Driven from Below:
A Story of Agrarian Reform in Chiapas
*Associate Professor of History, University at Albany, State University of New York, email@example.com.
Rosario Castellanos, The Nine Guardians.1
When one begins reading The Nine Guardians, Rosario Castellanos’ first novel, two things stand out. First, though published in 1957, the novel is set in the 1930s, at the height of Mexico’s era of post-revolutionary reform. A great many things happened during that decade, including the nationalisation of Mexico’s oil industry, massive expansion of the public education and health systems, and the launch of a sustained effort towards building a modern, industrialised Mexico. More than anything else though, the 1930s (and especially the Presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, between 1934 and 1940) are remembered as the most significant period of agrarian reform: 45 million acres of land were distributed to the rural poor during these years, a process by which one in three Mexicans received land from the state. Secondly, it is notable that the setting of the novel is Chiapas, a state that remained relatively quiet during the height of the Revolution (roughly 1910–20), and where entrenched local elites were mostly successful at beating back the pressures of revolutionary reform. Castellanos thus promises us a story of agrarian reform in a region that, for the most part, was relatively untouched by it. For scholars of agrarian change, The Nine Guardians offers a powerful account of how reform came about as a result of action from below on the part of indigenous labour, with only limited support from agents of the state. This is a view of the reform that was only taken up later by historians and social scientists.2
The tension over agrarian reform animates not just this novel, but the entire history of Mexico’s revolutionary era. The major signposts of the story are certainly well known, and have been for more than a century. Mexico erupted in revolution in 1910, an orgy of violence that spoke to decades of peasant dispossession, the closing of the northern frontier, and long-suppressed demands for increased political liberty. After a decade of civil war, the country gradually saw a decline in violence during the 1920s. The Revolution produced a series of icons including the peasant revolutionary Emiliano Zapata and the cowboy revolutionary Pancho Villa, but the group that consolidated power after 1917, known as the Constitutionalists, viewed these figures as backward, as enemies to be eliminated. In short order both Zapata and Villa were assassinated, and the new regime set out to re-establish a liberal economic order that in many ways resembled that of the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911).3
With over a million people dead and the country in ruins, the new regime (often called the Sonoran dynasty, for the provenance of many early rulers) sought to impose order on the country, to rebuild the economy, and to re-impose the liberal regime of markets, trade, and private property that had characterised the ancien régime, albeit without the openly authoritarian bent of the dictatorship. They also sought to modernise the country, to rid public life of what they viewed as retrograde Catholic traditions, and to tame the rural barbarism that they feared was one of the sources of revolutionary violence. Mexico’s revolutionary elite did govern under a new Constitution, passed in 1917, which created legal mechanisms for widespread agrarian reform, but they mostly ignored these provisions of the Constitution, believing that any effort that put land in the hands of the poor would stifle national development. Looking at a region like Chiapas, they were far more sympathetic to the owners of the coffee fincas and other large agricultural estates (many of them German in origin) than they were to the indigenous peoples who toiled on those estates.4 They believed the former represented progress and the latter atavism.
This blindness was a cause of the downfall of the Sonorans. Unable to comprehend the piety of the peasants in Mexico’s western states, they touched off further rebellions with their anti-clericalism.5 Before Cárdenas became President in 1934 he was the Governor of the State of Michoacán, where his efforts to end a rebellion known as the Cristiada taught him enduring lessons about the persistence of popular discontent. This in turn animated his run for the presidency in 1934, and informed a regime that would commit itself more than any other to empowering the masses.6 Some of the most acute struggles over this agenda would take place in Chiapas, where Cárdenas battled landowners, local political elites, and others for years in an effort to implement constitutional reforms. Cardenistas believed that their agenda had an enormous constituency in the State, but that it would thrive or die depending on their capacity to counteract the power of Chiapanecan elites (see Nolan-Ferrell 2010).
It was not just their recalcitrance about reform that typified the Chiapanecan elites. They were also shaped by the fact that indigenous peoples (as defined by language and custom) comprised a significant percentage of the State’s population. Seen from the perspective of Mexico City, the indigenous populations in States like Chiapas represented a barrier to progress that could be overcome through schooling, agricultural aid, and a host of other projects designed – as Lázaro Cárdenas famously declared – to ‘Mexicanise’ the Indian.7 Such a desire was almost entirely alien to the traditional rulers of Chiapas, who would see their way of life upended should the Cardenistas succeed. Of course, they had reason to hope that through a combination of negotiation, bribery, and resistance, they could wait out the reforms. Local elites still held most of the power, and the federal government was distant and relatively weak, its officials often powerless to implement their agendas in the face of local pressures. Just as the regime had swung to the left in 1934, it was likely to swing back to the right (as in fact it did) once Cárdenas left office. Any success the locals had in holding off the reform was likely to pay dividends down the line.
