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Helena Maria Viramontes Biography

chicana stories university press

Nationality: American. Born: East Los Angeles, 1954. Education: Immaculate Heart College, B.A., 1975; attended University of California at Irvine. Career: Teaches at Cornell University. Awards: Statement Magazine first prize for fiction (California State University), 1977, 1978; first prize for fiction (University of California at Irvine Chicano Literary Contest), 1979. Agent: c/o Dutton/Signet, 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Under the Feet of Jesus. New York, Dutton, 1995.

Their Dogs Came with Them. New York, Dutton, 2000.

Short Stories

The Moths and Other Stories. Houston, Texas, Arte Publico Press, 1985.

Paris Rats in E.L.A. N.p. 1993.

Other

Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature (co-editor, with Maria Herrera-Sobek). Houston, Texas, Arte Publico Press, 1988.

Chicana (W)Rites: On Word and Film (co-editor, with Maria Herrera-Sobek). Berkeley, California, Third Woman Press, 1995.

Contributor, Cuentos: Short Stories by Latinas. Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, 1983.

Contributor, Woman of Her Word, edited by Evangelina Vigil. Houston, Texas, Arte Publico Press, 1984.

Contributor, Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writings and Critical Readings, edited by Asuncion Horno-Delgado, Eliana Ortego, Nina M. Scott, and Nancy Saporta Sternbach. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.

Contributor, New Chicana/Chicano Writing, edited by Charles M. Tatum. Tucson, University of Arizona Press, 1992.

* * *

Helena Maria Viramontes is committed to exploring creative representations of Chicana women in the contemporary United States. As an academic she has co-edited with Maria Herrera-Sobek two anthologies that examine the imaginative output of Chicana women and its political implications: Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature and Chicana (W)Rites: On Word and Film. As an author of fiction, Viramontes has published two novels and two collections of short pieces. The Moths and Other Stories, Paris Rats in E.L.A., Under the Feet of Jesus and Their Dogs Came with Them all focus on the lives of Chicana women and their relationships, both in the familial realm and in American society at large.

Viramontes no sooner began to publish than she began to receive accolades for her writing style and the sensitive depiction of her characters' internal conflicts. By 1979 she had received two awards from the literary magazine Statement and another from the University of California at Irvine for her short stories. The Moths and Other Stories, published after her enrollment in UC Irvine's creative writing program, emphasizes her dedication to providing counter narratives to popular representations of Chicana women, as does Paris Rats in E.L.A., her second story collection. Exploring the impact of sexual discrimination in their lives—both from within their communities and without—as well as the racial discrimination and disproportionate levels of poverty to which Chicana women are prone, Viramontes' stories provide a window into the interior lives of women too often overlooked by mainstream society. That their culture can be both sustaining and debilitating is crucial to Viramontes' fiction: the paternalism of American Imperialism is certainly critiqued, but not without a similar awareness of the damaging patriarchal impulse in Chicano culture. How these forces overlap and impact the lives of Chicana mothers, daughters, and wives is thematically central in these stories.

Her first novel, Under the Feet of Jesus, is a sustained examination of the themes established in The Moths and Other Stories through the life of a thirteen-year-old migrant worker, Estella, and her family. Viramontes' much remarked upon lyrical language evokes not only Estella's enthusiasm, defiance, and dreams for the future, but also her dissatisfaction with her present life of discrimination, frustration, labor, and poverty. Through the stream of consciousness style Viramontes so often employs, the reader is also provided with compelling glimpses into the interior world of Estella's mother, Petra, defeated and betrayed by a life to which she seems condemned, and Estella's step-father, who contemplates escaping his responsibility by abandoning his family. Viramontes, as the daughter of former cotton-pickers, brings both a personal and political commitment to representing the difficult lives of migrant workers and combating their erasure in popular representations of California. Distinctly American in subject matter and content, Under the Feet of Jesus is particular to the lives of her subjects, while also providing a basis for a critique of the organization and distribution of power in American society at large.

Their Dogs Came with Them, Viramontes' second novel, remains thematically consistent with her previous work, while moving from the rural setting of Under the Feet of Jesus to the urban East Los Angeles of the 1960s. Her characters do not have access to the political resources that would allow them to contest the impeding destruction of their neighborhood in order to construct a new freeway: in this novel urban renewal and development become synonymous with urban dislocation, denial, and destruction. Not merely a portrait of one family, Their Dogs Came with Them is both a requiem for, and celebration of, a community on the verge of eradication and dispersal. Nevertheless, a sense of a precedent for cultural continuity and survival is established in Viramontes' evocation of other historical colonial impositions on the Chicano people. The ancestral myths invoked by different characters find parallels in their knowledge that this moment in history will one day too assume mythic proportions. This communal experience and history is a unifying force in a narrative of a world populated by wildly disparate, never stereotypical characters, ranging from gang girls and boys to the devoutly faithful, the intellectually brilliant, and the physically—or more often emotionally—challenged.

Viramontes continues to be recognized for her wok, having received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and the John Dos Passos prize in literature. Her social commitment to Chicano/a culture and peoples has kept pace with this recognition, not only through her fiction, but also in her advising Chicano/a students and aspiring writers through her work at Cornell University, where she is an Assistant Professor of Literature.

—Jennifer Harris

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