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.
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:
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.
Castellanos links by subject, including her poems in English &
Spanish, a biography and additional links to her on the Internet. **
information on Castellanos & publication list, translated from
original Spanish text, so it is not as accurate & uses male and female
pronouns interchangeably. *
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.
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.
& Teaching of Writing Methods:
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.