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Chiapas Gothic: Racialised Labour in Rosario Castellanos’ Balún Canán

by Ericka Beckman on July 10, 2018

An early scene in Rosario Castellanos’ semi-autobiographical novel Balún Canán (1957), set in the late 1930s in Chiapas, Mexico, evokes a cozy scene of provincial childhood:  a group of ladina or European-identified schoolgirls, the daughters of local landowners, sip posol, an indigenous maize beverage. Their Mayan nannies sit at a remove from their charges, idly digging their bare toes into cracks of the bricks. During recess, the girls chant children’s songs about lemons and oranges in the patio, while their teacher shades herself under a bamboo tree. Framed by flitting leaves, the teacher watches over the scene with a “mirada benévola” (benevolent gaze) [Castellanos, Balún Canán: 14]. Yet, as is so often in the case in this novel, the idyll is carefully evoked by Castellanos only so that it might be destroyed. Abruptly, after a visit from a mysterious lady, the schoolteacher’s sweet benevolence evaporates in a flash of paranoia, as she announces that the girls are living in dangerous times and as such must be vigilant against the enemies surrounding them:

Esta escuela es nuestro único patrimonio y su buena fama es el orgullo del pueblo. Ahora algunos están intrigando para arrebatárnosla y tenemos que defenderla con las únicas armas de que disponemos:  el orden, la compostura y, sobre todo, el secreto [Castellanos, Balún Canán: 14].

This school is our only heritage, and its reputation is the pride of the town. There are people who are conspiring now to seize it out of our hands, and we have to defend it with the only weapons we possess:  order, composure, and, above all, secrecy. [Castellanos, Nine Guardians, 18].

The threat is vague and indirect, and for that very reason rings ominous:  an unspecified “they” want to take what is “ours,” what makes us special and distinct.

But who is this “we,” and what do “they” want to take?  The “we” invoked by the teacher refers to ladinos, a term for the non-indigenous and white-identified landowning minority in Chiapas; the “they” is constituted by the Mexican government of Lázaro Cárdenas and the belated arrival of revolutionary land, labour and educational programs in a region that had long resisted reform. In concrete terms, the teacher fears the educational reforms of the 1930s and their secularizing push. (Indeed, in a later scene, a pupil tells a school inspector sent from Mexico City that they do indeed pray in class:  so much for secrecy). But on a deeper level, the teacher’s appeal to an innocent and inviolate femininity—a symbolic code common to white supremacist regimes—expresses ladino fears of losing all that is dear to them.

Paranoia, fear and horror are inscribed into the core of this novel, and drive a plot organized around decline and ruin. As I argue in a recent chapter that appears in the book Mexican Literature in Theory, the novel Balún Canán is most often approached either as an indigenist novel or feminist bildungsroman but it might hence be approached as a Southern Gothic novel. In my reading, the term “Southern” refers to geography (Chiapas as the southernmost state of Mexico), but also to a particular system of racialised bonded-labour large estates that links Chiapas to other nodes in the world-system ranging from Dixie to the Caribbean. With the term “gothic,” I point to the ways in which the novel brilliantly registers oligarchic fears of decline through registers of horror and monstrosity. And while this novel is famous for its inclusion of references to Mayan languages and belief systems (as in its intertextual references to the Popol Vuh), I am more interested here in how indigenous beliefs are deployed by ladino characters as fantasies of their own destruction in a moment of crisis.

As an example of the gothic sensibility at the core of Balún Canán, in another episode, the girl narrator sees an indigenous servant whose arm has been nearly severed with a machete. Her nanny explains that the man was killed as punishment for his loyalty to her father, by Indians who “ya no quieren tener patrón” [Castellanos, Balún Canán: 31: “don’t want a master any longer,” my translation]. Later, when the girl visits a church, she is gripped by terror and screams. Her mother, furious, slaps her and demands that she tell her what is the matter. “Es igual (digo señalando al crucifijo), es igual al indio que llevaron macheteado a nuestra casa” [Castellanos, Balún Canán: 41: “It’s like…” I say, pointing to the crucifix, “it’s like the Indian they brought to our house, all cut up with the machete”]. Two points can be gleaned from this. Horror in this novel is always related to system of forced indigenous labour (its overturning, but also, inevitably, its historical violence). Second, the hacienda system and its labour relations provide the only ground through which the girl can (incompletely) perceive the world. In textual terms at least, it is the macheted indio who provides a recognisable image for Christ, and not the other way around. The hacienda and its relations of production—always violent, but now in flux—provide the grounds for interpretation of the world, the lens through which social reality can be perceived and understood in the novel.