These battles were long since over when Rosario Castellanos took up the pen nearly two decades later. The great era of revolutionary reform ended in 1940, the emancipatory project jettisoned for industrialisation, overseen by a one-party state that Mario Vargas Llosa would describe as the “perfect dictatorship.” Land reform in Chiapas had come and gone, while rural poverty and vast inequality persisted. So too did the indigenous communities and strong indigenous identities that the Cardenistas tried to erase in the interests of nation-building. In Castellanos’ world the question was no longer how Indians could be made into Mexicans, but why they insisted on remaining Indians in spite of decades of government efforts to get them to shed their identities. In writing The Nine Guardians, Castellanos set out to understand not just the failure of reform but why ancient antagonisms persisted, and why the efforts of the revolutionary state to wipe them out had failed so completely.
Born in Mexico City in 1925, Rosario Castellanos drew from an earlier generation of revolutionary intellectuals for inspiration, but wrote from a unique perspective. Her family was from Chiapas and had been made rich by coffee fincas in the State. They returned to Chiapas shortly after her birth, and she spent the first years of her life moving between the family home in highland Comitán and their fincas in the lowlands. Coming of age in the 1930s, Castellanos grew up in a setting where the rhetoric of the revolution and revolutionary nationalism were never really aligned to the facts on the ground (see Lewis 2005; Rus 1994).
The Castellanos family lost much of their land to agrarian reforms during the Cárdenas sexenio, and they returned to Mexico City when Rosario was 15. Reduced to middle-class status, she suffered further setbacks when her parents died seven years later, leaving her with no family. And yet, the tragedies left her in some ways free of the bourgeois pressures faced by other Mexican women of her age and status. She threw herself into her studies, into poetry and writing, and began what would become a lifelong effort to come to terms with her family’s place within the turbulent history of Chiapas. Largely autobiographical, The Nine Guardians is set in the town of Comitán, on a fictional family estate. The patriarch of the family, César, shares a name with the author’s father, and like him, had been educated abroad. The mother, like Castellanos’ own, comes from a humble background. The death of the older brother, like that of her own brother Benjamin, occupies a critical plot-point in the narrative, as does the struggle over the future of the family’s landholdings in rural Chiapas. Castellanos was thus ideally situated to tell the story of agrarian reform, particularly so if it was to be told as a tragedy. Most Chiapanecan elites viewed the transfer of land titles to indigenous labourers as both foolish and tragic. And yet, though there are tragic elements in the text, the novel is not at all the type of lament that one would expect from a dispossessed member of the elites. It is a coming-out of sorts, a rejection of the legacies Castellanos had inherited and an effort to begin anew. It is an effort to re-narrate the family’s loss as a form of justice.
The story itself is not too complicated. We begin by meeting the Argüello family: César, his wife Zoraida, their son Mario, and Mario’s younger sister, who goes unnamed and is the principal narrator of the first and final portions of the text. Though stuck in a relatively loveless marriage, the Argüellos have the advantage of being a part of the Chiapas aristocracy, a family with long ties to the State and extensive landholdings. Their political influence is perhaps greater than their economic power, which was already precarious before the advent of the agrarian reform. Most of the action takes place on the family finca in Chactajal, a remote rural region that is several days’ journey from Comitán, which itself is something of an outpost in a State that feels like the frontier. Already suffering from a certain amount of financial distress and concerned that he needs to deal directly with unrest on the estate, César decides to decamp from Comitán and take the entire family to the finca. Because part of the unrest on the estate concerns the demand that he hire a teacher for the local Indians (a demand that came from the Indians, who had learned that the 1917 Constitution required that he hire one), and César is rather put out by such uppityness, he looks around for the least suited candidate he might find for the position. He finds such a person in his feckless nephew Ernesto, the impoverished illegitimate son of his dead brother.
