged does not mean aggressive. In fact, I believe empathy is the world’s most radical force. If not tolerating locker-room talk, choosing not to befriend someone in my class who has sexual assault claims and not being afraid to say what I think grants me the “raging feminist” label, so be it. I think that’s just being a decent human being. 

Since coming to Berkeley for my study abroad, I’ve cautiously policed my accent and measured the volume of my voice. I think especially at the United States-Mexico border, the “loud and feisty Latina” stereotype is largely scoffed at. I felt like people wouldn’t take me seriously if I spoke with the slightest of accents and admitted to liking reggaeton music. 

But who am I kidding? I’m all and none of these things at the same time. If you haven’t noticed from my column, I’m quite opinionated. I sometimes talk and laugh too loud, and my friends say “no tengo pelos en la lengua” — the Mexican way of saying that I have no filter. I spend most of my time either reading in silence or saying the most inappropriate things at the worst-timed moments (which are both inherited traits). 

I’ve rejected the “sugar and spice and everything nice” archetype of docile Mexican women (or as Octavio Paz described, the Virgen archetype). I’ve also rejected the one-dimensional label of “feminazi.” People say I have no “Mexican manners” because I have a tendency of putting people through uncomfortable situations by talking about religion and politics at the dinner table, especially during the holidays. I also care too much about academic validation, but that does not stop me from going out as much as I can and screaming any Bad Bunny song at the top of my lungs. 

Women are nuanced — and their experiences are complex. Let’s stop reducing their existence to a simple sum of words.

Marina Román Cantú writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected], or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.