Gender and ethnic discrimination are such essential and relevant topics to talk about when analysing Balún Canán (Rosario Castellanos, 1957). To start with, I would like to define what gender and ethnic discrimination are. Gender itself can be defined as an ensemble of different treats that each community assign to men and women. Ethnic discrimination can be explained as every distinctive, excluding or restrictive way of behaviour which is based on the ethnic-cultural origin (habits, clothing, customs, lifestyle, language, beliefs…).
In this essay, I will bring up a few topics related to gender and ethnic discrimination. I will focus my essay on the study of the main couple of the book who is César and Zoraida highlighting points such as the predominance he has over her by comparing them, the matter of sexist difference between genders and racial issues that we find in the novel.
This novel is written by Rosario Castellanos. She was a Mexican writer and poet. During her childhood, she lived in Comitán (Chiapas) with her family although she was born in Mexico. She studied philosophy at the UNAM. Nowadays her works are published in Mexico to study feminism. She also took part in the Instituto Nacional Indigenista during the 50s. This organization was founded to deal with the problems that indigenous people had, to help them so that they could become a part of the country and to be socially integrated into the community. She felt the need to help these people because she was a bond between both the ladinos (landowners) and indigenistas as we see in Balún Canán.
In this book, we can observe how the main character (la niña Argüellos) is an alter ego of Rosario Castellanos. The novel itself is a representation of what she was going through in that time and since she spent a lot of time with her nana who took care of her, she can take the points of view of both her family (landowners) and the indigenous people. She portrays her vision as a child, what the current situation of Chiapas and her family was and the countless and unfair conditions that indigenous people and women suffered from. Castellanos chose to represent herself as a child also because she thought that children are capable of seeing and realizing a lot of things that they can’t express with words. This insight of the children is so similar to the indigenous world where the action is happening in the book. She became really critical about the condition of women and indigenous people and that’s why she decided to speak her mind about topics such as gender and ethnic discrimination and depict these aspects in this work.
To sum it up, the novel takes place in Chiapas (Mexico) where a landowner family starts to have issues with the Indian people they have as slaves. One day, César Argüellos (the main male character and the patriarch of the family) hears that Lázaro Cárdenas, who is the president of Mexico at the moment, has enacted a new law through which the landowners with more than five Indian families serving them, have the obligation of providing meanings of teaching, establishing a school and paying a tutor to teach them. César, at his convenience, chooses Ernesto (his bastard nephew) to teach the Indians even though he does not speak their language and they cannot understand each other. Ernesto starts to get drunk due to love issues and does not do his job properly so the Indians claim César the incorporation of another teacher. In the meantime, the Indians stop working until a new teacher is hired. César threatens them with a gun and says that he will kill whoever does not work. Bad things start happening such as the murder of Ernesto, Matilde runs away towards the forest and disappears and the farm of the Argüello’s family gets burned out in ‘an accident’. As a response to that, César decides to go to see the governor of Chiapas seeking for help. The superstition and ignorance of Zoraida (the mother of the family) triggers the final tragedy and her son also dies, putting an end to the lineage of the Argüello’s family.
As we see all over the book, women and indigenous people are connected by the social fact that they are discriminated in a world where the social-historical and cultural prevalence falls on the male figure and the exclusion is reserved for women and Indians as vulnerable beings within the patriarchy system and a closed circle where is impossible for women and Indians to be on the same level of hierarchy. As I already said, in order to analyse the behaviour of both César and Zoraida, I will compare them both:
This relationship is based on the traditional and sexist concept of marriage, this is, the man is the one with the power, the one who takes the lead of the house, whereas the woman is in charge of taking care of the children and doing the chores. The role of the woman is limited to the passivity and the waiting. Zoraida’s social background makes her useless and helpless and she cannot do anything right with the help of her husband. For instance, we can see that she cannot take Mario to get the medical attention he needed due to the absence of César. Therefore, she sees how her son falls apart and dies afterwards.
The only bonds that keep César and Zoraida together are the procreation of children and the care of the material goods that the family has. There is no body contact, no affection, not to mention the lack of sexual pleasure which is non-existent in Zoraida while César can freely exercise his sexuality with the Indian women who work for him and with the poor mestizas. This approach of the sexuality establishes in this way the most noticeable features not just of César but of the whole patriarchal community whose customs are perpetuated as time goes by without men feeling morally guilty since they see this as something regular. We also see that the intention of the author is to present a woman for whom speaking about love or eroticism as sort of pleasure is not legitimate, since it would be a sinful act for such a conservative and religious character like Zoraida. In addition to this sexist rivalry, the relation between the dominant and the dominated can be established through ideas or the intellect as we will see later.