César’s presence on the estate also serves to address another looming problem, the threat of expropriation. Land ownership in an era of agrarian reform is already a murky question. Edicts coming from Mexico City can be countermanded by resistance from the State capital, and at the end of the day, the best way to guarantee one’s property in a region like this is through physical force, a strategy that requires César’s presence. He can stare down the Indians, the agrarian inspectors, the bureaucrats from Mexico City, and hold the line until the winds coming from the centre change. And in the meantime, he oversees the sugar harvest, makes sure outstanding debts are paid, and ensures that the work of the finca can carry on for another year.
The trip itself is a comedy of errors. Along the way, they visit César’s cousins, three sisters who live in the countryside and are increasingly swept up by a series of mystical and seemingly diabolic forces – forces that seem destined to wipe out the Ladinos if they cannot control them.8 On the estate César finds restless workers led by an agitator, Felipe Carranza Pech, who is demanding a school. César has pre-emptively hired Ernesto, a man he believes has no vocation for teaching and will be a disaster, thinking that by installing an idiot in the role he might outsmart the Tzeltal-speaking Indians. He has however underestimated the unrest on the estates, and the results will be disastrous for him and his family. By the end, it is not at all certain who has title to the estates, but it is clear that the Argüellos are gone, never to return.
These key plot-points do not distinguish the story from other epics of the revolutionary era. What does distinguish The Nine Guardians is the attention that Castellanos places on shifting from one narrative point of view to another, thus allowing the book to be read as epic, tragedy, or even comedy. In part, it is structural. When the action is in Comitán (in roughly the first third and final third of the novel), the story is told in the voice of the unnamed daughter (presumably Castellanos herself). At Chactajal (the finca) it is told through multiple narrators including members of her family, but also in the voice of several Indians on the estate including Felipe and his wife. The result is remarkable for a Mexican novel of this era.
As the novel begins and ends with the Ladino point of view, so shall we. At first glance, we are treated to a story of elites in a state of precipitous decline, somewhat akin to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Their power and income derive from the fincas, and these are already much reduced even before the threat of agrarian reform. César has already brought Chactajal back from the brink of bankruptcy once, but the signs of failure are everywhere. At the finca the Argüellos eat poorly, dining off of chipped pewter plates. Rats and possums scurry in the rafters after dark. Worse still, César is so consumed with his reduced status that he feels he must puff up his value in front of Ernesto. He insults the young man by noting not only that his father (César’s brother) committed suicide, but that he did so because of crippling debts that his wealthy wife had refused to pay. Indeed, debt is everywhere. One bad harvest and the finca will be lost to creditors. Zoraida, who lost her father at an early age, grew up penniless, desperate for money, and hounded by debtors, and was only saved by her marriage to César. The agrarian crisis, it seems, is the risk that these straitened landowners face even before the Mexican state threatens their livelihoods with agrarian reform.
It is worth lingering on this aspect of the text, at least in part because Castellanos gives us a clear view of the lives of elites under threat, and particularly the way that their own sense of victimhood and casual racism makes the suffering of the vast majority invisible. There is brilliance in her ability to write from the perspective of the landowners. We don’t see wealthy, greedy elites, but instead landowners who are barely holding on, who on the one hand confront a state that is imposing its will from outside, and on the other hand confront an indigenous population they view as impossibly rustic.
When confronted with evidence of the terrible working conditions on coastal estates, César expresses no sympathy. “They go, the dullest witted among them, thinking of profit and unaware that no one returns from those climates alive. They’re not worth pitying” (Castellanos  1992, p. 93). Zoraida feels similarly about the Indians on the finca.
They’re so uncouth they’re incapable of learning Spanish. The first time I came to Chactajal I wanted to teach the woman who looked after my baby. Not a word could she get into her head. She couldn’t even pronounce the F. And yet there are people who say they’re the same as us. (Ibid., p. 95)
These sentiments in turn justify César’s repeated sexual predations on the finca, a practice he successfully encourages Ernesto to emulate (ibid., pp. 80–81). The impressions we are left with of César and Ernesto are unambiguous. They are morally weak, cowardly, vain, given to fits of anger. They assert their authority through violence, sexual and otherwise.
César is also a fool. He has misread his power on the hacienda, presumed that he can enforce order (he actually laments the passing of simpler times, when Indians were more compliant), misread the very nature of the relationship between himself and his subordinates. He assumes that his casual sexual violence only enhances his power (he admits to fathering a number of children on the hacienda, and assumes that the women he raped benefited from higher status because of his predations), and is shocked when their children – his children – are among the agitators against him. He also misreads his ability to turn to local power-brokers to help him in a moment of ruin.
