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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

Rosario Castellanos — Mexican Feminist Pioneer

from the Sept. 6, 2023 Bulletin

While researching her dissertation, Andrea Reyes located 335 previously uncollected essays by the Mexican author and outspoken feminist, Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974), resulting in Mujer de palabras: artículos rescatados de Rosario Castellanos. In 2013, Reyes’ analysis of those essays were published in Recuerdo, recordemos: ética y política en Rosario Castellanos; Reyes is working on an English translation of that book. She hopes to share the work of this extraordinary Mexicana with English-speaking readers.

What paths led you to Rosario Castellanos’ door?


In college I was introduced to Rosario Castellanos’ writing in a class on women’s literature. I decided I had to do a project on her. The attention she gave to her female characters and to the tensions between indigenous persons and whiter Mexicans stood out to me — it was unusual to find in Mexican literature at that time.

Young Rosario/libro Cartas encontradas/Horacio Sierra

My own life has led me to México and to her. After growing up in Northern California, I moved to Los Angeles, which happens to be the second biggest Mexican city in the world. When I was 16, I traveled to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade and loved speaking and improving my Spanish.


When I got home, I took working class jobs before college — one was Farmer John’s meat-packing plant, where I got to know many Spanish-speaking workers. As did Castellanos with her indigenous servants, I identified more with my co-workers than the racist white supervisor of my own class.


Rosario was from a privileged and landed family in Chiapas. How did it happen that she sided with indigenous people who served them?


Castellanos’ early life was marked by loss of status, loneliness, family dysfunction, and the death of all her family members by the time she was 23. When Rosario was only eight, a relative told her mother that one of her two children would die, and she heard her mother scream, “Not the boy!” Shortly afterward, her brother died of appendicitis. 

When in 1941 President Cardenas enacted land reform and peasant emancipation, her parents lost much of their land and moved to México City. So it was hardly strange that Castellanos was closer to her Mayan nanny than her family, and learned so much about indigenous ways from her.


Castellanos' first novel, the autobiographical Balún Canán, has a unique structure and voice. A 7-year-old girl narrates the first and third sections, but the first voice you hear is indigenous — the girl’s nanny. The little girl experiences her own crisis of un-belonging, born on the wrong side of justice during the agrarian reform that upended the plantation system of men like her father. In Balún Canán, the novel’s final image shows the girl with a pencil in her hand, signifying that you must be the narrator of your own story.

Though sometimes pigeonholed as an “indigenist writer, Castellanos differed from other Mexican authors in that genre. People were often portrayed as noble savages, but Castellanos rendered them as fully human, and never implied “I am the voice of the indigenous.” Her indigenous characters speak for themselves. 


What was her influence on modern Mexican feminism?


Her 1950 master’s thesis, Sobre cultura femenina (On Feminine Culture), asserted that a woman’s task is to find her own sense of self. She much admired the earliest Mexican feminist, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the 17th century nun and poet who advocated for recognition of women’s equal capabilities. Much like Castellanos, she had to defend her writing from men who didn’t believe it was “woman’s place” to engage in artistic or philosophical endeavors.

In her prose style, she rejected the standard, authoritative omniscient narrator. Castellanos wrote at times in an almost confessional tone, exposing her vulnerability. She candidly describes her personal experiences of depression, a failed marriage, taking Valium. In her subject matter, she emphasized the experiences and complexity of women, so often missing in men’s writing. To give an example, the revered Carlos Fuentes wrote a novel with a main female character who has no meaningful dialogue, who is only described by how soft her skin feels to the male protagonist. 

Photo of Rosario: 

As a regular contributor to Excelsior from 1963-1974, then the most important daily newspaper in México, her essays were widely read, and raised public consciousness of women’s issues. She is admired throughout México and Latin America as one of the most important and influential women writers of the 20th century, equal to better known intellectuals such as Simone de Beauvoir.

Women take part in the panorama of struggles for social change. How do you see the role of women writers?


Women journalists are especially important. They often bring news and analysis to the public from the participants’ point of view.

The Tlatelolco Stele has the names of the victims of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, and a stanza from Castellanos’ poem.

After the 1968 student uprising at Tlatelolco, the journalist Elena Poniatowska wrote a book, Massacre in México, which gathered the stories of student protestors who saw their comrades massacred.  She asked Castellanos to contribute a poem and Castellanos  showed up on her doorstep the next day with a poem about the official silence and the stifling of independent press. The Comité de ’68, composed of former student movement leaders, chose in 2003 to put a stanza from the poem on a stele in Tlatelolco plaza where you can see it today. 

Castellanos’ voice speaks forever on the plaza, giving witness to what happened on that fateful night. Her legacy lives on in the raised voices of millions of Mexican women today.