Last reviewed: June 2018
American novelist, short-story writer, and anthologist
February 26, 1954
East Los Angeles, California
Helena María Viramontes made a name for herself as a fiction writer, educator, and active participant in Latino literary and artistic groups. A founder of Southern California Latino Writers and Filmmakers and its vice president from 1990 to 1993, Viramontes has also lectured in New Delhi, India, and participated in a women’s writing discussion group in the People’s Republic of China. Her work was included in several major anthologies, including The Oxford Book of Women’s Writing in the United States (1995).
The major themes of Viramontes’s fiction, the oppression of women and the problems faced by working-class Chicanos, can be traced to her childhood experiences. Viramontes’s parents, Mary Louise and Serafin Viramontes, met as migrant workers and settled in East Los Angeles, where Viramontes was raised with six sisters and three brothers. In “Nopalitos,” she depicts her mother as a kind, energetic woman who often took in friends and relatives who needed a place to stay. Viramontes describes her father, a construction worker, as a man who worked hard but responded to the stresses of his job and family responsibilities with drinking and angry outbursts.
Viramontes started writing while attending Immaculate Heart College, from which she received a B.A. in English in 1975. In 1977 her story “Requiem for the Poor” received first prize in a competition sponsored by the California State University’s Statement magazine; in 1978 she received the same prize for “The Broken Web.” In 1979 she entered the creative writing program at the University of California at Irvine (UCI), where her story “Birthday” won first prize for fiction in the University’s Chicano Literary Contest.
After leaving the UCI creative writing program in 1981 Viramontes continued to write and to take a leading role in local literary and artistic organizations. Two short stories, “Snapshots” and “Growing,” were published in Cuentos: Stories by Latinas (1983); in 1984 “The Broken Web” appeared in the anthology Woman of Her Word. These and other stories first published in magazines such as XhismeArte (which she went on to edit) and Maize were gathered in Viramontes’s first book, The Moths, and Other Stories.
The stories in The Moths, and Other Stories focus on women, usually Latinas, struggling against traditional social and cultural roles. Oppressive fathers, misguided husbands, and priests who are blind to women’s real needs and problems contribute to the pain that Viramontes’s female protagonists experience. However, the rebellious adolescent girls in “Growing” and “The Moths” find that their mothers collaborate in the loss of freedom and in the social limitations placed upon mujeres, or women. In “The Long Reconciliation” Amanda, a married Mexican woman, chooses to abort a child rather than allow it to starve, but the price she must pay is her husband’s rejection and abandonment. The concerns of older women are also depicted in “Snapshots” and “Neighbors.” In “The Cariboo Cafe” Viramontes extends her representation of women to include the plight of Central American mothers whose children have been “disappeared.” In addition to sharing common themes, the stories in The Moths are linked by Viramontes’s skillful handling of multiple narrators and stream of consciousness.
In 1987 Viramontes, along with María Herrera-Sobek, organized a conference at UCI on Mexican American women writers. Viramontes’s short story “Miss Clairol” was included in the conference proceedings, Chicana Creativity and Criticism, which she also coedited. Viramontes’s growing reputation was enhanced in 1989 by a National Endowment for the Arts grant, an invitation to attend a storytelling workshop with Nobel Prize laureate Gabriel García Márquez at the Sundance Institute, and the publication of her autobiographical essay “Nopalitos” in Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings. In 1991 she was awarded a residency at the Millay Colony for the Arts.
Viramontes returned to the University of California writing program in 1992, the same year in which “Tears on My Pillow” appeared in New Chicana/Chicano Writing. In 1993 Viramontes received her MFA, completed the manuscript that was published as Under the Feet of Jesus in 1995, and published another story, “The Jumping Bean,” in the anthology Pieces of the Heart. Viramontes began to teach creative writing at Cornell University in the fall of 1993.
Viramontes’s novel Under the Feet of Jesus combines realism with lyrical passages to depict the harsh circumstances faced by a family of migrant farmworkers. Abandoned by her husband, Petra, the mother, lives with Perfecto, a man thirty-seven years her senior, who is torn between his obligations to Petra and her family and his desire to return to his home in Mexico. Perfecto’s gentleness and concern for Petra contrast sharply with the kind of male characters that dominate The Moths. The novel focuses upon thirteen-year-old Estrella, whose life has been one of impermanence and loss. Though drained by exhaustion and poverty, Estrella finds the strength to fight the injustice of her life when her first love, Alejo, falls ill after being exposed to pesticides. After the family has spent all the money they have on a useless medical examination for Alejo, Estrella threatens a nurse with a crowbar, recovers the family’s money, and enables Alejo to receive treatment at a hospital. The novel ends with Estrella perched on the roof of a barn she had longed to climb, an image that conveys her determination, heroism, and triumph.
In 2007, Viramontes published her second novel, Their Dogs Came with Them. Set in 1960s East Los Angeles, the book follows a handful of young Latinas as they navigate both personal difficulties—from missing loved ones to gang life—and communal ones, such as the threat of a proposed freeway displacing residents. Reviewers noted that the story was less plot driven than a mood piece. A decade after its publication, playwright Virginia Grise adapted Their Dogs Came with Them was adapted for the stage.
Viramontes's contributions to literature have garnered her several awards and honors, including the 1995 John Dos Passos Prize for literature. She also received an honorary doctorate from St. Mary's College of Notre Dame, Indiana, in 2000 and won the Luis Leal Award for distinction in Chicano/Latino literature in 2006. The following year the United States Artists named Viramontes a USA Ford Fellow in literature and the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education presented her with its Outstanding Latino/a Cultural Award in Literary Arts or Publications.