The Nine Guardians


The Nine Guardians is a novel revolutionary for its time, published first in Spanish in 1957 and later translated into English two years later in 1959. The book takes place during the 1930s, approximately 15 years after the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917. The turbulent story unfolds in a seies of vignettes disclosing the realities of the remote towns and haciendas of the high country of the Chiapas state in Southern Mexico.

Many themes are explored in The Nine Guardians- from looking at traditional women's roles, to the role of power and knowledge in personal and business relationships, to the precarious position of social roles that change and alter depending on the narrator's point of view and physical setting. These varying themes are shown rather than told to readers through the experiences and reflections of a seven-year old girl narrator, the child of a wealthy, old-order, hacienda-owning family.

The actions depicted in the novel revolve around the changes in Indian rights and education being made by the "reforming government" of Lazaro Cardenas, a man with an Indian heritage who at last pushed for the implementation of Indian Rights promised by the Mexican Revolution. Intricately inlaid in the text of Nine Guardians is a realistic illustration of the workaday life led by the powerful, landowning families, and within that is fitted Indian testimony of the native struggle during these agrarian and educational reforms. In the crude attempts at taking reformations from political theory to practice in the high country we experience the drama of a social system as it fits into observations filtered through the "nursery tale" world of a seven-year old little girl.

Nine Guardians is just one of many popular works written by contemporary, Mexican author Rosario Castellanos, who is often touted as "Mexico's most important woman novelist of the century" (Castellanos, front cover). She is a woman named by Carmen Naranjo as "one of the three excellent Mexican writers" who is playing a significant part in the "new, bolder women's literary movement now" that "breaks the tradition" with the classic role women are most often cast in, in more traditional Latin American literature. They are roles where "feminine heritage" is defined more by motherhood than any other role a woman may assume as her heritage is constructed over a lifetime (Naranjo, 60). The construction of Castellanos' identity as explained by Beth Jorgenson in a review of Patricia O'Connell in Prospero's Daughter, cites a complicated history to the identity. Castellanos' was most significantly effected by her participation in two connected projects: her engagement with the contradictory movement of the indigenismo, and her deconstruction of gender relations through her consistent foregrounding of female experience and self-knowledge" (363). These political and social projects are responsible for the construction of "feminist perspective and critique of Mexican nationalism" present in her written works (363).


This novel works well in literature or writing courses and is especially potent when paired with another Latin-American fiction piece or testimonio like I, Rigoberta Menchu. Pairing Castellanos' third person perspectives against a first-person account like Menchu's testimony creates a powerful dialogue between the two, offering a rich possibility for additional reading & research projects of all genres.

Chiapas, Mexico

In order to set the stage for texts like Nine Guardians and I, Rigoberta Menchu to dialogue together it is useful to compare and contrast some of the differences and similarities existing between their geographies, histories, political climates, etc. Helping students pursue additional contextual, higher-order thinking research will provide a solid base for finding links between the novels on many different levels. Some you may wish to begin with are:

  • Investigating the history of rebellion & reform in Chiapas,
  • What tasks/roles Castellanos played and took part in as Mexican ambassador to Israel,

  • What the awards she's earned mean and what they consist of,

  • How she's perceived within Mexican culture vs. American,

  • What a typical hacienda was structured like, how it ran on a day-to-day basis, types of crops grown, significance of the exported crop to the global economy,

  • How did the demographics of the high-country change as political and economic reform struggled to be put into place, etc.

    Looking at one or several of these discovery prompts will help students situate the novel and make events & places described in the story tangible, concrete and relevant to current life and culture in the global society in which we live and use as a narrative base for filtering different points of view.

  • A Zapatista soldier guards the stage at Aguas Calientes the rebels cultural and political center in the jungle village of La Realidad.

    The religion and role of Catholicism is another dimension linking the Nine Guardians with other Latin American postcolonial texts like I, Rigoberta Menchu. Catholicism touches the native struggles in both novels, being brought over from Spain during the 1500's. The religion is still practiced actively today, but takes on a negative dimension in Nine Guardians, where it seems responsible in part for the self-fulfilling prophecy of Zoraida of her son Mario's death. Mario, frightened by his mother and the medicine woman's treatments, perhaps dies out of pure fright or through supernatural forces, as his medical condition is never properly identified or treated. Doctors and his mother both give up on his illness, resigned to the fact that it must be the result of some punishment enacted by their god.

    Menchu's experience with Catholicism is less negative, as she more openly integrates aspects of the religion into the existing spirituality passed down from her ancestors. She draws strength and encouragement from old testament bible stories like the victory of Joshua in her own fight against Guatemalan leadership. Catholic nuns come to her aid in her quest to learn the Spanish language, which eventually leads to her training as a Catechist and member of the Catholic Action Group, a group based on "liberation theology." This concept of religion starkly contrasts against the beliefs in Nine Guardians in terms of motives for practicing it.

