Among the Volcanoes

by Omar S. Castaneda

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The Central Theme of Isabel's Complicated Journey of Self-Discovery in Among the Volcanoes

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At the center of Omar S. Castañeda's intriguing and richly detailed book Among the Volcanoes is Isabel, a teenaged girl who finds herself shouldering responsibilities she is uncertain she can handle. Her mother is extremely ill, so Isabel, as the oldest daughter, must take on the duties of running the household. She loves school and thrives on learning, but her responsibilities at home simply will not allow her to continue attending. While Isabel performs all the tasks expected of her, she resents this burden and fears that she will never be able to return to the life she once knew. Worse, she is terrified that she will be forced to give up her dream of becoming a teacher. She is engaged to Lucas Choy, a handsome young man who loves her very much. He knows she loves school, but expects that once they are married, she will focus all of her attention on being the woman of his house. Isabel is in the difficult position of desiring a path for herself that her village does not accept for her.

In many ways, Isabel is a typical teenager, which allows Castañeda's young American readers to identify with her even though her reality is far removed from their own. Isabel struggles with questions of her identity. Is she destined to be exactly like her mother? Must she conform to the expectations of her community? If she looks within and discovers what she really wants, can she have it? Isabel is very clear about what she wants—to be a teacher—but she is very uncertain about how to achieve this. The only supportive person is her own teacher, who is introduced in only one scene as a wise advisor who genuinely cares about Isabel's feelings and the difficult decisions she must make. Isabel is also typical in her lack of enthusiasm for adult responsibilities that prevent her from leading a social and carefree life. She enjoys talking to her best friend, Teresa, and seeing her fiancé, Lucas. While she performs the tasks around the house, in her heart she longs to be free. Isabel's tendency to trust people and question her father's cynicism is another typical adolescent trait. She feels that she has lived long enough in the world that she knows things her father does not. She perceives his skepticism as unwarranted in some cases and resolves to do things her own way.

As Isabel matures during the course of the story, she comes to better understand her relationship to the family and the village. When her mother, Manuela, is rendered unable to help at all around the house, Isabel must step in to take her place. As a result, Isabel comes to understand her mother better. Castañeda wrote, "Then she understood that it was the insignificant events that spoke more strongly of what parenthood meant. Like leaving school, to some. These small sacrifices told her that motherhood was not a grand landscape dotted with large and poignant markers, but was mostly a simple, everyday road with no real beginning and no end in sight.’’ Still, Isabel's insights into her mother's world do not change the fact that her own future is closely tied to Manuela's ability to take care of the family. When Manuela refuses to submit to additional tests by the doctor at the Western hospital, Isabel is secretly devastated. She thinks, ‘‘If she would simply submit, then she would live. But her mother's decision was final. At the base of this refusal, Isabel's own future, her vision of teaching, lay broken. Also shut out was Alfredo's dream for his children,...

(This entire section contains 1788 words.)

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his family. All of them lay besieged by the calamity and by her mother's refusal to consider possibilities. But this refusal was one demanded by the forces of the village itself." This moment shows the reader that the village is an integral part of each family. The strong sense of community and tradition affects even the most personal and important decisions. For Isabel, she is not struggling just with her family's expectations and rules, but also with those of the entire village. The theme of balancing the community and family with the self is central to Isabel's journey. In order to decide for herself what her path should be, she must take the larger context into account. Perhaps in the United States a teenager could ultimately decide to cast off concerns for the whole in favor of the individual, but in Isabel's culture, this is not an option.