Ernesto is even more of a fool, disinterested in any vocation, cowardly, and almost pathetically abusive towards women. He accepts a job as a teacher without any actual interest in being one, proves too squeamish around livestock to be a proper rancher, and takes to drinking prodigiously in the school, inciting mockery from the students, with whom he cannot communicate. He abuses women in the community, and when he actually impregnates his distant cousin Mathilde, proves unable to save her from nearly drowning in the river on the finca (it is a local Indian who pulls her out of the water) in spite of his professions of love for her. Later, after beating his students and bringing the crisis on the hacienda to a head, he will come to a fitting end at the hands of his erstwhile charges.
The women fare better, but barely. They are wiser, more worldly, more alert to the dangers they face, but they are also quite unkind to one another. Amalia (Zoraida’s spinster friend), who wanted to be a nun, cares for her mother only because she was refused entry to the convent once her mother became ill. Francisca (César’s cousin) drives her sisters off their estate with her sorcery, and is indifferent to their fate. Zoraida is indifferent towards her own daughter, and treats her female servants with complete contempt. In part because she was raised in poverty and only saved by her marriage to César, she, more than any other female, is deeply aware of the power of patriarchy and is committed to maintaining order.
By contrast, Castellanos’ tone takes a remarkable turn when she attempts to give voice to her indigenous subjects. We get our first glimpse of the Indians’ views on proper ownership of the land early in the text, when the narrator stumbles across a series of letters in her father’s study. Far from the bumbling fools of her father’s rendering, these letters, which are from the Indians on the estate, speak to a series of longstanding grievances. The land belonged to the Indians before the arrival of the Argüellos. Though the family claimed the land, they never did the work, never produced the crops, and had no rightful or just claim to ownership of these lands. And the Indians would remain there long after the Argüellos were gone.
The letters give the first clear indication that the locals are fully aware of their plight, and the effort by the narrator’s mother to whisk them away is a reminder that the Argüellos similarly understand this injustice. That Zoraida chastises her daughter for looking at something that properly belongs to Mario reminds the reader of the double bind of race and gender that our young protagonist must negotiate. Left unsaid is the fact that in the very act of writing these letters the Indians on the estate have laid claim to the written word, and used Spanish to denounce their overlords. All we can know is that there is menace in these words, and that they speak to affairs of men to which our narrator is not permitted access (ibid., pp. 55–57).
The novel is replete with other hints at trouble. César’s three cousins, who live on their finca, seem to be sinking into a variety of forms of madness, the older of the three (Francisca) increasingly enmeshed in sorcery in order to hold sway over her Indian subjects. Young male Indians increasingly cross imaginary boundaries in the text, overturning the rules of social deference, if not quite acting defiantly. We see this illustrated most aptly in an incident by the river on the finca, when a group of Indian boys come across women bathing. Instead of waiting at a distance for the Ladino women to leave, they violate the social order by swimming while the women are still at the river. Then, though they speak almost no Spanish, they laughingly call one another compañero/comrade (ibid., p. 145).
In this encounter Castellanos reminds us that though the Indians have long played a formal game of deference – convincing the bosses that they are submissive – they are now acting out their refusal to accept the legitimacy of the order in a variety of ways. In the past these performances relied on the mystical realm. Conjurers, evil spirits, and spells acted as channels for various forms of opposition (as well as acting as a means for explaining misfortune as fate). When, however, the pupils by the river call one another comrade, they have activated the language of class consciousness, of revolution. Their consciousness is nothing new, but the opportunity to express it so openly is.
What we see here are sentiments that seem to be moving from the hidden transcripts of James Scott towards open bellicosity (Scott 1992). Like the slaves on the verge of revolt in Viotti da Costa’s Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood (1997), they have long shrouded their small acts of defiance in larger performances of deference that the Ladinos could only read as bumbling idiocy. When these young men cross a well-known line – even though they do it in a way that is not openly threatening – the message they send is clear. The system is breaking down, and it is not going to end well for the ruling classes.
Felipe, the leader of the Indians on the finca, acts as the most direct expression of revolutionary sentiments. He enters the narrative when he confronts César, almost immediately upon his arrival at Chactajal, demanding that the school he and his friends had built be staffed with a teacher. When asked why he wants the teacher, he abandons a history in which deference and gratitude framed relations with the patrón (the boss). He answers simply, “I want the law to be kept” (ibid., p. 96). Law, up to this point, had been the patrón, but Felipe has been to Tampico. He has heard Lázaro Cárdenas speak. He knows that he has a new weapon in his arsenal (ibid., p. 99).
