Rewriting Spanish history, one song at a time

The popular appeal of Malinche, a musical that glorifies Hernán Cortés’ conquest of Mexico, is less a consequence of ideology than of nostalgia.

Hernando Cortez mounting an attack.
Hernando Cortez mounting an attack. Credit: The Print Collector / Alamy Stock Photo

The president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has repeatedly asked the Spanish state to apologise to him and his people for the bloody imperial conquest led by Hernán Cortés. Leaving aside the question of the extent to which anyone can be held to account for the actions of their ancestors, the request is not as straightforward as it might first appear. Spain lost most of its empire by the end of the nineteenth century and is nowhere near as rich as many former imperial powers. Nonetheless, the inherited spoils of empire are still reaped, and Spain continues to exert political and economic power in its former colonies. Conversely, as Spanish commentators were quick to point out, no direct line can be drawn from pre-conquest to contemporary Mexico. Prior to the arrival of Spaniards, there existed the Aztec and Mayan civilisations, but nothing equivalent to a nation state. The vast majority of Mexico’s current inhabitants are the product of mestizaje (the combining of two races) and, to take López Obrador’s argument to its logical conclusion, the Mexican president would need to ask himself forgiveness for the actions of some of his ancestors. It is, however, quite a leap in the opposite direction to imply there is nothing to apologise for. This, though, is the underlying premise of a major Spanish-language musical, Malinche, which, accompanied by a behind-the-scenes Netflix documentary, premiered in Madrid in September 2022. Although not all performances have sold out, with special offers often used to shift tickets, the production continues to run. Future plans include a second English-language version for Madrid’s foreign tourists, and transfers to Mexico and Las Vegas.

Although Malinche is a product of the culture wars in and beyond Spain, it is an idiosyncratic project that needs to be understood in relation to the personal and professional trajectory of Nacho Cano, a Spanish composer and musician. Born in Madrid in 1963, and raised in an upper-middle class family, in 1981 he formed a band, Mecano, alongside brother José María and female vocalist Ana Torroja. Superstars at home and across Latin America, Mecano became the most successful Spanish pop act of all time, providing the soundtrack to the giddy years of Spain’s young democracy following the death of General Franco in 1975. Mecano disbanded acrimoniously in 1992, and in 2005 Cano launched Hoy no me Puedo Levantar, a musical featuring the group’s greatest hits, which recounted the story of Madrid’s drug-fuelled, post-Franco countercultural movement, often referred to as La Movida. The show became the most financially lucrative Spanish-language musical of all time.

A precedent was set, and in recent years Madrid has sought to become the Hispanic counterpart to Broadway and the West End. Almost all musicals in the city are staged in its centre, but Cano was compelled to construct a large, custom-made pyramidal set for Malinche. A downsized version of his initial vision was staged at the IFEMA exhibition grounds, located not far from Madrid’s Barajas Airport. His original plan was to build it in the multicultural Hortaleza district on the outskirts of the city. Madrid’s regional government was keen, conceiving both La Movida and musicals as central to a post-pandemic exercise in city branding. Facilitated by Cano’s friendship with the president of Greater Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, he was offered municipal land at a knockdown price.

Representing the right-of-centre Partido Popular [People’s Party, aka the PP], Díaz Ayuso is a decisive and divisive figure who fought to keep theatres and businesses open throughout the pandemic, even when Madrid’s Covid deaths were among the highest in Europe. Her support for Cano’s commandeering of Hortaleza did not win popular approval. Local neighbourhood groups took to the streets in October 2021 to protest, arguing the land would be better utilised for a library or community activities. In Malinche, they saw a manifestation of Díaz Ayuso’s cronyism — Cano had previously been paid handsomely from the public coffers to produce a televised concert without a live audience from Madrid’s main square during lockdown. He later paid gushing tribute to the president for defending the Spanish capital after she awarded him the city’s highest civic honour. Both Cano and Díaz Ayuso argued Malinche would bring much-needed investment to Hortaleza, and said locals had been manipulated by political enemies. Such a stance is in keeping with Díaz Ayuso’s populist brand of neo-liberalism. A remarkably successful electoral slogan — ‘Libertad o comunismo’ [‘freedom or communism’] — was instrumental to her trouncing of Pablo Iglesias, leader of the far-left Unidas Podemos party, in the 2021 regional elections. Díaz Ayuso received an even greater popular mandate to rule in May 2023. The Spanish right’s unexpected success at regional and municipal level prompted Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to announce national elections earlier than expected for Sunday 23 July. This was a gamble: Sánchez was banking on his profile being given a boost as Spain took over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union on July, and fear among centrist voters that the PP would need support from Vox, the first major Spanish far-right party to emerge since Franco’s death, to form a government.