    Book: Prospero's Daughter:
    The Prose of Rosario Castellanos

    The Prose of Rosario Castellanos is a more recent book by Joanna O'Connell examining the contributions of Castellanos to Mexican literature, the Mexican women's movement, and global feminism. O'Connell investigates the development of Castellanos' "feminist perspective and critique of Mexican nationalism in two connected projects: her engagement with the contradictory movement of the indigenismo, and her deconstruction of gender relations through her consistent foregrounding of female experience and self-knowledge" over the course of a lifetime of literature writing (363).

    The book traces Castellanos' early life in Chiapas, relating the historical site of violent conflict between the Tzotzil Indians and landowning families which appear in two of her best known novels: Balun Canan (Nine Guardians) and Rites of Darkness(23). O'Connell examines Castellanos' active role in the indigenismo movement as it contributed to her perspective of constantly fluctuating victim/victimizer roles present in tales like the Nine Guardians (87).

    The fourth chapter of the book involves a discussion of Nine Guardians (Balun Canan) in its drive to tune reader's ears to the "long-erased voices [that] can be heard to speak a story of resistance beneath the history of domination" (363).

    This investigation into the prose of Castellanos is one opportunity for an internal dialogue between the novel itself and O'Connell's research on the text.

    Jorgenson, Beth. "Prospero's Daughter." Hispanic Review 65 (1997): 363- 364.

    O'Connell, Patricia. Prospero's Daughter: The Prose of Rosario Castellanos. Austin: University of Texas, 1995.

Relating to Nine Guardians through Postcolonial Theory

One article that would help situate Nine Guardians within postcolonial theory is one I recently came across in The New Centennial Review from the Michigan State University Press. Jeff Karem, of Cleveland State University uses the literary theory of Edward Said and Homi Bhabba to examine the divisive lines he theorizes have been drawn within the field of Pan-American studies, from its groundings in postcolonial theory (87).

The use of postcolonial theory to explore and explain the paradigms of power both in America and in Latin America, Karem argues, does have a number of advantages for Pan-American studies. He makes the original observation that the "colonizer/colonized dialectic" has narrowed the basis for comparison among authors, in that it "typically compares colonialist writing to colonialist writing, and resistance writing to resistance writing" (88).

Works like Nine Guardians and I, Rigoberta Menchu certainly lie within the resistance category and are appropriate texts to examine against Karem's complex synthesis of postcolonial theory's pros and cons as an agent of comparison in Pan-American studies. From his introduction, Kamen moves into the work produced by authors like the poet Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Jorge Luis Borges, who, at first blush appears as Marquez's polar opposite, but upon examination shares several similarities in his approach to political and societal resistance (89). Kamen pairs American authors Tomas Rivera and Rolando Hinojosa against these former two, "investigating the subtle distinctions in cultural work that set them apart not only from Garcia Marquez, but also from one another" (89).

Focusing on the solution of similarities between writers who are either the "oppressors and oppressed" is Kamen's aim in this article (90). His research brings forth "an analytic lens [that] may be the best way to address the promiscuous interactions in the literature of the Americas, to promote an appreciation of the dialogue and disagreements that transcend the very binaries postcolonial scholars have been using to constitute the field" (90).

Karem, Jeff. "On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Postcolonial Theory." The New Centennial Review. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2001.


1. Rosario Castellanos links by subject, including her poems in English & Spanish, a biography and additional links to her on the Internet. **

2. Teaching & Research Resources on Rosario Castellanos as well as supplemental questions/answers to topics in The Nine Guardians. ***

3. Biographical information on Castellanos & publication list, translated from original Spanish text, so it is not as accurate & uses male and female pronouns interchangeably. *

4. Bibliography of works on and about Rosario Castellanos. A complete list of print sources on and about the author. *

5. Editorial & customer reviews of The Nine Guardians as well as ordering information on**

6.A review of the Nine Guardians by the krying muse. A lover of Latin-American fiction shares her personal review of the sad but accurate tale told by Castellanos. **

7. Get the most out of reading the Nine Guardians. A brief summary alongside reading clues and questions to bear in mind while reading, as well as several useful links to more in-depth information on the region of Chiapas, Mayan literature revival, biographies of Mexican revolutionaries, current news on plantation development in Chiapas, and more. ***

8. List of all publications by Rosario Castellanos and links to purchase them on-line. *

9. "Wealth Inequality and Overexploitation of the Commons" a scholarly essay detailing an experiment on wealth-related differences in Columbia, centered with a quote from Nine Guardians regarding rich and poor and the portrayal of truth in life and thereafter. **

10. Historical, scenic and political information: Chiapas, Mexico. Photographs and up-to-date political information on the city of Chiapas and its people.**


The links above provide a wealth of supplemental information to issues, places, print sources, and people relevant or related to Nine Guardians. They may serve as rich bases of information to accent readings, introduce the historical and political dimensions of the novel, and prompt additional discussion questions.

I've included some discussion questions & research prompts to follow the reading, that might be useful when initiating book discussion in class.

