| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Helena María Viramontes
Chronicler of the West Coast urban barrios, Helena
María Viramontes was born, raised, and educated in East Los Angeles,
California. Daughter of working-class parents, she and her nine brothers and
sisters grew up surrounded by the family friends and relatives who found
temporary sanctuary in the Viramontes household as they made the crossing from
Mexico to the United States. Her writings reveal the political and aesthetic
significance of the contemporary Chicana feminist’s entrance into the
publishing world. Viramontes’s aesthetics are a practice of political
intervention carried out in literary form. Her tales of the urban barrios, of
the border cities, of the Third World metropolis that cities such as Los
Angeles have become, record the previously silenced experiences of life on the
border for Chicanas and Latinas. Now living in Irvine, where she is a graduate
student in the University of California, Irvine, MFA program and a full-time
mother to two young children, Viramontes remains an exemplar of the organic
intellectual; she organizes the community to protest the closing of local
public libraries in areas populated with Chicanos and Latinos; she gives
readings and literary presentations to a population that is represented by the
media as gang-infested and whose young men are more represented in the prison
system than in the education system.
first short story collection, The Moths and Other Stories (1985), is a feminist
statement on the status of the family in the Chicana/o community. In many of
the stories, she transforms the concept of “familia” as the community itself
changes with the last decade’s infusion of refugees from war-torn countries in
Central America; what were once predominantly Mexican American areas are now
international Latina/o communities within the borders of the United States. The
new immigrants bring with them specific histories which produce new stories
that further emphasize the resemblances between Chicanas/os and “los otros
Americanos”: people Cherríe Moraga calls “refugees of a world on fire.”
project in her short stories also gives historical context and voice to the
women who many Chicano writers silenced through their appropriation of female
historicity. As she challenges an uncritical view of the traditional Chicano
family, she presents an altered version of familia that makes more sense in a
world where governments continue to exert power over women’s bodies by hiding
behind the rhetoric of the sacred family as they simultaneously exploit and
destroy members of families who do not conform to a specific political agenda
or whose class positions or race automatically disqualifies them from
“The Cariboo Cafe,” Viramontes makes explicit the connection between Chicanas
and refugees from Central America. Written in early 1984 after Viramontes
learned of the atrocities that the U.S. policies in countries such as El
Salvador had enabled, this story embodies a Chicana feminist’s critique of the
political and economic policies of the United States government and its
collaborators south of its border. Viramontes presents the oppression and
exploitation of the reserve army of laborers that such policies create and then
designate as “other,” the “illegal” immigrants. Combining feminism with race
and class consciousness, Viramontes commits herself, in this Chicana political
discourse, to a transnational solidarity with the working-class political
refugee seeking asylum from right-wing death squads in countries such as El
addition, the narrative structure of “The Cariboo Cafe” connects Chicana
aesthetics to the literary traditions of such Latin American political writers
as Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. The fractured narrative employed
in this story hurls the reader into a complicated relationship with the text.
The reader enters the text as an alien to this refugee culture; Viramontes
crafts a fractured narrative to reflect the disorientation that the immigrant
workers feel when they are subjected to life in a country that controls their
labor but does not value their existence as human beings.
the narrative structure shoots the reader into a world where she or he is as
disoriented as the story’s characters: two lost Mexican children; a refugee
woman (possibly from El Salvador), whose mental state reflects the trauma of losing
her five-year-old son to the labyrinth of the disappeared in Latin American
countries ruled by armies and dictators the United States trains and supports;
and a working-class man, an ironic representative of dominant Anglo-American
culture, who runs the “double zero” cafe. The reader, particularly one
unfamiliar with life in the border regions of that other America, must work to
decipher the signs much in the same way the characters do. Through the artistry
of her narrative, Helena María Viramontes shows how a Chicana oppositional art
form also becomes an arena that reflects politics.
University of California, Los Angeles
In the Heath Anthology
The Cariboo Café
The Moths and Other Stories
Nopalitos: The Making of Fiction
Tears on My Pillow
Paris Ratsin E. L. A.
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Under the Feet of Jesus
A summary and brief commentary on the novel.
Twentieth Century American Women Writers
A biographical and literary introduction to Viramontes.
Viramontes is Awarded the John Dos Passos Literature Prize for 1995
An article from the Cornell Chronicle.
Voices from the Gaps
Offers a biography, criticism, a selected bibliography, and links.