The Woman Who Knows Latin (Inglés)

By | 1 March 2004

“Woman, according to the definition of the classic authors, is a mutilated man.” So begins one of the essays in Mujer que sabe latín, which protest keeping women ignorant and infantile in the name of purity, the depredations of fashion, foot-binding, corsetry and all the horrible things women have done to make themselves agreeable to men.This is the same issue that inspired Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni, who also committed suicide, to a repetitive, poetic crescendo of indignation, which begins:

You want me new you want me creamy you want me pearly
I should be a lily
chaste above all others
with a delicate perfume

You want me snowy
you want me white
you want me new.

In addition to the essays on the position of women, Mujer que sabe latín also contains essays on education of women in Mexico and on many important individual women writers. It is a classic for feminist studies. It is really hard to believe that the woman who wrote it is the same as the one that her poetry reveals.

But the “other” Castellanos is definitely there, the woman who feels ugly, useless, who wonders if she even exists, who often appears to experience her creativity as a series of self-inflicted wounds. In Entrevista de prensa she writes:

Why do you write? Because somebody (when I was little) said that people like me do not exist. Their bodies cast no shadow. Their names are among those that are forgotten.
I write because one day, when I was adolescent
I leaned toward a mirror and there was nobody there.
Do you realize that? Just a void. And around me the others
were dripping with importance.

North American writer Erica Jong could be commenting on Rosario Castellanos when she writes:

The best slave does not need to be beaten. She beats herself.
Not with a leather whip
or with a stick or twigs,
but with the fine whip of her own tongue
and the subtle beating
of her mind
against her mind.

For who can hate her half so well
as she hates herself¨?
If she's an artist
and comes close to genius,
the very fact of her gift
should cause her such pain
that she will take her own life
rather than best us.

In Rosario Castellanos’ life, the dark side won in the fight between herself and herself. Fulfilling the prophesy, when Castellanos finally married, at age 33, she married a man who boasted that he never read her work. Of course, this marriage did not endure, yet she found its end intolerable. She plunged into despair and soon died electrocuted when a lamp dropped, or she pulled it, into her bathtub.

The topic of suicide comes up explicitly in Castellanos work frequently. She says “We kill what we love” twice in the poem Destino*, and in the Privilegio del suicida she says:

Whoever kills himself kills what he loves attains the innocence of water and is reconciled to the universe.

In Recordatorio she appears to be complaining to anonymous authorities that she is still alive. Having produced a living son and thus completed her role in the reproductive cycle, she believes she is now useless:

Gentlemen, have you not forgotten To pronounce the order for me to leave?

Before I began this research I had no idea of the extent and quality of Castellanos’ work. I had read Balún Canán and Oficio de Tinieblas (Office of Tenebrae), her wonderful novels about Chiapas. I think I had unwittingly done what I was “supposed” to do, understood her only as a variety of official sources indicate.

But someone had told me she committed suicide, and I could not find anything about this in official sources, neither in encyclopedias nor online. Finally I began to suspect that there were efforts to avoid this question. There also was very little representation of the extremely dark nature of her poetry, her difficult and complex personality, though her poetic work shows this clearly. Articles, typically attributed to several writers, usually all male, focused on the relatively “safe” topic of her advocacy for the indigenous people of Chiapas. They also praised her poetry for its “lyric qualitites.” They never mentioned pain. When they cited poems, they were comparatively tepid ones.

By contrast, Castellanos’ own work and commentaries by women writers told a very different story. Mexican writer Martha Cerda wrote to me, “I believe she committed suicide, though she already felt she was dead for some time.”

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