EL HUESPED QUE ME ESTORBA: CONFLICTING PERCEPTIONS OF MOTHERHOOD IN ROSARIO CASTELLANO'S OFICIO DE TINIEBLAS.
The daughter of a wealthy landowning family, Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974) grew up in the rural state of Chiapas, Mexico, a place divided into two racial groups: the Ladino or non-Indian landowning elite, and the Tzotzil indigenous group. Like her contradictory attitude toward motherhood, Castellanos was raised during a time of social contradictions. As she came of age, President Lazaro Cardenas (1934-1940) implemented a radical land reform project, appropriating close to 50 million acres of land into areas of communal land called ejidos (Joseph and Buchenau 127). During this time, the rigid social hierarchy between the Ladinos and the Tzotzil people was threatened and even came close to being overturned. Castellanos's family, subject to the Cardenas reforms, was forced to uproot from Chiapas and move to Mexico City in 1941. Castellanos's personal identity struggle matched the times: part of an elite and powerful family, she was however denied a certain status and privileges because she was female. In addition, she fulfilled, to a certain extent, traditional expectations of Mexican society by becoming a mother, yet thwarted them by getting divorced. What's more, she published poetry, essays and novels-something that would not be welcomed from a woman by mainstream Mexican society in the 1950s and 1960s.
Elena Poniatowska observed the following about Castellanos's writing: "Rosario uso de la literatura como todavia la usamos la mayoria de las mujeres, como forma de terapia. Recurrimos a la escritura para liberarnos, vaciarnos, confesarnos, explicarnos el mundo, comprender lo que nos sucede" (57). Castellanos's 1962 novel, Oficio de tinieblas, continues this trend of therapy and catharsis by means of literature. The novel grapples with not only the socio-historical issues of the moment, but also issues more personal to Castellanos: namely, the problem of female agency and its (apparent) incongruity with motherhood. The following article examines the experience of motherhood as presented in Oficio de tinieblas. A central theme to the novel, each of the female characters attempts--and mostly fails--to gain agency as a marginalized group through the rejection of the maternal self.
Briefly summarized, the novel Oficio de tinieblas recounts parallel stories that all take place in Chiapas during the 1930's amidst the Cardenas administration's reform projects. The action of the novel occurs in two separate spheres, the first being the privileged Ladino community of Ciudad Real, where the wealthy landowner Leonardo Cifuentes, his wife Isabel, and Idolina, her invalid daughter, live. (1) The second sphere of action takes place in the nearby village of San Juan Chamula, where the Tzotzil indigenous people live. Catalina, the village ilol or priestess, and her husband Pedro are infertile. As a result, Catalina takes in Domingo, the baby of Marcela, a young indigenous woman who had been raped by Leonardo Cifuentes while trying to sell pottery in Ciudad Real. The climax of the story occurs when Catalina decides to crucify a 10-year-old Domingo so that the Chamula people can have their own version of a Messiah. Believing themselves empowered by Domingo's death, the indigenous people revolt against the Ladinos, ravaging the countryside and brutally murdering the landowning families (and other innocent victims). Yet, they end up more subjugated than ever. The novel closes as the nanny Teresa tells the tale of Catalina to Idolina as she puts her to bed one night, converting real events into the form of legend and leaving Catalina nameless in her story.
In the poem, "Autorretrato," Castellanos writes, "Sufro mas bien por habito, por herencia, por no / diferenciarme mas de mis congeneres, / que por causas concretas." For her, suffering was a shared existence between her and her female counterparts, an inevitable way of life. The female characters of Oficio de tinieblas are no exception: suffering characterizes each of their lives in the narrative-the young Idolina sits in bed trapped by her invalid body; Isabel suffers the indifference of her wayward husband; Catalina ruminates incessantly on her barrenness. In the same poem, Castellanos goes on to say "me ensenaron a llorar. Pero el llanto / es en mi un mecanismo descompuesto, / y no lloro en la camara mortuoria / ni en la ocasion sublime ni frente a la catastrofe. // Lloro cuando se quema el arroz o cuando pierdo / el ultimo recibo del impuesto predial." This particular variant of weeping bears an aspect of futility: the voice cries for trivial things, like her failed attempt at cooking or losing an important piece of paper, instead of the large and momentous events that should really be cause for great emotion. This characteristic suggests that, as a woman, she is kept apart from the momentous things of life, and forced to ruminate on the useless everyday domestic occurrences, as if as a woman she does not deserve to feel deep emotion for powerful events.