Although critics generally credit the arrival of Allan Waters in the village for Isabel's ultimate ability to take a stand for her dreams, the teacher seems to be the real catalyst for her decision. Allan reinforces what Isabel already believes—that it is important to keep an open mind about possibilities outside of one's familiar context. He is fascinating to her simply by virtue of the fact that he comes from a foreign land. In the first chapter, Castañeda tells readers that Isabel loves learning about faraway places ‘‘with names like Orlando, New York, or the tongue-twisting Indianapolis.’’ Although the political atmosphere fosters deep distrust of strangers, Isabel feels that Allan is harmless and truly wants to help. She is right about him, and so his presence reinforces her faith in her intuition about people. Her eventual refusal to abandon her dream, however, comes from her conversation with her teacher, Maestro Andrés Xiloj. Desperate and confused, she goes to talk to her teacher about what she should do with her life. Her mother refuses to take the medicine, her fiancé is angry, and she feels trapped in her own life. She knows that she can talk to Maestro Andrés without his judging her. He explains that when he was a child, he wanted nothing else but to teach. He wanted to help his country in this way, and even though it has been an extremely difficult way of life, he continues to do it. He tells her about a teacher's strike that landed him in jail, where he suffered until his release. His path has been challenging, but he is satisfied with the choices he has made. He tells Isabel, ‘‘It was something like finding a new way to be what I wanted to be. And understanding the danger of being different. . .And not trying to be more than I had a right to be, not trying to be superhuman. It was compromising, I suppose.’’ Maestro Andrés advises Isabel to talk to Lucas about their troubles, but first she must ask herself what she really wants. Once she knows herself well enough to understand what she wants, she will be able to explain it to him. Maestro Andrés's parting words are, ‘‘Understand it with your bones, Isabel. Understand it with your blood. What matters most is the strength to accept myself. . .I mean you. Each of us—accepting ourselves. Each of us. You and me.. .And then holding on no matter how hard it gets.’’

After talking with Maestro Andrés, Isabel is able to tell Lucas that she loves him, which are words he desperately needs to hear. She is also able to tell him that while she wants to marry him, she wants him to promise her that they will at least try to find a way for her to become a teacher. He is resistant because he does not see any possible way, but she assures him that she will also be a wife and mother, and that all she is asking is that they try. He agrees, and Isabel finally feels all the freedom she had longed for throughout the story. She learns that, for her, freedom does not come from casting off all her responsibilities, but from embracing them as long as she is also true to herself. In the end, she finds courage to give words to her desires without apology. She also learns that she is capable of imagining something different for herself beyond what is expected of her according to tradition.

Throughout the novel, Castañeda uses bird imagery. Everywhere Isabel goes, there are birds of all shapes and sizes. Birds are meaningful to Isabel because they represent freedom from worry and duty. She wishes she could be a bird and fly away from her difficult life. Living in the lush environment of Central America, Isabel would encounter a variety of birds on a daily basis, so their inclusion in the story is realistic. Castañeda refers to them subtly throughout the book as a constant reminder of Isabel's longing to be free. The scene in which her father sacrifices a chicken is very significant because his prayer is for Isabel, which frightens her deeply. As she watches him sacrifice a bird, her personal symbol of freedom, he prays for his daughter, indicating that she will be shouldering the household responsibilities indefinitely. Much later in the book, she goes to visit her teacher in a state of panic and despair. Castañeda writes of "her heart battered inside its cage.’’ As Maestro Andrés talks to Isabel, he reveals that he always wanted to be a roadrunner. This surprises Isabel, as the roadrunner is regarded with contempt in their village, but Maestro Andrés explains that the roadrunner is smart because it chooses not to fly most of the time. If it flew, people would likely shoot it, so instead it runs very fast. It is also a bird that has not been domesticated like chickens and turkeys, waiting to be eaten. He remarks, "It has chosen neither to fly too high nor to always grovel on the ground in fear.’’ This analogy helps Isabel see that in order to find happiness, she will have to find a way to compromise. At the end of the novel, when Lucas has agreed that they will try to find a way for her to teach, Isabel is thrilled. A group of boys passes by Lucas and Isabel, and their "movement past them was like the blur of hummingbirds, their shouts the cawing of crows.’’ Castañeda then closes the story by writing that ‘‘all they cared about was that, nestled among the volcanoes of Guatemala, there existed a hope with a secret pair of wings.’’ As Isabel's journey of self-discovery is fulfilled, the liberated feelings she associates with birds move from the external world to her internal world, leaving the reader with a great sense of hope.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Bussey holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies. She is an independent writer specializing in literature.

