Helena Maria Viramontes. Magill’s Survey of American Literature, 1-5. Biography
Viramontes is one of the most important Latina writers to emerge at the end of the twentieth century, a short-story writer and novelist who addresses some of the most significant American issues, particularly for Latinos.
Helena María Viramontes was born in East Los Angeles, California, on February 26, 1954, one of six daughters and three sons born to a construction worker and a homemaker. After graduation from Garfield High School, Viramontes earned her B.A. degree in English literature at Immaculate Heart College, also in Los Angeles, where she was one of only five Latinas in her class, graduating in 1975. She enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program at the University of California at Irvine in 1981 but left and completed her M.F.A. requirements after the publication of her first collection of short fiction, The Moths, and Other Stories, in 1985. In 1989, she received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship which allowed her to attend a workshop given by the famed Columbian writer Gabriel García Márquez at the Sundance Institute in Utah. Viramontes has not been a prolific author, but she has published consistently over her career. In 1988, with María Herrera-Sobek, she coedited Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature (second edition, 1996), a collection of both creative work (including Viramontes’s short story “Miss Clairol”) and criticism inspired by a literary conference held at U.C. Irvine; in 1995, the two writers edited a similar collection titled Chicana (W)rites: On Word and Film. In 1995, she published her short novel Under the Feet of Jesus and in 2007, a second novel Their Dogs Came with Them, about the brutality of the Spanish conquest of the Americas. By the early twenty-first century, she had been a visiting professor at a number of universities but lived in Ithaca, New York, with her husband, the well-known environmental biologist Eloy Rodriguez, and their children. She also serves on the faculty at Cornell University, where she teaches creative writing. Her stories have appeared in a number of periodicals and anthologies, and she has won numerous awards, including the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature in 1996. As her fiction grapples with contemporary social issues, Viramontes herself has gotten involved in a number of cultural and educational projects, including as literary editor of XhistmeArte in the early 1980’s; cofounder of the nonprofit group Latino Writers and Filmmakers, Inc.; and coordinator for the Latino Writers Association.
In most of her fiction, Viramontes focuses on the struggles of Latina characters within the family, their culture, and the larger society. All of these institutions can be seen as oppressive, usually retarding the growth of the central characters. In “The Moths,” for example, it is the family unit from which the young protagonist must break free; in “The Cariboo Café,” it is poverty, racism, and abusive governmental policies; and in Under the Feet of Jesus, it is economic, familial, and social injustices in the Central Valley of California. Viramontes’s stories, in short, communicate the overwhelming trials that Latina mothers, wives, and daughters face as they attempt to grow up, raise families, and discover their own identities, but her dual focus is always on the cultural and social values by which these women attempt to live as well. The narrative technique in these fictions is not always easy to follow, and the writing can be dense with poetic imagery. Viramontes uses shifting points of view, and it is sometimes difficult to reconstruct the temporal sequence of actions within the rapid changes in narration (as in “Cariboo Café”), but characters define themselves by their speech and thought in vivid and revealing ways (not only Latina protagonists such as Estrella in Under the Feet of Jesus, but Anglo characters such as the café owner in “Cariboo Café” as well), and in language that is often personal and poetic. Viramontes’s focus on the larger social and cultural context that her characters inhabit resembles the viewpoint of many contemporary Latina writers: Viramontes’s “Miss Clairol,” for instance, is a harsh indictment of consumer culture and its underpinning of the American Dream for Latinos and it reminds readers of stories by Sandra Cisneros, such as her often-anthologized “Barbie-Q.” As with most Latina writers (including poets like Cherrie Moraga and Lorna Dee Cervantes), Viramontes is never far from the social reality that Mexican Americans and other immigrant cultures have experienced in the twentieth century — not only the economic injustices, but also the discrimination and prejudice that often follow. On the other hand, her young women characters are capable of spiritual acts which carry her fiction to another, often mystical level. Her fiction has created a unique voice in American literature.