Letizia of reading interrupted led me to The Book of Lamentations (Oficio de tinieblas) by Rosario Castellanos. Last year, when I noted that Elena Poniatowska had won the Cervantes Prize, Letizia asked if I knew of any other modern Mexican women writers. I needed to ask some of my better-read friends, and the writer most often mentioned was Castellanos.
A native of Chiapas, the southern state best known today for the 1994 Zapatista uprising led by Subcomandante Marcos, Rosario Castellanos was a poet, novelist and journalist who came to prominence during the Latin American Boom. Perhaps because so many writers of that generation achieved worldwide recognition—García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Carpentier, Cortázar, Borges, Fuentes and Asturias—Castellanos, one of the few women writers of the generation, was somewhat overshadowed.
Perhaps, too, her style conflicted with the magical realism they espoused. For Castellanos was a realist, a feminist, and a champion of indigenous cultures that remained largely voiceless in the worlds of politics and literature.
Using a third-person omniscient voice more reminiscent of the great 19th Century novels of Tolstoy and Balzac than the narrative experiments of the Boom, Castellanos creates a sweeping epic about the age-old conflict between the Ladinos (descendants of Spanish blood) and the Maya, specifically the Tzotzil-speaking people of Chiapas.
Borrowing a grisly incident from an uprising in 1869, Castellanos places her story in the era of President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40), whose ambition was to fulfill the promise of the Revolution by distributing land to the poor and indigenous peoples of Mexico.
The Ladinos, however, still owned the land, maintained power through corrupt local magistrates, and stubbornly resisted any change. As portrayed by Castellanos, their ingrained racism and blindness to the plight of the indigenous poor is reminiscent of attitudes in the Deep South before integration.
By modernizing the incidents leading up to the rebellion and its dramatic outcomes, including a gruesome crucifixion, Castellanos depicts a recurring story of domination and submission that began with the Conquest and foreshadowed the political agenda of the still unresolved Zapatista rebellion.
A one-time member of the provincial land-owning class, Castellanos moved to Mexico City as a young girl. She wrote poetry from an early age and after studying at the national university worked for the National Indigenous Institute. From this remove, she preserved a compassion for the victims of her story, Ladino and indigenous alike. Power, blindness, and cruelty are not endemic to one side alone.
While other Boom writers explored the metaphorical uses of magical realism, Castellanos kept to the constraints of realism to tap the truly magical perspective of the Maya. In the Mayan world, sacred stones can talk and a wooden cross—that strangely syncretic symbol—may suggest cultural redemption through violence. The power of myth, as told in the classic Mayan book of creation, the Popol Vuh, lives on in oral tradition. Time is circular, and death leads to life and death again. As a poet thinking in metaphor, Castellanos understands these beliefs, but as a novelist she remains an outsider looking in.
This outsider’s perspective also empowers her sharp criticism of the Ladinos she knew so well—the hypocrisy, ignorance and contempt that prevailed in the provincial world she left behind.
Castellanos described herself as natively shy and emotionally distant; she perceived herself as an outsider who found escape in writing. This helps explain her taste for narrative omniscience and her pessimism that there would ever be a bridge between the two cultures she wrote about. Her fine novel in the end is a tragedy, as the epigraph she chose, a quote from the Popol Vuh, foretells:
Whereas your glory is no longer great; Whereas your might exists no more —and though without much right to veneration— your blood will still prevail a while… All the children of dawn, the dawn’s offspring, will not belong to your people; Only the chatterboxes will yield themselves to you. People of Harm, of War, of Misery, you who did the wrong, weep for it.