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Dialectical Indigenism and Cognitive-Evaluative Compassion in Rosario Castellanos's Balun Canan.

El indigena no puede incorporarse de golpe a la civilizacion moderna, como el nino no puede transformarse en adulto de la noche a la manana; esto es obvio y no requiere discusion

--Manuel Gamio, La poblacion del Valle de Teotihuacan

Imagining Unwritten Scholarship on Balun Canan

How difficult it would be to imagine Mexico's twentieth-century literary production without Rosario Castellanos's Balun Canan. Happily, more than sixty years after the novel's 1957 publication, it is as impossible to un-think the text's existence as it is to be unaffected by the stirring coming-of-age story narrated by a young girl. By narrating how family matters are affected by national politics, the novel attempts to sway both hearts and minds--that is, to both feel compassionately and think dialectically. With the following, I argue that the novel's fortuitous mix of thought and feeling can be understood in terms of what Jeffery Belnap has cogently referred to as 'dialectical indigenism'--an artistic process that aims to combine native cultures with national and industrial modernity. (1) Thus, contra most scholarship of Balun Canan, which elides the distinctly dialectical character of Rosario Castellanos's work, I read the novel as epitomizing just such a dialectical indigenism, activated to task readers to solve the so-called 'Indian problem' of midcentury Mexico. In this way, Balun Canan speaks explicitly to the novel's time and place, defined prominently by the Mexican state's attempt to apprehend indigenous cultures via (oftentimes) socialist-tinged philosophies.

Beyond merely applying Belnap's innovative coinage to Balun Canan, I shall deepen and clarify the notion of dialectical indigenism by invoking Martha Nussbaum's novel interpretation of compassion, which emphasizes the ethical dimension of emotions. Nussbaum's thesis--which depicts emotions as "suffused with intelligence" (Nussbaum 1)--helps us to grasp how compassion (especially between indigenous and ladino characters) is portrayed in Balun Canan. Compassion aids us in elaborating judgments that are intensely ethnical and thus, politically cogent. Before pursuing this line of thinking further, I will first examine the politics, philosophies, and feelings that characterized Castellanos's Mexico.

Midcentury Indigenism and Dialectical Thought

Castellanos came of age in a Mexico that assiduously pursued an official policy of indigenism; the strategy saw bureaucrats, politicians, anthropologists, and artists alike attempt to integrate Mexico's native populace into the life of the nation-state by way of agrarian reforms, public education initiatives, artistic endeavors, and health and hygiene programs (Doremus). Castellanos had a unique purview into these ongoing measures and their related debates.

Raised within an affluent family in Comitan--town located in the markedly indigenous state of Chiapas--Castellanos witnessed firsthand the peculiar and oftentimes strained racial relations therein; as a child, her household kept indigenous servants and as an adult, Castellanos took an interest in the nation's indigenist politics and policies. Starting in the 1950s, Castellanos assumed a position in the now defunct Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI); residing in Cristobal de las Casas--the veritable headquarters of the INI's regional coordinating centers--Castellanos worked with anthropologists to document life among the tzotzil, tzeltal, and tojolobal peoples. (2) During her time at the INI, Castellanos also composed didactic puppet shows meant to instruct native peoples on the essential behaviors of citizens (O'Connell 72). This period in Castellanos's life saw her complete Balun Canan. In 1958, she married UNAM professor Ricardo Guerra, intellectual best known for his work with the Mexican philosophical organization Grupo Hyperion, as well as his translation of Hegel's Phenomenology of the Spirit with one of Mexico's foremost Marxists, Wencelsao Roces. (3)

All told, Castellanos's Mexico was immersed in the philosophy, politics, and culture of the indigenism's so-called 'third wave'--which witnessed its heyday in midcentury Latin America. (4) Indigenism was theorized by intellectuals tied to the state such as Alfonso Caso, Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran, Narciso Bassols, and Manuel Gamio, who each promoted goals related to social justice as defined and (supposedly) guaranteed by the 1910 Mexican Revolution. As alluded to above, education and land reforms were the foremost tools activated state in order to reformulate the indigenous community's position within the state. Finally, indigenism celebrated the artistic and architectural accomplishments of the original Mesoamerican peoples (especially those of the Aztecs) even while contemporary Mexico was understood as a mestizo nation. (5) The INI--perhaps the most concrete manifestation of state-directed indigenism--was transformed significantly in 2003, when it became the decentralized Comision Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indigenas.

