Helena Mª Viramontes

U.S. Latino/a Literature                                      -                               Puerto Rican Literature in the United States


Helena Maria Viramontes (b. 1954) was born in East Los Angeles, the daughter of a construction worker and a Chicana housewife who raised six daughters and three sons in a community that offered refuge for relatives and friends crossing the border from Mexico into California. After graduation from Garfield High School, Viramontes worked twenty hours a week while earning her B.A. from Immaculate Heart College, one of five Chicanas in her class. She then entered the graduate program at the University of California at Irvine as a creative writing student, but she left in 1981 and completed the requirements for the M.F.A. degree after the publication of her stories.

Viramontes began to place her stories in small magazines such as Maize and XhismArte Magazine as well as the anthology Cuentos: Stories by Latinas (1983). Her first book, The Moths and Other Stories was published in 1985 by Arte Publico Press in Houston, Texas. The same year the University of California at Irvine sponsored the first national conference on Mexican American women writers, resulting in the volume Beyond Stereotypes: A Critical Analysis of Chicana Literature (1985). Three years later Viramontes helped organize a second Chicana writers conference at Irvine and coedited the anthology Chicana Creativity and Criticism (1988).

In 1989 Viramontes received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship grant. In 1993 she published her second book of short stories, Paris Rats in E.L.A. Her first novel, Under the Feet of Jesus, followed in 1995.


    Helena Maria Viramontes was born in East Los Angeles, California, on February 26, 1954. She attended Immaculate Heart College, majoring in English Literature, and recieved her B.A. in 1975. It was in college that she began writing, first poetry and then fiction. Her stories were soon published and recognized. In 1977, she won first prize in a literary contest sponsored by Statement magazine for her story "Requiem for the Poor." She also won the Statement prize the following year for her story "The Broken Web," and in 1979 was awarded the fiction prize in the University of California at Irvine Chicano Literary Contest for the short stoty "Birthday."

    In 1981, Viramontes enrolled in a Masters of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program at UC-Irvine, which she recently completed. In 1983, two of her stories were published in the anthology Cuentos: Stories by Latinas, and another story appeared in Women of Her World, an anthology published in 1985. She also received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship to attend a workshop given by Gabriel Garcia Marquez at the Sundance Institute. Viramontes has collaborated with Maria Herrera Sobel on two anthologies, Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Creative Frontiers in American Literature (1988), and Chicana Writers: On Word and Film (1993). Also in 1993, Viramontes wrote Paris Rats in E.L.A., a screenplay that has been produced by the American Film Institute.

    Helena Maria Viramontes has received critical acclaim for her short stories for their masterful depictions of Chicano culture. She mainly writes about people she has known since childhood, especially family and friends. With regard to her parents' influence on her writing, the author states: "If my mother showed all that is good in being female, my father showed all that is bad in being male." Viramontes focuses on the struggles and sufferings of Chicana women with their households, their culture, and their society.

    The short story "Growing," which is included in her work The Moths and Other Stories (1985), illustrates how a young women's coming-of-age separates her from the rest of the family. In one scene, when Naomi asks her father why he suddenly becomes distanced from her, he says, "tu eres mujer," you are a woman. Viramontes ultimately wishes to portray how women, in particular Chicana women, are discriminated against merely because of their sex.

    Another powerful novel is titled Under the Feet of Jesus, which is about a young California migrant worker's dream of becoming a geologist. Estrella is thirteen when she arrives in her new temporary home with her younger siblings, her mother Petra, and the man who is not her father, Perfecto. Estrella's ebullient spirit is painfully contrasted with Petra's coping, mid-thirties fatigue.

    This California is not the legendary destination of blissful contemplation, but rather the landscape one drives over and hikes across to get to the next job. When Viramontes describes Estrella's family trying to cross a highway, the immediacy of the narrative moment is striking, and the images of their hard labor are extraordinary. Viramontes has dedicated this novel to her parents, who met while picking cotton, and to the memory of Cesar Chavez, leader of the United Farm Workers.

    Viramontes' stories , in essence, communicate the overwhelming trials and tribulations that Chicana mothers, wives, and daughters face. They utilize stream-of-consciousness narrative, magic as literary symbols, and multiple narrators to depict the thoughts and emotions of these beautiful and haunted women. Still other issues portrayed in her works include politics, religion, and sexuality. Her influences include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, and Toni Morrison.

    The author is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University. In addition, her latest novel, Their Dogs Came with Them, published in 1996, is about the brutality of the Spanish conquest of the Americans. Not only is Viramontes expanding her writing, but she is involved with the MTU Writing Center Latino Read-In, where she is a consultant. She has also counseled Chicano students at Cornell's Summer College.