Felipe also embodies the view that agrarian reform represents justice for a centuries-old crime. In his own words:
Our grandparents were builders. They created Chactajal. They built the chapel where we see it now. They sowed grain. They fixed the boundaries of the cattle-pens. It wasn’t the patrons, the whites; they merely ordered the work to be done and saw it completed. It was our grandparents who did it. (Ibid., p. 98)
Felipe’s narrative is a reminder that the peasant’s memory is long. What the state provided was not so much consciousness-raising as it was an opportunity. Felipe’s wife, with whom he has a barren marriage, worries about what he is doing, but not so much out of loyalty to the Argüellos as out of fear about the consequences they might face for confronting the old order. This fear seems about to be realised when the Indians, led by Felipe, go on strike during the sugar harvest, insisting that they will not go back to work until César hires a competent Tzeltal-speaking teacher in Chactajal.9 César forces them back to work at gunpoint, but his victory is short-lived. As the Indians eat lunch a massive fire engulfs first the sugar mill, and then the entire finca. Everything is ruined. The Indians see evil spirits here but know that one of them is responsible, and they are racked with distress and recrimination (ibid., pp. 178–9).
Peasant justice is brutal but it is necessary, and it is most definitely not land reform from above. This is not the state enacting the reform. It is long-suffering peasants using the tools at their disposal literally to drive abusive finqueros off the land, taking advantage of the fissures between national and local elites to press their advantage. Indeed, we do not see a competent or even a visionary state here. Where the federal government is more than a spectre, it is incompetent, capricious, as likely to make things worse as make things better. Only two federal agents populate the text, and both inspire little confidence. The Federal School Inspector shuts down the only school available to the children of Comitán because they have learned the catechism. Gonzalo Utrilla, the Agrarian Reform Inspector, is driven not by a sense of justice but a desire to take revenge on a godfather who had spurned him. He announces that the land is the property of the peasants, feigning to inform the peasants of something they already know, but lacks both the paperwork and the muscle to do anything about the situation (ibid., pp. 128–32).
This is far from the “perfect dictatorship” imagined by Vargas Llosa. We are instead reminded of a state that talked big, insisting on schools and land reform, but whose agents were largely powerless to enact real reform. It is indeed the Indians of Chactajal, who have long understood their own suffering, that are the agents of reform. César’s misfortune is individual, particular, highlighted by a series of contingent events that make the recovery of his land impossible. He fails in his efforts to summon help from Ocosingo to put down the revolt. The son of César’s friend and fellow finquero Jaime Revelo, now a powerful lawyer, refuses to help either of them, as he has concluded that the fincas are stolen land. The Governor, on the verge of coming to his aid, is called away to Mexico City (where we assume he is read the riot act).
Felipe, by contrast, shapes events to his liking as he and the peasants enact their reforms through three specific acts. First, they demand that César follow the 1917 Constitution and provide them with a teacher. Secondly, when their efforts result in threats of violence from César, they burn the finca to the ground (driving the Argüellos to ruin). Thirdly, when César dispatches his nephew Ernesto (the incompetent and abusive teacher in their school) to Ocosingo to get help from the Municipal President, they follow him and assassinate him on the way. Ernesto’s body is lashed to his horse and the horse dispatched to Chactajal. The message is delivered, and the Argüellos abandon their estate for Comitán. Though it seems pretty clear that Felipe is the author of all these acts, the actual perpetrators are never identified (indeed, Felipe could not have started the fire himself as he was not in the fields that day). It is the work of the entire community.
If the doom already hanging over the family is not enough, after they return home to Comitán, Nana (the narrator’s nanny) tells Zoraida that the Indians at Chactajal have placed a curse on Mario and that he will die. From the perspective of the Indians (though not clearly Nana, who is also Tzeltal), the curse represents the final step in assuring that what they have taken from the Argüellos can never be taken back. Mario is the sole male heir, and with his death, the family’s claim to this property also dies. In this sense, the curse represents the ultimate evocation of the rough justice of the Revolution, but one with a particularly original twist.
