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  • The Transnational NationalRace, the Border, and the Immigrant Nationalism of Josefina Niggli's Mexican Village
  • Yolanda Padilla (bio)

In 2003, the state cultural center of Nuevo León, Mexico, issued Apártate, hermano, a Spanish translation of Mexican American writer Josefina Niggli's Step Down, Elder Brother, originally published in 1947. The small flurry of assessments that followed regarding Niggli's place in the literary history of the region came to a remarkable consensus: that the author was an "invisible precursor" to the narrative tradition that would later flower in Nuevo León. Most would acknowledge the paradox inherent in choosing Niggli as the starting point of the region's literary genealogy, given that she published all of her works in English and in the United States. Yet none raised this as an objection to her newly asserted status as a writer of Monterrey. For ultimately, these evaluations focused not on Niggli's personal identity, but on her subject matter, the themes that she developed, and the perspective from which she wrote.

Further acknowledging the multiple audiences Niggli's work speaks to, the literary critic Hugo Valdés lauded her as a central figure in the cultural [End Page 45] history of Nuevo León, and praised her first and most acclaimed novel, Mexican Village (1945), as a text "marked by students of Chicano letters as one of the first literary testimonies regarding a Latino in the midst of the tense relationship between Mexicans located on the northern frontier and the proud native North Americans, a situation we can be sure Niggli herself had to endure" (2002). Valdés's embrace of Niggli as a key figure in the literary traditions of Chicanos and of Nuevo León is fitting, as it replicates the questioning of national boundaries that one finds in her work, and points to her importance for Chicano studies, which holds as one of its imperatives the resistance to the imperial and neocolonial dimensions of the nation form. As I will argue, Mexican Village brings to light the transnational networks at play in ostensibly nationalist practices, while revealing and examining the neocolonial relationship between Mexico and the United States.

The transnational orientation of Niggli's writings stems from her keen awareness of the long interlocking histories between Mexico and the United States, and the constitutive role those histories played for both countries. Their ongoing and often conflicted relationship was made most immediately apparent to her through her experience of the Mexican Revolution, the defining event of twentieth-century Mexican history, and the impetus for the nationalist imperatives that drove much of the country's political discourse in the period. Niggli was born in Nuevo León in 1910, the year the Revolution began. Her American father was the chief manager of the foreign-owned quarry that was the economic center of the small village of Hidalgo, where he lived with his family. The quarry's preeminence in the town's economic life was not unusual; by the time of the Revolution's outbreak, millions of acres of Mexico's most valuable land were foreign owned. But the circumstance was a profound source of conflict, both in Hidalgo and elsewhere, that many point to as the final spark that ignited the revolution. Years later, Niggli took her experience of the transnational undercurrents that permeated Hidalgo as her point of departure for Mexican Village, depicting the role encroaching multinationals played in the everyday lives of rural Mexicans. Linking such neocolonial practices to the outbreak of the rebellion, she showed the war to be a profoundly transnational event that could not be understood fully without taking into account the shaping [End Page 46] influence of the United States as a neo-imperial power.1 Moreover, those connections between neocolonialism and the Revolution come to reveal a much longer history of transnational contact, conflict, and interdependence between Mexico and the United States.

In many ways, the transnational optic through which the novel views the Revolution is enabled precisely by Niggli's commitment to Mexican nationalism, especially as articulated by Manuel Gamio and José Vasconcelos, luminaries of the Mexican Left. Like many other Mexican immigrants of the period, Niggli remained emotionally...


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