    Works by the Author

    bulletTheir Dogs Came with Them (forthcoming)
    bulletUnder the Feet of Jesus (1995)
    bulletParis Rats in E.L.A. (1993)
    bulletThe Moths and Other Stories (1985)

    Co-authored with Maria Herra Sobek:

    bulletChicana Writers: On Word and Film (1993)
    bulletChicana Creativity and Criticism: Creative Frontiers in American Literature (1988)

    Works about the Author

    bulletDavidson, Cathy N. and Linda Wagner-Martin, eds. The Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
    bulletFernandez, Roberta. "The Cariboo Cafe: Helena Maria Viramontes discourses with her social and cultural contexts." Women's Studies 17.2 (1989): 71-85.
    bulletFox, L.C. "Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in America." College Literature 18.1, (1991): 103-106.
    bulletHassett, J.J. "Under the Feet of Jesus-Viramontes, HM." Chasqui-Revista de Literatura Latinoamericana 25.2 (1996).
    bulletMagill, Frank N., ed. Masterpieces of Latino Literature. New York: Salem Press, Inc., 1994.
    bulletPavletich, J.A. and M.G. Backus. "With His Pistol in Her Hand: Rearticulating the Corrido Narrative." Cultural Critique 27 (1994): 127-152.
    bulletPeck, David and Eric Howards, eds. Identities and Issues in Literature. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, Inc., 1997.



    Reflections on The Cariboo CafÈ and Miss Clairol
    Student Emilia Vasquez offers her thoughts on the writings of Helena Maria Viramontes. Also included are some helpful links to other sites about Viramontes.
    "The Moths"
    Information about Viramontes' story "The Moths."
    Helena Maria Viramontes
    Information about Viramontes' life and words from Beford-St. Martin's Press.
    "The Jumping Bean"

    (From Voices from the Gap)



    Helena María Viramontes (b. 1954)

    Contributing Editor: Juan Bruce-Novoa

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    The story touches on so many social issues that class discussion is almost assured. Some students, however, may express a sense of overkill: too many social and political ills too rapidly referenced to produce a profound impression. The class may also divide over the issues, some finding that they are so often covered by the media that they hardly need repetition, while others like the story because it seems like a familiar exposé on subjects they consider everyday reality.

    You may find yourself in a discussion more of the headnote and its advocacy of the rights of undocumented aliens than of the story itself. I would try to focus on close textual reading to prevent the discussion from drifting away from the text and into arguments over social and political policies. Yet, some explanation of U.S. immigration policies and the political issues in Central America may be necessary (see "Historical Perspectives").

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Viramontes has published few stories and the headnote provides ample information on her themes and the personal connection with them. Historically, however, students may need more help. The Latino characters are undocumented aliens, and as such they can be detained by Immigration and Naturalization agents. After a hearing, they can be repatriated to their country of origin. However, in the recent past the process for Central Americans has more often than not tended to allow delay of their return, especially for those who claim political asylum. For Mexican aliens, the process is usually more automatic, although their return to the U.S. is also quite usual. The headnote suggests that the female refugee comes from El Salvador, which may provoke some confusion, since in the story her son is accused of collaborating with "Contras," a right wing terrorist group supported by the U.S. in the 1980s to undermine the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. This could lead to ambiguous interpretations (just who has killed the woman's son, the Nicaraguan left or the Salvadorean right?) that can be used to lend the story interesting ambiguity to undermine simplistic political positions of right and wrong.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Narrative perspective varies, moving from one character to another. While the technique may disorient some students, most will have encountered it in previous studies. It is important for them to note how Viramontes changes diction levels to achieve characterization. The use of interior monologue, especially in Section II, is noteworthy but not difficult to comprehend. The dashes of the "Rashamon" technique--the viewing of the same event from different perspectives at different times--adds to the text's fragmented feel.

    Original Audience

    Viramontes addresses a contemporary U.S. audience with topics relatively well known to most readers.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Comparisons can be made with Rolando Hinojosa's selection, which also utilizes the fragmented narrative while the subtlety of Hinojosa's social commentary can be contrasted with Viramontes's blatant approach. One might also place Viramontes in the tradition of such writers as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Watkins Harper, or Upton Sinclair, writers who did not shy away from explicit advocacy of political positions, even at the risk of melodramatic excess. While the headnote refers to García Márquez and Isabel Allende, there is little of the Latin American Magical Realism associated with those authors; the connection would be to their political positions, not to their style.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing

    1. The basic assignment here is to establish how the story is being narrated: From whose perspective is something seen? Then I ask students to characterize the different perspectives by picking specific words, turns of phrases, motifs, and so on.

    2. I ask students to identify the specific Latino content of the story. Then I ask them to consider if the experiences apply to other immigrant groups, or the human condition in general.

    3. This story lends itself to creative writing assignments. Have students pick a recent news event and narrate it from the objective perspective of a reporter and then from at least two others; for example, a witness of and a participant in the event.

    (From the Health anthology)






Please tell me what you think about this site in order to improve it: 

© Antonia Domínguez Miguela. Site last updated: 14 October 2004