Among the Volcanoes

by Omar S. Castaneda

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Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594

Political Instability
Since Guatemala's independence in 1839, it has been subjected to extreme political instability and terror. Guatemala's leaders have been dictators, military presidents, and elected officials, many of whom have been overthrown by coups. The hostility between the military and guerrilla forces has resulted in violence, bloodshed, and panic. In some cases, military regimes were so intent on ending guerrilla tactics that they massacred entire villages. The combined tasks of leading the country, controlling guerrilla activity, and addressing human rights seem overwhelming. This political climate provides the backdrop for Among the Volcanoes, where the villagers' daily lives are affected by the harsh realities of danger and violence. Just before the novel's 1991 publication, elections were held in Guatemala. The January 1991 inauguration of Jorge Serrano marked the first time one elected official was replaced by another. Serrano expressed his intention to bring peace to the land by negotiating with guerrillas, holding corrupt officials responsible, and putting an end to human rights violations. Unfortunately, Serrano was removed from office only two years later.

Conflicting Ways of Life
Guatemala is defined by three historical stages—Mayan indigenous, Spanish colonial, and modern republican—although some scholars note that the distinct lifestyles of each are slowly merging into a cohesive contemporary culture.

As missionary efforts expanded into Central America, religion became a problematic cultural issue for many Guatemalans. Roman Catholicism became increasingly popular beginning in the sixteenth century, and Protestantism reached Guatemala in the mid-1800s, although there were few converts until the growth of Pentecostal sects in the 1960s. While Guatemalans were receptive to the new religious ideologies, they were hesitant to abandon the religious belief systems of their ancestors. Castañeda depicts the ways in which people incorporate the new beliefs and symbols with the traditional ones, a melding that continues today.

Tradition remains a powerful force, particularly among people who live in small rural villages. They prefer to keep to themselves, living a lifestyle similar to that of their ancestors. Modern conveniences are slow to be introduced in this context. As recently as the 1990s, only 54 percent of Guatemalans had access to health care. Further, only 60 percent of Guatemalans had access to a source of pure drinking water and sanitation, which explains why the village of Chuuí Chopaló responded with such excitement to the installation of the water-line channel.

Ethnic Composition and Class Structure
Guatemala's population is composed of indigenous Mayans and ladinos, who are people of mixed native and European heritage. Guatemala is unique among Latin American countries in that it still has a large native population that has preserved its ethnic identity.

There is a wide class gap in Guatemalan social structure, and most of the elite members of society are those who have more European blood, which fuels tensions between the classes. Statistics in 1987 revealed that, in earnings, the top 10 percent of the population held 44 percent of the income while the bottom 10 percent held only nine-tenths of one percent. In the twentieth century, the class gap widened as the population continued to grow and resources were exported rather than kept within the country's borders for its own people.

In Guatemala, public education is free and mandatory, but soft enforcement and lack of resources results in inadequate education for most Guatemalans. At the elementary school level, 58 percent of children attend school, and at the high school level, only 16 percent attend. In rural areas, such as the village described in Among the Volcanoes, these figures are lower. In fact, it is not uncommon for a rural school to offer education only through the third grade.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 794

Point of ViewAmong the Volcanoes

(This entire section contains 794 words.)

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Among the Volcanoes is narrated from the third-person point of view. The novel is Isabel's story, however, and the narration is from her perspective. The reader is allowed into her thoughts and feelings, which makes her realizations and transformations understandable and credible to the reader. The story is told in the present tense, so Isabel's reactions and feelings are fresh. By telling the story in the present tense, Isabel's decision-making and growth are more interesting because neither the reader nor Isabel knows what will happen next. By staying in the present moment, Castañeda is also able to describe details of Isabel's surroundings in a way that would not be as authentic if the story were being told from memory. The colors of the birds, the music of the village festival, the excitement of the crowd watching soccer, and the rush of feeling when Isabel sees Lucas are more realistic because they are told as they are experienced.

Setting Set in Guatemala in the rural village of Chuuí Chopaló, Among the Volcanoes offers a portrait of daily life among the Mayans. The people of the village are poor; men support their families by laboring in the fields or by fishing. Isabel's family owns chickens and one pig, but they eat mostly beans, eggs, tortillas, and peppers.

Political unrest is a major force in the village's life. There is guerrilla activity combating the military government, and there are horrible stories of local men being taken away and killed. The people of Chuuí Chopaló live in fear and are accustomed to living that way. Periodically, the military enters the village with a proclamation, which everyone is required to hear. After they make announcements, soldiers leave their proclamations posted for all to see. The villagers are equally afraid of the military and the guerrillas.

Village life is characterized by a strong sense of tradition. There are time-honored ways of doing things, and those ways are rarely challenged from within. Women are expected to leave school and marry in their middle to late teens. Men generally attend school a bit longer, but ultimately leave to work for their families in the fields. Families occupy the same houses for many generations. Castañeda writes, ‘‘In Chuuí Chopaló, change always had something of fear housed within its bright skin.’’

Symbolism Castañeda writes about birds throughout the story. By describing many different types of birds—eagles, hummingbirds, chickens, vultures, blackbirds, and others—he introduces them into a variety of scenes without being heavy-handed with the symbolism. At the core of the novel is Isabel's desire to leave her cares and responsibilities behind and to follow her dreams. To her, birds represent all the freedom and flight she desires but cannot have because she must face her responsibilities. She is growing up and becoming a woman, not a hummingbird or an eagle. She speaks of her wish that she had wings, so at the end of the novel when she confronts her difficult decisions with maturity, she has given wings to her hope. In an unexpected way, she feels what she imagines birds feel.

