Our monthly column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.
Solitude seeks fulfillment in my tears
and awaits me in the depths of every mirror
and closes the windows carefully
so the sky will not come in.
—Rosario Castellanos, excerpt from an early untitled poem.
Images of literal and emotional solitude haunt the work of Rosario Castellanos, the visionary Mexican feminist, poet, novelist, and essayist. It’s a state she both cherished and mourned. From a young age, the act of writing was her bulwark against the pain of loneliness. “In order to feel ‘accompanied,’ ” she says in a newspaper column toward the end of her too-short life, “I almost never felt the need of the physical presence of another.” She adds, however, that “there comes a time when I have to admit that I am a totally helpless creature, and my eyes fill with tears thinking about the fact that I am orphaned and divorced.”
These words epitomize the prose style—vulnerable, revealing, self-searching—that for Castellanos was a conscious feminist act, a way of carving out a female space in public intellectual life. Among the literati of postwar Mexico, her unembarrassed confessionalism incurred derision. But rather than emulating the default male modes of writing, Castellanos critiqued them. She satirized the articles that offered sweeping pronouncements on Mexican politics and culture; she taught her students that Hemingway’s much-vaunted machismo was not a literary virtue; she took Graham Greene to task for what she viewed as his propagandism. In her own fiction, she foregrounded the perspectives and experiences of Mexican women who, whether white or indigenous, were otherwise denied a voice. And she engaged with the ideas of women writers from other nations, such as Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Weil, Gabriela Mistral, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf, whom she viewed as kindred spirits. “It’s not good enough to imitate the models proposed for us that are answers to circumstances other than our own,” a character says in Castellanos’s 1973 play, The Eternal Feminine. “It isn’t even enough to discover who we are. We have to invent ourselves.”
Born in Mexico City in 1925, Castellanos spent her childhood in the southern state of Chiapas on the Guatemalan border, where her father owned coffee plantations. Materially, the family wanted for nothing and were waited on hand and foot by servants. But Castellanos and her younger brother, Benjamin, witnessed no displays of love or affection between their parents, whose only common interest seemed to be antagonizing each other. Adriana Castellanos was from a modest, probably mixed background and had been a seamstress, while her much older husband, César, was a scion of the oligarchy, went to university in the United States, and became involved in local politics. Castellanos characterizes their existence as “physical and spiritual decadence … I grew up in a family that had come to the end of its way, solitary, isolated, a family that had lost interest in living.”
When she was eight, a relative told Castellanos’s mother of a vision in which one of her children died. “But not the boy!” Adriana blurted out, in her daughter’s earshot. A few weeks later, Benjamin did indeed die, of appendicitis, and Castellanos overheard her mother’s lament: “But why was it the boy who died and not the little girl?” Already a shy, anxious child, Castellanos was consumed with guilt over having survived and became more fearful and withdrawn. Her habit of crying quietly in the dark even led to suspicions that she was demonically possessed.
In Castellanos’s taut, eerie short story “Three Knots in the Net,” the young protagonist, Águeda, is considered unattractive and of dubious marriageability—a particular cause for concern to her family, since there is no male heir to the “beautiful” cane fields, cattle, and estates. At night, Águeda is woken by her parents fighting, from their separate beds, over whose side of the family is to blame for her strangeness.
The child frequently dreamed that she had died and that her empty place was occupied by someone else, someone who really belonged there; that the gulp of air she had been stealing before now supplied strength to its rightful owner.
Upon awakening, she would never altogether regain the certainty of being alive, nor did she want to. She slipped noiselessly through the corridors—avoiding mirrors—and hid in the far end of the back patio. There she would stay until someone brusquely came to get her at mealtime.
In front of the adults there was no way to get her to speak, because she was not there.
Águeda takes solace in hurting lizards and birds, which confirms to her mother that “whatever evil and compulsion [the child] had within her was inherited from the former torturers of slaves and floggers of Indians”—in other words, from her husband’s colonizer ancestors rather than her own more innocent bloodline.