The Themes and Historical Context in Among the Volcanoes

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In Omar Castañeda's Among the Volcanoes, the main character, Isabel Pacay, is a typical adolescent girl, faced with issues similar to those of many teenagers the world over: She has boy problems, family pressures, a deceitful best friend, dreams and fears for the future. However, she also is placed in a setting where she experiences a variety of conflicts, some of which she is conscious of and some of which she is too isolated or too young to see. These can be seen through the historical context, the themes, and the imagery Castañeda employs.

It is useful to put the novel in its historical context in order to better understand Isabel's situation. While knowing the history is not necessary to understanding the basic storyline, it helps to deepen one's understanding of the novel's setting and themes. Isabel's family lives in a Quiche village in central Guatemala. The Quiche are descendants of the Mayans, whose complex and extremely advanced civilization collapsed around 900 A.D. In the sixteenth century, Spanish conquerors arrived in Guatemala, bringing their religion and customs, which to some extent have been incorporated into the Quiche lifestyle (remarkably, however, the Quiche have retained their language and many of their traditional religious practices). The twentieth century in Guatemala was characterized by civil war, military coups, revolutions, and violence. At the same time, the gulf between the very rich and the very poor increased dramatically. As the population increased, a large amount of resources were committed to producing exports rather than to helping the poor, mostly rural, citizens. In the 1990s, the majority of Guatemalans lived on less than one U.S. dollar per day. Isabel Pacay lives in this world—an impoverished Quiche village, with the backdrop of guerilla warfare and government unrest—while at the same time enjoying a pride in her culture's rich history and spiritual beliefs.

The author of the novel, Omar Castañeda, was born in Guatemala but grew up and lived his adult life in the United States. Much of his work, including Among the Volcanoes, reveals his position on Guatemalan politics. In fact, Castañeda told Jonathan Harrington that "you cannot separate politics from art. . .Those who try to separate the two are really sanctioning the dominant view.’’ It is clear that Castañeda has strong opinions on the Guatemalan government's treatment of the impoverished Quiche villagers and the government's catering to European and American interests. This is most clear in the trip the Pacay family takes with Allan Waters, an American medical student, to the city, where Isabel's father and Waters discuss the scenes of villagers forced to sell items that do not reflect the true national heritage but rather are what the tourists think look like native crafts. Additionally, Castañeda implies that the guerillas whose shadows are constantly present in the lives of the villagers are really agents of the Guatemalan government, and are there to keep the villagers in fear and submission to the government.

In the novel, it becomes clear that Isabel is being pulled between two worlds: the western or American world in which a girl can become an independent woman with a career, but often sacrifices close family ties and traditions, and the native Guatemalan world in which a girl gets married at a young age and is expected to take care of her family. Isabel's story presents several other serious, seemingly unresolvable conflicts: Allan Waters' insistence on modern medicine versus Isabel's mother's reliance on the medicine man; the struggle between Isabel's desire to be a teacher and her desire to marry Lucas Choy; the dichotomy between male roles and female roles. Addressing these sorts of ambiguous conflicts, in an interview with Jonathan Harrington, Castañeda said, "Because I am Guatemalan, but have always lived in non-Hispanic communities in the U.S., I have had to deal with conflicting views of the world. I've always been concerned with biculturality.’’ In Among the Volcanoes, this notion of biculturality is dealt with through Isabel's quest to reconcile all of these competing worldviews. The miracle of the story is that she does appear to resolve many of these seemingly irreconcilable conflicts.

The title Among the Volcanoes is literal and figurative: The village is placed geographically on the slopes of volcanoes; at the same time, Isabel is placed among many forces that threaten her in the same way a volcano does—with the promise of eventual catastrophic eruption. She fears that she is being selfish when she becomes ‘‘convinced that she could be an exception to the volcanic forces that smelted people into acceptable molds," and yet she desires more than anything to defeat those forces. She does not want to be like all of the other girls in her village. She has her own dreams, but these conflict directly with what is expected of her.

