Helena Maria Viramontes
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Childhood and education
Viramontes was born into a Mexican-American family.
Viramontes graduated from Garfield High School, which was one of the high schools that participated in the 1968 Chicano Blowouts, a series of protests against unequal conditions in East Los Angeles public schools. The Chicano Movement would play a significant role in her development as a writer. She then worked part-time while attending Immaculate Heart College, from which she earned her Bachelor of Arts in English literature in 1975.
Viramontes attended the graduate program in creative writing at the University of California, Irvine. In 1977, her short story "Requiem for the Poor" was awarded a prize from Statement Magazine. In 1979, she won a literary prize from the Spanish department at UC Irvine. In 1981, she left the MFA program. In 1985, Arte Público Press published The Moths, collection of short stories. During her hiatus from academia she published in many underground literary journals such as ChismeArte. In 1988, she co-edited Chicana Creativity and Criticism with María Herrera-Sobek, a volume dedicated to the literary output of Mexican-American women. She returned to UC Irvine to complete her MFA, which was awarded in 1994. As part of the program, she received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to attend a writing workshop with the Colombian Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez. In 1995, her first novel Under the Feet of Jesus was published to critical acclaim. Recently, Their Dogs Came With Them, a novel that took her 17 years to complete, has been published and is gaining notoriety for its tough characters and strikingly personal and realistic prose. This novel is largely inspired by her childhood in the midst of East Los Angeles, with the gang conflicts and social strife at the center of her novel. She has said that her house is next to four cemeteries, and that when the freeways were built in East Los Angeles in the 1960s (see East LA Freeway) myth has it that the cement was poured over the resting places of some forgotten souls; their bones disturbed.
She had been spurred to write the novel because of her passion not to let these souls be forgotten, while at the same time telling a beautifully woven work on life.
Her short stories have been published in a variety of literary journals. The major themes of her stories are informed by her childhood experiences in East Los Angeles, and the impact of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers on the life of her family. Many of her works feature strong female characters, and child protagonists figure prominently into her work. Other works have been deemed "democratic novels", in that no single protagonist dominates the storyline. Throughout all of her work, a love of life and of all of humanity pervades, despite poverty and the other challenges her characters face.
Viramontes is currently a professor of English at Cornell University.
Awards and honors
- National Endowment for the Arts National Endowment for the Arts, 1/1989
- Fellowship, Sundance Institute, 7/1989
- Under the Feet of Jesus, New Voices Quality Paperback Book, 1995
- Under the Feet of Jesus, finalist, Discover Great New Writers, 1996
- John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, 1996
- The Moths exhibited in Autrey Museum of Western Heritage, 5/1998-9/1998
- Alumna of the year, Immaculate Heart College, 10/2000
- Doctor of Humanities, Honoris Causa, St. Mary’s College of Notre Dame, 5/2000
- Featured with John Steinbeck and Carlos Bulosan on Oregon Public
- Broadcasting, "American Passages—A Literary Survey" #12, "The Migrant Struggle"
- Luis Leal Award, Santa Barbara Festival of Books, 2006
- Outstanding Latino/a Cultural Award in Literary Arts or Publications, 2007
- United State Artists Fellowship, 2007
First novel: Under the Feet of Jesus
Under the Feet of Jesus (Penguin, 1995) follows the lives of thirteen-year-old Estrella, her brothers and sisters, her mother Petra, Petra’s lover Perfecto, and the cousins Alejo and Gumecindo, all Latino migrant workers living and working in the California grape fields. Since the novel's dedication refers to Cesar Chavez, who led migrant laborers to ask for better wages and conditions, Chavez' actions in such movements as the Delano Grape Strike must be considered as background to the novel's fictions.
The story reflects the hardships of the migrants’ lives set against the beauty of the landscape. It reflects, as critics Carballo and Giles have noted, multiple "initiation stories," many of which revolve around the friendship and love unfolding between Estrella and Alejo. The novel's limited omniscient narrator moves in and out of the consciousnesses of the main characters, a technique which allows readers to view characters' motivations, and which Viramontes herself says is a product of the ways that the characters of the novel told her their story.
Chapter 1 begins with the family driving to the fields to harvest the fruit. The chapter draws the personalities of the main characters on emotional, spiritual, and physical levels; we learn of the hardships that they experience as migrant workers. Petra, the mother, abandoned by her husband and raising five children alone, has endured bouts of insanity and self-mutilation. She meets Perfecto, who fixes things with his toolbox so well that, after he finishes, customers exclaim, Perfecto! A hare-lipped child cuts himself and is entertained by shadow-puppetry until he forgets his injuries. Gumecindo and Alejo pick peaches, not to eat, but to sell. In a darkened, derelict barn, a mysterious chain dangles from the ceiling, and the sounds of birds fill the darkness. The novel proceeds in a series of striking images stemming from Viramontes' work at the time, on a film.
Working back and forth between Estrella’s and Alejo’s puppy-love and Perfecto’s memories, Chapter 2 develops several conflicts. Perfecto, now age 73, recalls falling in love with his first wife, Mercedes, and the loss of an infant, his first child. He hides his hope to leave Petra's family and return forever to the scenes of his early love with Mercedes. He asks Estrella to help him tear down the derelict barn for a payment that will fund his trip. Meanwhile, Estrella meets Alejo at a dance, where they begin to fall in love. Alejo and Estrella discuss the La Brea Tar Pits, which are, according to the critic Burford, a trope for forces which devour.
In Chapter 3, Alejo is sick with the daño of the fields (pesticide poisoning). He is sicker, according to Perfecto, than any yerba (herb) or prayer can heal. The family decides to take Alejo to a clinic but is halted when their station wagon is stuck in deep mud. Everyone helps except Alejo, who can barely pick his chin up.