The injustice meted upon indigenous Mexicans is the subject of Castellanos’s two novels, which depict the ruling class’s barbaric subordination of the people—women and Indians—it deemed less than human. Her 1962 masterpiece, Oficio de tinieblas (literally, “trade of darkness,” translated by Esther Allen as The Book of Lamentations), is a complex and panoramic reimagining of historical Mayan uprisings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, set in 1930s Chiapas and bookended by a rape and a child sacrifice. Amid the clash of Catholicism, secularism, and ancient magic and superstition, Castellanos suggests that no belief system or linguistic framework accommodates female realities. Marcela, a Tzotzil girl raped by a white landowner, lacks the words to explain or even understand her fate. When an ilol—a psychic—intuits that “a Caxlán made ill-use of her,” a surprised Marcela thinks: “This was what had happened. Something that could be said, that other people could hear and understand. Not madness, not vertigo.”
Meanwhile, the rapist’s stepdaughter, Idolina, lives in luxury yet is physically disabled by mental anguish she cannot express. Like one of Freud’s hysterics, she chooses confinement to a single room, her legs paralyzed, over womanhood—of which she can see no palatable model. Idolina’s only real human connection is with her Indian nana, Teresa, who soothes her with horror stories, reads prophesies in the fire ashes, and predicts that Idolina’s mother and stepfather will die. “Is that a promise?” she replies.
As a child, Castellanos was cared for by a Mayan woman, Rufina, in whose Tzotzil prayers and legends the future author discovered the joy of language. Their relationship is fictionalized in Castellanos’s 1957 autobiographical debut novel, Balún-Canán (translated by Irene Nicholson as The Nine Guardians). The novel was written, Castellanos said, simply by “letting myself be carried along by the flow of my memories.” It is partly narrated by a naive seven-year-old girl, who bears witness to an indigenous Mexican rebellion against the brutal feudalism practiced by her father. The reorganization of society that ensues irrevocably alters her family’s life and means a separation from the woman who’d looked after her since birth. On the novel’s final page, when she thinks she sees her nana in the street, her thoughts go from touching hope, to disillusionment, and finally to bitter irony:
As soon as I see her I … run towards her with open arms. It’s my Nana! But the Indian watches me quite impassively, making no welcoming sign. I slow up—slower and slower till I stop. I let my arms drop, altogether discouraged. Even if I see her, I’ll never recognize her now. It’s so long since we’ve parted. Besides, all Indians look alike.
As a child, Castellanos also had a paid playmate, a Mayan girl her own age. A then commonplace custom in Chiapas, Castellanos recalls, was for “the master’s child” to be given a cargadora (a “carrier”), whose job was to be a companion. Castellanos explains:
Sometimes the child was a mere object on which the other child exercised frustration: a child’s unending energy, boredom, anger, possessive jealousy.
I don’t think I was exceptionally capricious, arbitrary or cruel. But nobody had taught me to respect any but my equals and especially my elders … The day it was revealed to me, in a flash, that this thing I was using was a person, I made an instantaneous decision: to ask the pardon of the person I had offended. And I made another vow for the rest of my life: never to take advantage of my position of privilege to humiliate another.
The land reform and indigenous emancipation policies brought in by President Lázaro Cárdenas diminished the Castellanos family’s affluence and status, and in 1941, they swapped their aristocratic rural lifestyle for a regular middle-class home in Mexico City. The transformed political landscape, Castellanos writes in her unsparing way, “destroyed the certainty of my racial, social, and economic superiority,” and she was forced “to seek alternatives, values to conquer and make my own in order to feel worthy of living.” A voracious reader with a daily routine of writing, she published her first poems while still in her teens. Although no one, “not even myself,” she admitted, “considered literature a profession a woman could practice. It was thought to be an activity no rational person would choose.” But it wasn’t long before she would be granted the autonomy to follow any path she liked, no matter how unorthodox.
In a twist of fate all too apt to the gothic cast of Castellanos’s life, in 1948, both her parents died. Her mother, who was in her forties, had cancer, and her father suffered a heart attack. Castellanos was only twenty-two. “Abandoned to the resources of my imagination during adolescence,” Castellanos later reflected, “it seemed logical to me that I would suddenly be left utterly orphaned.” Alone in the world, she was free to make an unprecedented decision for a young woman from Chiapas: to dedicate her life to literature. That year, she published two books of poetry, Trayectoria del polvo (Trajectory of dust) and Apuntes para una declaración de fe (Annotations for a declaration of faith), both meditations on human aloneness and mortality.
