When students shared how much they enjoyed reading a chapter of “Mexican Village” in Elizabeth Coonrod Martínez’s class, she wondered what else the late Josefina Niggli had written.
“I picked up ‘Step Down, Elder Brother,’ and I fell in love with Niggli,” said Martínez, chair of Chicano and Latino studies and professor of Latin American literature and cultural studies at Sonoma State University.
Martínez will deliver the keynote speech for the ninth annual Gender Conference at Western Carolina University, which will celebrate Niggli’s life and legacy, at 11 a.m. Wednesday, March 10 in the Grandroom of A.K. Hinds University Center. Martínez also will speak later the same day at the “Women Who Dare!” Interdisciplinary Speaker Series held at 6 p.m. in Multipurpose Room A of the University Center.
A poet, playwright, novelist and screenwriter, Niggli was born 100 years ago in Mexico to parents of European descent and worked in the United States at locations including Cullowhee, where she was a member of the Western Carolina faculty.
“Her goal was to have the English-reading world better understand the richness of Mexican culture,” said Martínez. “After I read ‘Step Down, Elder Brother,’ I started to think about how I could help more people know about Niggli and her works. My initial plan was to have ‘Miracle for Mexico’ reprinted, but I saw more need for a biography because people needed to become more aware of Niggli.”
Niggli spent part of her childhood in Monterrey, Mexico, and part in Texas. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Incarnate Word College in San Antonio. She went on to earn a master’s degree in drama from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1937. She also was a student at the Columbia University School of Journalism, received radio training at New York University and studied acting in Europe.
Three stories from her first novel, “Mexican Village,” were later adapted into the movie “Sombrero.” She worked as a stable writer for Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer and 20th Century Fox. Her studies took her to the Old Vic Theatre in London, the Abbey Players in Dublin, le Teatre de l’oest in France, the British Drama League in Wales and El Teatro Pequeno in Mexico City.
From 1955 to 1975, Niggli taught drama and journalism and was a key part of developing the drama curriculum at Western Carolina University. She made her home in Cullowhee until her death in 1983, but she is remembered today at WCU where a theater and a scholarship fund bear her name.
In addition, students still read her works. Luther Jones, an assistant professor at WCU and former student of Niggli’s, has his class read Niggli’s play “The Ring of General Macias,” which is set during the Mexican Revolution. “Part of the play examines why a person became a rebel,” said Jones. “Niggli hits you with both sides, and during the course of the play you begin to understand both viewpoints.”
Her bequest to WCU has generated more than $120,000 in scholarships for theater students, and a collection of materials from her and about her are in Special Collections of WCU’s Hunter Library.
Martínez, in fact, traveled to Cullowhee to explore the archive while working on “Josefina Niggli, Mexican American Writer: A Critical Biography,” which was published in 2007.
“I came away with a greater fascination of her plays. Also, you have to be observant when studying her archives because Niggli kept multiple drafts of plays and stories,” said Martínez. “Niggli’s play ‘The Fair God’ about Maximilian and Carlota’ predates an extensive and definitive Mexican play on the same subject matter.”
Like Niggli, Martínez spent part of her childhood in Texas and part in Monterrey, Mexico. She was 16 when her family moved from Mexico to Orange County in southern California.
Martínez, who speaks Spanish and English, went on to major in English and liberal arts at Portland State University in Oregon, continued her studies at New York University in Spain and completed her doctoral work at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She specialized in Spanish/Latin American literature with secondary specializations in cultural and Chicano studies.
“I was born with the natural drive to write and read, and I also am curious and fascinated by cultures both in and out of the United States,” said Martínez.
She has traveled extensively throughout Central and South America, and during her career has worked as a journalist, foreign language instructor and literature instructor. She also has a reading knowledge of Náhuatl, which was the most spoken language in Mezo-America, and French.
“As Niggli strived to showcase the rich cultural heritage of Mexico, it is my hope that my work continues to showcase the richness of Mexico,” said Martínez.
A book by Martínez titled “Aperturas,” the first in a set of two books written in Spanish for students majoring in Spanish, is due out this fall. “Aperturas” explains Mexican culture and traditions, and relates these experiences to literature. The second volume will focus on the Hispanic community in the United States.
By Bobby Willover, a WCU student and member of the committee organizing Josefina Niggli: A Celebration of Culture, Art, and Life