Mario is entirely healthy, and the idea that he will fall victim to some sort of a curse seems on the face of it absurd. Yet Zoraida, as well as our narrator, knows better. She angrily assaults Nana and then casts her out of the house, but the two of them wait in deep despair for the inevitable. Consumed with the fate of her only son, she loses any sight of the narrator. She laments, “not the boy” (an utterance said to be taken from Castellanos’ mother’s response to the death of her brother Benjamin), in the presence of her daughter, reminding her that she is of no value.
As Zoraida understood it, Mario was literally being consumed by the Indians at Chactajal, and there is nothing she can do about it. As readers we are shocked as a seemingly healthy Mario slowly succumbs to a mysterious illness, which the local doctor first denies and then concludes is so grave as to preclude moving the boy to a hospital in Mexico City, where he might get better treatment. Mario, everyone understands, has been cursed and will die. And the Argüellos, lacking a male heir, will have lost their lands forever. Ever the fool César loses his chance to say goodbye to his dying son because he remains in the State capital in a futile effort to get an audience with the Governor, in spite of Zoraida’s repeated requests that he return home (see Cypess 1985 and Woodrich 2010).
It also is in the curse placed on Mario that Ladino and Indian cosmologies come together. Yes, the Indians of Chactajal placed the curse, but Zoraida knows its power to be real. It is a shared world of spirits and spells, of mystical powers, of things we fail to believe at our peril.10 That César and the doctor do not understand this power is their failing. Zoraida, Nana, and the narrator know that Mario is doomed. They are in this sense not unlike César’s cousin, Francisca, the only Argüello who manages to hold on to her finca in these troubling times. Francisca’s success is rooted in the fact that she has become a witch-doctor in league with the forest spirit dzulúm, and has gained powers over the Indians on her estate. They remain relatively docile because they fear her powers. In the process, however, she has driven away both her sisters, one to madness and death, and the other forced to return to an unfortunate marriage.
These incidents resonate with José Arguedas’ Rios Profundos/Deep Rivers, which offers a similar effort to incorporate indigenous cosmovisions in a text written largely from a Ladino point of view. Arguedas was raised by Quechua-speaking servants and identified with their worlds, in the same way that Castellanos’ first real character in the text, the young daughter who goes without a name, identifies most closely with Nana, her Indian nanny. For Castellanos, as with Arguedas, this serves as the basis of a concerted effort to give voice not only to a Ladino culture in which magic and spells exist, but also to an indigenous culture in which political acts are shrouded in mystical origins. We cannot be sure if the gods actually exist or if they merely provide a language that first explains powerlessness (Felipe’s wife’s fear of action) and then spurs action (the curse on Mario). In Castellanos’ telling it does not really matter, as these spirits are real enough to all involved. Such a position would be deeply unfashionable today, a reason to accuse Castellanos of appropriating indigenous cultures for her text. At the time, however, it represented a concerted effort to give voice to the other in a way that was not patently patronising.
In part she succeeds here because her Ladino characters, even the seven-year-old narrator, remain impossibly cut off from the worlds of their Tzeltal-speaking servants. There are things the Ladinos simply cannot and do not understand, and that failure is as much about their own racism as anything else. This point is driven home in the final scene of the novel, where the narrator, who to this point was passive, if pained, reveals her inability to see the Indian subjects of the novel as fully human. As she walks down a street in Comitán, consumed with grief over the death of her brother and fearful that she had something to do with it, she sees Nana in the street and runs up to her for an embrace. She realises only too late that it is not Nana.
As soon as I see her I . . . run towards her with open arms. It’s my Nana! But the Indian watches me quite impassively, making no welcoming sign. I slow up – slower and slower till I stop. I let my arms drop, altogether discouraged. Even if I see her, I’ll never recognise her now. It’s so long since we’ve parted. Besides, all Indians look alike. (Ibid., p. 271)
Castellanos’ brilliant use of the seven-year-old narrator, concluding the text with her interpolation into a system where racial logics are re-inscribed generation after generation, leaves the reader with a certain sense of dread. The narrator is young, innocent, loves her Nana. She is not inherently racist, though she is learning. She is growing into a world in which she might share a great deal with the other – she is similarly situated in a world of magic and superstition – but she is also destined to reproduce the violent racial hierarchies she inherited.11
By ending with this incident Castellanos also reminds us that while the Argüellos are in reduced circumstances (like her own family), certain core features of the deep inequality that has long characterised Chiapas remain unchanged. The Ladino elites remain locked in their racist world-views. A federal state that offered people like Felipe great pronouncements about land reform actually did very little to enact that reform. When not petty tyrants, federal officials were outsiders with little understanding of the customs of the region, both incompetent and ineffective. In the end, it was only the willingness of Felipe and his compatriots to take matters into their own hands that made land reform possible. Felipe relies on the divisions he sees among the elites to press his case (the rupture between local and national elites, and the minor cracks locally, where a few young people embrace agrarian reform as an opportunity for justice), but the reform is entirely enacted by Indians on the fincas. Writing in 1957, when those fissures had healed, Castellanos reminds us that the promises of the Revolution will only ever be fulfilled when the poor take matters into their own hands.