Though her writing was melancholy, around this time, Castellanos slowly began to come out of her shell. As a philosophy student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, she joined the group of Latin American intellectuals later dubbed the Generation of ’50, who would meet each Saturday to read and discuss one another’s work. Members included the poets Jaime Sabines and Ernesto Cardenal, the short-story writer Augusto Monterroso, and Castellanos’s lifelong friend, the now ninety-five-year-old author Dolores Castro. After their graduation, the Castellanos and Castro traveled to Europe together, visiting Spain, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands.
The experience of being a foreigner, Castellanos found, gave her a new sense of what it meant to be Mexican. Influenced by the writings of Simone Weil, who devoted her brief and ascetic life to helping the poor and subjugated, she went to work for the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, formed by the government to provide services and resources, including media in indigenous languages, to Native communities. She also signed over her inherited land to the laborers who tilled it and translated the Mexican constitution into Tzotzil. And with the help of a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, she wrote Balún-Canán, which brought her international acclaim. The novel won the Chiapas Prize and the Mexican Critics’ Award and was translated into many other languages. “It is invigorating,” the UK Observer’s reviewer writes, “to find that a modern novel can still be a work of art.”
Castellanos’s debut as a novelist was accompanied by another major life event: in 1957, she married Ricardo Guerra Tejada, an academic philosopher. She was thirty-two, “an age when I was already too accustomed to living alone, and with a demanding career.” After two upsetting miscarriages, they had a child, Gabriel. But as Castellanos put it, the marriage was “strictly monogamous on my part and totally polygamous on my husband’s.” Eventually, they divorced over Guerra Tejada’s infidelity. Their conflicted relationship is the focus of The Eternal Feminine (original title: Los adioses), a 2017 biopic directed by Natalia Beristáin and starring Tessa Ia and Karina Gidi as, respectively, the young and older Castellanos. The film, an acutely moving and intelligent portrayal of Castellanos’s paradoxical strength and fragility, moves back and forth between her time at university and the peak of her career success, taking us to her final days as a divorced emissary in Israel.
Castellanos was in her midforties when she was appointed Mexico’s ambassador to Israel. After moving to Tel Aviv, she taught at the universities, learned to speak Hebrew, and continued publishing poetry and journalism. Ever candid and self-effacing, she writes in her newspaper column, “I still feel as if I’m in a dream world, wandering about in an unfamiliar country whose complexities both fascinate and paralyze me, carrying out a task I don’t yet understand and that still seems somewhat abstract, remote, and impractical.” In fact, she performed her diplomatic duties with skill and charm. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir called her “one of the most brilliant minds I have ever met.”
The tragic accident that loomed was prefigured, her friend and biographer Oscar Bonifaz suggests, by a recurring motif in her poetry. “Throughout her literary career,” he observes, “there was a strange persistence in associating lamps with death, an obsessive reiteration.” Two examples of many: “She was consumed entirely by heat / and by light, like a lamp” (“In Memoriam”); “Her hair gives off a gentle air / of crushed flowers and burning lamps” (Trayectoria del polvo).
In early August 1974, alone in her embassy apartment, Castellanos stepped out of the bathroom and tried to switch on a lamp. It gave off a powerful electric surge. Discovered unconscious by a maid, Castellanos died in an ambulance before it reached the hospital. She was forty-nine. Her reputation for sadness and depression, and her history of undergoing psychoanalysis and taking Valium, gave rise to speculation that she’d committed suicide. But the author Elena Poniatowska, a friend, writes, “It strikes me as highly unlikely that Rosario would have known enough about voltage to have planned her electrocution so as to die exactly when she wished.”
Castellanos received a Mexican state funeral, and commemorations were held across the world. She left behind a prolific body of work, including many volumes of poetry, journalism, and short stories, much of which is untranslated. Though regarded as one of Latin America’s most important women writers, she is less well known internationally than the European feminist intellectuals she admired, alongside whom she belongs in history. Nevertheless, her legacy is immeasurable. A few years before her death, she gave a speech at Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology and History. According to Poniatowska, that was the day the Mexican women’s liberation movement properly took flight, thanks to Castellanos’s forensic, unanswerable analysis of sexual inequality. Her most important lesson, one universal and timeless, is that nothing is more revolutionary than the right words.
Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, Longreads, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Awl, Words Without Borders, and other publications. Read her previous Feminize Your Canon columns, about Violette Leduc, Dorothy West, and Olivia Manning.