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Castellanos, Rosario

CASTELLANOS, Rosario

Nationality: Mexican. Born: Mexico City, 25 May 1925. Education: National University, Mexico City, M.A. in philosophy, 1950; studied at Madrid University. Family: Married Ricardo Guerra in 1957 (divorced); one son. Career: Director, cultural programs, Chiapas, 1951-53; worker, Instituto Arts and Sciences, Tuxtla; theater director, Instituto Nacional Indigenista, 1956-59; writer, essayist, and columnist, various Mexico City newspapers and journals, from 1960; teacher of comparative literature and press director, National University, 1960-66; visiting professor of Latin American literature, University of Wisconsin, 1967; visiting instructor, University of Indiana, 1967; visiting instructor, University of Colorado, 1967; chair, comparative literature, National University, 1967-71; Mexican ambassador, Israel, 1971-74; professor of Mexican literature, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1971-74. Awards: Mexican Critics' award, for novel, 1957; Xavier Villaurrutia prize, for stories, 1961; Woman of the Year, Mexico, 1967. Died: 7 August 1974.

Publications

Collections

A Reader, edited by Maureen Ahern, with others. 1988.

Short Stories

Ciudad real: Cuentos. 1960; as City of Kings. 1993.

Los convidados de agosto. 1964.

Álbum de familia. 1971.

Novels

Balún Canán. 1957; as The Nine Guardians, 1959.

Oficio de tinieblas. 1962.

Play

El eterno feminino. 1975.

Poetry

Trayectoria del polvo. 1948.

Apuntes para una declaración de fe. 1948.

De la vigilia estéril. 1950.

Dos poemas. 1950.

Presentación al templo: Poemas (Madrid, 1951), with El rescate del mundo. 1952.

Poemas 1953-1955. 1957.

Al pie de la letra. 1959.

Salomé y Judith: Poemas dramáticos. 1959.

Lívida luz. 1960.

Poesía no eres tú: Obra poética 1948-1971. 1972.

Looking at the Mona Lisa. 1981.

Bella dama sin piedad y otros poemas. 1984.

Meditación en el umbral: Antología poética, edited by Julian Palley. 1985; as Meditation on the Threshold (bilingual edition), 1988.

Selected Poems, edited by Cecilia Vicuña and Magda Bogin. 1988.

Other

Sobre cultura femenina (essays). 1950.

La novela mexicana contemporánea y su valor testimonial. 1965.

Rostros de México, photographs by Bernice Kolko. 1966.

Juicios sumarios: Ensayos. 1966; revised edition as Juicios sumarios: Ensayos sobre literatura, 2 vols., 1984.

Materia memorable (verse and essays). 1969.

Mujer que sabe latín (criticism). 1973.

El uso de la palabra (essays). 1974.

El mar y sus pescaditos (criticism). 1975.

Another Way to Be: Selected Works (poetry, essays, stories), edited by Myralyn F. Allgood. 1990.

*

Critical Studies:

"Images of Women in Castellanos' Prose" by Phyllis Rodríguez-Peralta, in Latin American Literary Review 6, 1977; Homenaje edited by Maureen Ahern and Mary Seale Vásquez, 1980; in The Double Strand: Five Contemporary Mexican Poets by Frank Dauster, 1987; in Lives on the Line: The Testimony ofContemporary Latin American Authors edited by Doris Meyer, 1988; in Women's Voice by Naomi Lindstrom, 1989; Remembering Rosario: A Personal Glimpse into the Life and Works edited and translated by Myralyn F. Allgood, 1990; "Confronting Myths of Oppression: The Short Stories of Catellanos" by Chloe Funival, in Knives and Angels, edited by Susan Bassnett, 1990; in Spanish American Women Writers edited by Diane E. Marting, 1990; Prospero's Daughter: The Prose of Rosario Castellanos by Joanna O'Connell, 1995.

* * *

Rosario Castellanos's work encompasses all the traditional literary genres, yet she is mostly known as a poet, and this is reflected in the selection of her works available in English translation. The majority of her writing remains untranslated, although several excellent anthologies have appeared in English, containing some of her best-known stories.

