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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Helena María Viramontes
(b. 1954)

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.

Viramontes’s 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.”

Viramontes’s 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 inclusion.

In “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 Salvador.

In 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.

Further, 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.

Sonia Saldívar-Hull
University of California, Los Angeles

In the Heath Anthology
The Cariboo Café (1984)

Other Works
The Moths and Other Stories (1985)
Miss Clairol (1987)
Nopalitos: The Making of Fiction (1989)
Tears on My Pillow (1992)
Paris Ratsin E. L. A. (1993)

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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.

Secondary Sources