Peck, D., (2006). Helena Maria Viramontes. Magill’s Survey of American Literature, 1-5. BiographyViramontes 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 Maria 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 Garcia 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 Maria 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 Jesusand 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.AnalysisIn 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.“The Cariboo Café” First published: 1985 (collected in The Moths, and Other Stories, 1985)Type of work: Short storyIllegal immigrants and other disoriented characters collide violently in a city diner.“The Cariboo Café” is a powerful short work that is representative of many of Viramontes’s fictional concerns and techniques. The story is complicated by a shifting point of view, which moves from past to present without explanation, and readers may have some difficulty following the plot initially. However, this technique is exactly what Viramontes wants the reader to feel in order to experience the kind of displacement and alienation that her characters share. The first section of the three-part story is told from somewhere within six-year-old Sonya, who is supposed to be taking care of her younger brother, Macky, after she comes home from school. Sonya has lost the key to her apartment, however, and does not notice the loss until after she picks up Macky from Mrs. Avila, who watches him during the day. Sonya and her brother are immigrants, both their parents work to support the family in this adopted country, and the story portrays powerfully the dangers of this new life. Sonya decides to walk back to Mrs. Avila’s to wait for her parents to return, but she only knows the route the other way, and she and her brother are easily lost in the garment district of Los Angeles. When the police stop a man on the street, Sonya and Macky — following their parents’ iron rule — run and hide and are further lost in “a maze of alleys and dead ends, the long abandoned warehouses shadowing any light.” Across some railroad tracks, Sonya sees “the zero-zero place” and drags Macky toward it.Part 2 of the story moves to the perspective of the owner of the Cariboo Café where the story’s action will take place, a run-down diner whose sign has been reduced to “the double zero” of its original name, a symbol which comes to stand for all the losses in the story. The café owner describes himself as “honest” and “fair,” but readers hear the anger and bitterness in his voice. Like all the characters in this story, he is oppressed by the conditions of his life and blames the outcasts and misfits, the “scum” around him, with whom he shares more than he admits.Beneath this recital of his woes, readers learn what has happened in his café. A woman has brought the two children into the place for something to eat. (Readers assume that the three met outside in the interstice between the first two parts of the story.) The owner does not like the watchful Sonya, but he is immediately attracted to her brother, whom he dubs “Short Order,” and he brings hamburgers for them all. He later learns from the television news that the children have been reported missing by their parents, but he does nothing except drink beer and fall asleep. The owner had a son himself, “JoJo,” who was killed fifteen years before in Vietnam, and thus his attraction to Macky. A drug addict overdoses in the café bathroom the next morning, and the police swarm in — further reason, the owner explains, why he never told them about the woman and the missing children. A few hours later, three other illegal immigrants run into the café to hide from the immigration authorities in the bathroom, but the police find them. After they are arrested, the woman and the two children return to the café, and part 2 ends.The last third of the story is narrated from several shifting perspectives. The first part comes from within the old woman who, it turns out, is herself an illegal alien from Central America who has come to the United States because her young son was taken by the military authorities. Part 3 is, if anything, murkier than the first two parts, because this narrator has become unhinged by recent events in her life and moves between past and present with no transitions. She clearly confuses Macky with her five-year-old son Geraldo (the same way, ironically, that the café owner confuses the boy with his dead son JoJo). She has left El Salvador because, “Without Geraldo, this is not my home; the earth beneath it, not my country,” and now she sees Macky as a returned Geraldo. She takes the children back to her hotel room, bathes Macky, and watches both children sleep.With no break (except a new paragraph), the narrative shifts back to the consciousness of the café owner. He cannot believe how the three have cleaned themselves up this morning, but he takes their orders and goes into the kitchen to prepare the meal. There, suddenly, “For the first time since JoJo’s death, he’s crying” — in anger for his son, for his wife Nell who apparently left after JoJo was killed, even for the old woman who is