César, the educated and calculating man towards the Indians and his wife, always seeks to grab benefits disguising his real intentions. Hierarchically, there is no one above him; in the novel, characters such as Jaime are his ‘equals’. César is the master of the Indians who are inferior to the ladinos and equally compared to the beasts: ‘Los indios no trabajan si la punta del chicote no les escuece en el lomo’ (p. 184). This sort of domination is established through the racial contempt as we see for instance when the indigenous people refuse to work until they get a new teacher and César thinks: ‘Pero se veían tan ridículos tomando en serio su papel de salvajes que quieren ser civilizados’ (p. 186). Regarding Zoraida, she does not have a say in the conversations of her husband and her comments are just to convey rejection towards the Indians. Zoraida can just have a word in the conversations of her husband when it comes to defending the family interests.
The communication of the relationship is non-existent. Zoraida keeps herself away from any abstract conversation since she cannot really understand what is going on: ‘Se aburre conmigo porque no sé platicar. Como él se educó en el extranjero … Nunca lo entendí. Ahora casi no habla conmigo’ (pp. 89-90).
The monotony is part of her lifestyle. On the other hand, she allows the readers to see that her husband is, in fact, the one that takes control over her: ‘Como es mayor que yo, me impone. Hasta me dan ganas de tratarlo de usted.’ (p. 89).
Zoraida is a mestiza and through the marriage she is able to socially ascend and be recognized as a señora, therefore she does not have to do the tasks of the servitude. However, in Chactajal, we see how she has to do some chores because the indigenous are having a celebration. Whenever César and Zoraida start a conversation they end up arguing and yelling at each other and she feels helpless due to César’s attitude towards her: ‘Zoraida se detuvo, roja de humillación. César nunca se había permitido hablarle así. Y menos delante de los extraños. Su orgullo quería protestar, reivindicarse. Pero ya no se sentía segura de su poder delante de este hombre, y el miedo a ponerse en ridículo la enmudeció.’ (p. 127).
As we see, the vulnerability and subordination of Zoraida do not allow her to react according to what she feels. She feels underestimated as a wife. On the contrary, due to this whole situation, Zoraida just suppress her feelings and that makes her frustrated leading her to an ‘internal madness’ and she kind of starts driving mad everyone around her including herself. Zoraida considers that her living expectations are disappearing. When the Argüellos are financially ruined, Zoraida appears doing domestic chores just as she did when she was a regular peasant. When the farm is burned, in an extreme point, she even thinks about leaving her husband and starting to work to support her children, but these are just transitional and unfeasible thoughts since she is not ready to carry out an independent life when in the current society is the male the one who provides financial support and stability.
She is afraid of people making fun of her; the fear of losing everything she has achieved makes her states her anxiety to the extent that she even prefers to die alongside her family: ‘No quiero regresar a Comitán como limosnera. No quiero ser pobre otra vez, prefiero que muramos todos’ (p. 195). That is when Zoraida’s internal conflict is seen as something personal (she feels frustrated) and interpersonal (she is afraid of the mockery, of being rejected by the others).
The major difference between César and Zoraida is that he has always been rich and consequently he has been respected. On the contrary, she has ascended socially through marriage and since her social background does not match with her current title, some inferior women treat her as if she was one of them.
By reading and analyzing this novel, we realize that the Mexican society by that time was completely patriarchal, chauvinist and stigmatized. Through the study of César and Zoraida, specific aspects of each gender in the community are reflected such as the sexual freedom that males could exercise as compared to the responsibilities that women had like having and raising children so that the lineage could progress.
We also see that facts like being sterile or not having a son involve a serious disgrace for the women since they are not achieving her ‘obligation’ as a wife.
Although the role of the woman is totally undervalued within the book, the female figure plays an important part from an inclusive approach, for instance, it takes the floor in two thirds of the novel, la nana is the one who transmits and incarnates the wisdom and at the same time she announces the coming death of Mario. Moreover, the male figure is largely the most affected part since Ernesto is murdered, Mario dies and this puts an end to the Argüellos lineage. Apart from that, in a novel with a Mayan name, we assume that the privileged place will be taken by the indigenous people and women. Ricardo Santiago Torre in his article says that there is also a hypothesis which says that all the women in the novel could be these ‘nine stars’: on the one hand, we find la niña Argüellos, la nana and Zoraida who belong to the main familiar atmosphere. On the other hand, we have César’s cousins: Matilde, Romelia and Francisca and last but not least there are these three female characters who belong to different atmospheres: Amalia (Zoraida’s spinster friend), Silvina (the teacher) and Juana (Felipe’s wife).
As we see, the female figure plays a double role in the novel: on one side, women are seen as a negative and discriminated element but on the other side they play a very important part from a symbolic point of view.
– Castellanos, R. 1957. Balún Canán. 5th edition. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
– Cypess, S.M. 1985. Balún-Canán: a model demonstration of discourse as power. Revista de estudios hispánicos. 19 (3) pp.1-15.
– Frischmann, D.H. 1984. El sistema patriarcal y las relaciones heterosexuales en Balún Canán, de Rosario Castellanos. Revista iberoamericana 51 (132-133) pp.665-678.