This also represents Castellanos’ answer as to why indigenous identities persist. To be Tzeltal is to be conscious that these lands belonged to your ancestors, and that your people have worked these lands for centuries. It is to have an identity that one can assert in the face of a Ladino society that seeks to make you faceless, invisible. And it is an identity with the power to unite people in revolutionary acts against a Ladino enemy. At the very least, it persists because of the persistence of racism and inequality.
“The Nine Guardians” as History
The Mexican Revolution and the agrarian reform that followed represent the most well-studied events in the nation’s history. Over time, the effort to find the sources of revolutionary fervour and understand the impact of agrarian reform shifted from what began as a fairly state-centric and romantic approach in the 1920s and 1930s, to a regionalised, ultimately micro-historical approach to the Revolution by the 1970s – a trend in the historiography that maps pretty well on to the gradual shift from optimism over the possibilities of the Revolution (and the revolutionary state) in its early years to gradual disillusion with the violence and corruption of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) by the end of the 1960s (a shift punctuated by the Tlatelolco massacre of protesting students on October 2, 1968).12 As in other settings where a revolutionary state has tried to create a narrative of the past in order to extend its authority over the present, much of that scholarship has sought to debunk a series of myths about the power and extension of the Mexican state, to bring local and regional actors into the story.13 Yet this is invariably a vexing task, as many of the actors whom we most need to hear from can be difficult to find in the historical record. It is here, then, that a novelist with the talents of Rosario Castellanos offers us something particularly valuable.
In part this is because Castellanos has written a consciously polyphonic text. The Nine Guardians represents an original and early attempt at cultivating a distinct voice for the other. As such, it departs sharply from the tradition that characterised the first great indigenista novel, Gregorio López y Fuentes’ 1934 El Indio, which was notable mostly for the way it reproduced myths about the idiocy of rural life. His Indians are basically mute, their beliefs archaic, and they represent a drag on a nation that is in danger of failing if it does not shape the rural masses into modern political subjects (see, for example, López 1996). In The Nine Guardians, we have an indigenous subject who is more fully human than the Indian in López y Fuentes’, but also more fully a political agent.14 Contemporary scholars warn us away from this task, insisting that attempts to give voice to the other in this fashion invariably result in an act of appropriation as well as a distortion of the indigenous voice. We might even call it a form of ventriloquism, though one that is somewhat less heinous than others because Castellanos does not hide the true author of the text.15
These objections merit consideration, though they don’t justify dismissing this text entirely as yet another expression of settler colonialism. Castellanos’ approach can be defended because of the life she breathes into the indigenous characters in The Nine Guardians. She gives us relatively fully formed characters with agency, a view of the world, goals and the means to achieve them. In her rendering the rebellion is brutal, and anything but atavistic. Her characters’ concerns are real, their passions and flaws are also painfully real. Their aspirations, even their superstitions (which align with the superstitions of the Argüellos), are part of a portrait in which they are political actors embedded within a system of domination that they understand perfectly. Yes, they are victims of injustice, but they are not foggy-headed masses unable to understand their plight. They are not victims of contradictory or false consciousness. Like the peasants described by James Scott, they struggle against their oppressors even as they perform deference. We know fully that the system of deference and white power that runs through the novel, and upon which the Argüellos rely for their sense of well-being, exists not because of the natural obedience of the Indians but because of the brute force of white supremacy.