In a similar way, the women of Oficio are by far the most developed characters in the novel, yet they are marginalized from the masculinized and historicized projects of revolution, land reform, and politics. Instead, on the outskirts of the political action of the novel, they struggle with their own demons of trying to find small ways of attaining agency in a world in which they are oppressed and deemed irrelevant. As Jean Franco observes, women in post-revolutionary Mexico found themselves outside of the intellectual project of constructing national identity, since identity creation was narrativized specifically as a problem of male identity (131). Critics have explored the type of indigenismo that appears in this novel as well as the complicated racial constructs that appear in it (Sommers, Lund), the use of language for domination and even violence or silence as a form of subaltern communication (Harrison MacDonald; Guerra-Cunningham, "El lenguaje"; Melgar; Estrada), the centrality of the subjugation of women in the novel (O'Connell, Prieto), yet, none point to the primacy of the ideas surrounding motherhood in this subjugation. (2)
In many ways, the ideas posed in Oficio anticipate the second wave of feminism that was to appear in Mexico (and many Western countries) in the decade of the 1970s: the novel emphasizes that women should not be confined and separated from mainstream, male-dominated sectors of society, as demonstrated through the malaise brought on by the feelings of irrelevancy experienced by the most subjugated female characters. Abortion can help women in their empowerment, as in the case of Julia Acevedo, or La Alazana, the enlightened female outsider who comes to live in Ciudad Real. Women are complicit in their own subjugation by internalizing sexist ideas, as are the senoras of Ciudad Real in their ostracism of La Alazana. Yet, even as Castellanos anticipates these feminist notions, she questions them through the ambivalent and complicated relationship each female character has with the idea of herself as mother, and, in a related way, with her relationship to her own body. As Lindstrom notes, Castellanos writing avoids an overly reductionist or denunciatory criticism of gender discrimination, taking a more nuanced and contextualized approach to her understanding of women in their social milieu ("Rosario Castellanos" 68).
The primacy that Castellanos gives to women's issues in this novel represents an important advance in post-revolutionary discourse in Mexico: it demonstrates that nationalism, ideology, and land reform were no longer the only things worth debating in Mexican society, and other pressing issues, such as the subjugation and marginalization of Mexican women, merited attention as well. Yet, even as the ideals of social equality that many began to embrace in the decade of the 1960s allowed people to rethink women's place in society, Oficio de tinieblas is a work that tends to question, rather than fully embrace, the impending changes on the horizon for women by demonstrating the pitfalls that can occur when unbridled societal change occurs. At the same time, the novel suggests an alternate way in which woman can, in the words of Helene Cixous, "write her self."
The cultural ideations of the Western world frequently present women as more related to and connected with nature than men. Kate Soper observes that this tendency to connect women and the natural world is rooted in the appraisal of women's reproductive traits: the fact that they are mothers-bearing and birthing children, nursing them to life-creates a societal perception of women as more bestial or animal-like than men. For Soper, there is an
assumption that the female, by virtue of her reproductive role, is a more corporeal being than the male [...]. The dominance of woman's biology in her life as a consequence of her role in procreation has been responsible for her allocation to the side of nature, and hence for her being subject to the devaluation and de-historization of the natural relative to the cultural and its "productivity" [...] [Quoting Simone de Beauvoir] woman is "more enslaved to the species than the male, her animality is more manifest." (139)
Given this limiting view of women so prevalent in the West, the rejection of motherhood in Castellanos's novel could mean a form of protest by which the character rejects the culturally imposed connection of women to the natural world, thus deemphasizing her corporality, her "animality." Since mainstream culture tends to exclude women by virtue of their maternal and thus natural proclivities, if a woman were to reject her maternal side, perhaps she might find equal status in patriarchy. It seems obvious that rejecting motherhood would be the answer for success and a fairer opportunity in this society that tends to equate motherhood with animality and estranges mothers from mainstream success. However, rejecting the maternal self comes with some dangers. In her classic treatise on women's writing, "The Laugh of the Medusa," Helene Cixous describes this problem. For Cixous, reason and writing have been associated with men throughout history, something she describes as the "phallocentric tradition." History is contiguous with women's suppression. She connects the suppression of women to a suppression of the female body itself:
By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display--the ailing of dead figure, which so often turns out to be the nasty companion, the cause and location of inhibitions. Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. (800, emphasis added)
Castellanos's text concurs with this idea that the women who reject their bodies also metaphorically reject their ability to speak, and even breathe. What Oficio de tinieblas adds to this idea is that the women who try to stifle the idea of their bodies as mothering bodies-albeit real or imagined-also inhibit their ability to "breathe or speak." We can see this tendency exemplified through the female characters, delineated below.
