Among the Volcanoes Essays and Criticism
by Omar S. Castaneda

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

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

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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, 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...

(The entire section is 3,502 words.)