In keeping with his right-wing affiliations, Cano believes Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés has been given a reputational raw deal. The Netflix documentary about the making of Malinche traces his idea back twelve years to when Cano moved to Miami. His house had views of Cayo Vizcaino, where Spanish ships first arrived on American shores. The hagiographic film seeks to establish parallels between Cano and Cortés as visionary mystics, with figures such as German composer Hans Zimmer praising his unique genius. Clues as to the origins of Cano’s idiosyncratic and narcissistic worldview come to the fore near the end of the documentary when he accompanies his father, Modesto (who tried his luck as an aspiring bullfighter before making his fortune in textiles), to his native Extremadura, the region of Spain where Cortés was born. Modesto waxes lyrical about the conquistadores as exemplars of self-made men. Earlier in the film, his jet-setting multi-millionaire son is seen travelling the world to learn more about the conquistadores and to develop his pet project. He views maps at the University of Salamanca; learns about sailing in Ibiza; travels to Mexico to speak to experts about human sacrifice; and tries to delve into the philosophy of mysticism by speaking to a shaman who, somewhat incongruously, pauses to praise the quality and texture of the ageing musician’s hair. A voice is briefly given to the opposition: an activist in Mexico complains that Spain maintains a neo-colonial cultural and economic attitude. Short shrift is given to this argument: dwelling on the past is dismissed as a futile exercise when Spaniards and Mexicans ought to look to the future and focus on what unites the two cultures.

Cano claims to have the support of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico, and even to have received the blessing of López Obrador’s wife, researcher and journalist Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller. In reality, Cano’s heuristic paradigms differ from those of the majority of professional historians.

While work remains to be done in critically interrogating Spain’s imperial past, some headway is being made. In Gran Canaria, captured in 1483 by Andalusian privateers, a new production of Bartolomé Cairasco de Figueroa’s Comedia del Recibimiento was staged in 2022 before touring the mainland. This allegorical play, which documents the violence and condescension of the first encounter between Spaniards and the indigenous population, premiered in 1582 and was then promptly forgotten for over four centuries. As in much of the rest of the world, politics in Spain have become more polarised in recent years. Its cliffhanger election results this week, with no single party winning enough parliamentary seats to form a government, look set to continue to sow political infighting and uncertainty for Spanish citizens. The PP received more votes than any other party, but Vox did not do as well as expected. A coalition of the two parties alone would not be sufficient to form a government, and it would be political suicide for other parties to govern with Abascal.

Vox offer a radically different interpretation of national(ist) history in a country which continues to celebrate the anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in America as a national holiday. Imperiofobia y Leyenda Negra [Phobia of Empires and the Black Legend], a 2016 book by Elvira Roca Barea, has been a surprise bestseller in recent years. Its central thesis is that the Inquisition and the colonisation of America were largely positive, and even benevolent, endeavours. As the title intimates, the polemic is predicated on the premise that empires have an unfairly bad image, which, Roca Barea argues, is a consequence of inverse racism expressed retrospectively by colonised groups.

Historically, Hernán Cortés’ sixteenth-century victory in Mexico undoubtedly had much to do with his strategy of divide and rule. Some Tlaxcaltecs, who sided with the Spaniards against the Aztecs, evoked the figure of Saint James the Moor Killer, a miraculous man credited with intervening to secure the victorious reconquest of Muslim Spain in the fifteenth century, while Mexican elites repeatedly sought to appropriate the Spanish victory as their own. By the time of independence in the early nineteenth-century, Columbus continued to be venerated by many Mexicans seeking the reflected glory of being part of his civilised and civilising mission. In his book The Cosmic Race, José Vasconcelos (1882-1959) argues that various races tend to intermix at a gradually increasing pace, and that this will eventually give rise to a new type of human. He saw the encounter between Mexicans and Spaniards as a prototype of this phenomenon. Nevertheless, as the Mexican historian Fernando Cervantes remarks, ‘little of this uncritically admiring enthusiasm survives nowadays — and that is all to the good’. His observation predated Malinche. In the Netflix documentary, Cano is shown explaining the philosophy of the musical to the actors in the following terms: ‘The Aztec and the Spaniard belong to two completely different worlds, apart from in one respect, passion and emotion; and, for that reason, they fused.’ Hijo de la Guerra [Child of War], the second single from a soundtrack album, is the musical’s most infectious song featuring the gnomic refrain ‘I am the child of mezcal, the sword and flamenco… I am pure Mexican, American and Spanish.’

The first half of Malinche has a flamenco theme, with the second half turning to Mexico, albeit through the visual iconography of pyramids rather than sound. Quixotic romanticism crossed with aggressive capitalism often results in an uneven viewing experience for the musical’s audience. On the one hand, the custom-made auditorium has comfortable seats and good sightlines, yet the sound of the air conditioning required to keep the space at an acceptable temperature is distractingly loud. Cano has invested in top-drawer talent, including Jesús Carmona, an acclaimed flamenco dancer, and a live band, which, for some special performances, included the drummer from Mana, a Mexican pop-rock band who have sold over 40 million albums across Latin America and Spain. But the performers are often undermined by hackneyed and anachronistic dialogue (homophobic jokes are reminiscent of the Iberian sex comedy films of the late Francoist period). As the conquistadores initially struggle to persuade their fellow citizens to join their mission, they think of ways to incentivise the adventure. The solution is eventually found in a monetary phrase, ‘Kling Klang’, the Spanish equivalent of ‘ca-ching,’ put to a jingle and repeated at key junctures.

Praising the entrepreneurial spirit of the Spanish adventurers, Malinche faithfully reflects, but never questions, a tension articulated by Cervantes as follows: ‘The venal and acquisitive ethos that such circumstances engendered should not be dissociated from the powerful spirit of humanist and religious reform that marked late-medieval Spain.’ In May 2023, Cano used a public audience with the first ever Latin American pope, Francis (who, in a move criticised by Diaz Ayuso, apologised for the Church’s painful errors on the second centenary of Mexican independence in 2021), to perform a song from the musical titled El Bautismo [The Baptism]. In the Malinche, the conquistadores are construed as a marked improvement on the prior state of affairs. The musical revolves around the life story of the eponymous character, Malinche, a Nahua woman from Mexico’s Gulf coast who became Cortés’ advisor, interpreter, and intermediary, and later gave birth to their son, Martín.

In Cano’s interpretation, she is shown as a victim of pre-existing power-structures in Mexico, sold into slavery by her mother to avoid being sacrificed. In the Netflix documentary, the actor playing Malinche as a child says becoming a slave at age nine must have been traumatic, and that 20 would be a more appropriate age. This ludicrous statement is indicative of a production that downplays the physical and psychological effects of slavery, with forced labour presented through a glamorous albeit arduous dance routine.

The real-life historical figure, born Malinali, was given a Christian baptism and renamed Marina. She was instrumental in Cortés’s colonial mission thanks to her ability to speak both Mayan and Nahuatl. But, considering she is the musical’s main protagonist, Malinche has remarkably little dialogue. Cano does not dwell on psychology; she simply falls in love with Cortés at first sight. Today, Malinche has an ambivalent status in Mexico. In the historian Marilyn Grace Miller’s apt summation, while she may glorify racial mixture to the detriment of purity, ‘she is also maligned, accused of disloyalty and treason. As the mother of a nation that began to define itself as mestizo from the moment of conquest. La Malinche carries with her the stigma of sexual violence and illegitimacy’. In life, she was hardly mistress of her own destiny. Cano bypasses the fact Cortés dumped her when she lost her sexual and strategic value. The sexualised moniker by which she is often known, La Chingada (‘The Screwed One’), is shorthand for her betrayal by the Spaniard for whom she in turn betrayed her compatriots.

El País, Spain’s left-of-centre newspaper, was damning in its criticism of Malinche, branding it ‘the musical of the Spanish right’; aesthetically and ethically void, ‘with a superficial argument and zero-character development’. Cano has been subjected to ridicule on social media. He has steadfastly refused to engage with criticism.

Without the economic and symbolic capital accrued through his Mecano back catalogue, Cano’s musical would never have got off the ground. Malinche’s commercial credentials are less a consequence of ideology than of nostalgia. The songs are largely unsubtle derivatives of Cano’s greatest hits, albeit with less catchy hooks or playful lyrics. Near the end of Malinche, an ostensible spontaneous figure on Cano’s payroll stands up at the front of the auditorium to encourage the audience to get on their feet as the band kick into a medley of Mecano’s greatest hits. Cano, far more rotund than publicity images suggest, then appears on stage to lead his troupe through an extended curtain call. The fusion here is not so much that of two cultures than of imperial and cultural nostalgia, a potentially toxic combination.

Malinche continues to play in Madrid, but dates and venues have yet to be announced for the English-language and Mexican productions. I very much doubt audiences will remember the musical in 50 years-time, but this does not mean that the musical will be best forgotten. Historians wanting to capture the beguiling political and cultural landscape of Spain between the Covid pandemic and the bitterly fought July 2023 elections would do well to explore to production and reception of Malinche, an ageing pop star’s possibly final quixotic adventure.


Duncan Wheeler