These attitudes appear in Oficio de tinieblas in that each female character from the repressed Chamulas Marcela and Catalina to the privileged Ladina women Isabel and Julia-grapples with the idea of her maternal self, trying and failing to reject this self in various ways in an effort to gain agency and power in their patriarchal society. This aspect of Oficio suggests that rejecting motherhood is one failure of a misguided form of feminism. Take the case of Marcela Gomez Oso, who is raped and impregnated by the cacique Leonardo Cifuentes. Guerra-Cunningham has noted that instead of the Christian emphasis on maternity as a pure and noble act for women, Castellanos undoes the reader's expectations by aligning motherhood with rape and injustice through the case of Marcela ("El lenguaje" 39). When she finds out she is pregnant with his child, she rejects it, seeing its presence inside her as foreign. When Catalina points out that Marcela is pregnant, her reaction is one of disgust and hate toward the "gelatinous mass" that she feels within:
Instintivamente se llevo las dos manos al vientre como para detener eso que iba creciendo, implacable, dentro de ella, hora tras hora, mas y mas, y que terminaria por devorarla. Empezo a sentirlo: eso se movia, golpeaba, asfixiaba. Un espasmo de asco, ultimo gesto de defensa, la curvo. Un ansia incontrolable de arrojar la masa gelatinosa que pacientemente roia sus entranas para alimentarse; un deseo de destruir esa criatura informe que la aplastaba ya con el pie del amo. [...] Y la cosa, aquella cosa, continuaba alli, abultando de manera grotesca su vientre, pesando. (46)
At one point while pregnant, Marcela flees to the woods and collapses, next to a "piedra anonima" (47), desirous of a miscarriage. It is only because of the careful attentions of Catalina that she succeeds in giving birth to a healthy child. When her son Domingo is born, she rejects him for his mestizo appearance, despising his features that appear more European: "Tenia la piel de color firme, los ojos en almendra, tenaces, de su raza. Pero los cabellos eran crespos como los de un caxlan. Entonces Marcela sintio repugnancia, lo rechazo" (49). When at age ten Domingo is crucified by the Chamula Indians in a bizarre ceremony, Marcela and her mentally incapacitated husband Lorenzo barely react: "La vision de Domingo desnudo, desguanzado, no los asombra, no los alarma" (320). Marcela's callous attitude, even repulsion, toward Domingo is understandable: he is the fruit of a heinous act. A Caxlan (the Chamula word for the white man or outsider) had brutally raped her, treating her more like an object than a human being, stripping her of her dignity. The unfortunate aspect of Marcela's case is that she takes her anger out on Domingo, an innocent child, rather than on a more deserving source, such as the rapist himself, Leonardo. Since she is powerless to enact revenge on Leonardo, she directs it within, at the fetus growing in her womb, almost killing him during her pregnancy. She turns and takes the abuse enacted on her by Leonardo-treating her like an object-and directs it toward her son. Through Marcela's story, the violence of the rape begets more violence toward her own son, whom she assumes culpable before his birth. Leonardo, the true culprit, suffers no consequences for his crime, and is even ignorant of the child's existence. Leonardo's violent act causes Marcela to give up on any agency in her life, a technique that serves her as a coping mechanism for the trauma she has suffered under Leonardo. Her existence is one of a constant stupor: "una gran paz-la paz que tiene parpados de sueno-habia untado las coyunturas de la muchacha: en el lugar donde dolia la memoria, en el lugar donde va a doler la esperanza. No es una viscera sangrante ya lo que palpita sino un momento, este momento maravillosamente vacio" (45). She treats her pregnancy with the same resignation: "Observaba los preparativos para el parto, sin interes, sin curiosidad siquiera, como si se tratara de un acontecimiento que no le concerniese" (47). This resignation and passivity is reminiscent of what Cixous claims that men cause women to do: hate themselves:
Men have committed the greatest crime against women. Insidiously, violently, they have led them to hate women, to be their own enemies, to mobilize their immense strength against themselves, to be the executants of their virile needs. They have made for women an antinarcissism! A narcissism which loves itself only to be loved for what women haven't got! They have constructed the infamous logic of antilove. (878)
Marcela falls into anonymity and silence as a result of her inability to accept her own child, driven from caring for him because she is repulsed by his origins of violence and injustice. This "antilove" has been generated by Leonardo's act, and can never be undone. Her repugnance for her son's mixed-race features also could be interpreted as signifying repugnance for the Mexicanness movement propagated by the PRI government in mid-twentieth century in Mexico. As Lomnitz-Adler explains, "revolutionary nationalism [...] tied nationality to race and 'mestizo' culture, and it adopted a modernizing, protectionist, corporativist, one-party regime" (55). Through the rejection of a mestizo child, one of the central characteristics of the revolutionary nationalist movement, Castellanos demonstrates that mestizaje should not serve as an unquestioned national ideal, since the history of European and indigenous Mexicans was one of rape and exploitation.