If we are to find fault with this rendering of the Tzeltal characters in the text, it would be because their consciousness is so fully legible to a western audience. We are given access to their desires and beliefs, and though we can see that they are a little superstitious, they are no more superstitious than their overlords. A belief in the supernatural, shared by both the Indians and the Ladinos, speaks to the rusticity of both in the Mexican hinterlands. Moreover, all their actions, from demanding a school to menacing bathers by the river and burning down the finca, can be understood as tied up in demands for justice. This, then, is the conundrum that Chakrabarty (2007) points out so eloquently in Provincialising Europe. Castellanos reveals her mid-century sensibilities in the text, rendering the Tzeltal subjects in terms that might be distorted merely because she has made them comprehensible to the western reader. She is sympathetic, far more sympathetic than most, but she remains committed to a version of the Mexican past in which we understand indigenous subjectivities through a lens that privileges class. What we lack is a chance to consider indigenous cosmovisions that might entail entirely different relationships to the material and magical worlds.16 We lack a sense of a Tzeltal culture that has nothing to do with the conditions of their oppression, that is self-referential, instead of something that exists largely in relation to their exploiters.
Castellanos does not suffer from the same problems when she trains her gaze on the Ladino characters in the text. Writing decades before Carlos Fuentes skewered revolutionary elites in The Death of Artemio Cruz, she somehow manages to go further than Fuentes by linking the new elite and the old, and lacing it with a subtle but brutal critique of gender norms. Because of its brilliance this aspect of the narrative also seems fairly timeless. Contemporary readers can find morality tales about the hubris of sheltered elites, alarming stories about masculinity and violence, and a deeply tragic series of stories about womanhood – in particular about the role that older women play in forcing younger women to align themselves with the demands of the patriarchy. It is, in the end, the personal quality of the narrative, the sense that Castellanos is telling the story of her own life, that gives the story its power.
As a rule, scholarly efforts to access these forms of interior life are bedevilled by the limits of the social-scientific method. Mexicanists have been very good at demonstrating the limits of state authority, the thin loyalties that the Mexican revolutionary state produced, and the instability of a system rooted in a shifting combination of patronage and force, but when attempting to enter those interior spaces, they tend to lack the literary repertoire of the novelist.17 Castellanos thus has an advantage in rendering Ladino lives, and in communicating their sense of desperation, of loss, and the crushing power of patriarchy in the family. César’s Sisyphean efforts to save a world that has already slipped away and his refusal even to leave the State capital to attend to his dying boy offer an extraordinarily rich portrait of an elite in decline, unable to understand either the way that the Revolution has upended the political logics that govern Mexico, or the grievances of the people they have long dominated through force. Castellanos renders their experience as both farce and tragedy.
In one final twist of autobiography and fiction, as she was writing The Nine Guardians, Castellanos gave up her family’s remaining lands in Chiapas to the labourers who worked them. She insisted on completing the land reform even when the pressures that had crippled her family’s fortunes no longer existed. Choosing sides, she chose to go against history, to answer the fictional Felipe’s demands with a real-world response. It is not clear that she understood this as her own Sisyphean task. In her professional life (where she worked for a federal agency that built schools and clinics, and promoted economic development in rural Chiapas), and in her personal commitments, she remained committed to a hope of what the Revolution might ultimately bring. And yet, even she is not quite optimistic that her hope is justified. We know this because she has chosen to end the text with such an ominous scene. When we see that our narrator is already reproducing the inequality of bygone eras, we also see why brutal inequality in Chiapas will persist.
1 The edition used in this essay is Castellanos ( 1992).
4 Finca is the most commonly used term to describe large, commercial agricultural estates in Chiapas.
5 See Meyer (1973–74).
8 Ladino refers to Europeanised populations of regions that are heavily indigenous. It does not exactly mean “white,” in that some Ladinos have indigenous ancestry. It is more specifically a reference to cultural practices that characterise non-indigenous populations.
9 This particular demand was fairly common during this era, and Castellanos’ use of it as a plot-point was probably informed by her work at the INI. On this, see Dawson (2004).
10 On the way this attempts to represent indigenous cosmovisions, see de Pérez (1984).
11 On this, see also Dalton (2014).
12 Early celebratory work includes Tannenbaum (1929) and Brenner (1971). Key revisionists include Warman et al. (1970) and Córdova (1972). The regionalised approach also emerges by the late 1960s, especially with González (1968). Subsequent work includes Womack (1970), Knight (1986 and 2006), Benjamin (1989), Nugent (1993), Alonso (1995), Becker (1995), Joseph (1997), and Boyer (2003).
14 On the challenges of this strategy, see in particular Lorenzano (1995).
15 On ventriloquism, see Novo (2018).
16 Interesting recent work on this has been done by de la Cadena (2015).
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