During and certainly after Mexico's midcentury commitment to indigenism, the ideology's philosophical tenets and concrete activities have been mordantly (and somewhat justifiably) critiqued. 1970--year which saw the publication of a trenchant collection of essays edited by Arturo Warman called De eso que llaman antropologia mexicana--is generally understood as indigenism's point of no return. For instance, since its salad days, indigenism's racial politics have been intensely interrogated; that is, even while indigenists described themselves as aiding' Mexico's indigenous population in joining a mestizo state--their objectives may have constituted little more than the promotion of a 'whiter' Mexico. (6) Indigenism in the twentieth-century has also been branded as exoticizing, exclusionary, paternalistic, and ostensibly, a means by which capitalist development absorbs indigenous communities--thus constituting a not-so-subtle form of ethnocide that apprehends the indigenous subjects as a "work-in-progress, an object of the ever-unfolding post-revolutionary task of cultural and economic modernization" (Taylor 3). Indeed, it stands to reason that celebrating past indian heroes may do little to improve the present life-world of contemporary indigenous communities; many have deemed the state's desire to mexicanizar the indigenous population as unenlightened and far from politically neutral.

Nevertheless, even if such unfavorable appraisals of indigenism are, at least in part, warranted, it is essential to remember that indigenism's ideologies were not entirely onedimensional. Rather, many indigenists during Castellanos's day tasked themselves with constantly interrogating their objectives, listening to divergent voices, and considering the contradictory nature of development. Such were hallmarks of socialism and, accordingly, were very present within indigenist thought. In its original iteration, indigenism was not conceptualized as a hypostasized and unbalanced strategy for subjecting native Mesoamerican communities to top-down, state-operated capitalist development; rather, it may be convincingly argued that such capitulatory philosophies only emerged after 1948, when indigenism was formally institutionalized via the Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI).

During the bellwether moment of third wave indigenism, dialectical thinking was undoubtedly present: the First Inter-American Conference on Indian Life, held in Patzcuaro, Michoacan in April of 1940 saw participants test various hypotheses, weigh divergent responses, and resist hypostasized definitions. They aimed to craft an indigenism that was responsive, flexible, and dialectically-sawy.

The conference at Patzcuaro was a who's-who list of political VIPs and cognoscenti: while President Lazaro Cardenas gave the inaugural address, in attendance were intellectual heavyweights like the aforementioned anthropologist Manuel Gamio, educator Moises Saenz, and Native American expert John Collier. Naturally, these participants voiced divergent--even contradictory--perspectives (Korsbaek and Samano 196). From its genesis, indigenism meant different things to different people, and in no way did attendees see eye-to-eye on each and every issue affecting Latin America's indigenous population. (7)

Naturally, the most contentious lines of inquiry at the Patzcuaro conference dealt with how modern Mexico should engage with Native Mesoamerican community: To what extent would indigenist policies essentially 'erase' native culture and, alternatively, to what extent would native culture be brought in, accepted by, and enhanced by 'advanced' national society? (Bartolome et al., 293). How would two unique cultures--modern Mexican culture and indigenous culture--interface? Furthermore, did indigenism entail the crass implication that indigenous populations were to 'evolve' into national culture? These debates were oftentimes couched in terms of integration versus assimilation--'integration' today branded as a tantamount to top-down ethnocide, while 'assimilation' was used to describe how indigenous communities could voluntarily 'progress' toward Mexican citizenship. (8) Could conference participants break with the ethnocentric, positivistic thinking of Mexico's previous generation of intellectuals--Vicente Riva Palacio, Justo Sierra, and Andres Molina Enriquez--who had aimed to 'include' the indian only by way of excluding or eliminating indian identity (Lund 49)?

This is to say that conventioneers, having deemed their predecessors' strain of indigenism overly evolutionist, adopted a distinctly inclusive tone compatible with dialectical and dynamic thinking, and thus in keeping with the day's leftist political climate. (9) Participants hoped to strike a balance between the two (primary) cultures in Mexico (the indigenous and the modern), ultimately allowing for the possibility that both would be transformed in the process for the better. (10) Indigenism thus "sustained the position that it was neither culturalist nor assimilationist, but both things at the same time." The indigenous cultures cannot be respected as a bloc: some aspects should be changed and others (like language) can be respected" (Diaz-Polanco "Indigenismo, Populism ...," 48). Dialectical thinking provided a toolkit with which to parse out which aspects of indigenous culture would survive and which would not during Mexico's dynamic processfs of nation-building. Even if "the assimilationist tendency" among the indigenist was seen as "gradually taking over" by the late 1960s, those at Patzcuaro "attempted to forge an agreement between contradictory theoretical sources, separating the positive aspects of indigenous cultures" (Diaz-Polanco Indigenous Peoples, 69); a similar periodization has been affirmed by others. Participants at Patzcuaro sought to craft an indigenist policy that was neither 'scientific' nor colonist'--but rather dynamic, dialectical, and compassionate (Giraudo Furio 28). Along their journey to non-identitarianism, they tasked themselves with 'hearing'--to paraphrase Gayatri Spivak--the subaltern 'speak.'