Felipa, Marcela's mother, also rejects motherhood. Yet, she decides in favor of greed, only to encounter emptiness and isolation as a result. She insults and beats Marcela after she comes back empty-handed from Ciudad Real, not realizing that her daughter had been raped by Leonardo. At this moment Catalina declares that she will take Marcela under her care, and Felipa gives her up with almost complete indifference, considering only the benefit of having one less mouth to feed. Her first question to Pedro, Catalina's husband, is, " Cuanto va a pagar por ella?" (39), treating her daughter like an animal for sale rather than as a human being. For Felipa, in this moment, economic stability, another value traditionally related to male power, is more important than caring for her own daughter. However, she almost immediately regrets her decision to let Marcela go. Once Marcela is under Catalina's care, Felipa obsesses about Marcela and constantly plots revenge against Catalina, but there is nothing she can do about it, as Catalina knows, "las costumbres no la autorizaban a tener voz propia" (44). In this way, Felipa is driven from motherhood with the hopes of monetary gain, but realizes this is an empty endeavor and becomes silent and powerless as a result.
Mercedes Solorzano represents in the novel a Malinche-like figure who rejects motherhood in the sense that she refuses to nurture the younger girls and women of her race. Instead she betrays and abandons them to the White man. She works as an alcahueta, helping Leonardo dupe young indigenous women to rape. (3) The second chapter of Oficio de tinieblas recounts the sickening tale of how poor Marcela is raped by Leonardo with Mercedes as his accomplice. Descriptions of Mercedes suggest she has rejected maternal or nurturing tendencies and preferred a brutal and mannish way of being. Her masculine manner of being, that contemporary readers may view as a countercultural disdain for gender norms, instead serve to villainize her in this narrative. The reader is introduced to her as follows:
-- Que estas vendiendo, marchanta? La pregunta la formulo una mujer cuarentona, obesa, con los dientes refulgiendo en groseras incrustaciones de oro. Estaba sentada en una sillita de madera, con las enaguas derramandose a su alrededor. Fumaba un largo cigarro envuelto en papel amarillo. (17)
Solorzano is presented as a grotesque and unnatural figure in that she is completely devoid of any traditional notion of femininity, exacerbated by the fact that she holds a phallic cigarette, and puffs on it "placenteramente" (18). She abuses the trust of her fellow indigenous women countless times, aiding Leonardo in his perversities. Instead of being a victim, she copes with the sexism (and racism) of her society by helping the victimizer find victims. For her, this position of power trumps any kind of maternal or protective instincts she might be tempted to embrace in herself. Her excessive time spent in Ciudad Real and desire for power have made her indifferent to helping her fellow Chamula women, and instead she betrays them, as is evidenced in the way she deceives Marcela. For Mercedes, motherhood, it stands to reason, is something that is far from possible. She prefers deception and violence in exchange for the economic support of Leonardo Cifuentes. In the case of Mercedes, the rejection of motherhood parallels a rejection of her own race. This demonstrates a certain level of lesbophobic attitudes in the novel, since a woman who appropriates male gender norms is presented as evil and grotesque.
Catalina Diaz Puilja is the most problematic character of the novel. More than any woman of the story, she desires to be a mother, and constantly feels insecure because of her infertility. As Guerra-Cunningham has noted, indigenous women in colonized Mexico suffered a dual domination: from the colonizer and within the framework of their own patriarchal societies (Mujer y escritura 100). Only 20 years old, Catalina is so familiar with subalternity that she is described as already like an old woman, "reseca y agostada" (12). She defines her lack of fertility in terms of an inability to be more connected to the land itself:
cuando las companeras con las que hilaba Catalina, con las que acarreaba el agua y la lena, empezaron a asentar el pie mas pesadamente sobre la tierra (porque pisaban por ellas y por el que habia de venir), cuando sus ojos se apaciguaron y su vientre se henchio [sic] como una troje repleta, entonces Catalina palo sus caderas baldias, maldijo la ligereza de su paso y, volviendose repentinamente para mirar tras de si, encontro que su paso no habia dejado huella. (12)
As Soper notes, maternity is represented as bringing the woman closer to the natural world, more connected to the earth itself. Catalina calls her hips "baldias," an adjective also used to speak about barren land. Her inability to conceive coincides with an estrangement from the land itself, in the fact that she cannot leave a deeper footstep, and that her body cannot produce a child, as if an analogy for land that cannot produce vegetation.
Unlike other female characters of the novel, Catalina tries in various ways to embrace her maternal self: she adopts Domingo, and cares for him as if he were her own. When he begins to be more interested in Pedro than Catalina, she explores other options for maternity by figuratively giving birth to idols made of mud. When the idols become irrelevant after Father Mandujano ridicules their uselessness, she becomes desperate. She longs for power and prestige in her community and decides to crucify Domingo in an effort to be viewed as relevant among her peers, an act which represents the ultimate rejection of her maternal self. However, she soon feels haunted by her violent act toward her adopted son, thinking she sees his ghost everywhere in the natural world: "A veces, en un momento de reposo, Catalina veia en la forma de una pena, en un cristal de agua, en una nube fugitiva-la imagen de un nino crucificado" (343). When her attempts at mothering (the idols or Domingo) fail, Catalina ruminates on her inability to have children. She describes her infertility in terms of metaphors with the natural world, as if it is a nut that never allows a seed to grow from within, or an ugly, motionless rock:
Mujer sin hijos. La nuez que no se rompe para dar paso, crecimiento y plenitud a la semilla. La piedra, inmovil, fea, con la que se topa el caminante. El puno que aprisiona el pajaro y estrangula sus ultimos estertores. [...] Un hijo. Este era el nombre de su soledad, de su desvalimiento, de su fracaso. (316)
In this way, her lack of maternity is presented as parallel to a lack of connectedness to the environment, demonstrating that rejecting motherhood is akin to a lack of connection to nature. What's more, she feels dead, rotten and already buried after Domingo's death, as if somehow his loss were in part a loss of her own body:
La que tuvo el maravilloso hallazgo en la cueva lo habia olvidado; la que con sus propias manos dio figura a unos idolos remotos, quiza ya inexistentes; la que en su aridez se alegro con la cercania de una infancia. Y esta era la parte de Catalina mas muerta, mas enterrada, y mas podrida. (343)
Catalina's story demonstrates dual impossibilities for women in modern society: neither can they have success as mothers nor as agents of power. Because of her impotence, Catalina ends up in state of living death. In an essay that was published posthumously, "La mujer y su imagen," Rosario Castellanos describes maternity as the key to being relevant in contemporary male-dominated society:
de una manera tacita o expresa, se le ofrece [a la mujer] asi la oportunidad de traspasar los limites en un fenomeno que si no borra, al menos atenua los signos negativos con los que estaba marcada; que colma sus carencias; que la incorpora, con carta de ciudadania en toda regla, a los nucleos humanos. Ese fenomeno es la maternidad. (Poesia 14)
Since Catalina lacks what Castellanos deems as the key to relevance for women under patriarchy, she turns to what might be considered traditionally masculine ways of obtaining power: striving for prestige as an all-important leader, and even embracing a god-complex in which she seeks reverence from her peers as the Ilol, or priestess. Her turn away from the expected female role, however, results also in despair, just like her rejection of motherhood. Disconnected from both the land and her community, she finds no solace in her life. This dilemma also could be considered a veiled criticism of Mexican society: even if women completely abandon hopes for motherhood, as Catalina does with the crucifixion of Domingo, they will still live a life of suffering, unable to compete and find a respectable place in the world dominated by men. Catalina is incredibly ambivalent: desiring to "have it all" but ending up with nothing, wanting motherhood and then murdering her adopted son. Despite all of her efforts she ends up irrelevant and silenced.
Some critics have commented on the character of Julia Acevedo, Fernando ulloa's partner who accompanies him to Ciudad Real (Franco, hind). A progressive, educated and independent feminist from Mexico City, she begins to lose her agency in Ciudad Real. Finnegan notes that Julia "exemplifies Castellanos' inability to realize the radical potential of her white female characters, choosing instead to strip them of their early power and ensure their enforced submission and textual death" (78). In this way, each of Castellanos's female characters falls into irrelevance as a result of patriarchy. I would argue that not only her white female characters, but also many of her indigenous female characters suffer a similar fate. (4) In any case, Julia, like the other female characters, rejects motherhood. Her technique is more modern: she aborted her child with Fernando when they were living in Mexico City, an action that she justifies in the following excerpt:
Julia no habia querido tener [hijos]. Para entregarse por entero a Fernando. Para no cenirlo con un nudo mas. Y tambien porque temia la propia esclavitud. No, no era miedo ni al dolor ni al peligro. No era peor un aborto que un parto? Y sin embargo ella aborto. Deliberadamente. Y tan sin remordimientos que jamas la habia atormentado la necesidad de compartir, ni siquiera con Fernando, su secreto. (139)
Julia views motherhood as a type of slavery and values her independence too much to be yoked together with a child. Her character is unexpected in that she never expresses any regret for terminating her pregnancy. As Finnegan notes, she embodies the "new empowered bourgeois woman [who] refuses the ties of marriage choosing abortion over motherhood with no regrets" (75). However, the longer she stays in the retrograde environment of Ciudad Real, the more she begins to let go of her desire for female empowerment and independence, and tries to fit in with the extremely traditional provincial society. As Guerra-Cunningham notes, the space itself in the novel paralyzes any potential for change ("El lenguaje" 38). At the end of the novel, Julia disappears: Fernando ends up imprisoned, framed by Cifuentes for supposedly being the mastermind behind the Chamula revolt, and Julia's whereabouts are a mystery. Some suspect she is back in Mexico City, and others speculate that she is hiding somewhere in Ciudad Real. In any case, her efforts at living as a liberated woman cannot succeed in such an insular and close-minded society. For Julia, her early decision to embrace liberty through her right to abortion ends up being useless in Ciudad Real, where she falls into obscurity as a result of their backward society. Rural, as opposed to urban, environment, then, plays a central role in women's views of their maternal selves. Whereas for Julia the idea of eliminating her pregnancy was meaningless in Mexico City, her lack of maternity was a serious obstacle in the backward society of Ciudad Real.
