Authors: Helena María Viramontes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

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). {$I[AN]9810001548} {$I[A]Viramontes, Helena María} {$I[geo]WOMEN;Viramontes, Helena María} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Viramontes, Helena María} {$I[geo]LATINO;Viramontes, Helena María} {$I[tim]1954;Viramontes, Helena María}

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.

Author Works Long Fiction: Under the Feet of Jesus, 1995 Their Dogs Came with Them, 2007 Short Fiction: The Moths, and Other Stories, 1985 “Miss Clairol,” 1987 “Tears on My Pillow,” 1992 “The Jumping Bean,” 1993 Nonfiction: “Nopalitos: The Making of Fiction,” 1989 “Why I Write,” 1995 Edited Texts: Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature, 1987, revised 1996 (with María Herrera-Sobek) Chicana (W)rites: On Word and Film, 1995 (with Herrera-Sobek) Bibliography Carbonell, Ana Maria. “From Llarona to Gritona: Coatlicue in Feminist Tales by Viramontes and Cisneros.” MELUS 24 (Summer, 1999): 53-74. Analyzes the representations of the Mexican goddess Coatlicue and the folkloric figure of the wailing ghost La Llarona in the works of Mexican American women writers Viramontes and Sandra Cisneros. Green, Carol Hurd, and Mary Grimley Mason. American Women Writers. New York: Continuum, 1994, 463-465. The editors provide a brief biographical sketch as well as an analysis of the short stories in Moths. They emphasize the portrayal of Chicana women with their strengths and weaknesses as they struggle with the restrictions placed on them because they are women. They note that many of the characters pay a price for rebelling against traditional values. Moore, Deborah Owen. “La Llarona Dines at the Cariboo Cafe: Structure and Legend in the Works of Helena María Viramontes.” Studies in Short Fiction 35 (Summer, 1998): 277-286. Contrasts the distant and close-up narrative perspectives in Viramontes’s work. Richards, Judith. “Chicano Creativity and Criticism: New Frontiers in American Literature.” College Literature 25 (Spring, 1998): 182. In this review of the anthology edited by Viramontes and María Herrera-Sobek, Richards argues that the book provides a good starting place for those who want to evaluate the Chicana literary movement. Points to the emergence of urban working-class women as protagonists, the frequent use of child and adolescent narrators, and autobiographical formats that focus on unresolved issues as characteristics of Chicana literature. Saldivar-Hull, Sonia. “Helena María Viramontes.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. Chicano Writers series. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Summarizes and analyzes several stories from Moths, stressing the cultural and religious traditions that restrict women’s lives. Discusses the patriarchal privileges that the father assumes in the story when he shouts at his daughter “‘Tu eres mujer’” (you are a woman) in order to control her. Calls “Snapshots” a “scathing critique of the politics of housework” and refers to the divorced Olga as “an alienated laborer whose value has decreased.” Swyt, Wendy. “Hungry Women: Borderlands Mythos in Two Stories by Helena María Viramontes.” MELUS 23 (Summer, 1998): 189-201. Discusses the short stories “The Broken Web” and “Cariboo Cafe.” Yarbo-Bejarano, Yvonne. Introduction to “The Moths and Other Stories.” Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press, 1995. Discusses Viramontes’s portrayal of women characters who struggle against the restrictions placed on them by the Chicano culture, the church, and the men in these women’s lives. Provides a brief analysis of each story in the collection, showing that the stories deal with problems Chicana women face at various stages of their lives. Notes that, although Viramontes addresses the problems of racial prejudice and economic struggles, the emphasis is on the cultural and social values that shape these women and suggests that most of stories involve the conflict between the female character and the man who represents an oppressive authority figure.

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