going to bring more trouble on him. “Children gotta be with their parents, family gotta be together, he thinks.” At this point, he apparently calls the police.Again with no noticeable break, the story shifts back to the deranged woman as two black-and-white police cruisers pull up to the café, and officers enter, guns drawn. She grabs Macky, thinking that she is reenacting the terror in her home country when Geraldo was taken. She throws hot coffee on the police, but the story ends when she hears “something crunching like broken glass against my forehead and I am blinded by the liquid darkness.” Still, she will not release Macky/Geraldo’s hand; “you see, I’ll never let go. Because we are going home. My son and I.” Evidence in the beginning of part 2 indicates that she has been shot and killed.The story has been anthologized often, including in one of the most popular college literary surveys titled The Heath Anthology of American Literature, and for good reason, as the story not only raises a number of relevant social issues but at the same time is representative of the concerns of many Latinos living in the United States. U.S. authorities are seen as threatening collaborators with those in Central America, immigration becomes a dangerous choice, and all the characters are victims of exploitation and oppression. Sonya and the old woman are the focus here, but even the male characters — Macky, the café owner, the drug user — share the oppression and alienation.“The Moths” First published: 1985 (collected in The Moths, and Other Stories, 1985)Type of work: Short storyA young Latina finds her own identity as she nurses her dying grandmother and holds her in the bathtub as the soul escapes.“The Moths,” the story that would become the title work in Viramontes’s first collection of short fiction, is even more representative of her central concerns and develops more deeply her feminist themes. Again two women play central roles: an older woman and her fourteen-year-old granddaughter. The technique of the story is less complex than “The Cariboo Café,” for the girl is the narrator throughout the short piece, and the structure of her story is fairly straightforward. However, the story is full of rich sensory detail (of sight, sound, smell, and touch), as well as the magic realism that infuses so much of Latin American fiction and that influences so many Latino and other writers.Essentially this is a coming-of-age story, of a young girl who, in rebellion against her own patriarchal family, seeks comfort in the company of her grandmother and, in easing the grandmother through death, finds her own spiritual core. It is clear from the opening of the story that the girl is different, not “pretty or nice,” she admits, nor even “respectful.” She clashes with her family often, especially with the older sisters who try to bully her, and with a father who tries to make her fit a conventional mold, as by attending church. Her grandmother has requested her help, however, as the girl says in the story’s first sentence, for Abuelita is dying. Traditional religion is no solace here: The girl goes into a local chapel but only feels “alone” there; in her Abuelita’s house, by contrast, she feels “safe and guarded and not alone. Like God was supposed to make you feel.” The girl’s mother is hardly able to cope with her mother’s imminent death, but the narrator rises to become the caretaker, bathing Abuelita and holding her hand for hours. When her grandmother dies, the girl cleans her body and then, in a mystical ritual of ablution, undresses herself and carries the naked body of the grandmother into a full bathtub and holds her. “There, there, Abuelita, I said, cradling her . . . .” At this point in the last paragraph of the story, the Magical Realism takes over:Then the moths came. Small gray ones that came from her soul and out through her mouth fluttering to light . . . . The bathroom was filled with moths, and for the first time in a long time I cried, rocking us, crying for her, for me, for Amá, the sobs emerging from the depths of anguish, the misery of feeling half-born. . . .She is “half-born” but she is in the process of giving birth to herself through her devotion to her Abuelita. In a powerful and complex poetic metaphor (for the bath is also a kind of baptism), Viramontes has imagined the emergence of this young girl through her grandmother’s death (as the moths emerge from Abuelita). It is a spiritual image which defies translation, but beneath the image, readers can sense Michaelangelo’s “Pieta,” the statue of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ, another image of death and transfiguration. (Viramontes has acknowledged the influence of W. Eugene Smith’s famous 1972 Lifemagazine photograph, “Tomoko in the Bath,” of a Japanese woman holding her child deformed by industrial poisoning.) Viramontes’s fiction is ripe with this kind of religious imagery. The girl and her grandmother have created a separate, alternative, and sacred family based on love, and Viramontes draws on Christian iconography to confirm it. In contrast to her own home (where her father abuses the women), the girl finds