In Chapter 4, Estrella and her family finally arrive at a remote, worn-down clinic. The only staff member, a nurse, seems distant from Alejo and unwilling to give him any but the most clinical of attentions. She suggests that the family take the boy to a hospital; however, she does not recognize how very little money the family has to pay the clinic’s fee, to buy gasoline, or to pay a doctor’s bill. Estrella repeatedly recommends Perfecto to the nurse as a repairman, so that the migrants can barter his work for medical services rather than pay money for them; the nurse repeatedly cannot read the vast gulf between even her small earning power and her patients’. At last, Estrella threatens the nurse with a crow bar, takes back the meager fee she had paid the clinic, and uses the money to buy gasoline to take Alejo to a hospital, where the family leaves him to the doctors’ care and to his fate.
In Chapter 5, the family arrives at their shack without Alejo. The dirty dishes are where they left them. The younger children fall asleep. Although Petra has not yet told Perfecto that she is pregnant with his child, he is aware of the developing infant and recoils from the responsibility. Leaning against the decrepit car, he mourns for the places he left in memory and the money he does not have to return. Petra is awake and restless and resolves to pray. Estrella rushes off, lantern in hand, to the only place she feels temporarily free, the old barn. As the novel ends, she is standing on the roof, silhouetted against a starry sky.
The novel’s meaning develops partly through plot and partly through imagery evoked through the novel’s lush language. The plot lets readers know how delicate is the balance between having enough to eat and not, between sanity and insanity, between health and incapacitating illness. Exasperatingly, the loveliness of natural scenery and of acts of human decency almost mock the workers’ frailty and hardship. The mountains and stars, frequently described, endure beyond human carelessness, ignorance, and cruelty. Peaches evoke the deliciousness of food and eating, and food’s unavailability to many. Rotting fruit evoke preciousness, such as human talent, that is daily wasted. Blood, aching backs, feet, hands, eyes, all mentioned frequently, remind readers how much human life is housed in a body which must stay safe and healthy in order to live. Viramontes notes that she had "to think about the stories of the mujeres out there, their sheer arrogance to survive, their incredible strength to take care of others."  The juxtaposition of Petra, carrying her child, and her daughter's figure silhouetted against the sky at the novel's close emphasizes Viramontes' chicana feminism.
Viramontes often uses her works as witness to history, or as a voice for those who do not have a public platform upon which to speak (see, e.g., her short story "The Cariboo Cafe," (in The Moths and Other Stories 65-82) her novel, Their Dogs Came with Them and the article "Xicanismo"). In interviews she evinces a longtime commitment to civil rights. Her commitment to rights is not abstract, since Viramontes' own parents harvested grapes during her youth. The novel likewise reflects Viramontes' feminism in her creation of strong female characters. Of these, Carballo and Giles report, "Women in this novel rescue themselves."
- Beyond Stereotypes: A Critical Analysis of Chicana Literature (Contributor, 1985). ISBN 0-916950-54-9
- Chicana Creativity and Criticism (Contributor and editor, 1988) ISBN 0-8263-1712-X.
- Under the Feet of Jesus (1995) ISBN 0-452-27387-0
- Their Dogs Came with Them (2007). ISBN 0-7432-8766-5
Short story collections
- Cuentos: Stories by Latinas (Contributor, 1983). ISBN 0-913175-01-3
- The Moths and Other Stories (1985). ISBN 1-55885-138-0. Includes "The Moths".
- The United State Environmental Protection Agency. Web. http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/.
- "Environmental Toxins: Changes Needed to Reduce Migrant Farm Worker Exposure to Pesticides." Cancer Weekly (20 Jan. 2004): 56-7.
- Rupali Das, MD, MPH; Andrea Steege, MPH; Sherry Baron, MD, MPH; John Beckman, Robert Harrison, MD, MPH. "Pesticide-related Illness among Migrant Farm Workers in the United States." International Journal of Occupational Environmental Health 7, 2001: 303–312
- Xicana literature
- Pesticides "The Issue" http://envirolit.wordpress.com/2011/04/04/helena-maria-viramontes/
- Goodreads. Review of Under the Feet of Jesus. 21 March 2008. Web. http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/18200078
- Garcia, Christina. Review of Under the Feet of Jesus. E3W Literature. 13 December 2009. Web. http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/orgs/e3w/Viramontes09
- Kass, Jeff. "The Sunday Profile: Writing Wrong: Helena Maria Viramontes Found Inspiration for Her Book and Her Activism While Living in Irvine." The LA Times (September 17, 1995). Web. http://articles.latimes.com/1995-09-17/news/ls-46867_1_helena-maria-viramontes
- Carballo, Mirian A., and Wanda H. Giles. "Helena Maria Viramontes." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 350: Twenty-First-Century American Novelists, Second Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Wanda H. Giles, Northern Illinois University, and James R. Giles, Northern Illinois University. Gale, 2009. 333-338
- Heredia, Juanita, and Bridget Kevane. "Praying for Knowledge: An Interview with Helena María Viramontes." In Latina Self-Portraits: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers, edited by Bridget Kevane and Juanita Heredia. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000. 142-54.
- Burford, Arianne. "Cartographies of a Violent Landscape: Viramontes' and Moraga's Remapping of Feminisms in Under the Feet of Jesus and Heroes and Saints. Genders 47 (2008). Web. http://www.genders.org/g47/g47_burford.html. Reproduced in Contemporary Literary Criticism-Select.
- Viramontes' home page at Cornell
- Viramontes' home page
- Guide to the Helena Maria Viramontes Papers CEMA 18 at the California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives
- La Bloga 2007 Interview
- on YouTube
- Voices From the Gaps Bio/Criticism
- UCSB Library
- Helena Maria Viramontes' Facebook
- CSULA 2010 Interview with Viramontes