Julia's case represents the ciudad/campo cultural dichotomy of the 1960s in Mexico. This decade could be characterized by a collective hunger for modernity and change. Yet, this attitude tended to center itself in the large metropolises of Mexico, and often did not extend its influence to provincial life. Carlos Monsivais explains that beginning in 1959 and until 1968, Mexican culture was submerged in a longing for modernity as the ideas of lo tipico and tradition began to fall out of fashion as cultural ideals. Provincialism loses its luster and becomes a pejorative term during these years. Culture is viewed as the exclusive property of Mexico City. Urban life is the ultimate goal while small town existence, to a certain extent, loses its status as sentimental and idealized (1038). In the 1960s, then, Mexican culture in general turns its focus to modernity, and the modern space par excellence is the city. It is in the urban centers of Mexico where the people sought social, cultural and sexual revolution, and in general the idealization of or nostalgia for the countryside tended to lose its cultural significance. Thus, the case of La Alazana demonstrates that the liberated woman of Mexico City is forced to disappear amidst the backward customs and societal pressures of small town Chiapas.
Not only Rosario Castellanos but also her own mother expressed ambivalence about motherhood, namely the disappointment of mothering a female daughter. When Rosario's brother, her only son, died of appendicitis at a young age, Castellanos's parents lamented wholeheartedly. One family friend was reported to have empathized with them, saying, " Por que murio el varon y no la mujercita?" (Poniatowska 91). As a result, Castellanos grew up in a home where she felt her mother did not care for her. At one time she wrote, "Mi madre en vez de leche me dio el sometimiento" (Poniatowska 94). The character of Isabel, Idolina's mother and Leonardo Cifuentes's wife, reflects this biographical experience. Over the course of the novel, Isabel slowly retreats into herself, afraid of her daughter's knowledge that she abetted Leonardo in the murder of her husband (Idolina's father), Isidoro. Scared of Idolina and her knowledge of the crime, she avoids her at all costs, allowing the indigenous nanny, Teresa, to raise her instead. For Isabel, the desire to enact revenge on Leonardo (motivated by her feelings of powerlessness and fear of punishment for acting as an accomplice in the murder of her first husband) overshadows what little motherly affections she might have maintained for her daughter. Her character is almost altogether repellant, since she exhibits only selfishness in the treatment of her daughter and cold-blooded racism toward the indigenous race through her treatment of Teresa.
Teresa's Subversive Oral Ecriture
Marcela rejects her baby and retreats into silence. Catalina crucifies her adopted son and falls into irrelevance. Isabel lives a life separate from her daughter and suffers life with a repeatedly unfaithful husband. Julia aborts her only child and disappears at the end of the novel. The only character who breaks this cycle of rejection of motherhood to disappearance and irrelevance is a unique one, a woman who lives a life very distinct from these four women: Teresa Entzin Lopez, Idolina's indigenous nanny. She is the sole character that offers a fragment of hope, not for female agency, but for something nobler: love and selflessness. She is the only one who breaks the trend of trying to fit into patriarchy through male power and embraces her maternal self, letting go of any desire for self-promotion, self-preservation or prestige, in a way much dissimilar to the other female characters of the novel. Finnegan notes how each of the female characters of Oficio de tinieblas begins as powerful but retreats into silence (72). However, she does not seem to acknowledge Teresa's role as speaker in the novel when she claims that, "Castellanos sees the lancing of the abscess [speaking out] as good, yet all her female characters end their textual lives in stupefied silence" (99). Teresa, Idolina's indigenous nanny, treats Idolina with unconditional love, despite how poorly Idolina reciprocates her affections. Idolina orders her around, acts sullenly, and even abandons Teresa for a spell in favor of Julia's attentions, but Teresa firmly supports her, and even when they are estranged for a time, misses her dearly.
What's more, Teresa lost her own baby, since Isabel had forced her to nurse Idolina instead of her own child. Teresa's own daughter dies of starvation, and she has no choice but to stay with the Cifuentes family and continue caring for Idolina. Isabel defends her cruel treatment of Teresa in terms of ethnic superiority: "Teresa no es mas que una india. Su hija era una india tambien." (140). Instead of seeking revenge for Isabel's bigotry, Teresa nurses Idolina as a baby and raises her, loving her as if she were her own child. For instance, she meticulously prepares Idolina her breakfast each morning, and tells her so many stories that Idolina learns Tzotzil before Spanish. Teresa has no options for power or prestige in her life, and thus resigns herself to caring for the ungrateful and coddled Idolina.
Teresa, however, never retreats into silence, and the novel closes with a most significant occurrence of her telling Idolina an odd legend. In it, she seems to be telling the story of Catalina, but only names her as the ilol. Briefly summarized, Teresa's legend tells of a powerful ilol who lived in a cave with her son made of stone. The ilol is brought to Ciudad Real and asked to demonstrate her powers. She proves able to escape violent beasts, go through ice and fire unscathed, and break through chains. As the ilol gains power, she becomes increasingly prideful. She and her son begin to devour the first-born child of each family. The leaders of Ciudad Real try to reason with her, but she devours them as well. They try to battle her, but she evades them, and all bullets bounce off of her and murder the shooter. An old sacristan comes up with the idea of telling the ilol that her son is cold; they wrap him in a shawl, and he begins to crumble and die. The ilol breaks her head against him in frustration and dies as well. Their cadavers bring death and pestilence to the region. For this reason, her name must never be mentioned and her memory should be erased. Teresa tells the story as Idolina falls asleep, and then returns silently to her corner where she watches over the young girl. The novel closes with the following sentence from the narrator: "Faltaba mucho tiempo para que amaneciera" (368), suggesting that Teresa's story represents a small yet hopeful step toward progress: women can speak out, even if it is in an outlet as seemingly insignificant as telling a story to a young girl who is completely powerless. No matter whom they speak to, they must continue to speak. Embracing motherhood, instead of rejecting it, is the way in which Teresa is able to continue to have a voice in the narrative, even as the novel comes to a close.
Most critics have interpreted this final myth as a rewriting of Catalina's story, forcing her into obscurity with the fact that she is never specifically named in Teresa's legend. (5) However, this fact begs the question of who exactly the protagonist of the story is. This is especially true since Teresa emphasizes that her legend is from long ago, before even Idolina or she were born. With this in mind, the story seems intended to tell of the plight of any woman who tries to embrace a greedy desire for power--it appears that the result of this endeavor is the death of her children. One cannot be both a mother and powerful. The ilol of Teresa's legend had a fake demonic son, one made of stone who cast curses on the entire community. He was killed, and she died as a result. One could look at Teresa's legend as the problem of all the other women of the novel: they look to societal prestige, power over others, pride, and other stereotypical ideals of the masculine order, and ignore their own bodies. Through this creation of history into Indian legend, Teresa ignores any desire for power and embraces her maternal self through the telling of a story to her surrogate daughter, Idolina.
In Castellanos's essays, her thoughts on maternity follow an intriguing trajectory. (6) As I mentioned earlier, her thesis Sobre cultura feminina argues that men produce cultural objects to transcend their worlds while women are able to do this through maternity. Thus, they do not need to produce culture in order to have a legacy in the world (24). However, as Castellanos matured as an intellectual, she began to see women's role in society in a more nuanced way, emphasizing the problem of sexism and inequality in the subjugation of women in her essays from Poesia no eres tu. Oficio de tinieblas seems to fall somewhere between these two lines of thought: it refutes Castellanos's master's thesis through its very existence: it is a great piece of cultural production, produced by a woman who was also a mother. At the same time, themes in the novel appear to warn against rejecting maternity, and emphasize women's need to embrace their maternal selves, an important part of which are their own bodies, in order to transcend their societies' oppressive tendencies.
Throughout the novel, Teresa finds an inner power by never rejecting her maternal self and creating her own alternative version of history. This being said, I would have to disagree in part with Jean Franco's interpretation of Teresa's myth. She states that,
[t]his [...] myth illustrates the failure of orally transmitted legend to provide a collective memory around which further resistance could be mobilized [...]. The ending of Castellanos' novel seems to reflect a belief that subaltern cultures (including that of women) cannot become counterhegemonic because they do not have access to writing, and because even their oral culture is penetrated by myths of submission. Teresa's mythic interpretation of Catalina's actions, transmitted not to her own people but to Idolina, who belongs to another social class and race, demonstrates the fact that all transculturation is destructive to the indigenous community and that woman's bid for power, when it is not linked to national consciousness, can have devastating results. (144)
Franco makes an excellent point: Teresa's legend is not useful for the mobilization of her ethnic community. However, the legend she tells is not devoid of hope: through sharing the story with Idolina, Teresa provides an opportunity for the invalid girl to reconnect to her own body, which is a source of torture to her throughout the novel. Teresa's example of embracing her maternal self can hopefully be passed on to Idolina, despite the terrible example of maternal rejection embodied in her biological mother, Isabel. Teresa offers hope for Idolina's future: a surrogate mother's love may enable her to go on to tell stories to her future children. Instead of the failure of oral transmission of history, Teresa's legend offers a solution for woman's reconnection to her body. It could even be considered a form of oral ecriture, a term coined by Cixous. Cixous argues that the agency of the female voice requires a connection to her body. Through this connection to one's body, one can defy the masculine order and patriarchy:
[W]oman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies-for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text-as into the world and into history --by her own movement. (875)
Cixous also advocates an embracing of a maternal self, in the sense that women should unite in a collective sort of lesbianism or self-love in order to stop denigrating one another:
In women there is always more or less of the mother who makes everything all right, who nourishes, and who stands up against separation; a force that will not be cut of but will knock the wind out of the codes. We will rethink womankind beginning with every form and every period of her body. The Americans remind us, "We are all Lesbians"; that is, don't denigrate woman, don't make of her what men have made of you. (882)
The case of Teresa represents a radical embracing of her maternal self: she embraces all types of motherhood, through caring deeply for her own child, as well as for Molina, the daughter of her nemesis, the cause of her biological daughter's death. While Catalina murdered her surrogate son Domingo, Marcela rejected the "thing" growing within, and Isabel gave over her daughter's care to another, Teresa breaks the destructive trend by fiercely fighting for her biological daughter, and then even embracing the privileged girl for whom she is forced to care.