her true self here.Under the Feet of Jesus First published: 1995Type of work: NovelA young girl holds her fragmented and exploited family of migrant farmworkers family together after one of them is sickened by pesticides.Under the Feet of Jesus is a novella telling a powerful story about California’s migrant farmworkers. Viramontes has dedicated this work to her parents, who met while picking cotton, and to the memory of César Chávez, the revered leader of the United Farm Workers. The work centers on Estrella, a thirteen-year-old girl traveling with her family from job to job in California’s central San Joaquin Valley. Estrella’s father has abandoned the family of five children, and her mother is pregnant again by the seventy-three-year-old Perfecto Flores, who drives them to their new job in his aging car but dreams of getting away himself. The family moves into a dilapidated house near an aging barn, works picking grapes, and befriends two cousins, Alejo and Gumecindo. Estrella and Alejo have an immediate attraction, and the novella’s drama builds when Alejo is sprayed by pesticides one night while he and Gumecindo are stealing apples from a nearby orchard to sell. Alarmed by his worsening illness, the family drives him to a clinic, where a nurse takes their money, only to direct them to a nearby hospital. Knowing they need their money for gas, Estrella takes a crowbar from the car and shatters the nurse’s glass-topped desk. It is Estrella’s symbolic rite of passage; the nurse gives back their money, and Estrella and her family drive Alejo to the hospital. Estrella comes out of the hospital entrance to her waiting family, and Viramontes underlines the religious imagery she employs throughout the novella: “she stepped forward and the glass doors split open before her as if obeying her command. . . . Estrella parted the doors like a sea of glass and walked through . . . .”When they return to their camp, Estrella climbs onto the roof of the old barn, and, in a continuation of this rich religious imagery, the shingles feel like “the serpent under the feet of Jesus” and Estrella stands on the roof “as immobile as an angel standing on the verge of faith.” In this symbolism that Viramontes has taken from Christian iconography, Estrella has gained the strength, not to save Alejo, perhaps, but to hold her family together. She has become a star, like her name, and a savior.Readers may be reminded here of another Latino coming-of-age classic, Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (1972), and there are a number of similarities, including the mixed use of religious and folk images. Under the Feet of Jesus is even closer in subject and sympathy to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath(1939), however. Estrella’s migrant farm family, Viramontes assures readers — as Steinbeck did with the migrant Joads a half century earlier in the same region — has its spiritual figures and power in spite of what society does to it, how it is pummeled and poisoned. Estrella’s growth to young adulthood at the end of the novella, like much of the symbolism in Steinbeck’s work (both books end in barns, for example), gives a power to the migrant family and its transformative potential. “If we don’t take care of each other, who would take care of us?” her mother asks earlier. “We have to look out for our own.”SummaryIn the last decades of the twentieth century, Helena Maria Viramontes became one of a handful of Latina writers to voice the concerns of a growing Latino population. Her fiction deals with issues such as immigration and farm labor, but her particular focus is on the women in the Latino family and the ways in which they find their identity in spite of the oppressive institutions they inhabit. Viramontes, in short, is recognizable for the ways she merges her feminism with ethnic consciousness.Her stories are not always easy to follow, but her language is poetic and powerful, and her message is unmistakable. In a Long Beach, California, Women Writers Conference in 1984, Viramontes read aloud the story she had just completed writing, “The Cariboo Café.” She felt foolish because she could not stop crying as she read it, she later said, but when she finished she looked up and everyone in the room was crying as well.Discussion Topics•What is the role that institutions, such as government, church, and family, play in the fiction of Helena Maria Viramontes?•How do protagonists find their identity in the stories of Viramontes — through traditional assimilation into these institutions or through resistance and rebellion?•What is coming-of-age like for Viramontes’s young protagonists?•What role does gender play in these stories? Social class? Ethnicity?•What characterizes the structure and style of Viramontes’s stories?Essay by: David PeckBibliographyCarbonell, 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 Maria Viramontes.” Studies in Short Fiction35 (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 Maria 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 Maria 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 Maria 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.