Castellanos, Rosario (1925–1974)

views updated

Castellanos, Rosario (1925–1974)

Mexican writer who published many volumes of poetry and two novels, which are part of her "Chiapas Cycle" of fiction. Born in Mexico City, Mexico, on May 25, 1925; grew up on her wealthy parents' coffee plantation near the town of Comitán close to the Mexico-Guatamala border; died the result of an accident in Tel Aviv, Israel, August 7, 1974; studied at National University; married Ricardo Guerra, in 1958 (divorced 1971); children: one son, Gabriel.

Became deeply aware of both the suffering of the Indian population of Chiapas province and the subordinate position of women in a culture dominated by the concept of machismo; educated in Mexico City and became a member of the literary "Generation of 1950."

Selected works:

Another Way to Be: Selected Works of Rosario Castellanos (University of Georgia Press, 1990); Book of Lamentations (Marsilio, 1996); City of Kings (Latin American Literary Review Press, 1993); Meditation on the Threshold: A Bilingual Anthology of Poetry (Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1988); The Nine Guardians: A Novel (Readers International, 1992); A Rosario Castellanos Reader: An Anthology of Her Poetry, Short Fiction, Essays, and Journals (University of Texas Press, 1988); The Selected Poems of Rosario Castellanos (Graywolf Press, 1988).

Although she enjoyed an excellent reputation in her own country as a poet and novelist in her lifetime, it is only since her accidental death in 1974 that Rosario Castellanos has become known to the world as not only one of Mexico's major writers but as its strongest and most persuasive feminist voice. Born into an elite landowning family while they were visiting Mexico City, she spent her formative years on her parents' coffee plantation near the small town of Comitán, situated in the cool highlands of Chiapas. Despite her position in the privileged landowning oligarchy of Chiapas province, the young girl was burdened in her earliest years by a somber family environment. Her father was melancholy and introverted, her mother remote and emotionally unresponsive. Typical of Mexico's machismo culture, her parents clearly favored her brother Benjamin. On one occasion, her mother told her, "Your father and I love you because we're obliged to." Rosario was only eight when her brother died suddenly from an untreated appendicitis; his death left her profoundly guilt-ridden because she had often wished for him to die.

Sensitive and highly observant, Rosario remained in the background of the Castellanos clan, learning about the world not from her parents but from her nurse and maid, Rufina. An uneducated peasant woman of Indian blood, Rufina not only took care of Rosario but loved her. Instructing her in the myths, legends and folk wisdom that constituted her own world, Rufina provided her young charge with an alternative environment that was then supplemented by literature. In 1941, the government program of agrarian reform resulted in the appropriation of her family's land. Rosario and her parents moved to Mexico City, where she began her studies at the National University. Her literary interests blossomed, and she joined a group of

other young writers who came to be known as the "Generation of the 1950s." Even before her graduation, she published her first book in 1948, a long poem, "Trajectory of Dust," which was her powerful response to the death of both of her parents the same year.

Castellanos' master's degree in philosophy, "On Feminine Culture" (1950), is now seen as a landmark in the history of Mexican feminism. Given the confinements for women in Mexican culture, feminist ideals were profoundly subversive of the existing social and gender structure, but Castellanos was determined to explore new areas of thinking whatever the cost. Never afraid to probe her own despair, in the early 1950s a bout with tuberculosis inspired another book of poetry.

Her first novel, Balún-Canán (1957), translated as The Nine Guardians (1959), received the Chiapas Prize in 1958 and is clearly autobiographical, describing events in Chiapas during the turbulent 1930s through the eyes of a seven-year old Indian girl. This sensitive work shows the profound differences between the magical, mythical world of the Indians and the rational, scientific Ladino (non-Indian) way of life. Tzotil Indian myths are blended with stories of the traditional system of oppression of Indians and women to create a rich tapestry of life in a pre-industrial world. The small Chiapas town of Comitán, which is depicted in this novel, struggles with the basic problems of Mexican society, namely the oppression of the Indian majority and the subjugation of women. Possessing little wealth or power, the "obscure" individuals depicted are often profoundly wise in their judgments and capable of deep understanding of human problems.

Throughout the next decades, Castellanos became a successful academic, teaching first at the Institute of Indian Affairs in her native state of Chiapas, then later in Mexico City at the National University where she held a chair in journalism from 1960 through 1966. Castellanos' confidence as a writer was strengthened by the positive critical response to her first novel, and she continued to explore the world of Chiapas in Los convidados de agosto (The Guests of August), a collection of short stories published in 1964. As in Balún-Canán, the dilemmas of being female in male-dominated Mexican society are explored with great power and sensitivity. Individuals in the story attempt to give some meaning to their desperate situations, lest their frustrated existences "like water, seem to filter through the fingers of the hand." Abandoned by fathers and lovers, Castellanos' women often accept their passive role, resignedly waiting for something to happen rather than initiating action. The 1962 novel, Oficio de tienblas (Book of Lamentations), is also set in Chiapas and further explores many of these same themes. The work's central character, an Indian woman who becomes a priestess and healer, is embroiled in a tragic uprising against Spanish rule. One of the main themes of this book, which many critics believe to be Castellanos' best novel, is that the Spanish language itself has served for centuries as a primary tool in the oppression and exploitation of Mexico's indigenous population and its women. Castellanos tells us that only a systematic effort of understanding and organized resistance by the oppressed will eventually overthrow the system controlled by the male elite.

