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Josefina Niggli: Novelist, playwright and the reconquestadora who made Ricardo Montalban dance

2 December 2007

(Minor date corrections, thanks to commentator Michael Pool, added 02-October-2009)

From John Koelsch in Santigao de Chile comes an introduction to a borderlands author I’m embarrassed to admit I knew nothing about:

From Santiago, Chile:
Hola amigos,

I just finished reading an interesting article in the December edition of AMERICAS, the official magazine of the OAS (Spanish Edition) about the life and works of Josefina Niggli, written by Elizabeth Coonrod Martinez.

According to Martinez, Niggli was a prolific author of literary works, including historical novels and works for the theater. She was born in Monterrey in 1910, and spent her early childhood in Mexico during the Revolution, later relocating to the USA with her American parents in 1925.

Martinez notes that Niggli was a member of the same generation as Dolores Del Rio, Anita Brenner and Frida Kahlo, and that her literary prowess certainly places her within the honored ranks of other great writers of the period, including Mariano Azuela, Martin Luis Guzman and Nellie Campobello. Nonetheless, she wrote in English rather than in Español, and as such, one of her purposes was to try to give the gringo world a better understanding of Mexico and its culture. Her theatrical plays, written in the 1930´s, leaned heavily on the folklore of the Mexican countryside and the people who inhabited it, and often focused on themes that related to the Mexican Revolution.

Her first novel, entitled MEXICAN VILLAGE (1938), was converted into a Hollywood film entitled “Sombrero,” starring Ricardo Montalban and Pier Angeli. Her other works of fiction were also notable, including STEP DOWN, ELDER BROTHER (1947), which was translated into Spanish and published as APARTATE HERMANO in 2004. The work effectively illustrated the growth and transformation of Monterrey in the years following the Revolution, and it also cemented Niggli´s reputation as a giant of Mexican literature within the Latin American literary world. Daniel de la Fuente said the the work begged the “necessity to reevaluate one of the most significant and most ignored writers in Mexican literary history¨” Other works include her BEAT THE DRUM
SLOWLY (unpublished) and the unique A MIRACLE FOR MEXICO (1964), which dealt with the emergence of the iconic image of Mexico in the colonial period with the emergence of the apparition of the Virgen de Guadalupe in 1531. A MIRACLE FOR MEXICO was illustrated by the acclaimed Mexican artist Alejandro Rangel Hidalgo, and usually has been categorized as a work of children´s fiction, although Niggli´s narration reaches far beyond simple childhood themes to present a more universal vision of a new society, which includes African Mexicans, indigenous peoples who speak Nahuatl, along with mestizos and Spaniards as well.

Her most memorable works for theater include CRY OF HIDALGO, SOLDADERA, and A RING FOR GENERAL MACIAS, which all more or less reflect on the Mexican mind and its relation to the Mexican Revolution. SOLDADERA, for instance, presented the image of the
valient Adelita of Revolutionary tradition to the English-speaking world for the first time.

I could go on about the article, but I know that others interested in this story can check out the December edition of the magazine AMERICAS, or they can also investigate Martinez´s recently-published critical biography of Josefina Niggli published by the University of New Mexico Press (Autumn 2007).

Thanks to the handy-dandy (and invaluable) Handbook of Texas On-line I was able to ferret out that Niggli – like the better known Anita Brenner – was born in Mexico to foreign immigrants (Brenner’s parents were Lithuanians, Niggli’s from Texas) but, as refugees from the Revolution, were raised in Texas. Brenner, the New York Times’ first female foreign correspondent, propagandist for the Allies (“The Wind That Swept Mexico”), anthopologist (“Idols Behind Altars”) and probable spy (Leon and Vera Troksy arrived in Mexico in the guise of Anita’s visiting uncle and aunt) had much the more colorful life story, but Niggli’s biography is well worth pursuing.

Niggli ‘s reputation in her own country is that of a popular writer, not a– like Brenner — an intellectual. The novels and plays may be getting more recognition now, but during her lifetime Niggli was a hard-working teacher in North Carolina when she wasn’t turning out everything from TV scripts to children’s literature and short stories. She credited her work habits to Sister Mary Clement at Incarnate Word College, who jump-started the future author’s career by locking her in a dorm room until she finished a short story suitable to enter into Ladies’ Home Journal contest (Niggli won second prize).

Her 1938 “Mexican Village” (published in parts between 1938 and its book publication in 1945) — which I haven’t read – was something of a sensation at the time, Niggli took a chance, writing her first novel not as a semi-autobiography, even though the protagonist, like Niggli herself, is a gringo born in Mexican. Webster’s return to his native village forces him to come to terms with both American racism and Mexican sexism – a daring theme at the time. One odd result is that Niggli, who was born in Monterrey (“Step Down, Elder Brother” deals with the growth of that major city) was often identified in the press as a “native of Hidalgo, Mexico,” when it was Webster who came from there.

To get “Mexican Village” to a wider audience took some compromises. The result was Sombrero, “Mexican Village” morphed into a dancing musical. Just to see Ricardo Montalban dancing and singing might be worth it, though, with Cid Charese, Nina Foch, Pier Angeli and Yvonne De Carlo (yup – Lily Munster herself!) as the girl who’s too good looking to get a man … it’s gotta be worth a look.

The 1938 novel, along with  “Step Down, Elder Brother” and five plays were recently republished as Mexican Village and Other Works (Northwestern University Press, 2007). I suppose Sombrero is available on DVD somewhere.

Niggli’s accomplishments might seem modest, but – even if Zorro (or a dancing Ricardo Montalban) weren’t  completely authentic Mexicana her works painlessly presented  Mexicans – and Mexican-Americans – as a people with their own quirky folkways and customs, perhaps, but very much part of mainstream America. In her own way, she was a reconquistadora.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Yolanda Padilla permalink
    10 January 2008 3:24 pm

    I just wanted to let readers know that I’ve co-edited (with William Orchard) a volume of Niggli’s plays that has been published by the University of Wisconsin Press. It’s entitled “The Plays of Josefina Niggli: Landmarks of Latino Literature,” and includes plays that are somewhat difficult to find: “The Singing Valley,” “This is Villa!” “The Ring of General Macías,” “The Cry of Dolores,” “Soldadera,” and “The Fair God,” along with her collection of poems “Mexican Silhouettes.”

    I’ve also co-authored an article that deals with the making of “Sombrero” and the compromises Niggli had to make in order to make her screenplay acceptable to Hollywood (namely, playing up the ‘folk’ elements of Mexican culture, and downplaying the post-revolutionary political environment she so deftly represents in “Mexican Village”). It’s called “Lost in Adaptation: Chicana History, the Cold War, and the Case of Josephina Niggli,” in Women’s Studies Quarterly 33 (December 2005).

    Thank you for an informative post on Niggli.

  2. Elena permalink
    19 March 2009 7:37 pm

    I´d like to know if you have the works of Niggli or know where I can get them, I´m from Hidalgo, N.L., Mexico, the town mentioned in Mexican Village and of course I´m really interested in reading this book..any information, please, let me know…

  3. Luther Jones permalink
    16 September 2009 10:34 pm

    Miss Niggli spent the last years of her life and the last years of her teaching career at Western Carolina University. I was one of her students.

    From Miss Niggli, we, her students learned not only theatre but courtesy, tolerance, and devotion to a project or a cause. This July will be the one hundredth anniversary of her birth. A campus wide celebration of her life is just beginning. A part of this will be a gathering of her former students to rededicate the Niggli Theatre, so named for her after her death. Another part will be the awarding of a posthumous honorary doctorate degree to her memory at our December commencement ceremony. She continues to give to the university and to theatre even today. She bequeathed a portion of her estate and the rights and royalties to her works to Western Carolina University to establish a scholarship fund for students in that discipline and art. Indeed, our special collections and archives in the library at WCU contains many of her manuscripts and some unpublished and unfinished works.

    Miss Niggli once stated that she wrote in English but thought in Spanish. Professor Koch, at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Miss Niggli earned her Master’s Degree, told his students to write about what they knew and what they wanted others to know. I believe that she chose to write in English because she did not see a need to tell Mexicans about Mexico. She did see the need to promote diversity and understanding north of the border.

    Professor Koch in a speech once listed the top twelve students that he had the pleasure to teach. He named Miss Niggli in the same company that included such notables as biographer and historian Jonathan Daniels, and novelist Thomas Wolfe.

    If anyone would like more information about the celebration of Miss Niggli’s life, please feel free to contact me.

    Luther Jones
    Designer/Technical Director
    Dept. of Stage and Screen
    Western Carolina University
    Cullowhee, North Carolina

  4. Michael Pool permalink
    1 October 2009 10:42 pm

    “Mexican Village” was published in 1945, not 1938 as stated in the article. I am holding a first edition of “Step Down . . .” and on the back jacket are published brief quotes of praise for “Mexican Village” from the like of Lewis Gannett (well known editor and critic), Betty Smith (“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”), Joseph Henry Jackson (Western historian), Orville Prescott (New York Times Book Review), and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (“The Yearling”).

  5. 14 August 2011 2:54 am

    I have been exploring for a bit for any high quality articles or blog posts on this kind of space . Exploring in Yahoo I at last stumbled upon this website. Reading this information So i am glad to show that I have an incredibly excellent uncanny feeling I found out just what I needed. I such a lot unquestionably will make certain to do not overlook this web site and give it a look on a continuing basis.

  6. 13 September 2011 1:53 am

    I have been looking for Sombrero (Mexican Village) DVD for at least 10 years.I would be very grateful if some one out there could help me .Thanks Eileen G..

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