Balún Canán remits to a basic truth of the hacienda system of early-twentieth-century Chiapas:  To be ladino at all is to rely on indigenous labour:  ladinos rely on indigenous labour to accumulate wealth and reproduce their daily existence, but also to produce their own sense of self in the world. This truth is inscribed as a formal principle of the novel. As noted, Parts 1 and 3 of the novel are narrated in the first person by a seven-year-old girl in Comitán, in a structure that, as many critics have argued, can be read as a coming of age story or bildungsroman. Part 2 abruptly shifts perspective to an omniscient narrator, and decamps with the Argüello family to their hacienda, Chactajal. Whereas Parts 1 and 3 take the form of impressionistic vignettes of daily life in the provincial city, Part 2 reads more like a plot-heavy historical novel, focused on clashes between César Argüello and his indigenous peons on the estate. César complies nominally with demands for a school in accordance with new laws, but the schoolteacher, his half-literate and monolingual bastard nephew Ernesto, gets drunk and beats the children. After this, and following demands for a wage (which César promises to pay after the cane is cut), the peons burn the hated sugar mill, forcing the Argüellos to return to Comitán in economic ruin. With this, the novel abruptly shifts back to the girl’s perspective in Part 3 to register the family’s decline, which culminates in her brother’s death.

As the novel progresses, paranoid utterances and guarded silences morph into episodes of hysteria and madness, which reach their peak in the aftermath of the indigenous rebellion on the estate. This is true especially in the case of female characters such as César’s wife, Zoraida, and a set of unmarried cousins who live alone on a remote ranch. Ladina women become a particularly active site of psychic turmoil, precisely because of the central role they play in the (re)production of the ladino social system. Their episodes of un-becoming signal a deep symbolic crisis and are the most potent sites from which the novel diagnoses the freeing of indigenous labour from its bonded position. Along these lines, it is not coincidental that the ladina episodes of psychic disintegration are expressed through indigenous belief systems focusing on witches and monsters.

As deployed in the novel, witches and monsters do not represent any “pure” indigenous belief system. Instead, they represent ladino fantasies about indigeneity, through which this class fantasies its own undoing in a moment of historical crisis. As an example, the narrator’s nanny tells the girl’s mother that sorcerers (brujos) at Chactajal have cursed Mario, the family’s only son. The novel shows that the point is not whether sorcerers have really cursed the son, but that the mother internalises this threat. For until Mario does indeed die, no one—including a priest and a doctor—can convince her that sorcerers are not “eating” her son.

The supposedly archaic and premodern beliefs associated with indigenous people takes flight as a projection of ladino anxieties. This is not to deny that witchcraft is not an important part of indigenous spiritual practice, one that belongs to a genealogy that extends well beyond the history of colonialism and forced production on estates. In Balún Canán, however, indigenous magic functions at bottom as a Southern gothic symptom of ladino disintegration.

And, indeed, is it really any wonder that the landowning family would experience its downfall as an indigenous curse? First, it gestures toward the ladino subjects’ colonial unconscious—revenge is what awaits their class. At the same time, the ladino internalisation of the indigenous curse points to what I think is perhaps Balún Canán’s most stunning realisation: that ladinos—whose sense of self depends upon their proclaimed separateness from Indians—are themselves “indigenous.”

The statement that ladinos are themselves “indigenous” is not meant to bet taken literally. Rather, it is to note that ladino landowners are quite literally made by indigenous labour; and that the threat to that labour system forces ladinos into a traumatic recognition of that fact. Bonded labour─the horizon of social existence on the estate system─threatens to become unbound; with this, the very sense of being ladino is thrown into crisis. When the masters imagine their destruction at the hands of indigenous sorcerers, it just might be that they are recognising—in distorted form—that the ladino world is in fact made by indigenous people. Given the prospect of indigenous liberation, ladinos are forced to countenance, with horror, the prospect of their own undoing.

Unfortunately, this undoing remained more a fantasy than a reality for decades:  The Chiapanecan landowning class only truly declined after a further round of agrarian reform in the 1970s, and after a wave of indigenous peasant mobilisations and land invasions that culminated in the Zapatista rebellion of 1994. Castellanos’ novel allows us to catch a glimpse of the violent contradictions at the heart of the estate system, as well as a (perhaps utopian?) image of its destruction.

Ericka Beckman
Ericka Beckman is Associate Professor of Romance Languages at the University of Pennsylvania. She is author of Capital Fictions: The Literature of Latin America's Export Age (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), and is currently writing a book on capitalism and rural societies in 20th-century Latin American literature.

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