I suggest that Belnap's 'dialectical indigenism' best serves to describe this complex, deeply dialectical process. At their most ambitious, indigenists tasked themselves with approaching the 'Indian problem' dialectically: to compassionately imagine lives lived beyond their own respective subject position.

The dialectical character of indigenism should be taken into account if we are to adequately grasp the message and meaning of Castellanos's Balun Canan. A detailed reading of the novel bears out the notion that such dialectical thinking is, in fact, both possible and fruitful. And yet, Castellanos's text also expresses the disappointment of knowing that characters betray those same dialectical or non-identitarian impulses: they are represented as understanding the possibility of proverbially 'putting themselves in someone else's shoes'--but ultimately resist becoming the 'better angels' of their nature. Couched in these terms, it becomes apparent that the particular strain of indigenism evinced within Balun Canan--and not unlike that which many at conventioneers at Patzcuaro forwarded--can best designated as 'dialectical' and, moreover, that such dialectical indigenism is, fundamentally, an exercise in compassion.

Dialectics and Compassion in Balun Canan

Balun Canan recounts the remarkable social and economic transformations that Mexico underwent as a consequence of the agrarian and education reforms promoted during the sexenio of President Lazaro Cardenas (1934-1940). Castellanos ingeniously details these large-scale, government-directed changes through the eyes of a child--an unnamed 'nina whose landowning ladino family, the Argiiellos, strives to maintain its socioeconomic livelihood even as the indigenous population of Chiapas exerts its newfound proprietary and legal rights. Of particular issue is the Arguellos's attempts to retain their lands in rural Chactajal. The family consists of a resolute patriarch, Cesar; his ambitious but neurotic wife, Zoraida, and their two children: the anonymous nina and her younger brother, Mario. Divided into three parts, the first and third sections of the novel are narrated by the nina,' while the longest, middle section of the text is taken up by an omniscient, third person narrator who evinces immense access to the adult characters' respective interior monologues. At the story's close, the Arguellos have ostensibly lost their land rights, as the indigenous population of Chiapas continues to gain social power. Furthermore, the Arguellos family suffers the loss of their only son, Mario, who was--as the family's male primogenitor--slated to carry on the family name and inherit the Arguellos's estates. All told, Castellanos's work ambitiously grapples with the cultural, social, and economic conflicts that arise when hitherto marginalized voices demand new rights even while the landowning ladino class (represented primarily by the Arguellos family) is portrayed in a nuanced, even sympathetic light. Whether characters are indigenous or ladino, Castellanos wields a subtle palette while portraying them.

As alluded to above, the worth of Castellanos's work is almost unanimously agreed upon; whether the novel should be referred to unequivocally as "indigenist" continues to be a subject of debate. This query is a perennial point of contention due to the fact that Balun Canan resists what some have registered as "indigenous" literature's rather facile and flat portrayals of Mexico's indigenous community. (11) Oftentimes, critics have finessed this issue by designating Castellanos's novel as, essentially, 'indigenist, but complex' (Carballo 422-423). Joanna O'Connell, in a similar vein, proposes that Balun Canan "rejects the facile equation of (all) women's oppression with that indigenous people" (3). Similarly, Debra Castillo sees branding Castellanos's novel as simply indigenist a type of "underreading" (226), while Liliana Ramirez describes Balun Canan as evincing a sort of "nuevo indigenismo" (57), due to the fact that Castellanos's 'nina narrator is not transformed by her relationship with indigenous characters. Wendy Woodrich, in like manner, lauds Castellanos's characterization of ladinos as "greatly nuanced" (141). Finally, yet others have attempted--somewhat unsatisfyingly--to label parts of Castellanos's novel as 'indigenist' while other parts remain flatly 'autobiographical.' (12)

Here, I am arguing for new reasons why Castellanos's novel can be properly designated as indigenist. Having recovered indigenism's dialectical character in the previous section, 1 now propose that Balun Canan evinces a dialectical indigenism--again, Belnap's term which I define, in turn, by activating Marth Nussbaum's notion of compassion. Succinctly stated: the dialectical nature of Balun Canan is manifested most apparently upon a close examination of how characters take on the vicissitudes of compassion--the extent to which they successfully or unsuccessfully connect with each other. Unfortunately, Castellanos's characters cannot move beyond registering subjectivity as a static construction impervious to transformation: their compassion is lacking, the novel (as a dialectic) remains unfinished, and the story ends tragically.

As alluded to above, compassion's markedly political potential has been investigated by philosopher Martha Nussbaum over the course of various tomes and articles. 2003's Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions may constitute Nussbaum's more mature articulation of her theories. Therein, Nussbaum--retaking ideas from Rousseau, Aristotle, among others--proposes that compassion, in its truest form, is eudaimonistic--"that is, concerned with a person's flourishing" (31). Compassion is depicted as cognitive-evaluative in so far as it tasks us to appreciate the suffering of others and, subsequently, elaborate ethical judgments. Nussbaum explains:
   The first cognitive requirement of compassion is a belief or
   appraisal that the suffering is serious rather than trivial. The
   second is the belief that the person does not deserve the
   suffering. The third is the belief that the possibilities of the
   person who experiences the emotion are similar to those of the
   sufferer. (306)

Similarly, Sam Jenkins elaborates a notion of empathetic imagination: that is, he defines empathy as the ability to dialectically consider emotionally healthier alternatives to a given situation. Empathy, as Jenkins defines it, operates via a distinctly dialectic dynamic, which proposes theses, which are tested with antitheses, and which ultimately forge a new type of synthesis. No matter what exact terminology may be used, I would argue that the scholars' shared interest in how individuals appraise the thoughts and feeling of others can best be understood as type of dialectical cognition. (13) Moreover, Balun Canaris characters are represented as exploring just such thoughts and emotions yet ultimately, fail to understand their political significance. Characters can see themselves in the place of another yet do not allow such thoughts to become deeper, more transformative experiences.

Admittedly, many critics have already pointed out the dramatic sense of movement within Castellanos's novel, her commitment to represent her characters as grounded within their specific cultural milieu, and her talent for describing both the indigenous and ladino communities of Comitan in sympathetic, nuanced ways that resist Manichaean distinctions. Thus, while Maria Ines Lagos astutely explains that Castellanos's nina' narrator "no es independiente de los discursos sociales de su medio y su tiempo" (176), Priscilla Melendez convincingly sees Balun-Canan as situated in the "entrecruzamiento y el choque de varias culturas, lenguajes, generaciones, clases sociales y posturas ideologicas y culturales" (Melendez 343). That is, unlike other indigenist novels--which all too readily draw distinction between indigeneity and modernity--Castellanos's novel undoubtedly assumes a notable level of complexity; the text evinces both a sense of process and of polyphony.

Yet other scholars have even more closely (and compellingly) approached the type of dialectical' interpretation of Balun Canan that I am attempting here. Ericka Beckman, for example, convincingly shows how Castellanos's novel underscores the acute interdependence of indigenous and ladino subjects in Chiapas. As Beckman states, "the ultimate horizon for ladino selfhood in the novel--and feminine selfhood in particular--is bound indigenous labor" (144). In a somewhat similar vein, Brian Gollnick (2016) activates the concept of a politics of scale so as to claim Balun Canan as "a work in which no simple resolution can be made between global, regional, and national contexts" (191). Both Beckman and Gollnick do well in focusing on how Balun Canan emphasizes the deep-seated, historically-inflected interdependence of various social actors in Mexico under Cardenas. However, no scholarship has yet to explicitly register these peculiar (and engaging) qualities of Balun-Canan as a product of Castellanos's dialectical ethos and, furthermore, the influence of dialectical indigenism as it was promoted by the Mexican state. More succinctly stated: my reading here aims to situate Castellanos's novel (the text's form and content) within a cultural history of state-driven politics.

Such a reading also serves to clarify other extant scholarship on the novel. For example, Sandra Cypess suggestively proposes that the tripartite structure of Balun-Canan is used "as a way of emphasizing the disruption of the rules of discourse" (5), even while rightly calling out critics who deem the novel's organization as 'disconcerting.' I would argue that an even more compelling way to describe Balun Canan s organization, however, is as a type of dialectic. Alejandro Higashi, too, hints at the dialectical structure of Balun Canan via his examination of the novel's paratextual elements. For Higashi, the cover art on the first edition of Castellanos's novel illustrates a conversation between the 'nina narrator and her indigenous caretaker; this, he reads as an apt metaphor for Castellanos's engagement with indigeneity. If, however, we consider the cultural politics of midcentury Mexico, Higashi's keen observations undoubtedly lead us back to dialecticism. That is, as the 'nana' and the 'nina face each other, the drawing tasks us to think through: To what extent can these two representatives of their respective communities identity with each other? How will they affect each other? Will their interpersonal relationship ultimately be mutually transformative? Can they--to use Jenkins' terms--empathetically (and even dialectically) imagine each others' respective subject positions? Or, if we were to invoke Nussbaum's terms: Can their compassion truly be cognitive-evaluative? Higashi then moves on to study subsequent covers of Balun Canan which the critic convincingly characterizes as a simplification of Castellanos's message in that they focus solely on 'indigenous' characters and objects. I understand this as a 'simplification' or 'flattening' of the dialectic.