Castellanos's writing, and her personal and professional life as well, are marked by her profound concern for social justice; always the focus is on women and the indigenous peoples of southern Mexico, two groups marginalized by the dominant national culture. In her literary examination of human relationships in a world of glaring inequities, she probes the intricacies and paradoxes of power itself. In addition to its economic and political dimensions, she insists on the fundamental importance of language. In her essay "Language as an Instrument of Domination" Castellanos asserts that language, like race and religion, is first and foremost a privilege, used to protect some and to exclude others; real communication, she maintains, is only possible among equals. Thus her fiction is full of characters whose lives are defined by lack of communication, isolation, silence. But if language has the power to dominate and oppress, it contains as well the possibility of change; often in her stories, it is language that empowers, that begins to redefine social relations.

"The Eagle" (1960) is set in Mexico's southern-most state of Chiapas, ancestral home of the Maya. Here the native people of a small mountain town are duped by the lazy and mean municipal secretary, a ladino (the regional term for a European or non-native), into paying him an enormous amount of money to replace the town stamp, the eagle of the story's title. The new rubber stamp, of course, costs only a few pesos, and the official, Hector Villafuerte, indulges in numerous luxuries and then starts a business with the rest of the money. For the native people, however, the eagle is not at all a stamp, but a spirit. According to Mayan beliefs, every human being is accompanied in life by an animal that is one's protective spirit; the same is true of tribes or groups, and the people see the town symbol in this light. Both Hector and the representatives of the native society use the same words—they speak of the eagle, and it is Hector who first uses the native word nahual, spirit—but the words have entirely different meanings for each, based on their cultural formation. And while Hector thinks he is cleverly outwitting the natives, he is more incapable of understanding than his victims.

"The Widower Román" (1964) is one of Castellanos's best-known stories, and it has been made into a film in Mexico. Set in Chiapas, among the provincial ruling class, it is a long story that tells a horrifying tale of revenge. The occasion is the marriage of Carlos Román, one of the town's prominent men, and Romelia Orantes, the youngest of several daughters of another leading family. Here again it is language that reveals both the astonishing lack of communication between the two and the cultural underpinnings that have shaped each of them as social beings. He is a man who believes that he deserves whatever he wants; she is a woman who believes that she is fortunate if she gets anything she wants. It is also language that protects Carlos's power—the language between father and suitor who make the decisions, the legal language of the marriage contract that protects husband but not wife. When Carlos uses words as a weapon against Romelia, they have credibility simply because he is a respectable man. She, like Cassandra, may say whatever she wishes, but no one will listen to her.

Another of Castellanos's well-known works, "Cooking Lesson" (1971), is from her last collection of stories, the last fiction she published before her death; it is also her most perfectly constructed story. The setting is cosmopolitan Mexico City, among the comfortable, educated class. The narrator's story is one of self-discovery, and it is significant that she speaks for herself, in the first person. She is a newly married woman, unnamed, who is attempting to cook her first dinner for her husband. As she confronts a piece of meat, completely unaware of any means of preparing it, she reflects on woman's place—the kitchen where she is so obviously out of place—and on women's social roles. She ponders her identity as unmarried woman and as married woman, which seem to be the only available categories. In the process she makes connections between her personal situation and the larger cultural context, uncovering many of the most basic myths of femininity/masculinity, often with the wry humor characteristic of Castellanos's later works. The meat offers a frank reminder of the sexual dimension of marriage and of women's situation in patriarchal society; it becomes as well a metaphor for the relationship and for the narrator herself, as it undergoes a metamorphosis during the cooking process but then, ultimately, it disappears, burnt to a crisp. The story's open ending allows the reader to determine what will become of this bride and the institution of marriage, although it is clear that the weight of tradition is formidable, and that alternatives to established social roles cannot be had easily, nor without cost.

Rosario Castellanos's stories offer glimpses of very different facets of contemporary Mexico and considerations of basic issues that transcend the national or regional. They are visions of worlds she knew, and of worlds she hoped we might create. They are also invitations to communication, for words, as Castellanos concludes in the essay on language cited above, only have meaning when they are shared with others.

—Barbara A. Clark

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