Through nature imagery, especially imagery of birds, Isabel is shown learning to deal with her situation. In the first chapter, Isabel furtively follows her father to the inlet of the lake and spies on him as he makes a prayer and sacrifices one of their family's hens. As he kills the chicken, he frightens Isabel by praying for her, his eldest daughter: She realizes then that her mother's illness is worse than she thought, and that her father fears for Isabel for some reason. She is not surprised that her father prays not only to the Christian god, but to the ‘‘old gods,’’ the gods of the Mayans, since even the Catholic priest mixes the two religions during Mass (a reconciliation that she might find reassuring, since she is struggling so much with the incongruities between the old traditions and the western ways). The death of the hen is contrasted with Isabel's perception of the name of her village, Chuuí Chopaló, which sounds to Isabel like ‘‘birdsong on her own tongue,’’ and

echoe[s] the call of some unknown bird—the bird she might become. . .The chirping of the name Chuuí Chopaló gave her the sensation of a bird that flew high above the waters, soaring free above any danger, any misfortune.

She imagines herself as this bird, with wings growing out of her shoulders and soaring above the lake.

Much later in the novel, Isabel's teacher, Andrés Xiloj, tells her that when he was a child, he dreamed of being like a roadrunner. This surprises Isabel, because "usually he said the students should be like quetzales, flying high and free. She had never heard him or anyone else mention the [roadrunner] with anything but disdain.’’ Xiloj explains that he believes the roadrunner is the smartest bird because people would try to kill it if it flew, so instead "it stays low, hidden secretive. And it isn't like other birds—turkeys or chickens—who give themselves up to people and peck around the house until they are eaten. Those birds have become slaves.’’ Isabel thinks that Xiloj means that as a child he wanted to be like the guerrillas; however, he explains that he did not want to cause trouble:

It was something like finding a new way to be what I wanted to be. And understanding the danger of being different. . .Knowing that there is danger, but not cowering like everyone else because of it. . .It was compromising, I suppose. Like the roadrunner: It chooses to be different, but not so different that it gets attacked.

This is the image that Isabel needs to understand how to compromise and still stay true to herself. Until this point, she has wanted to be the quetzal, with no responsibilities and flying free above the lake-sea. Now she realizes that she does not have to be the quetzal; instead, she can be the roadrunner, taking part in the world and compromising with the forces that surround her, rather than giving in to them, to get what she needs to be fulfilled and happy.

References to the Popol Vuh, a Maya-Quiche book of history, religion, and mythology, can be found in Among the Volcanoes. The Popol Vuh, written secretly in the sixteenth century to record sacred Mayan myths, also reflects the clash of cultures between the Spanish conquerors and the native Mayans in Guatemala. Just like Castañeda's novel, the Mayan text shows a suspicion of the foreign influence, but at the same time acknowledges that change in the culture is inevitable. The challenge is to reconcile these two forces in a satisfactory way; this is Isabel Pacay's personal struggle as well. In an interview with T. L. Kelly, Castañeda said that his female characters ‘‘have allegiance to some of the traditions they have been raised with and they realize that those same traditions are hurting them, damaging them, and they try to invent some new possibilities for themselves. They fight against the easy acceptance of foreign views.’’ Isabel creates this new possibility for herself through deciding to follow her heart and the traditions she knows by marrying Lucas Choy, but at the same time asserting that she will pursue her dream of becoming a teacher. Because of the strength of her character, there is no doubt left at the end of the novel that she will be successful. Indeed, in Imagining Isabel, a sequel to the novel written in 1994, Isabel does succeed in her quest.

Source: Emily Smith Riser, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Riser has a master's degree in English literature and teaches high school English.

Book Review of Among the Volcanoes

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In Guatemala, life is both simpler and harder for teenagers than in the U.S. Isabel Pacay wants to go to school and become a teacher, but not only is her family very poor, no one in the village, not even her boyfriend, seems to see beyond tradition. When her mother becomes ill, Isabel is expected to stay home, take care of the family and give up her dreams. With the help of an American medical researcher, however, Isabel finds the courage within herself to do what she believes is right. More than anything, the novel offers a quietly realistic portrait of life in Central America: the poverty, ever-present political unrest and proud cultural background make Isabel's dilemma compelling.

Source: Diane Donahue, ‘‘Among the Volcanoes,’’ (book review) in Publisher's Weekly, Vol. 237, No. 51, December 21,1990, p. 57.


Critical Overview