A closer examination of Castellanos's prose also illustrates how the author understands her characters as able to grasp the dialectic character of social relations, even if they fail to take to heart these truths. Like the organization of the novel itself, individual characters, too, are apparently able to comprehend a tripartite dynamic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Nevertheless--and similar to the novel--the dialectic is ultimately left imperfect or unconsummated. For example, at the novel's conclusion, the 'nina' narrator is seen incapable of recognizing her indigenous caretaker: still unable to evince non-identitarian and compassionate thinking, the nina cannot distinguish between her particular nana' and every other indigenous woman. This return to self--the inability to empathize fully with the indigenous population--is expressed formally in the novel with the return to the 'voice' of the 'nina.' All told, in terms of both form and content, the novel's conclusion underscores the failure of ladino society to cultivate compassion.

This final failure is all the more disheartening given the notable examples found throughout the novel of characters considering alternative scenarios for themselves and others: they ponder roads not taken, empathetically imagining all kinds of 'What ifs?' Characters constantly wonder what it would be like to walk in the shoes of another. In some instances, they sycophantically try to assure themselves that others, in their place, would not measure up to their specific rank. In other instances, they enviously dream about assuming a subject position unlike their own.

Thus, when called upon to care for the ill, bedridden Mario, the Argiiellos's family doctor strokes his own ego by recounting how some other, less capable doctor would--unlike him--hastily and inappropriately propose surgery for the ill child:
   Hizo usted bien en llamarme. Si este caso hubiera caido en manos de
   un medico joven, un doctor soflamero y atrabancado, no titubearia
   en darle un nombre, uno de estos nuevos que jamas hemos oido
   mentar. Prescribiria, tal vez, una operacion. (268)

Conversely, in other instances, characters imagine themselves in the place of others. In a scene in which compassionate imagination takes on a distinctly self-sacrificial valence, Zoraida beseeches the fates to strike her down rather than take Mario, the primogenitor of the Argiiellos family whose death would constitute the end of their family's lineage: "En nombre de lo que mas quieras pide que si es necesario que alguno muera, sea yo. Pero no el, que es inocente. No el, que no ha tenido mas culpa que nacer de mi" (244). In this sense, non-identity thinking--being able to compassionately imagine how others could occupy our same subject position and, furthermore, experience our same destiny--is represented in Balun Canan as being both a source of consternation and of hope.

Unfortunately, as Castellanos's characters attempt to empathize with others--to see themselves as another--they are stymied by a Mexican society marked by a cripplingly hierarchical, racialized chain of command. As Rosa Maria Burrola Encinas cogently argues, in Balun Canan depicts "[u]na sociedad que marca tajantemente la separacion entre ninos y adultos, mujeres y hombres, indios y blancos" (80). Naturally, then, there is an immense disquiet felt by characters as they are tempted or forced to step outside themselves, to feel compassion towards others, and dialectically apprehend others' emotions.

Case in point is Cesars sister (and Ernesto's lover) Matilde, a character who experiences a range of emotions when she, during a bout with despondency, emotionally opens herself up to one of the family's servants. Matilde is awed when she finds herself beside "[u]na criada platicando con ella como con su igual, sintiendo una compasion que Matilde aun tenia que agradecer. Porque jamas estuvo tan desamparada y tan sola" (120). Matilde is deeply conflicted: on one hand, she can forge compassionate bonds with those who--she has been told--do not belong to her social class. On the other hand, she finds it is impossible to appreciate her servant as a social equal. Ironically but tellingly, but two pages later, Matilde has a heated discussion with her clandestine lover, Ernesto, who occupies a humbler social position than she does. Given their unequal positions, Matilde forces herself to reject any impulses to imagine a life beyond her social position; stuck in the prison house of identity-thinking, she fights back against the urge to let herself go, to dialectically understand the Other, and ultimately, to love. We see her vehemently deny any possibility of continuing her relationship with Ernesto, or of carrying his child to term. The following scene between them ensues:

Matilde golpeo el suelo con el pie, colerica.

--No somos iguales.

