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Rosario Castellanos: Balún-Canán (The Nine Guardians)

Castellanos’ best-known novel is based on the experiences of her family when she was a child. The Mexican president, Lázaro Cárdenas, introduced a series of political and economic reforms designed to give the Indians greater power and greater land ownership at the expense of the well-to-do whites like Castellanos’ family and the Argüellos’ family of this book. This book (the title means nine guardians, referring to the surrounding hills, in Mayan) is divided in three parts, with the first and third parts narrated by an unnamed seven year old girl, daughter of the rich white family, the Argüellos, with the middle part being narrated by an omniscient narrator.

Castellanos is concerned with exposing both the racism (towards the Indians) and the sexism of this traditional Mexican society. The narrator has a younger brother, Mario, and everything in the family is done for his benefit, particularly trying to ensure that he will inherit his father’s land. At the same time the Indians are treated with contempt, particularly by the mother. The narrator has a nursemaid, whom she calls Nana, whom, of course, she sees more frequently than she sees her parents. From Nana, who is devoted to the Argüellos, despite their mistreatment of her and despite the criticism she receives from her fellow Indians for this devotion, she learns about the Indians and their ways and gradually becomes more sympathetic to them, particularly when there is a major feud between the Indians and her parents who are eager to resist Cárdenas’ reforms.

Castellanos is first and foremost a poet and her story tells the story not just from the point of a young girl who gradually awakens to both the sexism and racism of her family and her country but tells it in a poetical manner, which helps to make this book a classic and one well worth reading. Castellanos was not to know the uprising that would take place in Chiapas twenty years after her death but her novel clearly prefigures the problems in that part of the world and reading it will give you a better understanding of the issues there.

Publishing history

First published by Fondo de Cultura Económica in 1957
First published in English by Faber & Faber in 1959
Translated by Irene Nicholson