“All moons, all years, all days, all winds, take their course and pass away. Even so all blood reaches its place of quiet, as it reaches its power and its throne.”
— From the Chilam-Balam of Chumayel, an ancient Maya manuscript
It’s the last night of my trip to Mexico City (Distrito Federal of Mexico), and I was curled up with Rosario Castellanos’s The Nine Guardians (Amazon | Indiebound) in a little house on Atlixco, in the neighborhood of Condesa.
I didn’t know about Castellanos prior to my trip to the DF, but a little research on the web told me that I needed to be familiar with her work. A few days before my trip, I dropped by Green Apple Books in San Francisco and picked up The Nine Guardians along with a book by Octavio Paz. I needed a little schooling on Mexican literary greatness.
Back in the bedroom in Condesa, I felt myself loosening up a little. The last few chapters had stayed with me so intensely that I started to feel like all the spirits Nana, one of the characters in the book, was referring to were with me in the house.
Set in the state of Chiapas, the book centers around the Argüello family during the presidency of Làzaro Càrdenas. It was during the time of Càrdenas that the Mexican Revolution was “consolidated” and that agrarian reform started taking place.
Told from different viewpoints, the book tackles the onset of agrarian reform from the Mayan organizers who tilled the farms, slaves to mestizo Spanish families or ladinos like the Argüellos.
The story opens from the viewpoint of the family’s eldest daughter, usually accompanied by Nana, her nanny of Mayan ancestry.
Does Nana know I hate her when she combs my hair? No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t know anything. She’s Indian, she doesn’t wear shoes, and has no other garment under the blue cloth of her tzec. She isn’t ashamed. She says the ground hasn’t any eyes.
The unnamed seven-year-old narrator grows up with Nana, who explains the ways of her people to the curious child, knowing the complications of their own relationship. The wounded, taking care of the master’s child. Nevertheless, Nana stays warm, is tender. A refuge from a life she herself could barely understand.
One day, the family receives unsuspecting news:
“A law has been passed by which proprietors of farms with more than five families of Indians in their service must provide facilities for teaching, by establishing a school and paying the salary of a rural master.”
Hysteria overcomes (Dońa) Zoraida Argüello but eventually (Don) César cedes, hoping to find a way out of the new government decree. The family moves to Chactajal where their farms lay, where many indigenous Mayan families tithed, worked and tilled the land for them.
The move to the farm brings to light many of the book’s central themes, as Castellanos moves different characters front and center.
There’s Ernesto, César’s brother’s child from a mistress, who prides himself in having Argüello blood, assigned by César to be the Mayan families’ school teacher even though he did not speak tzeltal and has only attained fourth-grade level education;
Felipe, the mighty Mayan community organizer who spoke Spanish demanding that the school be built on the farm, who approached César and his family with audacity, something no one has done before;
Juana, Felipe’s wife who couldn’t understand her husband’s dedication when their own house was sparse, when she also needed him at home but he was out organizing other families;
Zoraida, César’s wife who openly despises their Mayan servants and laborers, calls them uncouth, and refers to them as ingrates and lazy people;
and César himself, who comes from a long lineage of Argüellos, able to speak Spanish and tzeltal, who sees himself as a benevolent master to the Mayans, whose oppression is of a deeper, darker kind.
Because times are hard for those who rule, and the government itself is actually inciting the Indians against their masters, handing them over rights the Indians don’t deserve and can’t use. Loyalty is worth a lot these days when set against the betrayal of some of the others. For many of the men whom César had once counted as his — his own sons among them perhaps — have risen in rebellion. They insist on the minimum wage, refuse to render tithes as they used to, and abandon the farm without a by-your-leave… 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. They spin the rope for their own hanging.
All these perspectives illustrate the social, political and economic conditions not just of Chiapas but of the country, as the push for agrarian reform becomes stronger. The beauty of the story is that it is able to capture so many elements of a society thrust in a major upheaval — the Mexican revolution — and portrays all of it and its gleaming contradictions.
The book also toyed with religion and spirituality a lot, contrasting the Catholic indoctrination and the cosmology/traditional religions of the Tzeltal people. The magical realism in the book made me hyper-aware of my own surroundings, as I fell asleep that evening still holding the book.
The Nine Guardians (Amazon | Indiebound) is one of those reads that gets better every time you think about it, as it gives you a larger picture and a wider perspective from afar. Almost two weeks after finishing it I’m still rediscovering parts and elements of the book in a different light.
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