--?Cual es la diferencia? Tu esta aqui de arrimada lo mismo que yo. (122)

Tellingly, characters only recognize non-identitarian equality (more simply, what they share with others) in a markedly defeatist way; they only comprehend what they share with others after experiencing loss. In this way, in Balun Canan, identifying with others and recognizing commonalities is not edifying but rather, deflating. For instance, after Ernesto fails in his role as a rural teacher, Cesar laments that "[e]l muchacho salio igualito a su padre, palabra. Solo porque Ernesto era mi hermano y con los muertos mas vale no meterse, pero, dicho sea sin ofender, era un naguilon" (184). Ironically, although characters fight to maintain society as it always has been,' it is that same inability to change that foils their best laid plans. Thus, Don Jaime Rovelo--a close friend of the Arguellos family--expresses to the nina narrator that he very much identifies with her father, Cesar, after the tragic death of Mario: "Don Jaime Rovelo se inclino hasta mi y me tomo entre sus brazos mientras musitaba:--Ahora tu padre ya no tiene por quien seguir luchando. Ya estamos iguales. Ya no tenemos hijo varon" (281). The fact that empathetic or compassionate imagination can, in fact, inspire pain is also expressed by Ernesto as he, having assumed the role as Chactajal's rural teacher, proceeds to get drunk and hereafter inform his class of indigenous students: "No va a cambiar nuestra situacion. Indio naciste, indio te quedas. Igual yo" (161). Thus at the center of Balun Canan, irony manifests itself in two ways: first is the fact that even as the Chiapan society seems absolutely immutable, characters still evince an immense power to think through other realities, empathetically understand others, and contemplate other possible outcomes. Second is the fact that transformations--even magical transformations--are represented throughout the text.

This type of dialectical thinking in Balun Canan even extends to the omniscient, third person narrator of the second section; indeed, this voice is especially suited for making manifest characters' ability to think dialectically about their situation in Chiapas, as the narrator mediates on 'What could have been' or even, 'What the future could hold.' In this second section of the novel, Ernesto is depicted as perhaps the character most haunted by constant ruminations regarding 'roads not taken.' This is not surprising: the illegitimate son of Cesars brother, he is acutely trapped between two social worlds, and cannot help but imagine how he almost gained full access to social standing as an Arguellos. Although educated and thus, suddenly thrust into the role as Chactajal's rural teacher, he was never publically recognized by his deceased father and thus, is destined to remain an outsider in ladino society. Naturally, he comes to regret becoming romantically involved with Matilde; the two have breached both a socially established sexual barriers in terms of both personal political economy and, furthermore, age. Ernesto grimly ruminates on what he could have done differently:
   Yo la volvi a buscar. No, no es que quedara yo muy convidado, pero
   la volvi a buscar. En estos infelices ranchos no hay mucho donde
   escoger. En el pueblo, en Comitan, la cosa hubiera sido distinta.
   Ahi si hay mujeres de deveras y no melindrosas. Ay, camaradas, si
   hubieran visto a la mosca muerta de Matilde, seria, como si nunca
   rompiera un plato. No me volvio a dar ocasion de que yo le hablara.

The fallout from his tryst with Matilde is too great, however; she becomes pregnant, decides to forcefully abort the child, and rescinds Ernesto's courtship. As Ariel Zatarain Tumbaga cogently argues, Matilde ultimately "embraces her existential truth ... and surrenders to her death wish" (216); her sexual nonconformity is deemed monstrous. (14) In keeping with this article's argument, I would add that this scene most likely stresses Castellanos's overarching message that only by becoming more modern will Chiapan society cease to designate female sexual liberation as opprobrious. More pithily stated, Castellanos's reading of female sexuality may better approximate that of Simone de Beauvoir, who, in the concluding line of The Second Sex, cajoles women to "unequivocally affirm their brotherhood" (863). Only by being allowed to partake in modernity 'brotherhood' (notably, not a 'sisterhood') will women win their freedom--sexual and otherwise.

Similarly overcome with sadness, Ernesto subsequently drinks himself into a stupor before trying (unsuccessfully) to teach class; he will collapse on the floor of the schoolhouse in plain view of his students, totally inebriated, thus provoking Cesar, too, to imagine other possible outcomes: "Si no se hubiera emborrachado hasta el punto de golpear a sus alumnos los indios no hubieran protestado negandose a trabajar en la molienda" (205). Once again, possible solutions, roads not taken, and unrealized potential are expressed in Balun Canan as lamentations.

Yet other characters illustrate this human potential to think beyond themselves. Zoraida, for instance, laments not being able to carry more children: "Lastima. Yo hubiera querido tener muchos hijos. Alegran la casa. Cesar dice que para que queremos mas. Pero yo se que si no fuera por los dos que tenemos ya me habria dejado" (91-92). Indeed, all of Castellanos's characters in Balun Canan seem trapped between--on one hand--a type of hypostatized identity-thinking, which impedes them from accepting other perspectives, new realities, and times of change and--on the other hand--a crippling sense of futility vis-a-vis radical social transformations. They are able to 'see' other perspectives, empathize with others, and open themselves up to transformative experiences; yet, they are ultimately unable to accept those changes, to apprehend them deeply.