Water is another important element in the story. As Isabel explains, water is a profound symbol of life in her culture. In fact, it is so basic and critical that the Mayans pray to it. The installation of the faucet in the town is a cause for celebration. The village holds a soccer game complete with music to commemorate the day. The fact that Allan's last name is Waters reinforces the idea that it is not the word "water" that holds meaning in the Mayan culture; it is the actual substance that is revered.

Literary Heritage Before the twentieth century, Guatemala's literary heritage was defined primarily by a sixteenth-century work, Popol Vuh, a Mayan creation narrative and account of world history. The twentieth century, however, expanded the literary base of Guatemalan culture with the work of such writers as Enrique Gomez Carrillo, Rafael Arévalo Martinez, Mario Monteforte Toledo, Omar Castañeda, and 1967 Nobel Prize winner Miguel Angel Asturias.

Central and South American literature has been deeply influenced by magic realism, a style of writing that incorporates magic, myth, dreams, and the supernatural into otherwise conventional and realistic fiction. Magic realism became popular after World War II and its Latin American roots are most closely associated with the work of Argentine Jorge Luis Borges and Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Many contemporary Latin American authors, including Chilean Isabel Allende and Guatemalan Omar Castañeda, utilize elements of magic realism in their fiction. Some scholars suggest that the use of magic realism in Latin American literature is a way of reconciling two distinct realities in postcolonial times—the traditional ways and the new ways of the colonialists.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 346

Guatemala: Illiteracy rates are among the highest in Central America in 1998: 44 percent of all Guatemalans over the age of fifteen are illiterate (51.4 percent of women and 37.5 percent of men).

United States: Illiteracy has been widely eliminated by 1998. Still, 2.4 percent of Americans over the age of twenty-five are functionally illiterate. This means they cannot read or write well enough to perform daily tasks.

Guatemala: Only 58 percent of primary-school-aged children in 1998 attend school, despite the fact that it is free and mandatory. At the secondary level, this number drops to 16 percent.

United States: Education is more available than ever in 1995: 82 percent of Americans over the age of twenty-five have completed high school, and 23 percent of the population has finished at least four years of college.

Guatemala: In 1990 girls are expected to marry as early as their middle to late teens.

United States: The median age for women to marry in 1990 is twenty-four.

Guatemala: Because girls do not work in the fields, their "usefulness" to the family is limited. They are valued more when they marry and take care of their own families.

United States: American girls have more opportunities than ever. Within the family, children are not generally expected to contribute substantially to the family's income, so girls and boys are regarded equally. While there are still areas in which women are limited in the workplace, these situations are constantly being challenged.

Guatemala: In 1990, eighty percent of Guatemalans live below the poverty level. The gap between the lower class and the upper class is wide, causing tension and resentment.

United States: Fewer than 14 percent of American households have income below the poverty level in 1996. The top 20 percent of households earned 49 percent of the nation's income, while the bottom 20 percent earned 3.7 percent. This indicates a gap between the upper and lower classes, but it is not as severe as the one in Guatemala.

Guatemala: In 1998, 60 percent of the people live in rural areas, and 40 percent live in urban areas, primarily Guatemala City.

United States: In 1998, 25 percent of the people live in rural areas, and 75 percent live in urban areas.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 304

Sources Brosnan, Rosemary, "Lyll Becerra de Jenkins,’’ in Booklist, September 1, 1997, Vol. 94, No. 1, pp. 110-11.

Harrington, Jonathan, "A Truly Immense Journey: Profile of Omar S. Castañeda,’’ in The Americas Review, Vol. 23, Nos. 3-4, 1995, pp. 204-16.

Kelly, T. L., ‘‘Straddling the Volcanoes: An Interview with Omar Castañeda,’’ in Literary Nonfiction by T L. Kelly (online), April 12, 2000,

Roback, Diane, and Richard Donahue, ‘‘Among the Volcanoes,’’ in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 237, No. 51, Fall, 1993, p. 57.

Snyder Whitehurst, Lucinda, ‘‘Among the Volcanoes,’’ in School Library Journal, Vol. 37, No. 3, March, 1991, pp. 21.

Further Reading Ashabranner, Brent, Children of the Maya, A Guatemalan Indian Odyssey, Dodd, 1986. This is an illustrated nonfiction book about a group of Guatemalan Mayans who flee their native land to escape the political situation. They come to the United States and settle in southern Florida.

Carlson, Lori M., Where Angels Glide at Dawn: New Stories from Latin America, Econo-Clad Books, 1999. A collection of ten short stories, this book provides insights into a variety of people's lives and their situations.

Castañeda, Omar S., Naranjo the Muse: A Collection of Stories, Arte Publico Press, 1997. Castañeda's use of magical realism brings intrigue to this collection of interrelated stories.

______, Remembering to Say "Mouth" or ‘‘Face’’, Black Ice Books, 1993. This award-winning collection of short fiction includes magical realism, social harshness, and surrealistic elements in stories about often-uprooted characters.

Jenness, Aylette, A Life of Their Own: An Indian Family in Latin America, Crowell, 1975. This nonfiction book describes the daily life and rituals of a Latin American family. It focuses on Guatemalan Indians and is written for adolescents.

Tadlock, Dennis, trans., Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life, Touchstone Books, 1996. This book provides a respected translation of the ancient Mayan text that relates the creation narrative and an account of world history.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide