“My last wish is that they don’t bury me in the Rotunda of Illustrious Men as Vasconcelos used to say. Not least of all because I’m a woman,” Rosario Castellanos wrote in a letter dated November 27, 1967, to her husband, Ricardo Guerra. When Castellanos died in Tel Aviv, seven years later, as the Mexican Ambassador, her body was flown back to Mexico and she was buried in the Rotunda of Illustrious Men. It has since been renamed the Rotunda of Illustrious Persons by Mexican President Vicente Fox.
Rosario Castellanos is considered to be one of the most important Latin American writers of the 20th century. In Cartas a Ricardo, Castellanos is ahead of her time. She writes about her son, her complicated relationship to her mother and father, being a writer, a teacher, and trying to maintain an intimate relationship with her husband, Ricardo Guerra, when the odds would seem to be against her. These are the themes of post 60’s America. I often can relate to the world of which Castellanos writes and I believe other readers of my generation could, as well.
As a Canadian writer who has lived a large part of my adult life in the United States and Mexico, I am interested in increasing the visibility of Mexico, the narrative of Mexico, of which I believe Castellanos forms an integral part. Although Castellanos grew up as a child of the white land owning class, she was a girl who wrote poetry and went to UNAM in Mexico City. Her thesis, ¿Existe una cultura femenina? Does a women’s culture exist? has elicited enough interest to have been recently republished in Mexico.
After Castellanos was made ambassador to Israel and then with her sudden tragic death she came to embody a national myth. In Mexico, when Castellanos died in Israel, it was widely believed she had committed suicide although the official story was that she had electrocuted herself plugging in a lamp after getting out of the shower. In her collection of letters, Cartas a Ricardo, Castellanos frequently mentions struggling with overwhelming bouts of anxiety and depression for which she is popping pills.
In an autobiographical article published June 19, 1973 in El excelsior entitled “El zipper: la hora de la verdad,” “The Zipper: the Hour of Truth,” Castellanos alone in a hotel room struggling with the zipper on her dress, reflects on the meaning of her solitude:
While still a girl, I began to write poetry. And what was the result of my falling in love for the first time? The writing of an intimate diary which at first emerged as a way to become closer to the beloved one but ended up by completing substituting and supplanting him.
I have included this quote because I think that the evolution of Castellanos’ letters to Ricardo is not dissimilar to the evolution to which she here ascribes to her first diary. If her original intention in writing to Ricardo is to draw him closer, the letters end up, in many ways, replacing him, and becoming about the world in which Castellanos lived: the people in it, and her place among them. In her letters, Castellanos writes of her identity in her multiple roles as wife, mother, household manager, a professor and a poet.
In an interview Castellanos said:
Writing has been, more than anything, a way of explaining to myself things I don’t understand. Things that at first appear confusing or difficult to understand. As the indigenous people are, according to historical information, enigmatic, I tried to know them deeply. I asked myself why they acted in the manner they did, what circumstances led them to being the way they are.
In her writing, Castellanos, tried to explicate to the reader things that she did not understand, things that at first appeared confusing and difficult, enigmatic. In this, she belongs to a great tradition of feminist writers like Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Sylvia Plath, and Emily Dickinson. She is a cultural anthropologist. Her point of view is that of a Mexican intellectual woman. Her focus in her letters from Wisconsin, where she is teaching, is on the American culture in the 1960’s, specifically academic America. She is very much connected to the cultural pulse of the moment and has a unique perspective as an outsider in the United States. The cultural insensitivities of the United States are also applied to her. In a letter from Wisconsin, Castellanos tells Ricardo about how the faculty wives have asked her about Mexican recipes and that she has done her best to comply. Then in an aside to Ricardo, she writes, “You know that the kitchen and I have always maintained a respectful distance.”
During her life, Rosario Castellanos wrote prolifically and published widely. A significant amount of her work has also been published posthumously as new audiences become interested in her writing and as her reputation is being revalued and reassessed. Included in the work published after her death are Cartas a Ricardo, (1994) Letters to Ricardo, her third novel, Rito de iniciación, (1997) Initiation Rite and three volumes of her collected journalism, Mujer de Palabras: Artículos rescatados de Rosario Castellanos, (2006.) A woman of words: Collected articles of Rosario Castellanos.
Although Castellanos has been classified as a Chiapas writer or as a writer who wrote mainly of indigenous themes, the letters, her autobiographical novel and much of her journalism, are written by a cosmopolitan woman, based in Mexico City. Rito de iniciacion, Castellanos’ last novel, is written in the style of the nouveau roman and is the story of a young woman from the provinces who comes to Mexico City where she discovers her vocation as a writer. Castellanos read the Spanish mystics, she studied European philosophy, read European writers like Violette le Duc, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, American writers like Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer; she translated Emily Dickinson. She is anything but provincial. Castellanos has inspired generations of women writers in Latin American and just by her visibility and talent has helped to create a public space where other women writers’ work could be heard.