The fact that characters resist change is ironically emphasized by the fantastical elements that Castellanos includes in the text. We see preternatural examples of change brought about easily--as if magical. Thus, when the 'nina' narrator wins a round of bingo, she chooses a ring made out of shoddy metal so that she can "tener el dedo verde" (38). The ease with which one can change 'color' (an obvious metaphor for 'race')--and indeed, the fear and the possibility of being transformed by the 'Other'--are underscored again when the 'nina narrator asks her caretaker for a cup of coffee; in response, her indigenous caretaker warns her "Te vas a volver india" (10). The specter of transformation is seen throughout the novel, when the 'nina narrator and her brother, Mario, in preparation for their first communion, hear a cautionary and extraordinary tale about a child named Conrado who chokes on a Eucharistie wafer that has turned into a "bola de plomo" (204). Such changes test the limits between reality and fiction, the barriers between subjects, and task us to think beyond the realm of the socially possible. How easily objects changes, but how recalcitrant social realities! In this sense, it makes perfect sense that when Ernesto and Matilde encounter each other romantically, it is described that " [1] os labios de Ernesto se posaron en su mejilla y fueron borrando las arrugas, una por una" (125). Moreover, it also is significant that characters can 'see' transformations but cannot accept those changes. After seeing the Arguellos hacienda burned down and fleeing Chactajal, Zoraida pithily resists change when she exclaims, "[n]o quiero regresar a Comitan como una limosnera. No quiero ser pobre otra vez. Prefiero que muramos todos" (199). Significantly, the novel ends with examples of how characters fail to think compassionately, dialectically, and in non-identitarian ways.

As alluded to above, in Balun Canaris final pages, the 'nina' again takes up her role as narrator. While walking through the city streets in San Cristobal de las Casas, the 'nina' spots an indigenous woman whom she first believes to be her former caretaker:
   Ahora vamos por la calle principal. En la acera opuesta camina una
   india. Cuando la veo me desprendo de la mano de Amalia y corro
   hacia ella, con los brazos abiertos. !Es mi nana! !Es mi nana! Pero
   la india me mira correr, impasible, y no hace un ademan de
   bienvenida. Camino lentamente, mas lentamente hasta detenerme. Dejo
   caer los brazos, desalentada. Nunca, aunque yo la encuentre, podre
   reconocer a mi nana. Hace tanto tiempo que nos separaron. Ademas,
   todos los indios tienen la misma cara. (290-291)

With this final scene, Castellanos turns the screw one last time on the problem that she has been dealing with since the beginning of the novel a problem very much in tune with the context of midcentury Mexico, when indigenists interrogated the precise amount of dialectical thinking and, moreover, compassion needed to 'solve' the 'Indian problem.' The novel appropriately ends like indigenism itself: an unfinished dialectic.


By examining the ideological particularities of indigenism as it was theorized in midcentury Mexico, as well as by exploring specific passages in Balun Canan, I have proposed a novel interpretation of Castellanos's Balun Canan, arguing the text can best be understood as an example of dialectical indigenism. Castellanos's text in no way idealizes indigenous life, nor does it disqualify the notion that indigenous communities in Mexico must be transformed by both the forces of modernity and the nation-state. Rather, the novel rehearses how indigenous knowledge and industrial know-how should be mutually (and dialectically) affecting in Mexico. Castellanos thus recognizes the 'magical' character of Chiapas's indigenous community, even while toeing the line of state-sponsored indigenism. As a whole, the novel emphatically contends that modernity is (to paraphrase Walter Benjamin) a one-way street. The indigenism of Castellanos's day evinced just such a universalism. Thus while previous scholars have understood Balun Canan as indigenist in spite of its complexity, I have argued here that the text should be understood as indigenist, rather, because of its complexity.

For these reasons, it is not surprising that Castellanos choses a child--the 'nina narrator to recount her story. Children, like Mexico's indigenous population, assumed a privileged place within the midcentury Mexican imagination: both subject positions were meant to 'mature' under the auspices of state intervention--as it was inspired by dialectic thought, Revolutionary ideology, and mestizo nationalism. (15) Education, replete with socialist ideologies, was the order of the day. (16) And even though it has been correctly argued that Balun Canan lays bare the many pitfalls of midcentury Mexico's education system, we should remember that Castellanos's distinctly self-critical stance (simultaneously promoting state-directed education initiatives even while finding fault in those same proposals), can be best appreciated as congruous with the Mexican state's leftist, even Marxian ethos.17 Autocriticism has consistently been a crucial part of dialectically-inflected politics; in no way should Castellanos's fault-finding assessment of Mexico's ongoing education reforms be understood as one-sided. In this sense, if we were to activate Brian Gollnick's notion of the 'oral trace' in Chiapan novels, Castellanos would appear to employ a fortuitous type of ventriloquism, positioning the 'nina' narrator as a placeholder for indigenous voices. (18) Hopefully this paper also tasks us to recover how politically astute the literary environment in midcentury Mexico was, when artists like Castellanos tasked themselves with approaching the 'Indian problem' dialectically: to compassionately imagine lives lived beyond their own respective subject positions, even as national modernity continued to be understood as a Mexicos overarching entelechy. The political possibilities of midcentury--in Mexico and beyond--still weigh on the brains of today's readers, and we would do well to recover the dialectical aspect of yet other Mexican texts: Juan de la Cabada's short story La llovizna (1952), Miguel Leon-Portillas Vision de los vencidos (1959), and Francisco Rojas Gonzalez's La negra angustias (1949) each constitute an attempt to compassionately and dialectically understand the indigenous community in Mexico. Perhaps at a future time Balun Canan won't be understood as pertaining to a 'Chiapas cycle' but rather, to a 'dialectical cycle.' (19)