Oficio de tinieblas demonstrates the dangers of trying to fit into the patriarchal order and over-idealizing the stereotypically "masculine" way of doing things characterized by greed, individualism, egotism, pride, power, and prestige. It suggests a different, alternate way of writing women's selves into history. As Naomi Lindstrom observes, a major theme in Castellanos's prose is "the ambiguity of the woman who may be guilty of complicity in her own subjugation" (Women's Voice 60). Teresa's story offers a way for women to stop being complicit in their subjugation, embrace their unique identities and gain power by a different way of finding relevance in their society: creating legend, thus converting history into something more subjective.
As mentioned earlier, Castellanos herself struggled with ambivalent feelings toward motherhood and its relation to her own identity, much like her female characters in Oficio de tinieblas. Because of the miscarriages she suffered, she felt that her deceased children occupied every portion of her body, as expressed in her four-part poem, "De la vigilia esteril." In it, the poetic voice describes the dead as if traveling through the waves of her own blood: "Suben hasta mis ojos para violar el mundo, / se embriagan de mi boca, respiran por mis poros, / juegan en mi cerebro. [...] Todos los muertos yacen en mi vientre." The poem calls sterility "el tema exasperado de mi sangre"; the loss of motherhood is a part of her own blood, her own body. Her corporality was directly linked to her (loss of) motherhood, which was inseverable from her identity. She refused to deny the role that her children and her lack and loss of them played as a part of her self. It is apparent that, for Castellanos, it was not a question of whether women should or should not reject motherhood; the reality is that women cannot reject motherhood, since it is a part of their physical makeup. Recognizing this in 1962--a time of contradictions and the battle between modernity and tradition, urban and provincial life, polarizing views of men and women, revolutionary ideals and the silencing of subaltern groups-was a step toward true female agency in patriarchal Mexican society, rather than a limited phallocentric attempt at obtaining power.
(1) Idolina is the daughter of Leonardo's deceased brother, Isidoro. Inspired by his and Isabel's lust for one another, Leonardo murdered Isidoro but covered up the crime by saying they were just playing around with a gun when it accidentally fired.
(2) For an eco-critical approach to the novel, see Roberts-Camps's chapter, "Nature as Articulate and Inspirited in Oficio de tinieblas by Rosario Castellanos." In it, she explores the relation of the female characters to the natural world and how both are presented as subjugated in Castellanos's novel. She also discusses how the indigenous attitudes toward nature presented in the novel challenge Western perspectives.
(3) An alcahueta is a woman that works as an intermediary to help someone cover up an illicit romantic or sexual relationship (Indurain and Garcia 59).
(4) Jorgensen examines the influence of French thinker Simone Weil's ideas on power struggles and suffering in society on Castellanos's writing and lifestyle; her alignment in Oficio de tinieblas of the plight of both indigenous and ladina women may be another effort in what Weil deemed impossible: to truly understand and see the Other.
(5) Guerra-Cunningham adeptly adds to this conversation that although Spivak argues for the impossibility of representing subaltern groups, Teresa's speech to Idolina produces a connection between indigenous and ladina women in their shared subordination to patriarchal power (Mujer y escritura 105).
(6) For an essay on the broader trajectory of Castellanos's fictional understanding of maternity see Silvina Persino's "La representacion de la maternidad en la obra de Rosario Castellanos y Elena Garro," in which she argues that while Castellanos's earlier works are more descriptive of injustice toward women, her later play (El eterno femenino) and short stories are caustically critical of society's treatment of women, going as far as blaming abnegated women for being complicit in their own subjugation.
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Stephanie R. Gates
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|Author:||R. Gates, Stephanie|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2018|
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