In 1966, Castellanos resigned from the university in protest over government meddling in the internal affairs of her institution, and was a visiting fellow at the universities of Wisconsin, Indiana and Colorado. With the political situation in Mexico somewhat stabilized, she returned home in 1967 to once again teach at the National University, this time specializing in literature courses. By now, Castellanos was Mexico's leading woman writer and one of the country's best-known intellectuals abroad. That same year, 1967, she was named Mexico's Woman of the Year, also receiving a major literary award, the Carlos Trouyet Prize, for her oeuvre.

The year 1971 marked a major transition in the writer's life. After 13 years of marriage, she divorced Ricardo Guerra, a philosophy professor whom she had met at the university. The pain of separation was considerably lessened by the fact that she retained custody of her son Gabriel. She left her university post to begin a career as a diplomat, a new phase in her life. Appointed Mexican ambassador to Israel in 1971 by President Luis Echeverria, she was clearly enthusiastic about the possibilities presented by the opportunity. In addition to her diplomatic duties, she had sufficient energy left over to teach a literature course at the University of Tel Aviv. These activities were brought to a sudden and tragic end on August 7, 1974, in Tel Aviv when Rosario Castellanos was accidentally electrocuted while trying to plug in a lamp. Her body was flown to Mexico City where she received a state funeral. She was buried in the Rotunda de los Hombres Ilustros, a tomb in which repose the nation's most revered artists and leaders.

Despite the serious and often tragic nature of her subjects, Castellanos often used humor in her writings. In her posthumously staged drama, The Eternal Feminine, a farce set in a beauty parlor, the hair driers and other paraphernalia of the shop are depicted as being used by machismo society to keep women in their place. Though Castellanos took a more serious tone in her feminist writings, she was neither pompous nor preachy. Despite a life that was often unhappy and painful, she drew strength and pleasure from writing and communicating. Her friend and colleague Elena Poniatowska spoke for many when she claimed: "I believe that Rosario Castellanos was a great Mexican writer, if not great in all she wrote, great in her aspirations. And great above all for the love she inspired and continues to inspire in us. Before her, no one except Sor Juana [Inés de la Cruz] truly devoted herself to her vocation. No woman lived to write like her. Rosario is faithfully that: a creator, a maker of books. Her books—poetry and prose—are the diary of her life."


Anderson, Helene M. "Rosario Castellanos and the Structures of Power," in Doris Meyer and Margarite Fernández Olmos, eds., Contemporary Women Authors of Latin America: Introductory Essays. NY: Brooklyn College Press, 1983, pp. 22–32.

Bruckner, D.J.R. "Woman's Many Lives In 'El Eterno Femenino'," in The New York Times. March 25, 1990, p. 63.

Castellanos, Rosario. Another Way to Be: Selected Works of Rosario Castellanos. Edited and translated by Myralyn F. Allgood. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

——. Book of Lamentations. Translated by Alma Guillermoprieto. Marsilio, 1996.

——. City of Kings. Translated by Robert S. Rudder and Gloria Chacón de Arjona. Pittsburgh, PA: Latin American Literary Review Press, 1993.

——. Meditation on the Threshold: A Bilingual Anthology of Poetry. Translated and with an Introduction by Julian Palley. Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1988.

——. The Nine Guardians: A Novel. Translated and with a preface by Irene Nicholson. Columbia, LA: Readers International, 1992.

——. A Rosario Castellanos Reader: An Anthology of Her Poetry, Short Fiction, Essays, and Journals. Edited and with a critical introduction by Maureen Ahern. Translated by Maureen Ahern and others. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988.

——. The Selected Poems of Rosario Castellanos. Edited by Cecilia Vicuña and Magda Bogin. Translated by Magda Bogin. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1988.

Donahue, Francis. "Feminists in Latin America," in Arizona Quarterly. Vol. 41, no. 1. Spring 1985, pp. 38–60.

Fox-Lockert, Lucia. Women Novelists in Spain and Spanish America. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1979.

Magill, Frank N., ed. Masterpieces of Latino Literature. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.

Meyer, Doris, ed. Lives on the Line: The Testimony of Contemporary Latin American Authors. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988.

Miller, Beth Kurti. Rosario Castellanos: Una conciencia feminista en Mexico. Chiapas: UNACH/Universidad Autonoma de Chiapas, 1983.

Rodriguez-Peralta, Phyllis. "Images of Women in Rosario Castellanos' Prose," in Latin American Literary Review. Vol. 6, Fall-Winter 1977, pp. 68–80.

Sommers, Joseph. "The Changing View of the Indian in Mexican Literature," in Hispania. Vol. 47, no. 1. March 1964, pp. 47–55.

"A Woman Who Knew Latin," in The Nation. Vol. 248, no. 25. June 26, 1989, pp. 891–893.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

About this article

Castellanos, Rosario (1925–1974)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article