Kevin M. Anzzolin

University of Wisconsin


(1) Reading Carlos Chavez's ballet H.P. (Horse Power), Belnap defines dialectical indigenism as an attempt to "synthesize dialectically Marxian materialism with a Utopian "Greater America," where modern technology would be socio-aesthetically organized by the remnants of the continents' native cultures" (76).

(2) See Lund (82; 138), as well as O'Connell (55) for Castellanos's and the INI's presence in Chiapas.

(3) See Munoz for Castellanos's biography vis-a-vis a chronology of her work.

(4) Diaz-Polanco (1997) studies the longue duree of indigenism, thus highlighting how the term has changed over time (24).

(5) Saldana-Portillo, focusing on Manuel Gamio's theories, critically assesses midcentury Mexico's promotion of mestizaje, described as constituting a rebuff of "all things Indian" (95).

(6) Saladino Garcia forwards a critique of both Manuel Gamio and Vicente Lombardo Toledano, suggesting that their politics were sustained by paternalism and, furthermore, contributed to Mexico's capitalist development. Essentially, their well-laid plans served to subsume Mexico's indigenous population under capital (141-148).

(7) O'Connell explains [t]he terms indigenismo (indigenism) and indio (Indian) are just "keywords" in Mexico, ones with very different meanings--often bitterly contested--for different groups. They bear the histories of conflict over the production of knowledge entailed by European colonization and indigenous resistance in the Americas, and the national rearticulartions of that conflict. (47) Pineda, for his part, explains that the Patzcuaro conference was attended by a "grupo heterogeneo en cuanto a visiones e intereses" (20-21).

(8) "La palabra "integracion" motivo ya arduas polemicas por la concepcion etnocentrica y racista en que se sustenta" (Saintoul 21).

(9) Hector Diaz-Polanco, in turn, explains how the Patzcuaro conference signaled a change in attitude regarding indengism: "The Inter-American Indigenista Congress, convened in Patzcuaro, Mexico, in 1940 expressed a change of attitude. This change, theoretically speaking, rejected the old nineteenth-century theory of the European colonialist countries and adopted a cultural-relativist theory of North American extraction. In this manner, the evolutionist conception is accused of ethnocentricity, and there is postulated thereafter ... an "integration of the Indians into the national society realized with respect for the values of their culture and their human dignity" ("Indigenismo, populism ... ," 46).

(10) "The new policy advocated the integration of the Indians, with their cultural baggage, into the national society, providing them with the necessary tools of civilization for their articulation with that society. The proposed policy did not include the elimination of autochthonous culture; there was a demonstration of respect for indigenous cultures, and at the same time "communities were invited to invest their own efforts to achieve their own betterment and their integration into the nation so that they effectively become a part of it" (Diaz-Polanco Indigenous Peoples, 68)

(11) Of these, most commonly mentioned are Gregorio Lopez y Fuentes's El indio (1935) and Mauricio Magdaleno's El resplandor (1937).

(12) "Her first novel, Balun-Canan, 1957 (The Nine Guardians) was a highly original attempt at a fusion of two different prose genres: indigenist writing and autobiographical fiction. The indigenist part of the story--a Tzeltal uprising against the backdrop of the 1930s agrarian reforms in rural Chiapas--was an obvious choice of plot" (Grant 182).

(13) Interestingly, Nussbaum defines 'empathy' per se as "both fallible and morally neutral" (333).

(14) Zatarain Tumbagas suggestive reading of gender relations in Balun Canan demonstrates how women have traditionally (and unfortunately) been associated with monstrosity.

(15) Albarran traces what she refers to as the "ideologically charged "proletarian child" trope" (28) in Mexico.

Works Cited

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Title Annotation:texto en ingles
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Date:Mar 22, 2019
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