Introducing the Novel Nine Guardians:

  • Because of the number of characters mentioned and active in the novel, it is useful to ask students:
    Who the characters are, how they're related, etc. and to diagram that information visually on a dry erase or chalk board.
  • Discuss who each character is, as they are introduced by the narrator, and how he/she contributes to the story being told.
  • Zoom out of individual characters, and ask the broad question "What are the differences between males and females in the novel?" "What types of roles do they play, within families and the community in which they live?
  • What is the importance of family in the novel?
  • Does it differ between the Indians and Spanish hacienda owners?
  • Which characters appear to be most significant to this narrator?

    Midway Through the Novel:
  • What might Nine Guardians have in common with poetry, stylistically? How does the text become poetic at times?
  • What is the significance of the 7-year old girl narrating the story?
  • Is it significant that we never learn her name?
  • Pick out one scene from the book and use it to illustrate one instance of foreshadowing.
  • How did you feel persuaded, or not, to believe the events taking place between landowners and Indians as told by the narrator?
  • Why do the women depicted in the novel so often seem trapped by or within their own minds?
  • How did you react to Zoraida's attitude and behavior toward the narrator, in comparison to her treatment of Mario?

    Finishing the Novel:
  • What did you learn about plantation or hacienda life from this story?
  • How do you react when reading stereotypical, or racist comments spoken by the Patrones (Arguellos) to the Indians? (Example, p. 79, 94, 140, 144)
  • What is similar between the relationship dynamics of the patrones/Indians to that characteristic of blacks/whites in our own country pre-civil war, and after?
  • How do you see traces of the racist, superior/inferior state of mind in groups and places in our current culture?
  • What effect was created by Castellanos choosing the 3rd person point of view for narration?
  • How might the tone and shape of the Nine Guardians story change if it were narrated from an adult point of view? a.)Imagine the differences & sketch out notes, make a chart, or drawing on how the story would be different.
    b.)Create an alternative narrative to Nine Guardians using an adult voice, either of Spanish, Indian or Mestizo descent, and of either male or female gender.

    Young Adult Companion Texts:

Frank, Otto ed. The Diary of a Young Girl: Anne Frank. New York: Bantam, 1995.

This classic tale would provide an interesting contrast to the young narrator's experience in Nine Guardians. The resilience of the human spirit manifests itself differently in each story, though their experiences are markedly different, their survival through their coming-of-age shares an identifiable innocence through the stories each relays. Anne possesses her own wisdom, and speaks from living conditions "few teenagers have ever known-" unless you are talking about Rigoberta Menchu or the Indian children in Nine Guardians. Anne's innocence and adult-like observations hold much potential for comparison of personal values and beliefs central to critical thought in writing.

Wong, Jade Snow. Fifth Chinese Daughter. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1950.

An coming of age story from the perspective of a Chinese American girl's perspective. It is an interesting narrative to pair with works like Woman at Point Zero, I, Rigoberta Menchu, The Dark Child, or The Nine Guardians. Snow struggles with growing up "American" and not losing her Chinese cultural heritage she so values. A unique perspective for any reader.

Recommended Course Reader:
One possible companion text for the novels mentioned on our site is a multicultural reader from Allyn & Bacon One World, Many Cultures (Second Edition). This reader has sixty-eight nonfiction excerpts from writers like Rigoberta Menchu, Camara Laye, Jamaica Kincaid, Nawal El Saadawi, and many other well-known individuals from a broad span of cultures. These stories aid students in exploring different cultural perspectives and finding their own through writing, as well as providing a base for literary interpretation and criticism within the strategies present in each writer's piece.

Related Films:

"El Norte."

"Viva Zapata."

Cultural Studies & Teaching of Writing Methods:
Journal Articles

Gere, Anne Ruggles. "Revealing Silence: Rethinking Personal Writing." CCC 53 (2001) 203- 223.

Gonslaves, Lisa. "Making Connections: Addressing the Pitfalls of White Faculty/Black Male Student Communication." CCC 53 (2002): 435- 465.

Powell, Malea. "Rhetorics of Survivance: How American Indians Use Writing." CCC 53 (2002): 396- 434.

Shafer, Gregory. "Literary Transactions and Women Writers." Teaching English in the Two-Year College 29 (2001): 135- 143.

Young, Morris. "Standard English and Student Bodies: Institutionalizing Race and Literacy in Hawai'i." College English 64 (2002): 405- 431.


Arizpe, Lourdes. "An Interview with Carmen Naranjo." Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5 (1979). Rpt. in Revising the Word and the World. Ed. Clark, VeVe, Joeres, Ruth-Ellen, & Sprengnether, Madelon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. 51-63.

Castellanos, Rosario. The Nine Guardians. Columbia,LA: Readers International Inc. 1959.

Jehenson, Myriam. Latin-American Women Writers: Class, Race, and Gender. Albany: State University of New York Press. 1995.

Jorgenson, Beth. "Prospero's Daughter." Hispanic Review (65), 1997. 363- 364.

Karem, Jeff. "On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Postcolonial Theory." The New Centennial Review. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2001. 87- 116.

O'Connell, Patricia. Prospero's Daughter: The Prose of Rosario Castellanos. Austin: University of Texas, 1995.

Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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Last Updated: May 2, 2002